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)