Indigenous inhabitants of northern Scotland, pre-dating the Celts; somewhat assimilated first by the invading Celts, and later overrun and annhilated by the Romans. Known only by their Roman name. Called Picts because of their affinity for body tattoos, using blue woad.

It is believed the Picts spoke a language which may originally have preceded Indo-European languages, possibly related to Basque, but because of early Milesean incursions, eventually evolved to a type of Brythonic (P-Celtic) linguistic structure.

Place names may retain Pictish elements. See

Classic Macintosh is to PICT as Windows is to BMP.

'PICT' actually refers to the Picture resource type. Its structure is technically allowed to consist of any number of Quickdraw drawing function calls (meaning it is, in fact, a very simple vector-based format), but in practice PICT resources almost invariably consist of nothing more than a single bitmap image-- meaning PICT comes out to be just a simple way to losslessly store image data.

A "PICT file" is actually just a single PICT resource which has been dumped alone into the data fork of a file. This is the format mac users used whenever they needed to quickly save some image, the same way windows users use BMP, until Mac OS X came along.

As of Mac OS X the TIFF file format has supplanted PICT.

According to Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, a pict is "a race of people of uncertain origin, who inhabited Scotland in early times."

Why does this matter? Oh, I'll tell you why this matters. If you were paying attention while listening to the great Pink Floyd album Ummagumma, you'd have noticed that the word pict was used in the song title Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict. Yes, a Pict. I reckon that Roger Waters was referring to the strange Scottish rambling during the end of this song. Were these words actually spoken by a person of uncertain origin? Yet another Pink Floyd Mystery...

The Picts

The name given to the tribes that inhabited northern Britain, specifically the area north of the Forth-Clyde line (properly known as Caledonia) during the period of the Roman occupation and beyond.

Who where the Picts?

When, in the first century AD the Romans pushed northwards through Britain and first encountered the tribes that occupied the northernmost portion of the island they were named them collectively as the Caledonii and the area they occupied as Caledonia. Later sources however refer to the occupants as 'Picts' - and it is generally presumed, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that these Caledonians where one and the same.

The first recorded use of the word Picti or 'Pict' is in the year 297 when the author Eumenius, writing of the travels of one Constantius spoke of the native British as;

a nation, still savage and accustomed only to the hitherto semi-naked Picts and Hibernians as their enemies, yielded to Roman arms and standards without difficulty

The reference to these tribes as picti, from the Latin pictus or painted, is generally assumed to be reference to their custom of tattooing their bodies, and quite possibly a nickname bestowed upon them by the legionary troops. A slightly later record of the campaigns of Constantius Chlorus in the north refers to the "Caledones and other Picts" creating the possibility that the Romans used the term 'Pict' as a generic term to describe any and all 'wild barbarian' from the north.

The narrative sources that survive for the fourth and fifth centuries AD speak of the Picts as piratical raiders threatening the peace of Britannia. From Gildas and his De Excidio Britanniae we learn that it was the threat of Pictish raids that caused the British high-king Vortigern to hire the Germanic mercenaries whose later rebellion was ultimately to lead to the downfall of his regime.

By the seventh century it is clear that to the Irish monks compiling their annals and the Venerable Bede composing his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum that the Picts were a distinct people who inhabited of northern and north-eastern portions of modern day Scotland and clearly distinguishable from the Scots who lived in the north-west (Dal Raida)and the British in the south-west (Strathclyde).

Without further detailed information it is impossible to say whether all these sources used the term Pict to mean exactly the same people.

We know for example, that the twelfth century chronicler Richard of Hexham in his account of the Battle of the Standard refers to 'Picts' present at that battle in a context which clearly indicates that he is referring to the inhabitants of Galloway. This was quite a common usage in the later medieval period where it seems that 'Pict' was being utilised as some generic term to indicate any wild Celtic tribesman from the north.

Pict may therefore have been used in a different sense by a different people at different times; the modern usage of the term tends to be restricted to refer to the specific inhabitants of north and eastern Scotland who established their own Dark Age kingdom between with sixth and ninth centuries.

What language did they speak?

The truthful answer is that no one knows for certain, as the Picts left behind no written example of their language. A few clues remain; the analysis of place names, the curious pictographic script of their memorial stones and the odd contemporary historical reference which provide at least some indication of the nature of their language.

Firstly there is the evidence of Admonan who recorded that Saint Columba needed an interpreter to preach the gospel to them, so their language must have been sufficiently different from his native Goidelic to require one.

Secondly there is a reference by Bede in Chapter 12 of his Historia to, "a place called in the Pictish language, Peanfahel, but in the English tongue, Penneltun", which to today known under its Gaelic name of Kinneil.

Unsurprisingly therefore the conclusion is that "all the scanty linguistic evidence relating to Pictish can be interpreted in the light of its being a Celtic language of the 'P', as opposed to 'Q' family" 1 (That is, Brythonic rather than Goidelic).

It was the opinion of Kenneth Jackson that the Picts spoke a Brythonic language, but one that retained some pre-Celtic elements, so that it differed from the Brythonic spoken by their immediate neighbours in Strathclyde, although generally speaking the 'pre-Celtic' theory has not attracted much support elsewhere.

All in all the general conclusion is that the language of the Picts "seems to have been essentially a British Celtic language, distantly related to Welsh" 2

Where did the Picts come from?

Opinions differ wildly on the origin of the Picts. Various suggestions have been made over the years including theories that they were of Germanic or Scandinavian origin or that they were in some way the original inhabitants of the island of Britain and thus distinguishable from the invading Celts.

Of course there is no particular reason to believe that the Picts came from anywhere as such. Describing a people as Celtic is a cultural not a racial statement. The Picts may well have tattooed themselves and practised matrilinearity but this does not mean to say that they were any different from their Celtic neighbours. The main difference between the Picts and their southern cousins is that they never experienced the joys and despairs of Romanisation, and maintained a fierce independence.

So what do we know about the Picts

Very little in fact. They left behind a legacy of a number carved standing stones, discussed in Pictish memorial stones; a few hundred stone towers or brochs and some examples of silver jewellery that displays a remarkable degree of skill and craftsmanship.

There is a long and confused list of kings contained in the tenth century Pictish Chronicle which lists the Kings of Pictavia both legendary and historical; and later scholars also recorded some of the oral traditions regarding the Picts including the tale of Cruithne and his seven sons.

The major difficulty is the lack of any surviving native Pictish records, all that is known of the Picts is derived from the scattered references that remain in the records of various Roman, Irish and English sources.

A very brief history of the Picts

Although the Roman general Agricola defeated them at the battle of Mons Graupius in 84 AD, and later Septimus Severus led an essentially punitive expedition that happily slaughtered the Picts in battle and beheaded the odd recalcitrant chieftain, their lands were never conquered by the Romans.

In fact, there was a regular parade of Roman emperors engaging in offensive operations against these northern tribes, leading to the suspicion that the Romans used the north of Britain as some kind of military training ground. Caledonia lay at the very extremity of the empire, far away from 'civilisation'; a place where any defeat was not likely to have serious consequences (and easily hushed up), but where victory could be proclaimed and the emperor earn the right to be hailed as 'imperator.'

As the power of Rome weakened in the fourth century they adopted the habit of raiding the Roman provinces of Britain, a practice they continued in the fifth century, which was a factor in the destabilising of the fledgling independent Romano-British government after 409.

Under the threat of Roman occupation, these Pictish tribes seem to have coalesced into an independent Pictish kingdom, known as Pictavia that was often divided into two separate kingdoms of northern and southern Picts. But in the fifth century the Scotti came from Ireland and established themselves in the south and west establishing the Kingdom of Dal Riada. This led to a struggle for control of Caledonia between the two competing cultures.

The Picts seem to have initially had the upper hand with Oengus succeeding in conquering Dal Riada and crowning himself King of the Picts and Scots in the year 741. But the Scots of Dal Riada subsequently rebelled and re-established their autonomy.

In the year 839 the Picts suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Vikings that wiped out a great deal of their nobility including the reigning king and his brother. The King of Dal Riada, Kinet or Kenneth mac Alpin as he is better known, then defeated the Picts in battle in 841 and massacred the remaining Pictish nobles under a flag of truce 3 and had himself crowned as Rex Pictorum or 'king of the Picts' (Which is probably the point in time that we can safely start to talk of Scotland without confusing anyone.)

There are records of Pictish resistance to the rule of mac Alpin and his successors, but apart from that the Picts simply drop out of history. Whether the Picts were simply wiped out or were merely subsumed by the Scots no one really knows.


1Roger Collins see SOURCES

2 Lloyd and Jenny Laing see SOURCES

3 Or so it said; and event known as MacAlpin's Treason and probably more mythical than historical.


Roger Collins Early Medieval Europe 300-1000 (Macmillan, 1999))
W.A.Cummins The Age of the Picts (Sutton, 1995)
Lloyd and Jenny Laing The Picts and the Scots (Sutton, 1993)
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)

The Picts

The history of the Pictish tribes of northern Scotland is a fascinating one.It is widely believed that they gained their name from the Roman word Picti meaning "painted people". The Irish referred to them and other Britons as Cruithini or painted ones, and it seems likely they were tattooed. One source1 refers to a possible link with the name of the Celtic Pictones tribe of the Loire valley in France, but the Roman explanation is certainly the most widely-held one.

Although the Picts did not leave written records of their language, it is believed they spoke a tongue quite different from the other Brythonic "p-Celtic" languages. Adomnan, a later abbot of the Columban faith on Iona, reported that St Columba had to speak to the Picts using an interpreter.

The Picts inhabited north-east Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde valley between the fourth and ninth centuries. Their territory was divided between the northern and southern Picts by the Mounth, a mountain range stretching from Aberdeen to Strathearn.

The Picts were mainly farmers, keeping cattle, sheep,and pigs, and growing crops like barley and oats. They also hunted for boar and deer, and fished for salmon.

Sources for Pictish history

As has been noted above, the early Picts did not use writing, and much of what we know about them has been derived from the many carved stones which have been found, covered by various Pictish symbols and pictures. These stones can be divided into three classes: pre-Christian, transitional period, and Christian.

The pre-Christian class I stones are wholly covered with Pictish symbols, with few ogham inscriptions, and even fewer Latin ones - both types may have been added at later dates. Of the 400 Pictish stones, about half (150-200) are class I, and date from about the fifth and sixth centuries. These stones are generally rough-worked boulders found in churchyards or linked with burials or cairns.

Class II stones represent the transitional period between pre-Christian and Christian Picts. These stones date from the sixth to ninth centuries, and are shaped and worked stone with a peaked, flattened top. They have a cross on the front and Pictish symbols or a scene on the back. Class II stones can be particulary found in Strathmore, eg Aberlemno.

Class III stones are similar to earlier carvings, but lack Pictish symbols, therefore denoting a Christian society. They can be found in Forres, Meigle, and Forteviot.

Typically symbols carved on the stones are in pairs, perhaps denoting a name. A comb and mirror are particularly popular, possibly indicating a female, although as males also probably had long hair, perhaps the combs were a symbol of wealth. Bosses may also indicate wealth, being used to pin cloaks. Figures on chairs may indicate royalty. Many carved bulls were found at Burghead, a Pictish naval base.

Another source for information about the Picts is the work of the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk who wrote an "Ecclesistical History of the English people" in 731. Bede wrote about the Picts, suggesting that their use of matrilineal succession may have dated back to a myth of their being allowed to choose Irish brides providing they chose their kings from the female line.

Some of the best archaeological evidence of the Picts comes from Burghead and Forteviot. As mentioned above, Burghead was a large Pictish naval base with many bulls-head symbols on its walls. The inner ramparts of the fort are ten feet (three metres) high, and there is a subterranean well reached by a flight of rock-cut stairs. Some pictish carvings seem to indicated that drowning was a common method of execution, including the killing of kings.

Forteviot was the palace of the Pictish kings of Fortrui in Strathearn. Unfortunately, little remains except a sculpted arch, although its outlines can be seen from the air. Kenneth mac Alpin died here in 858. The arch is the finest piece of Pictish sculpture yet found. It was part of the palace chapel, and shows four figures with flamboyant Pictish moustaches, flanking a cross.

The Pictish kings are recorded in a later Gaelic "kinglist". Although a High King often ruled over several subkings, anyone of the royal bloodline could claim the high throne, and this often led to bitter disputes and feuds. The job of High King was not a long-lived one, and few lived to die peacefully in old age - most were murdered.

The Picts and Christianity

Christian ideas filtered gradually into Scotland from Roman times onwards, and early saints like St Ninian and St Kentigern helped lead the faithful of the fifth century. The Picts were influenced both by the Celtic church of St Columba's on Iona, and the Northumbrian church with its Roman traditions. The synod of Whitby in 664 led to the Pictish king Nechtan adopting the Roman church's ideas regarding the dating of Easter and the building of stone churches.

Bruide son of Bili led the Picts in battle against the Northumbrians in 685 at the battle of Nechtansmere, near Forfar. He was brother to the king of Dumbarton, and also the cousin of the Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith. This victory began to reverse Northumbrian expansion, and soon the Picts under Oengus began to expand their own territory.

Viking attacks were to lead to the decline of the Picts, however, and in 839 one of their attacks left the Picts open to takeover by Kenneth mac Alpin, king of the Scots, and the first recognised king of Scotland. The Picts then seemed to have disappeared, but it has to be remembered that their cultures had been mingling with the Scots' for many years, and they may have easily been incorporated into Scottish life.

1Oxford Companion to Scottish history

Lecture notes, Sheila MacFadyen, "Scotland in Early Times", Department of Adult Education, University of Glasgow
Oxford Companion to Scottish history, Oxford University Press, 2001

Actually, depite the fact that Agrippa defeated them, as did several other Roman commanders throughout Rome's history (and some even managed to subjugate them), they never remained a Roman province. They had endured round ups, slaughters and constant battle, but the Romans could never keep the wild highlanders under thumb. The result ended up being Hadrian's Wall, to keep them out of Roman lands rather than trying to subjugate them. It is altogether possible that the Romans could have subjugated them, but it would have required the diversion of legions from the German front, which no Emperor in their right mind would divert from; and in any case, Caledonia had virtually no resources that the Romans wanted and it was no worth the trouble.

Although the origin of the Picts is not known for certain, there are many theories on it. One that seems to be somewhat accepted is the theory that they were originally inhabitants of the Norselands that migrated to try and find warmer climates. This is supported by their tribal structure and their voracity and rage in battle. Though one large factor in support of this was that they worshipped a God named Odyn, otherwise known as Odin, Woten, Wotan etc. Since Odin was a Norse God, it would suggest that their culture came from the Norse in one way or another.

In the article Rethinking the Picts, appearing in this month's Archaeology, editor David Keys presents both the widely held view of the Picts as uncivilized and illiterate heathens and the artifacts and excavations some archaeologists believe challenges it. With the recovery of over one hundred and fifty artifacts and the uncovering of some key excavation sites these characteristics first applied to the Pictish peoples in the sixth-century have been brought into question and perhaps been dispelled.

Leading medieval art historians, George and Isabel Henderson, have examined many of the fragmented sculptures found in Orkney, Shetland and near Inverness. They have discovered that Pictish artwork wasn’t a copy of the work of others, as many believed in the past, but rather a unique style in its own. The complexity of geometric patterns and significantly larger use of animal symbolism than previously found in either Irish or English artifacts have led to their conclusions. The illustrations present in the sculpture fragments have also put into question the label of ‘heathen’. On many pieces there have been representations of various Bible stories, such as Jonah and the Whale, as well as images of prominent characters in the Bible, such as King David. One piece of sculpture found on the Tarbat Peninsula even showed a comparison between Christ and his apostles and a sacrificial animal surrounded by lions which it is suggested is a statement about the supremacy of New Testament versus Old Testament in the eyes of Pictish religious elites.

Their knowledge of the Bible isn’t the only thing discovered in this artwork, however, there is also evidence that the Picts may have read classical literature including Virgil’s Aeneid. Bible scenes as well as classic mythological creatures, such as griffons and hippocamps, suggest the Picts were not, in fact, ‘illiterate’ but had access to and read various forms of literature. That they not only read it but they had opinions about it and have expressed them through their art. They may well have expressed it in writing as well, but since the script of the ancient Picts, which contains only thirty characters, has so far been uncoded there is, as of yet, no evidence of that fact. When you combine all of these things; the artwork; the knowledge of the Bible; and, the evidence of classical literature, the picture of an ‘uncivilized’ people begins to peel away. Further dispelling this characterization are some key excavation sites and evidence found at them.

On the north shore of the Firth, on the Tarbat Peninsula, archaeologist Martin Carver located the only known monastery in Pictland, which covered most of Scotland north of present day Edinburgh. Here there has been uncovered evidence of glass making, vellum processing, metal working and stone carving as well as agricultural signifiers such as a water mill and a kiln-barn for crop drying. Fifteen miles away from the monastery is a second important site, the royal fortress of Burghead. A massive complex one thousand feet long and six-hundred and fifty feet wide this is believed to be the center of the Pictish political kingdom. Impressive defense systems including a large triple ditch and a citadel located in the heart of the fortress demonstrate a sophistication alone that should be enough to forever wipe away the picture of the naked barbarian. Replacing past images of uncivilized and illiterate heathens are those of artisans, clergymen, farmers and possibly scribes.

The suggestions made by Keys, and the various archaeologists whose research the article was based upon, were founded in solid evidence. On one hand you have Christianity being suggested by imagery on pieces of sculpture found in several places in Scotland known to have been within Pictland. These were not single occurrences of imagery that could have been falsely associated with Bible stories, but rather an over abundance of iconography that unmistakably depict specific stories within the Bible. Supporting these discoveries, on the other hand, is the uncovering of the monastery, the stone church within it and the citadel at Burghead. All of these separate artifacts support the claim that the Picts had come into contact with and assimilated Christianity into their world. Other claims were equally supported. The question of how civilized the Picts were being addressed with the presence of illustrations of classical literature in their artwork, as well as, the discovery of various forms of early industry, such as vellum making, metal working and glass making, and the agricultural efforts evidenced by the water mill and the kiln-barn. These archaeologists did not form their conclusions based upon biases or speculations, but rather on evidence in the form of artifacts and archaeological sites uncovered and examined that showed what the ideology of the people that made them was.

References: Keys, David, (September/October, 2004). Rethinking the Picts, Archaeology. (p. 41-44).

Picts (?), n. pl.; sing. Pict (). [L. Picti; cf. AS. Peohtas.] Ethnol.

A race of people of uncertain origin, who inhabited Scotland in early times.


© Webster 1913.

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