Face of Highland clansman laid to rest in six-headed burial revealed

The face of a 15th Century clansman who was laid to rest in a highly unusual six-headed burial has been revealed.

The reconstructed face of the clansman who was killed in Easter Ross in the 15th Century at a time of heightened violence in the area. PIC: Face Lab, Liverpool John Moores University.

Experts have reconstructed the face of the man whose skeleton was excavated from beneath the former Tarbat Old Parish Church in Portmahomack, Easter Ross.

He was buried on top of another man who had died after receiving horrific sword wounds to his face. Unusually, four other skulls were placed in the coffin shared by the two.

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Six-headed burial of clan era probed by archaeologists
A 3D visualisation of two of the 15th Century skulls found in the same grave. The one of the left is the man whose face has now been reconstructed.PIC: Visualising Heritage, University of Bradford.

It is believed the fighter, who had a blade wound above his left eye that was inflicted shortly before his death, may have been linked to an intense period of warfare between the Mackay and Ross clan.

Cecily Spall from FAS Heritage said: “The facial reconstruction of this man is absolutely captivating.

"The Tarbat Medieval Burials project is aimed at understanding the lives of these men in as much detail as possible.

The special grave holding one of the skeletons and the four skulls. PIC: FAS Heritage.

"The facial reconstruction brings them to life for us all and allows us to feel a renewed connection and understanding of them.”

Formerly known as St Colman’s Church, the site was excavated in 1997 as part of the Tarbat Discovery Programme.

The site spans hundreds of years of Scottish history and was once home to a prominent Picitsh monastery.

A total of 88 burials dating to the 13th to 16th century were revealed below the church, which is now home to the award winning museum, The Tarbat Discovery Centre.

The six-headed grave was in the most prominent position in the church – in the centre of the nave at the front of the entrance to the medieval crypt.

During the 1480s, a bloody battle between the two clans led to the the Mackays seeking refuge in the church but the Ross clan then set fire to it, killing all those hiding inside.

Ms Spall said it is likely that the men in the six-headed burial were involved in hostilities.

The reconstruction forms part of a wider collaborative project involving specialists in archaeological science who will analyse this burial and three adjacent male burials. Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers, University of Bradford, is leading the osteological and dietary analysis of the skeletons.

The project, which is supported by a grant from Historic Environment Scotland, will see the burials radiocarbon dated, undergo stable isotope analysis to understand diet and origin, and ancient DNA analysis to understand genetic heritage and explore possible familial relationships.

The team hopes to shed more light on the emergence of clan organisation.

The facial reconstruction was commissioned by FAS Heritage as part of the Tarbat Medieval Burials project and was funded by a generous grant from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Dr Jessica Liu and Dr Sarah Shrimpton at the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University produced the reconstruction.

A talk on the project by Cecily Spall will take place at Carnegie Hall, Portmahomack on the 4th October, from 7.30-9.00pm (Tickets £4 on the door) as part of the Highland Archaeology Festival.

A temporary exhibition will also be mounted at the Tarbat Discovery Centre.