In 1980 a small group of local people formed the Tarbat Old Parish Trust to try to save the original parish church (abandoned in 1946) from ruin. Abandoned churches in Scotland are quite common and a viable alternative use for the building had to be found before there was any possibility of funding.
Throughout the 19th Century there were frequent reports of gravediggers unearthing pieces of carved stone and other historic objects and it was widely suggested by academics that perhaps an important site was to be uncovered.
By good fortune an aerial photograph taken in 1984, during a particularly dry summer, revealed the crop mark of an enclosure ditch very similar to that on Iona. In 1991 the Trust engaged a local archaeologist Jill Harden to investigate further. Peat samples from the ditch were radiocarbon dated to the 6th Century. Clearance of the Church Crypt during this time also revealed further fragments of carved stone. In 1993 the founder Chairman invited Professor Martin Carver of the University of York to come and give his opinion of the potential for the site to be of significant historic interest. He was immediately convinced that this was the case and an application was successfully made for a funded archaeological study and conversion of the church to a museum.
In 1994 and 1995 the University initiated surveying and mapping of the fields surrounding the Church. In 1996 formal archaeology excavation began inside the Church to allow for the subsequent building repairs and renovation.
In 1999 the Museum opened with much of the space dedicated to the display of finds from the site along with the interpretation of the monastic settlement and its workshops.
The archaeological investigation or Tarbat Discovery Programme was conducted by The University of York, under the directorship of Professor Martin Carver, over 14 seasons until its conclusion in 2007. The research programme revealed the site at Portmahomack to be that of a Pictish monastery, the first identified and excavated in Pictland, with the focus of settlement taking place during the 6th to 10th centuries. The monastery would have played a pivotal role in the establishment of the early Christian Church in Scotland and the site is now widely recognised by historians as one of international importance.
Described as ‘the Iona of the east’ it may be better to decribe Iona as ‘the Tarbat of the west’!
The Tarbat Discovery Centre is a fascinating building with an intriguing story set in a beautiful location away from the hustle & bustle of the A9 and the regular tourist routes.