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The grave holding one of the skeletons and the four skulls. (FAS Heritage / Fair UseThe reconstructed face of the clansman who was killed in the 15th century.

Scientists Unravel Mystery of 15th Century Six-Headed Burial

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Scientists have begun unravelling the mystery of an ancient Scotsman found in a mysterious “six-headed” burial and now believe his death was connected to a violent period of Highland clan warfare.

Between 1994 and 2007, as part of the Tarbat Discovery Programme, archaeologists excavated around the ancient Pictish church of St. Colman at Portmahomack on the tip of Tarbat Ness in northeast Scotland. Not only did they discover an extensive 6th century Pictish monastic settlement but surrounding this “magnificent building” were hundreds of fragments of elaborate Pictish symbol stones; testimony to the highly-sacred nature of this northern spiritual sanctuary.

In 1997, 88 additional burials were reported dating to between the 13th to 16th century and a 2008 article in The Independent called this site “one the most important archaeological discoveries in Scotland for 30 years”. In a project supported by a grant from Historic Environment Scotland, archaeologists have been looking closely at a “six-headed” grave that according to a report in the Ross-shire Journal was found situated at ”the most prominent position in the church – in the center of the nave at the front of the entrance to the medieval crypt”.

A BBC report says the man was found to be the “second occupant of the grave” and the original corpse is known to have belonged to a man who had “died violently by the sword and was buried with four additional skulls set around his head”.

Source: Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University.

Source: Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University.

Rebuilding Ancient Facial Features

The researchers believe that the mysterious “six-headed burial” might be related to the 15th century Battle of Tarbat which was fought by rivaling MacKay and Ross clans, which resulted in St. Colman’s Church being burnt down.

The spokesperson for FAS Heritage, Cecily Spall, said, “the Tarbat Medieval Burials project is aimed at understanding the lives of these men in as much detail as possible”, and to achieve this, experts have now recreated the medieval man’s face.

Tarbat Old Church, Portmahomack, rebuilt in 1756. (Jim Bain / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Tarbat Old Church, Portmahomack, rebuilt in 1756. (Jim Bain / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The facial reconstruction was produced by Dr. Jessica Liu and Dr. Sarah Shrimpton at the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University, after a grant was awarded from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Visualising Heritage at the University of Bradford first generated a 3D scan of the skull with which researchers at Face Lab created a “2D facial depiction”.

Using high-resolution facial textures, the man’s features were created around the morphology of his skull and the skin textures, coloring and shaping were based on “average facial soft tissue depth measurements from a modern European dataset”.

DNA Will Provide Answers

The team hope that the captivating facial reconstruction will help illustrate the “emergence of clan organization”, but they have some time to wait and while all the tests are being carried out. Once the bodies have been radiocarbon dated they will undergo stable isotope analysis which will help the scientist to better understand their origins, what they ate, and how they lived. What’s more, the experts hope the DNA analysis will reveal their genetic heritage and any family relationships between the men.

The Battle Of Tarbat

The Battle of Tarbat was a violent affair fought in the 1480s on the Tarbat peninsula. It kicked off when men from the Clan Ross encountered a Clan Mackay raiding party near the village of Portmahomack and after slaying several of them, Mackay survivors retreated to the church, which the Rosses subsequently set fire to. This horrific event is recorded in a Scottish poem on the Great Clan Ross website.

The Lady Christian spoke, "How goes the fight?” And William said, “Forty Mackays are dead or wounded, what remains are cornered safely in the Tarbat Church. And father guards the door with his broad axe”.

A Victorian era romantic illustration of a MacKay clansman. (Angusmclellan / Public Domain)

A Victorian era romantic illustration of a MacKay clansman. (Angusmclellan / Public Domain)

Archaeology supports this story in that evidence of a major fire has been found dating to the Middle Ages, and according to lead archaeologists Martin Carver in his 2008 book Portmahomack, Monastery of the Picts, “Fire has scorched the sandstone of the internal walling to a bright orange, even in the crypt, and charcoal from possible roof timbers or thatch was found in the nave near the crypt entrance”.

This score was settled in 1487 by John (Iain) Riabhach Mackay when he avenged his father's death with help from the Clan Sutherland. After invading Clan Ross lands the Battle of Aldy Charrish was fought at the head of the Kyle of Sutherland, where Alexander Ross of Balnagowan and many of his kinsmen were brutally slaughtered, in a merciless revenge killing.

Top image: The grave holding one of the skeletons and the four skulls. (FAS Heritage / Fair UseThe reconstructed face of the clansman who was killed in the 15th century.

By Ashley Cowie



I was not even aware of Pictish Christianity and Pictish churches until now. One might think that, if they were Christian, more would be known about this culture. Perhaps they were Gnostic and much was suppressed. I have been finding that many areas of this part of the world practiced a more Gnostic form especially Finland and throughout the Celtic world down to the south of France.

Jews were not well regarded in the ancient world. Although Christianity appealed to them, they balked at the idea of worshiping a Jewish god.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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