John Fulton: Growing up with Scottish History at Tarbat Ness

When I was eight, our family moved to Tarbat Ness Lighthouse, where my dad was a lightkeeper. We’d moved there from Edinburgh, so the sudden rural remoteness came as a bit of a shock; but soon we came to love it.

Dad John Alan at Tarbat Ness

We had inlets with rockpools stuffed with hermit crabs, sticklebacks, and anemones; space to ride bikes without any danger of cars; and thousands of birds to watch through the binoculars we got for Christmas.

But it was the history of the place that left its mark on me. The tower itself was built in 1830, a marvel of engineering still as solid as the day the foundations were laid. Out towards the point, my wee brother Alan and I would go scavenging for rifle shell casings. During the Second World War, the peninsula had been used for live firing exercises by infantry of the Third Division in preparation for the D-Day landings, and it was amazing to hold the spent casings in our hands. The one time we found an intact cartridge complete with bullet, our Dad wouldn’t let us keep it for some reason…

One day my brother and I were wandering around our back garden when an old bloke from the village came walking by. “See that mound, there?” he said, indicating a grassy hummock just outside the lighthouse complex walls. “I’d bet that’s a Viking burial mound.”

Vikings! There had been Vikings right under our feet!

Now, that mound probably wasn’t from a Viking burial. It was most likely the result of digging the lighthouse’s foundations. But it didn’t matter. It fired up our imaginations. And there was some truth in the story. There had been Vikings on the peninsula.

The Orkneyinga Saga tells of Thorfinn the Mighty, an 11th century Earl of Orkney, and his battles with “Karl Hundason” (possibly referring to King Macbeth). Their final battle was at Tarbat Ness, on the south side of the Dornoch Firth. Right where we lived, nearly a thousand years before. That made the 1830 lighthouse look like recent history. It made the WWII firing range look like yesterday.

The sense of perspective you get when looking back on history is incredible, but the visceral reaction you get when you connect the history to the very ground under your feet is something else entirely. It doesn’t happen often. Since that first moment of wonder, looking at the mound and imagining Vikings running across our back garden, I’ve felt it only a few times: in the Forum in Rome; on the hills overlooking Delphi.

But it’s given me a passion for history. I went on to study Classics at university, immersing myself in Greek and Roman language, literature, philosophy and history. When I began writing for children, it was a First World War story that was my breakthrough – and The Wreck of the Argyll gave at least some children a taste of that perspective on history that I’d been granted; I got an email from the Hubbabubba Reading Group in Dundee saying that the children had really enjoyed hearing about what happened during the First World War in the places they knew.

That connection to the past is so important. But even the past is ever-changing. Not long before my Dad passed away, we were reminiscing about our years at Tarbat Ness, and I was telling him about my fascination with the Vikings and the battle that had been fought right where we lived. When I was looking the story up on Google and Wikipedia, I came across Martin Carver’s book about Portmahomack, just three miles down the coast from Tarbat Ness. Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts tells the story of the archaeological dig at Tarbat Old Church, right next to my old primary school; it uncovers the history of the monastic settlement from its founding to its probable destruction at the swords and torches of the Vikings in about 800AD.

Now, the old church houses the Tarbat Discovery Centre – a museum, learning and activity hub dedicated to displaying and preserving the heritage of the Tarbat peninsula, especially the ruins of the Pictish monastery.

All of this was new to me! All these wonderful historical discoveries, made long after we’d left the peninsula. I’d missed out on all this history; ironically, by being too early.

Tarbat Ness with helicopter

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t catch up. I ordered Martin Carver’s book, and immersed myself in the story of Portmahomack, its monastery, the Picts and their stones. And the history of that place still had the power to fire my imagination – the result was my second published novel, The Beast on the Broch.

History is a living thing. It doesn’t happen entirely in books; it happened here, just not now. It’s not a static list of dates and kings, it’s not dry, and it’s not boring. But you have to feel that connection. I’m not sure that any of my teachers did all that much to give me that appreciation of history, that link to the past. But I’m glad that my years at Tarbat Ness did.

John K. Fulton is the son of a lighthouse keeper, and grew up all around the coast of Scotland. These remote and lonely locations instilled in him a life-long love of books and the sea. He studied at the Universities of St. Andrews and Dundee, and now lives in Leicester with his partner Sandra. While Leicester is about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK, their home is stuffed with books, which is the next-best thing.

His latest book, The Beast on the Broch (Cranachan, September 2016), is an adventure set in Pictish times, featuring Picts, Dalriadans, Vikings, and the mythical Pictish Beast. You can find out more on his website.

Cover image (CC) wikimedia.org, Images 1 and 2 (C) John Fulton
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4 thoughts on “John Fulton: Growing up with Scottish History at Tarbat Ness

  1. Remember you John. My son John Innes sat beside you in Tarbat Primary school, class 6 or 7 Mrs. Bolger was headmistress at the time. I often wondered how your life was progressing. I know John will be interested so have shared this. Look up Think Publishing and you will see what he has been up to. Kind regards, Rosie Innes.

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    1. Sorry I’ve only just noticed this comment! John actually got in touch with me back in January – it was very nostalgic to hear from someone from my Portmahomack days; especially since we realised it’s been 35 years since we last spoke…

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  2. John thanks for this excellent little insight. My grandfather Charles, aged 14, was sent to Tarbat Ness as an assistant keeper in 1916. He had been a Sea Scout in Perth so it was reckoned that he would know about signals, morse etc and they needed the men for the war. He spent the rest of the war there. Quite co-incidentally, my other grandfather Hugh was from Portmahomack but moved to Perth aged 14 when his father was drowned off Arbroath in 1893.

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