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Issue 18 - Wild Celts from the North

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005


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Wild Celts from the North

Pictish influence can be felt all over the north and east of Scotland. But who were they? Roger McCann reports

The Picts were Celtic peoples who inhabited the east and north east of Scotland. Tantalisingly little is known about them. Their history can be likened to a mystery story with few clues and no satisfactory ending. There is no firm explanation either of their origins before the third century AD or their disappearance in the mid-ninth century.

Ancestors of the Picts probably migrated from north Germany along trade routes that were developed in the early 1st millennium BC. They brought know-how of building timber-laced forts, the style of fortification most closely associated with the Picts.

From behind the walls of such hill forts, fearful eyes would have watched as Roman soldiers, under imperial governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, marched northwards in AD 79.

The scanty evidence of this advance comes from the writings of Agricola’s son-in-law, Cornelius Tacitus. Later, the geographer Claudius Ptolomaeus (Ptolemy), in the second century AD, recorded the names of 12 Celtic tribes living north of the Forth and Clyde rivers.

Through time these separate tribes combined to form a confederacy as a means of combating the superior military might of the Romans.

By the early third century, further amalgamation strengthened two larger groupings, the Caledonii and the Maetae. In AD 297, the Romans were referring to both, as “Picti,” the “painted ones.” The Picts were thus descendants of indigenous Celtic tribes, given a new name.

Our most important source of information about the Picts comes from their carved symbol stones. These memorials can be found on the Scottish mainland from the Cromarty Firth to the Firth of Forth as well as in the Northern Isles and parts of the Western Isles. The greatest concentrations are in Angus and further north in Grampian.

Though their purpose is unknown, it’s thought the symbols conveyed messages. Did they indicate a boundary, a meeting place, or proclaim an event?

Symbol stones have been given the classifications Class I, II and III depending on the influences being brought to bear on the sculptors at the time.

Class I stones are rough, usually undressed boulders, or slabs, bearing various incised symbols on one face. For convenience, symbols have been given descriptive names such as crescent and V-rod but the names by which the Picts referred to them are lost.

Incised animals and birds may denote tribal elements while a mirror and comb possibly denoted ‘female’. Today unfortunately, this is all merely guesswork.

With the introduction of Christianity, artwork on the symbol stones gradually changed. St. Ninian is usually credited with the first mission to southern Pictland.

From his foundation at Whithorn in Galloway, he made his way to somewhere around present day Stirling sometime in the 5th century. In AD 565, Columba, the Irish abbot of Iona, ventured into northern Pictland where he met King Bridei in a fortress near the River Ness.

Many other Irish missionaries followed Columba’s footsteps and gradually the Picts accepted changes to their old ways, from paganism to Christianity. Inspiration from this new religion was reflected in their sculpture. During this long conversion, the Christian cross became part of the stone-carvers’ skills.

The new influences can be seen in Class II stones. These are dressed slabs on which the most important features are crosses, though biblical and hunting scenes are also common. Symbols of an earlier time are still present but have been carved in relief rather than incised as
on the Class I stones.

About AD 900 the Class II slabs were being replaced by a third class of stone. Crosses were now being cut on one or sometimes both sides of a stone, with inset biblical and evangelical figures, but no symbols.

By this time, Class III slabs were purely Christian in their design and indicate the disappearance of the last of the Pictish influences, at least in the field of art. The occurrence of Class III stones also indicates the whereabouts of early monasteries and church sites.

As an introduction to the Picts head for Pictavia, a heritage centre near Brechin in Angus. Visitors can see small samples of symbol stones and, through headphones, listen to interpretations of what the sculpted decorations might signify. On interactive wall maps, the touch of a button will light up other historical Pictish sites. Other information is presented in a manner that is easy and enjoyable to follow.

From there it’s no distance to the village of Aberlemno where a Class I stone incised on only one side with serpent, double disc, Z-rod, and mirror and comb symbols stands by the roadside. A few yards away stands a Class II stone.

A full length cross is highlighted with bosses and interlace. Figures include angels and animals and on the reverse side there is a hunting scene of David rending the lion’s jaw.

In Aberlemno Churchyard a Class II stone has an impressive cross on one side and a battle scene on the other. This is usually considered to be of the Battle of Nechtansmere in AD 685 when the Pict King Brude MacDerile defeated the Northumbrian King Ecfrith and his army. The slab depicts Pictish and Northumbrian cavalry, Pictish infantry, and a dying Northumbrian being pecked by a raven.

From Aberlemno, it’s not far to Brechin Cathedral where the round tower, build to exacting standards around AD 900 by the first Irish missionaries, is one of only two in Scotland. It signifies the importance of this centre for the Celtic Church into the 11th century.

The village of St. Vigeans, near Arbroath, also seems to have been a religious centre of outstanding importance judging by the number of Pictish stones found locally. For safekeeping and to avoid the effects of further weathering, the stones are now housed in a small museum overlooked by the church.

It’s worth travelling to another small village, to Meigle, north east of Dundee, to see the stones in the museum there. The quality and quantity of the surviving sculpture imply this was a notable Pictish royal estate with a church and burial place.

In the course of the ninth century, Pictland was gradually taken over by Gaelic speaking settlers (Scottii) from Dalriada (Argyll). Kenneth mac Alpin is generally acknowledged as the first king from amongst these peoples to create a Scottish dynasty. He united tribes of the west and the
east to become King of Scots sometime between 839 and 844.

History is a bit hazy about how this happened, but there were suggestions of some sort of illicit coup or purge of Pictish nobility accomplished in a single act of treachery. Another suggestion has Pictish estates being given as rewards to Scottish warlords by mac Alpin. Whatever took
place, the influence of the Picts gradually waned before other, more powerful, forces.

Invading Roman armies may have considered the Picts to be warmongering barbarians, but travel to their sites and you come to realise that they must have been a well-organised society of warriors and farmers.

There was an aristocracy who were wealthy enough to patronise artists and sculptors. There were artisans who built forts and who also worked with monks and religious leaders in creating centres for worship and burial.

The Picts were able to cope with differing influences, accept change, integrate, exploit when it was possible, make their mark on a land that became Scotland.

Email Roger McCann at