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The Picts and Who They Were

Being someone who really enjoys learning about ancient civilizations, culture and the people who lived through those times I truly find fascinating. Whether it is the Hittites who fought the ancient Egyptians, The “Sea People” of the Mediterranean or the Tartessians, they all had a hand in forging modern society. Today I want to share with you the still in many regards mysterious people of Scotland known as The Picts.

Origins of The Picts

By the fourth century AD, the predominant race in northern Scotland were the Picts, the name was coined by the Romans who referred to them as ‘Picti’ meaning ‘painted ones’, which referred to the Pictish custom of either tattooing their bodies or covering themselves with warpaint. The Irish referred to them as Cruithni, meaning “the people of the designs”. What they called themselves has gone unrecorded.

The Picts were descendants of the Iron Age people of northern Scotland, believed to have originated in Iberia as hunter-gatherers, they moved through lower Britain and entered Scotland around 7000BC. Recent DNA tests have proven the Picts were closely related to the Basques of northern Spain. The connections between northern Britain and Celtic Spain are supported by many myths and legends. The dolmens, standing stones and the trail of “cup and ring” designs carved on stones by the prehistoric people of Iberia make their way from Spain and Portugal and northern France to Ireland and Scotland and represent the earliest evidence of the movement of prehistoric man from Iberia to Britain. SOURCE

The Picts is a survey of the historical and cultural developments in northern Britain between AD 300 and AD 900. Discarding the popular view of the Picts as savages, they are revealed to have been politically successful and culturally adaptive members of the medieval European world.

Who Were The Picts?

From the accounts of Britain made by the classical authors, we know that by the fourth century AD, the predominant people in northern Scotland were referred to as “Picts”.

Throughout history, these Picts have been shadowy, enigmatic figures.

From the outset, they were regarded as savage warriors but by the time the Norsemen were compiling their sagas and histories, the memory of the Picts had degenerated into a semi-mythical race of fairies.

Theories abound, although these days it is generally accepted that the Picts were not, as was once believed, a new race, but were simply the descendants of the indigenous Iron Age people of northern Scotland.

The cloud of uncertainty that surrounds the Picts is simply because they left no written records.

Because of this, we have no clear insight into how they lived, their beliefs or society. All we know of them is from second-hand anecdotal evidence, lifted from the various historical writers who recorded their own, possibly biased, impressions of the Pictish people.

The earliest surviving mention of the Picts dates from AD 297.

In a poem praising the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus, the orator Eumenius wrote that the Britons were already accustomed to the semi-naked “Picti and Hiberni (Irish) as their enemies.

From Emenius’ statement, we can see that the Picts were already a major thorn in the Roman Empire’s side. And they continued to be a problem for their neighbors – continually harassing them for centuries after the Roman legions abandoned Britain. But who were they? Continue reading HERE.

The Picts were a people of northern Scotland who are defined as a “confederation of tribal units whose political motivations derived from a need to ally against common enemies.” They were not a single tribe, nor necessarily a single people, although it is thought that they came originally from Scandinavia as a cohesive group. Since they left no written record of their history, what is known of them comes from later Roman and Scottish writers and from images the Picts themselves carved on stones.

Conflict with the Romans

The Romans referred to Scotland as Caledonia, a name derived from the Pictish tribe Caledonii. By AD 80 the Romans had succeeded in subduing the tribes of Britons which occupied the area south of the Forth and Clyde, but those to the north proved harder to conquer.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus recorded ‘ …the Picts, divided into two tribes called Dicalydones and Verturiones. are roving at large and causing great devastation. In the early-600s, the Spanish bishop and encyclopaedist, Isidore of Seville wrote of them:-‘the Picts, whose name is taken from their bodies, because an artisan, with the tiny point of a pin and the juice squeezed from a native plant, tricks them out with scars to serve as identifying marks, and their nobility are distinguished by their tattooed limbs.’

Gnaeus Julius Agricola advanced to the River Tay, constructing a legionary fortress at Inchtuthil, north of Perth. The Picts, under the leadership of Calgacus (‘the Swordsman’), met the Romans under Julius Agricola, at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 84 A.D. when the Romans marched on their main granaries. Prior to this, the Picts had avoided open battle, preferring to carry out guerilla-style raids. Tacitus records a speech which he claims to have been made by Calgacus before the battle in which he describes the Romans as: “Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. Continue reading HERE.

Pictish Carvings

The Aberlemno I roadside symbol stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb.
This film begins where Symbols and Signs ends and traces attempts to explain the meaning of the Pictish symbols through the translation of Ogham and Latin inscriptions on a small number of the symbol stones. The film focuses on a number of key Pictish stones including those at St Vigeans, Auchenblae and Aberlemno. The film asks whether a Pictish ‘Rosetta Stone’ has been discovered which reveals the meaning of the symbols.

The Picts left no written records but instead their legacy comes down to us in the carved stones that can be found around Scotland. See our guide to the ten best places to see Pictish and Celtic carvings in Scotland. Researchers continue to explore the meaning of the carvings found on Pictish stones, which often feature symbols, animals and people.

The occasional new find such as the imprint of the hand of a Pictish copper smith continue to build on our knowledge, whilst projects such as the Northern Picts Project carry out award-winning research into the Picts and their landscape. SOURCE

The Picts have fascinated for centuries. They emerged c. ad 300 to defy the might of the Roman empire only to disappear at the end of the first millennium ad, yet they left major legacies. They laid the foundations for the medieval Scottish kingdom and their captivating carved stones are some of the most eye-catching yet enigmatic monuments in Europe. Until recently the Picts have been difficult to trace due to limited archaeological investigation and documentary sources, but innovative new research has produced critical new insights into the culture of a highly sophisticated society which defied the might of the Roman Empire and forged a powerful realm dominating much of northern Britain.

This is the first dedicated book on the Picts that covers in detail both their archaeology and their history. It examines their kingdoms, culture, beliefs and everyday lives from their origins to their end, not only incorporating current thinking on the subject, but also offering innovative perspectives that transform our understanding of the early history of Scotland.
Picts: History and Heritage provides an overview of some of the key developments in the evolution of the Pictish kingdom between the 5th and 9th centuries. Using recent studies on the political centralisation of Pictland and its external relations with neighbouring kingdoms, the film traces some of the key developments in the history of Fortiu until the Gaelic takeover at the end of the 9th century.

Timeline of the Picts: Key Figures and Events

When the Angles of Bernicia overran the British kingdoms, one of which was the Anglian kingdom of Deira, they became the most powerful kingdom in Britain. Deira and Bernicia together were called Northumbria.

It is believed the Picts were probably a tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Brideimac Beli in 685 AD. The Anglicans suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Dun Nectain that stopped their northward expansion. The Picts sent the Angles back south to Britain.

By the mid-9th century, Vikings had destroyed the kingdoms of Dal Riata and Northumbria, greatly diminished the power of the Kingdoms of Strathclyde and founded the Kingdom of York. During a major battle in 839 AD, the Vikings killed the King of Fortriu, Eogan man Oengusa.

Sometime in the 840s AD, Cinaed mac Alpin (Kenneth MacAlpin) became the king of the Picts. He united the Picts and the Scots, and together these tribes formed the new Kingdom of Scotland. At this time, they routed out the Vikings. SOURCE

What Happened to The Picts?

It is believed that, over several decades, the Picts merged with the Gaels. Pictland, also called Pictavia, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba, which eventually came to be called Scotland.

Alba expanded, absorbing the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Bernician Lothian. By the 11th century, historians believe the Pictish people and their identity had been subsumed into the “Scots” conglomeration of people.

During the Dark Ages, the Pictish language did not suddenly disappear, but a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reign of Kenneth MacAlpin. Eventually, the inhabitants of Alba became fully Gaelicised Scots, and the Pict identity was forgotten. Later in British Isles history, the idea of the Picts as a Celtic tribe was revived in myth and legend. SOURCE

Further Resources

The Picts: 13 Amazing Facts about the ancient people that protected Scotland from the Roman Empire

Land of the Picts: New excavations reveal the truth behind the legend of these fearsome northern warriors

The Kingdom of the Picts

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