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Issue 101 - Who were the Picts?

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018


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Who were the Picts?

Many have heard of these ancient peoples that once inhabited Scotland, but separating fact from fiction can be a challenge

All across the northern half of Scotland, from a line between the Forth and Clyde, ancient incised stones are the most tangible relics of the peoples we know of as the ‘Picts’. I say ‘peoples’ because, rather than a homogenous race, they were probably as likely to be fighting each other as fighting a collective enemy when such a need arose.

Like so much else in early Scottish history, what they called themselves remains unknown. The name ‘Picti’ was given to them by the Romans somewhere between the end of the 3rd century AD and the beginning of the 4th, with AD297 and AD306 both suggested as the earliest recorded date of the term being used. The earlier of the two is attributed to the Franco-Roman orator and poet Eumenius, who came from Augustodunum (presentday Autun) in Gaul, while the term was also used a century later by another poet named Claudius Claudinius.

The Roman term ‘Picti’ has widely been assumed to mean ‘painted people’ but there seems to be little, if any, evidence that they were tattooed as the term has been widely interpreted. Could ‘Picti’ perhaps also refer to their use of a pictographic language? After all, they are famous for carving their stories and symbols on to stone and metal, as well as painting them on their bodies.

If the term originated, as suggested by many, in a nickname applied to them by northern Roman garrisons sometime in the 3rd century, then body-painting may have played an important symbolic role in the early centuries of the Pictish era. The Irish equivalent of the ‘Picti’ became known as the ‘Cruithni’ - a loose translation being ‘the people with the designs’ - and the two names may have come from a common root. Certainly, many of the Celtic designs we know today have their origins in ancient Pictish symbols.

If a 3rd-century date is to be believed, then the Roman soldiers might well have considered all the inhabitants of Scotland as Picts, not just those north of the Antonine Wall. After all, the Antonine Wall had been abandoned completely by the very early years of the 3rd century, the Romans withdrawing south to Hadrian’s wall some 75 years before the term ‘Picti’ is first known to have been recorded.

What the Romans called ‘Pictland’ or ‘Caledonia’ was not a single kingdom; it was made up of several, sometimes fiercely independent, kingdoms. Amongst them were Dál Riata or Dalriada, Fortriu, Fib (modern-day Fife) and others. Indeed, Fife’s claim to be ‘The Kingdom of Fife’ probably derives from that period of its history. Just when these ‘kingdoms’ became established is unknown.

Roman incursion into Scotland was short-lived and unsuccessful. They got as far as Inchtuthil, south of Blairgowrie, and around AD82-83 built a large legionary fort there capable of housing more than 5,000 troops. Inchtuthil would have been in the heart of what later became the kingdom of Fortriu, as would the late 1st-century Ardoch fort near Braco, which is believed to be the most complete surviving Roman camp in Britain.

Both were part of the line of forts built along the Gask Ridge, marking the most northerly defences established by the Romans, long before work on Hadrian’s Wall was started. While inconclusive, evidence found at these forts shows they were occupied over a period of at least 60 years - so well into the middle of the 2nd century. Could the references to the painted people have originated in the garrisons who manned them?

At school in the 1950s, we were taught that the Picts were a warlike people, with the terms ‘Picts’ and ‘Scots’ being presented as having as much in common as chalk and cheese. The Scots were civilised, the Picts much less so. But was that fair? Almost certainly not. These were articulate and highly creative peoples whose legacy to us is as rich as anything found south of that arbitrary line drawn by the Romans in the middle of the 2nd century and marked by the Antonine Wall. To the Romans, the Picts were the unruly northerners who steadfastly refused to bow to their rule.

That image of the wild northerners was also later perpetuated by the southern Scots, perhaps as propaganda to serve their own purposes. But uncivilised people could never have created the rich jewellery and ornate stone carvings which survive from the Pictish era. The carved and incised stones that can be seen today have been grouped into three classes by archaeologists: Class 1 denotes large undressed stone incised with symbols, Class 2 are dressed stone obelisks carrying symbols and pictorial narratives, and Class 3 are the later stones that are inscribed with Christian symbols on one face and pictographs on the other.

One of the best known Class 1 Pictish stones can be seen by the roadside near Aberlemno in Angus. No attempt has been made to dress a natural slab of stone, simply to decorate it with symbols which were significant to its late 6th or early 7thcentury creators.

At the top, the stone bears the incised image of a snake and at its foot is a comb. In between are incisions which must have had considerable significance with the society that created them, for identical symbols adorn surviving examples of contemporary jewellery.

What is especially interesting about this stone is the time period throughout which it must have held local significance. The stone already bore cup and ring markings dating from about 3,000BC - nearly 4,000 years before the 6th or 7th century Pictish artists got to work.

The 8th and 9th-century Scots undoubtedly endowed the Picts with the ‘uncivilised’ soubriquet to further their own causes and labels, once applied, are hard to shake off. The reality may well have been that they were little different from the rest of Britain, their only really distinctive characteristic being their reluctance to be overwhelmed by others.

Like the peoples of the rest of Britain, they were regularly engaged in power struggles and wars, so the concept of ‘Pictland’ as a Kingdom might more understandably be seen as a coalition of peoples, the composition of which might have been fluid. Historians have suggested that the structure was hierarchical, with a ‘king’, but whether or not that kingship was vested in a single royal house is much less certain. There were familial successions, but not always.

It is, perhaps, better to talk of the ‘Pictish era’ rather than ‘the Picts’. That era spanned several centuries from around the time of the Roman invasion of Lowland Scotland, through to the widespread adoption of Christianity in the centuries before the Norsemen arrived. Most histories suggest the Pictish era effectively came to an abrupt end in the early 10th century but, in the absence of contemporaneous records, it is hard to separate fact from myth and legend. More likely is that, with the gradual unification of Scotland, tribal labels became gradually less and less important.

The first written history of the Picts, Chronica de Origine Antiquorum Pictorum (The Pictish Chronicles) dates from the 10th century and is a somewhat unreliable pot pourri of facts, myths and legends.

Many subsequent accounts talk of the early Picts as newcomers to Scotland, but there is no factual basis for that assumption and such stories are widely attributed to Norse sagas and legends written centuries later. Indeed, the peoples we think of as the Picts were most likely the descendants of the indigenous Iron Age peoples who had lived in northern Scotland for centuries, as the earliest examples of their settlements can be found built around or over Iron Age buildings. Saying that, in some locations in Orkney and Shetland, remains of Pictish settlements are known to lie under later Norse buildings. Elsewhere, Pictish communities grew up where, as far as has so far been ascertained, no earlier peoples had lived. A notable example is the Brough of Birsay, a small tidal island off the northwest tip of Orkney’s mainland, but the Pictish remains now lie beneath the buildings of a later Norse village.

Although their buildings may be lost, relics unearthed at Birsay show that they were sophisticated metal-workers, in both bronze and iron, and also manufactured coloured glass. Such industry marks them out as a settled and advanced people, nothing like the marauding savages my school teachers led me to believe. The remains of their burial ground lay beneath the 12th century church that dominates the site today.

Of course, the ‘Picts’ of Orkney may have been blissfully unaware of the ‘Picts’ of the western Highlands. Their language would have been different, their cultures quite independent of each other. It is only later historical accounts which have grouped these diverse peoples together under the label ‘Picts’. Indeed, one of the few certainties of the time is that each of these separate groupings were blissfully unaware that they would one day be classed together, by a combination of passed-down myths and legends, as a single entity. That is something they never were.

Whatever the structure of what we now call ‘Pictish society’ may have been, the period it covered saw the communities of northern Scotland progress from a primitive existence, little changed from the late Iron Age, to a much more sophisticated, tiered society that was able to develop skills and craftsmanship in art and culture as well as farming and self-defence.

From the monuments they have left us, we know they were hunters and that they were regularly involved in the conflicts that saw numerous and separate small kingdoms across Scotland united into ever larger and more powerful groupings. This was, of course, in the centuries before the idea of a single Scotland became a reality.

In modern-day Angus, which was the ‘Pictish’ kingdom of Circinn, the monumental stones depict both hunting scenes and battle scenes. One of the most impressive has traditionally been said to depict the Battle of Nechtansmere between the Picts and the Northumbrians in AD685. Tradition has it that the Picts were led to victory by King Bridei mac Bili, but like everything else, that is not certain. Some sources have him as the King of Circinn, while others have him as King of Alt Clut, which is present-day Dumbartonshire.

As recently as a hundred years ago, the period between the 3rd and 10th centuries (the era of the Picts in Scotland) would have been described across most of Europe as the ‘Dark Ages’. It was an honest label for a time about which virtually nothing was then known. Modern archaeology has started to shed a lot more light on those centuries, revealing them to have been much less ‘dark’ than we once believed. As to my original question: Who were the Picts? Well, in the absence of any contemporary records, it seems that we really will never know.


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