There isn’t a single fragment of any insular manuscript in Scotland and only one, the 10th century Book of Deer which has undisputed Scottish provenance. The Book of Kells comes in some way behind with a speculative theory for it to have been started on Iona in the late 8th century before being completed later at Kells in Ireland at a safe distance from the Vikings. The archaeological record however, is quite the reverse with the only evidence for parchment production anywhere in medieval Europe to be found at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula. Also, many of the design features found on the very mobile manuscripts can only be tied down geographically when set in stone, a favourite medium of the Pictish artists. Many of the highly stylised features in great works such as the Book of Kells have been given Pictish provenance by their appearance on slabs of sandstone such as those found at Rosemarkie and throughout the North East.
It is on this evidence that the manuscript for the summer exhibition, ‘Book of Kells: Mysteries revealed’ is based. Stones in Groam House Museum have designs on them that match those in the Book of Kells and the skill of the geometric draughtsmanship is on a par with the best examples of insular art. The exhibition is of course late due to the current pandemic. It’s not late because the making of the book was severely interrupted. In fact, as experimental archaeology goes it’s fair to say that the process of using local resources on a peninsula to carry out a solitary activity is relatively unaffected by a wider societal shutdown. As long as the local area can still be farmed and the cow hides processed for parchment the writing can continue. The delays are caused because Groam House Museum acts as Rosemarkie Monastery did since the 6th century as a responsible member of a much larger network which has grown to become the dominant civilisation on Earth. With over 1400 years of continuous history Rosemarkie has seen it all and as we prepare to display an insular manuscript after our comparatively light brush with pandemic it’s interesting to note that even this surreal situation probably isn’t a first on this site.
Modern historians aren’t in agreement over the effects of the pandemic that arrived in Britain in June 664 but the Venerable Bede, Britain’s first historian and a witness to events is clear about the impact calling it, ‘the mortality that ravaged Britain and Ireland with cruel devastation’ that ‘laid low a great multitude of men’. He goes into more detail about the effects on monasteries, all the known major centres of Book production in the period were decimated. After killing the Archbishop of Canterbury, the plagues impact made the Wessex Saxons return to paganism. Lindisfarne’s congregation is wiped out, then Lichfield, Wearmouth-Jarrow and beyond. This creates quite a problem, for more than two decades from 664 to 687 it’s difficult to see how much of the monastic network that carried our civilisation through the dark ages could function let alone be creating the massive quantity of manuscripts that remaining examples suggest must have existed. So who could be making lots of manuscripts in the late 7th century?
Thanks to the story of a miracle attributed to Saint Columba by his biographer Adomnan there appears to be a possible solution. Adomnan lived through the pandemic and even travelled to Northumbria during its height and made notes on the scale of the disaster. He comments that, ’everywhere was affected except two peoples, the population of Pictland and the Irish who lived in Britain’. Noting that they are at least as foolish and immoral as anyone else he attributes their apparent immunity to an act of God brought about by the prayers of Saint Columba. A more satisfactory reason for apparent Pictish immunity may well relate to rat populations and mountains but Adomnan’s account remains invaluable.
Looked at in this light the Monasteries of Pictland aren’t just an enigmatic sideshow in the great cultural revolution that carried Western civilisation through the dark ages. When much of the culture that we take for granted hung by a thread, with the existence of literacy and history itself under threat, it is likely that many of those that kept the light on in the turbulence of the late 7th century were either resident in or dependent upon the Pictish Monasteries of the North East of Scotland.
Although probably unaffected by disease itself, the monastery at Rosemarkie was an outpost of the Catholic Church which would have been in chaos throughout the two decades of pandemic that gripped Europe. It’s networks would be disrupted and the future would have looked uncertain yet the evidence left in the form of high quality sculpture created in the years following the pandemic show that Rosemarkie got through it and thrived.
This exhibition will be the first since the ‘new normal’ has come to dominate our lives and it has been adapted to take into account what we all now need to do. Museums and Arts organisations are all under threat and some inevitably won’t survive the next few years. Insular art however has deep roots and as the latest custodians of the tradition carry it forward as academics, volunteers, trustees, artists or crafters we can all be sure that Insular art has been here before, got through it and thrived. Rosemarkie’s latest emergence from pandemic will be opening in mid-August, more details will follow soon and appointments for viewing can be arranged on this website.
For further information on the processes behind insular manuscript making see http://www.scribalstyles.net