The Picts


"Pict" was the name of the people who lived in Scotland before the Scots invaded from Ireland, that's right the tribe known as the Scots are Irish. The two lived together and gradually merged until the picts disappeared as a distinct people. The name Pict was actually the name the Romans used to describe the scary savages in the North. Pict is thought to mean "painted or tattooed people" and would be screamed by soft Roman types just prior to their skulls being cleaved in two by screaming tattooed nutters. When they tried to invade they had to give up at the English border and just build a big wall and a load of forts which were mercilessly attacked until the Romans realised that they didn't actually want dominion over a rainy, midge infested crag of land after all and buggered off.

The truth is we don't know much about the Picts other than they were fearsome warriors, they had a polytheistic faith and they were an amalgamation of disparate tribes. They disappeared in the 11th century as they were assimilated by the incoming Scots.

There is a list of pictish kings in the Pictish Chronicle a lost document which dates from the 10th century. It documents kings as far back as the 5th century but can hardly be verified as a reliable source.

We believe the Picts were a mixture of indigenous people and Celtic incomers.

The earliest descriptions of the Picts are Roman, the two tribes the Caledonians and the Maetae were collectively known as the Picts from the 4th century onwards. Tacitus was the first Roman historian to describe the Picts and he believed they were no different from the other Celtic tribes found throughout Britain and Gaul. Cassius Dio was the Roman historian of the Severan period and he gave a very inaccurate description, "The Caledonians and the Maetae dwell among inhospitable hills, between which the land is damp and swampy. The native people have no forts or towns, nor do they engage in agriculture." Archeological evidence proves him wrong, he also went on to say "The men of the tribes are warlike, enjoying nothing better than joining a raiding party to seize plunder. Their horses are small but swift and some of the warriors fight from chariots. The infantry, armed with daggers, spears and shields are remarkably swift moving and tough: they can live for a very long time by eating only bark and roots, and they know the secret of preparing a special food which, if taken in very small quantities, relieves them of all hunger and thirst. When danger threatens they submerge their bodies in the marshes and survive for days with just their heads showing above the surface."

Throughout the 4th century Picts raided the Roman forts above the wall and there were several skirmishes and battles. In the middle of the 4th century Picts were described as divided into two kingdoms, the Venturiones (Maetae) in the South and the Dicalydones (Caledonians) in the North. The political system is unclear and at various points Pictland is divided into two equal kingdoms, sometimes one of the kingdoms appears to have been in overall charge under one king. The lack of written Pictish records of any kind makes their study a frustrating exercise in guesswork.

As the Scots advanced from their growing kingdom known as Dalriada in the West of Scotland the Picts gradually receded. The first Pictish king we know anything about was Bridei who ruled in the 6th century and was based in the North. He won a large battle against the Scots. He was also visited by Saint Columba who claims to have converted him to Christianity.

In the 7th century the Northumbrians invaded Pictland and after making major gains initially were eventually beaten back and defeated. The Battle of Nechtan's Mere towards the end of the 7th century was the turning point as the Picts defeated the Northumbrian army and slayed their king. Battles continued over the years between the various tribes and ill defined borders changed often until the Scots eventually won out.

The Strathpeffer Eagle Stone, an early Class 1 Pictish stone

Language

We have been unable to identify the principal language used by the Picts since not even a single handwritten sentence survives. They seem to have had two languages, one representing the Celtic incomers and one the indigenous origins of the Picts themselves. The form of Celtic arrived with settlers in the first millenium B.C. the other is a mysterious non Indo-European language with no alphabet. We know of it because of carvings on stones.

Art

Pictish art can be traced back via rock carvings into pre-history. We have also found a variety of Pictish artefacts carved in silver and gold, enamel and stone. They depict men and beasts and often feature intricate patterns. By the 6th century the style has clearly been influenced by Celtic and classical designs. The majority of Pictish art we have found is carved on standing stones and large slabs spread throughout the country, they depict animals we recognise (dogs, deer, ducks, snakes, fish) and strange creatures (dragons, lions with human heads, double headed dogs) we don't but we can only guess about the meaning.

The Picts were not defeated by conquest but rather by co-mingling with the Scots and as the two inter married and their political systems became tied together the Picts eventually disappeared altogether. It is unlikely we will ever know the true history of these intriguing people and perhaps in part it is that sense of mystery that makes them so attractive.