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