Who Were the Picts?

As one of the peoples that contributed to the genetic and cultural lineage of Scotland, the identity of this enigmatic folk has been a mystery that has been debated for decades. Details about their language have proved elusive, and they have been associated with various cultural practices that put them at odds with their neighbours. No written texts in the Pictish language have survived, and so we are forced to rely on the commentaries of those other peoples that have ventured to our island; particularly the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons, who inhabited the lands to the South of Pictish territory, and the Romans, both of whom tried to subdue the Picts through conquest and ultimately failed.

In fact, the domination of the Pictish folk was only ever achieved by the Gaelic Scots, who instead relied on marrying Pictish noblewomen and inserting themselves into the Pictish aristocracy gradually. This allowed their language to proliferate to such an extent that the Scottish landscape is covered with Gaelic place-names, to such a degree that it gives some of us the impression that Gaelic culture is the ‘native tradition’ of Scotland. To consider the importance of Gaelic tradition as part of our heritage is worth acknowledging, however, it really is no more ‘native’ to Scotland than the Teutonic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, Norsemen and Flemings. These cultures were all preceded by one which had been established much earlier and survived in modified form in the land North of the Forth, which retained distinct archaeological and linguistic characteristics throughout the Iron Age and the Dark Ages.

The most informative historian about the Picts was the Northumbrian monk known as Bede, who lived during the 8th Century AD. In his book, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Peoples, he gives us helpful ethnology concerning his nation’s neighbours, including the Picts. The origin story that he provides for the Picts (which he could have obtained from either a Gaelic or Pictish source), says that the Picts came from Scythia (that is, the Russian Steppe) and arrived in Ireland. They asked to settle in their land, to which the Irish replied that they could not, but instead gave them wives and told them that they could settle on another island to the East, which would be Britain.

While this story may seem far fetched, it can actually be explained by what we know about the earlier Aryan migrations that gave birth to the Copper and Bronze Ages. The archaeological culture ascribed to the ‘Beaker People’ is connected to the male genetic haplogroup R1b, which originated in the Russian Steppe with the Aryans. Their discovery of metallurgy allowed them to expand to the East and West, introducing the Indo-European languages to Europe, as well as Central and South Asia. However, it is very likely that this did not just consist of folk migration, where a whole tribe would move as one, but also expeditions by explorers who were able to spread scientific and spiritual knowledge to the other peoples that they encountered.

The oldest name for Britain is ‘Albion’, which may have originated in the Stone Age. However, the people that were said to inhabit Britain by the time of the Iron Age were known as ‘Pretani’, which is attested by the Greek geographer, Pytheas, who called the British Isles the ‘Pretanic Isles’. This indicates that both Britain and Ireland were inhabited by the same peoples, and that they have long been considered united in this respect. In Welsh, the Picts were once known as Brithwyr and their land as Prydyn, acknowledging that the Picts, rather than the Celtic Britons, were the earlier inhabitants, as the Celtic Britons referred to themselves as Cymry.

These ‘Pretani’, were the descendants of Aryan men who had intermarried with the women of Neolithic Britain, who were themselves a mixture of European hunter-gatherers and farmers from the Middle East. However, one of the customs which has set the Picts apart from other Aryan folk is the practice of matrilineality, whereby descent would be traced through the female line. This would have meant that their children would grow up speaking their mother’s language, as the preservation of the family lineage would depend on the woman. This ensured that, despite the proliferation of Aryan genetics across Western Europe, the languages spoken in this part of the World descended from the previous, Stone Age inhabitants and would have been spoken throughout the Bronze Age.

Archaeological evidence of the ‘Atlantic Bronze Age’ culture can be found from Scotland to Spain and the language family that was spoken in this part of the world most likely survives as the Basque language of the Western Pyrenees mountains, straddling the border between France and Spain. The Basques have also historically practised matrilineality until the 20th Century, which has allowed the language to survive as an isolated pre-Indo-European speech for thousands of years. If the Pictish language was related to Basque, it would be part of the hypothetical ‘Vasconic’ language family.

Another example of a cultural practice that is not known among most Aryan folk is the art of tattooing, which was unknown among the Gauls or Teutons, but was also practised by the Scythians. The practice was described among the Picts by the Roman historian Herodian and the Visigoth historian Isodore of Seville, the former mentions depictions of animals while the latter refers to the use of a pin to paint the tattoo (the Latin name ‘Picti‘ means ‘painted ones’ and refers to this practice). Though possibly another contribution from the Aryans, it is more likely to have been something adopted by the Scythians from the neighbouring Turks, as this has not been a widespread practice in Europe historically until recent times, with the exception of the Picts and the Britons (as well as Northumbrian warriors who were chastised by the Church for imitating such practices). Though tattooing was also practised by the Celtic Britons (likely adopting a local custom), this practice is not recorded among them after the Romans, and so it presumably died out under Roman rule.

The Celts arrived in Britain during the Iron Age as traders and craftsmen, much like the original Aryans, and they were also responsible for introducing ironsmithing to our island. The Celts were also patriarchal, as opposed to the matriarchal Picts, and so they were able to conquer Western Europe both culturally and linguistically. By colonizing rather than conquering, they were able to establish a permanent hold in Britain, where they survive today as the Welsh. This was probably a different scenario on the Continent, as the overland expansion would have facilitated conquest though force of arms. This meant that the Celtic colonization in Britain was less extensive than on the Continent, and so there was more of a cultural blending than domination, reflected in the continued practice of tattooing in Britain.

However, despite the fact that most of the Pritani adopted Celtic language and culture, those living North of the Forth resisted, and continued to practice matrilineality. However, they most likely adopted a patriarchal system of governance in order to compete with the Celtic Britons, as a Brittonic chieftain would simply have to marry a Pictish matriarch in order to bring a tribe under his dominion. Maintaining matrilineality meant that the Brittonic language could only infiltrate Pictish culture through intermarriage with Brittonic women, which eventually occurred and gradually introduced Celtic vocabulary into the Pictish language.

They also practised similar styles of warfare, with the exception that, while the Celtic Britons were willing to compromise and capitulate, the Picts would never do so for any length of time. It is for this reason that the Romans were never able to conquer the Picts, as they would inevitably suffer betrayal of treaties and constant aggression form the Picts, which was the result of three unsuccessful attempts in the 1st 2nd and 3rd Centuries AD. While the Celtic Britons were eventually conquered by the Romans, the Romans found that attempting to hold the part of Britain known as Alban (the land North of the Forth which retained the pre-Indo-European name for the island) was an impossible task, and were forced to retreat behind the River Tyne, and eventually Hadrian’s Wall was built to solidify the border.

This may have been because, even if they held Southern Scotland (which was inhabited by Celtic Britons), they would be constantly attacked by the Picts. The Roman emperor, Antoninus, attempted to push the border beyond the Britons and even built a wall on the Forth-Clyde isthmus, but was forced to pull back after only twenty years due to persistent harassment by the Picts. The Picts were experts in skirmishing and would wear down the large and slow-moving Roman army through ambushes and hit-and-run tactics, luring individual soldiers away with livestock, killing them and then retreating into the forest. These strategies were only possible because the Picts made use of the once extensive Caledonian Forest, which stretched across the Highlands and gave them a place to hide and stage ambushes.

The Picts seem to have engaged in a more primitive form of warfare than their neighbours. No evidence of iron weapons has been found in Pictish territory, though they would have probably had some. The Roman historian, Dio, claimed that they had daggers and spears, which had bronze “apples” (orbs) at the butt that were used to make a rattling sound, for which there is archaeological evidence and is also shown on the Pictish Collessie Stone in Fife. According to Herodian, as iron is not plentiful in Scotland, the Caledonians (as the Picts were known until the 4th Century, a reference to the most powerful tribe, the Caledonii of Perthshire) wore iron as jewellery, and valued it as much as gold. Archaeological evidence, however, shows that they also wore bronze jewellery in the form of huge armlets, sometimes with a serpentine design. He also noted that they spurned armour, as they viewed this as a hindrance to their speed and agility.

collessie_stone_painting

Modern painting of image on the Collessie Stone, warrior with spear and shield

snake_bracelet

Bronze serpentine armlet

There is also a very interesting reference by the Roman historian, Tacitus, who wrote a biography of the Roman governor of Britain, Agricola, and his campaigns in Scotland. When describing their battle tactics, he not only says that they hurled masses of javelins and also had chariots, but that their ‘swords’ were huge and lacked a thrusting point. This does not sound much like a sword at all, but would probably have been more like the Aztec weapon known as a macuahutil. This is a long club that is edged with obsidian blades, capable of decapitation. Since obsidian can be found in Scotland and iron is comparatively rare, it is possible that this is the sort of weapon that the Picts used rather than a sword.

macuahutil

Modern reconstruction of an Aztec Macuahutil

During Agricola’s campaigns in Caledonia in the late 1st Century, his army had to endure constant evasion and refusal to meet on the battlefield from the Picts. Eventually, the Picts confronted the Romans at the Battle of Mons Graupius (possibly Moncrieffe Hill near Perth) and under the leadership of ‘Calgacus’ (‘the swordsman’ in Brittonic) they amassed their combined strength of around 30,000 men. Unfortunately, their large numbers were not enough to defeat the disciplined and tightly-formed Roman army. Tacitus notes that, though they had a massive army, after the initial skirmish their large ‘swords’ and small shields proved awkward during close combat, and so the Picts were not able to hold the line. The Romans gained the victory, and the Caledonians burned their own villages and fled to the Highlands, subsequently surrendering to Agricola. However, Agricola was called back by the Roman emperor, Domitian; as the Picts proved too much of a nuisance and there were more serious threats to the empire, such as the Dacians of Romania, though Tacitus attributes the decision to jealousy of Agricola’s achievements.

While so fiercely proud of their heritage that they would not relent in repelling an attacker, the Picts never sought to expand their territory, which meant that their tribes would continue to remain independent throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. In 367, the Picts conspired with the Britons in the South of Scotland, the Saxons in Germany and the Scots in Ireland to launch a multi-pronged attack on Roman Britain in an event known as the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’, whereby each group attacked from the North, East and West. This event signalled the death-knell for the Roman rule in Britain, and they had abandoned the province by 410 due to constant raids from these peoples draining military resources which were needed more to defend Gaul and Italy from Teutonic invaders.

However, after the departure of the Romans, the Picts continued to raid the lands to the South, presumably because tribal warfare between the Picts and the Romano-Britons had flared up after the Romans left. By this time, the Picts had become proficient pirates, as they found that this was a more effective way to attack the Romans without the threat of fighting in a pitched battle, which they would certainly lose. It is quite possible that the Picts had simply become accustomed to raiding this way, and so the Romano-Britons recruited Anglo-Saxon warriors to defend what is now the East Coast of England.

Though this tactic proved effective in preventing Pictish piracy, the Romano-Britons eventually found themselves at war with the Anglo-Saxons, who then proceeded to conquer what is now England and the South-East of Scotland. In addition to this, two other groups settled on the West Coast of Scotland, the Picts of Galloway and the Scots of Dal Riada (Argyll). While we have been mainly concerned with the Picts in Scotland, it is worth noting that they also inhabited Ireland, and were gradually pushed North-East by Gaels from the South, who were a Celtic tribe originating in Northern Spain. The Gaels arrived in Ireland during the 2nd Century AD and began to dominate the Picts (who were known to the Gaels as Cruthin) and other Celtic tribes who had settled in Ireland. By the 4th Century AD, the powerful Gaelic O’Neill clan was pushing East into what is now Ulster, which in turn pushed some Cruthin into Galloway.

They were the folk that became known to Bede as the ‘Southern Picts’ and as Goidel Ffichti (‘Irish Picts’) to the Welsh. Due to intermarriage with Gaelic women, these Picts spoke Gaelic and introduced the language to the South-West of Scotland. The Scots of Dal Riada were known by this name because they too spoke Gaelic (the Scoti were one of the first Gaelic tribes to arrive in Ireland from Spain and gave their name to the Gaelic language, known as Scottis during the Middle Ages), though they were not Picts, but rather one of the Celto-Germanic tribes that had migrated to Ireland from Belgium (known as the Belgae in Latin and Fir Bolg in Gaelic) and had been influenced by the Gaels linguistically through intermarriage. Bede claims that the Scots colonized what is now Argyll through “a combination of treaty and force”. The Scots became the Picts’ new neighbours and introduced the Gaelic tongue to the Highlands.

One other feature which distinguished the Picts from the peoples surrounding them are their elaborate symbol stones, which can be found all over the areas that the Picts inhabited. Examples of carvings are depictions of animals including salmon, geese, bulls, wolves, bears and horses, as well as the mythological kelpie, or water-horse of Scottish mythology. They also had unique symbols that were specific to the Picts and are difficult to interpret. In addition, they also showed images of people, either hunting, fighting on the battlefield or simply alone as on the Collessie Stone. One such stone found at Aberlemno, Angus, dates from the 8th Century and depicts the Pictish army engaged in battle with the Strathclyde Britons.

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Section of the battle scene from the Aberlemno Stone

By this time, the Picts had adopted the more conventional battle tactics of their neighbours, and they are shown using spears, swords and even pikes against the Brittonic cavalry. Noteworthy is the depiction of the Britons wearing helmets and mail coats, which are notably absent from the Pictish army, suggesting that they continued to reject the use of armour well into the Dark Ages. Later stones take on a different form, and become Christian cross slabs in the tradition of Celtic Christianity, depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Though their unique pagan religion became gradually replaced, the Picts still found ways to incorporate their own stone carving style into the high crosses, and continued to feature pictures of animals.

aberlemno_stone2

Older Pictish stone also at Aberlemno, depicting a snake, a mirror and a ‘z-rod’ symbol

It is after the Roman departure that the new religion of Christianity began to affect the Picts, and it is the Southern Picts who were first converted by Saint Ninian in the 5th Century AD, establishing a church at Whithorn in Galloway. However, a letter from Saint Patrick to the king of Strathclyde (which is where Saint Patrick was from) refers to the Southern Picts as ‘apostates’ suggesting that they had abandoned Christianity and would have been subsequently converted at a later date by Irish missionaries. The conversion of the Northern Picts was a later process, and was also achieved through the efforts of the Celtic Church, which began with the establishment of a monastery at Iona by Saint Columba in the 6th Century.

Though Columba himself managed to convert some Picts, the bulk of the conversion was done by his disciples, which allowed Gaelic culture to proliferate among the Picts through the establishment of monasteries. We know nothing about the pagan Pictish religion, and it is unclear to what extent it was influenced by Celtic culture and how much it retained an older form. Though the Picts were initially converted to the Celtic version of Christianity, they eventually switched to the Catholicism that was practised among the Anglo-Saxons in the 8th Century, which was more orthodox. By establishing their own bishoprics, the Picts were able to free themselves from the influence of Iona and assert their culture within the Church, though they then became more influenced by the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria conquered what is now Lothian in the 7th Century and the Picts had yet another new neighbour. However, unlike the Scots who were not interested in expanding into Pictish territory by force, the Northumbrian king, Oswy, attempted to subjugate the Picts, and succeeded in the only way that one could with the Picts; by having them as clients. Oswy was able to expand his hegemony through extracting tribute rather than through conquest, which would have been impossible with the Picts. Indeed, though Oswy’s son, Ecgfrith, defeated the Picts after they had refused to pay tribute, he would eventually be defeated by them. Initially, the Picts had been defeated by Ecgfrith at the Battle of Two Rivers, which would have been in a Lowland area of Pictish territory.

Under the leadership of King Bridei of Werturiu (the most powerful Late Pictish kingdom which consisted of Moray, Ross, Badenoch and Strathspey), the Picts lured Ecgfrith’s mounted warband into the Highlands, and crushed them at the Battle of Nechtansmere, which most likely took place near Dunachton in Badenoch. After this, the Picts became the dominant force in Scotland, and for the first time were able to assert themselves through shrugging off the influence of Iona and through making peace with the Northumbrians. During the 8th Century, the Picts began to extract tribute from their other neighbours, namely the Britons of Strathclyde and the Scots of Dal Riada. It was at the peak of their power that the Picts were to face their greatest threat, which lay the foundations for their final defeat.

From their mountainous and sea-swept homes in Noway, the Vikings began to raid the Northern and Western Isles at the beginning of the 9th Century, and subsequently settled there, establishing their culture, language and pagan religion. From there, they went on to invade the mainland, and the Pictish kingdom of Cait (Caithness and Sutherland) fell under the control of the Orcadian Norsemen. Eventually, they descended on Werturiu, and the Pictish royal family were slaughtered by them, bringing the carefully constructed Pictish high kingship into chaos and civil war. The linchpin that held the Pictish kingdoms together was the able rulership of the kings of Werturiu, and once they were defeated it fell apart.

Despite attempts by other Pictish kings to gain control, they were eventually subjugated by the king of Dal Riada, Kenneth MacAlpin, through treachery and murder of the other Pictish kings at Scone. He then began the domination of Gaelic culture among the Picts by establishing patrilineal descent and his successors went on to unite the Picts and Scots into one folk. While the Scottish kingdom retained the ancient name of ‘Alba’, it was no longer culturally Pretanic, and as such became absorbed into the wider Indo-European world after resisting for so long. The Pictish language had probably died out by the 11th Century, and so all that survives are place-names and the names of Pictish kings. Though many of these are Brittonic in form, this is due to the partial adoption of that language because of their close proximity to the Celtic Britons, as Bede makes it clear that they spoke different languages.

During the conquests of Edward I of England, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, he made every effort to undermine Scottish royal authority by destroying as many texts as he could pertaining to Scottish history. In addition to the sacking of abbeys during the Reformation, this has ensured that if any texts were ever written in Pictish, they do not survive and so we have no real idea of what their language looked like, what they called themselves or what their mythology would have been. Though the Southern Picts of Galloway retained their cultural and political independence until the 12th Century, the cultural and religious reforms under David I meant that they too were finally absorbed into the Scottish kingdom, though they had long abandoned the Pictish tongue in favour of Gaelic.

It is for this reason that we have suffered a cultural disconnect with our ancestors, and so many of us who are interested in reviving their traditions have either the Gaelic or Teutonic paths to choose from. Yet the Picts still remain a feature of history that are unique to both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Though known under different names, they formed a continuum with the earlier, pre-Indo-European culture of the British Isles, one which was sadly broken over a thousand years ago. Even though we do not know what gods they worshipped or what their customs were, we can still look back on them as an example to be proud of our heritage and to never give up or give in to invaders. Despite this loss, we still inherit the same blood and inhabit the same soil.

Wulf Willelmson

The Dark Ages

The term ‘Dark Ages’ refers to the time also known as the Early Medieval (or ‘Early Historic’) period between the 5th and 11th centuries AD, and this is because we know little about events from the historical record in Western Europe compared to the Roman and Late Medieval periods. This can be contrasted with the Renaissance and the resurgence of paganism and occultism in this part of the world following the Middle Ages around the 16th Century. After the fall of Rome, the Continent was divided between pre-feudal, Teutonic kingships, while the British Isles descended into tribalism; where there was competition for land and resources between the native, Brittonic folk and Anglo-Saxon settlers.

However, despite the suggestion of genocide that has been proposed by some Modern archaeologists, there is no reason to believe that the Anglo-Saxons had some sort of ‘apartheid’ regime (something which can only be implemented through the state, which was not present in Britain following the Roman departure). Exterminating the Britons would have made little sense if much of the land was depopulated, a process which began in Late Antiquity and continued into the Dark Ages. It is certain that there were folk that came from what is now mainland Denmark and Northern Germany, though they arrived in Britain over a continuous time, as they were hired as mercenaries by the Romans and later the British petty kings to help fight the marauding Picts and Gaels. Thus, the Anglo-Saxons became more populous on the Eastern and Southern coasts of England, and eventually took control of the areas in which they formed the majority.

They could only have achieved this with the help of British pagans who felt alienated by their Christian rulers. There is reason to believe that the Anglo-Saxon warlords married into local noble families and gained power this way. The founder of Wessex, Kerdic, has a Celtic name, and so it is likely that he had an Anglo-Saxon father and British mother. Also, the Northumbrian king, Oswy, gained the territory of Rheged (Lancashire) through marrying a princess of that kingdom. It is for this reason that many Britons became absorbed into Anglo-Saxon culture through intermarriage and because of shared religious beliefs.

This is presumably what is meant in the Welsh Triads by the description of the Lloegrians (Britons of the South and East) coming into confederation with the Angles and Saxons. Though the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (who settled in Kent and also in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight) were three different tribes, they all spoke the same language and worshipped the same pantheon, which is why they are known culturally as Anglo-Saxons. Christianity subsequently fell out of favour among many of the Britons, but was reintroduced from Ireland by missionaries. These ‘Celtic Christians’ were more successful in converting the Britons than the earlier, state-imposed Roman Church, as they preached a doctrine that was more suited to Celtic culture and spirituality.

The first among the Teutonic tribes of England to be Christianized were the Jutes, whose close contact and trade with the Franks over in France, Belgium and the Netherlands exposed them to the later ‘Catholic Church’ that was more friendly to pagan customs. The Dark Age Roman missionaries were advised not to destroy pagan shrines, but to simply consecrate them in the name of Christ and convince the local people that they were Christians. In Late Antiquity, their methods included desecrating pagan shrines and attacking pagans, acts which did not win the hearts of the common folk. While the Jutes, Saxons and Mercians were converted to Roman Catholicism, the Northumbrians initially responded to the Church established by Saint Columba.

Edwin, was the first Northumbrian king to convert, though Oswy (a rival to Edwin and future King of Northumbria) converted to Christianity while he lived in exile in Iona. However, Oswy would eventually be responsible for turning his back on the Columban Church and agreed to revise the date of Easter to conform with mainstream Catholic custom at the Synod of Whitby; a move which would be followed by the Picts (in whose lands lived many Culdees, ‘hermit monks’ who preserved the Celtic tradition) and later at Iona itself. And so, the Catholic Church had succeeded in drawing the folk of the British Isles closer to its dogma, and went on to firmly establish Judeo-Christianity among the peoples of our land.

A similar process that occurred with the Britons and Anglo-Saxons may have also have happened among the inhabitants of the Northern Isles (and some of the Western Isles), and the Norsemen who settled there. These islands were some of the last places to be Christianized, and though they were attractive to the Culdees due to their isolation, they presumably did not bother the local pagans. The folk of the Northern Isles, especially in Shetland, have inherited much of their genetic lineage from the Norse. However, this does not mean that the natives were massacred by the Vikings. Rather, it suggests that they were more open to interaction with the Norsemen than with the mainland Picts and Gaels.

This may have been because the high kings of these peoples were known to raid the Northern Isles and the Hebrides, of which the goals were usually to capture booty and some slaves. It is important to note that chattel slavery was not widely practised in Britain before the introduction of Christianity, aside from kingdoms in the South-East who were in close contact with the Romans. Though there were many in European tribal society who were not free due to debt (and so were more like serfs), the market for this practice was only opened up through trade with the Mediterranean. Mercantile slavery was also not initially a feature of Scandinavian society, though they engaged in the practice once they began raiding other parts of Europe (especially in Ireland).

The place-names of the Isles show no trace of a Brittonic language such as Pictish, though we know that their culture was present in this part of the country at least so some degree because of the survival of some scattered Pictish symbol stones. However, the lack of Pictish material culture may also suggest that many of those living on the Isles before the Viking Age (between the 9th and 11th Centuries) were not Picts, and that this process may also have occurred over a longer period of time through cultural contact.The folk of the Northern Isles were converted to Christianity by the sword at the behest of the Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvasson, who was one of the most bloodthirsty and fanatical Christian kings in history.

The Western Isles were presumably converted more gradually as they merged with the Isle of Man to form their own kingdom, independent from Norway. Gradually, the process of Norse domination reversed, as the folk of the Western Isles adopted the Gaelic tongue and were eventually incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland in the 13th Century. This later period produced more literature than the previous Dark Ages, as the Catholic Church had secured a monopoly on the production of books among most of the European kingdoms (Eastern Europe underwent a similar process with the Orthodox Church, though pagan customs were still more prevalent there than in Western Europe).

However, despite the fact that the Dark Ages heralded the introduction of Christianity to Northern Europe and the Middles Ages were characterized by the domination of the Church, it was still a time of dual faith; meaning that while society maintained the veneer of Christianity, most of the folk traditions and customs of the Europeans at the time remained rooted in paganism. This was also reflected in the monastic literature, as myths from Ireland and Iceland were preserved by the dedication of some monks to maintaining the ancient tales, though they probably omitted details if they offended Christian sensitivities.

Even in France and Germany where the pagan myths had not been written down during the Dark Ages, the rise of Romance literature continued the common themes of Celtic literature, such as the legends of King Arthur and his knights. While Welsh monks managed to preserve earlier versions of these stories, the French and German versions were more heavily adapted to feudal society (with Arthur and his knights acting more according to contemporary ideas of chivalry rather than his status as a warlord in Welsh stories). However, they still contained the pagan and Celtic elements at their core, and had many parallels in Welsh mythology.

While the Church continued to control the narrative of the written word, most folk of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages engaged in oral tradition, and they preserved their people’s history through storytelling rather than writing. Though some of these stories were written down at some point during the Middle Ages, it is certain that many more have been lost over the centuries. There have been many attempts to record the ancient legends about Finn MacCool and other Gaelic heroes in Scotland and Ireland throughout the Modern era, either as a transcript or as audio recordings. These recent retellings in many cases match the ‘Classical Gaelic’ versions written down in the Middle Ages.

This is a testament to how strong the continuity of oral tradition can be, which is vital to maintaining the survival of a people through reminding them of the deeds of their ancestors and providing guidance for future challenges. Texts (and for that matter, computer data) are liable to be destroyed easily, and as their content resides in something external to ourselves, thy are forgotten if committed to writing and then lost or destroyed. This is why so many powerful institutions seek to control the narrative through media, and it is more effective to do so through the means of text and pictures. One of the reasons why folk customs were demonized in the Burning Times was that they posed a threat to the established order by diverging from the mainstream narrative and surviving thanks to the folk that remembered them. These ‘cunning folk’ were most likely to be engaged in what was deemed ‘witchcraft’, such as fortune-telling and herbal medicine.

I am unfortunately pessimistic in regards to our own time, as I do believe that we are on the verge of another Dark Age, as events that mirror the situation during Late Antiquity that preceded the fall of the Western Roman Empire signal that the collapse of our civilization has already begun. Our society is constantly over-stretching its limits and we are likely to see such events as mass starvation and outbreak of disease, as environmental disasters such as soil erosion and floods will lead to these conditions in a way similar to the Late Roman period. As the Roman elites became so corrupt that they practically enslaved their own populations (as they were no longer receiving slaves from imperial expansion) and introduced foreign populations against the wishes of the people for the sake of their own political interests (the Roman military needed soldiers, the central banks need debt-slaves).

Now that the European empires have expanded and subsequently fought each other in two devastating Brother Wars, only the shells of these empires remain and are being filled with more and more people to prop up consumer culture. Ethnic and religious tensions tear apart empires, and I can easily see Britain descending into tribalism once more if the central authority breaks down and people are left to fend for themselves, just as Emperor Honorius told the British nobles that they would no longer be receiving soldiers from the empire, as Britain had become such a vulnerable province.

In such events, the Celtic peoples survived because they managed to maintain their oral culture and were not devastated by the coming of Christianity. However, the Britons of the South-East became absorbed into Anglo-Saxon culture because they no longer shared the beliefs of their countrymen, and because they became surrounded by foreigners with whom they had more in common spiritually. I do wonder if the vacuum that has been left by the widespread abandonment of Christianity in the West is now being filled by Islam, as it is also an organized religion that insists on spreading its message to all corners of the globe through persuasion or by the sword.

In this way, historical patterns repeat themselves and we can tell what may happen by paying attention to the past. With the loss of spirituality in the West, it must quickly be replaced by our native belief systems, otherwise we may see another wave of violence similar to that during the Dark Ages. Whereas the people under the Roman Empire were protected by the imperial army, the petty kingdoms of the Dark Ages relied on local militias and mercenaries, a situation which is also mirrored today in the Middle East. This is a result of the breakdown of societies, which happens as they become less homogeneous and different cultures compete to control the narrative. Many indigenous cultures around the world have now become endangered, including our own.

However, it is still possible that we could have another Renaissance, as we Europeans rediscover what we have lost and realize who we truly are. This may be possible after a population collapse in the wake of catastrophic events (as with the Black Death that signalled the end of the Middle Ages), and less people would mean that more resources would be available. However, it is only possible to achieve this with dedication in recovering our heritage and history, and by thinking of ourselves also as worthy of being remembered in legends.We are not, as Modern nihilistic thinking suggests, individuals that only exist for one lifetime, but are part of a chain that connects us to both our ancestors and our descendants.

This link may only persist by thinking less about ourselves and more about our families and our folk. One of the reasons that the Dark Ages were known for the prevalence of warfare was that scarcity of resources once the Anglo-Saxon population expanded led them to push further and further West. Many of the inhabitants of cities such as York were still living within the Roman walls, and so urban life continued in some parts of Britain after the Roman left. However, these areas were more susceptible to cultural assimilation, as they were cosmopolitan and did not have a sense of national identity in the same way that the Britons of the countryside did. In the same way, it is in the rural parts of our country where our culture will have a chance of survival.

Wulf Willelmson

An ethnographic history of Scotland, Part II: The Germanic tribes

In recent years, the peoples of Britain have been steadily divided along national lines for political purposes, and a dichotomy has been presented between ‘Celtic’ Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England; which has been used to strengthen a false nationalism, not based on race, but on the extent of state authority. Yet history shows this simplification to be untrue, particularly in Scotland where the (mostly) Germanic English tongue is dominant today. This actually reflects a process that has been occurring in Britain for thousands of years, as the cultural influences from either the Atlantic (the West coast of France, Spain and Portugal) or Nordic (Scandinavia and the Low Countries) peoples have competed for dominance at various points in history. Last time, we looked at the Celtic tribes in Scotland, who represent a time of Atlantic supremacy. Today in Scotland, Nordic culture reigns supreme and this process began with the Roman invasion.

By the dawn of the First Century AD, the Roman army consisted of legionaries from Italy supported by auxiliary troops from the provinces of the empire. Most of the auxiliaries stationed in Britain were from Batavia in what is now the Netherlands, who mingled with the local population. Later on , as the Romans themselves grew weary of fighting for their leaders due to systemic corruption (sound familiar?) and the increasing occurrence of civil war, they came to rely on ‘foederates’, Germanic warriors enlisted from the borders of the empire who fought for the Romans in exchange for land within the empire. This proved to be their undoing, as the foederati generals became so powerful that they could simply rely on their loyal warriors to carve themselves kingdoms within the decaying empire.

Things happened a little differently in Britain, as the Roman armies had already left out of frustration with trying to maintain the difficult province by the time the empire started to crumble. The Romano-British were beset by raids from the Picts and Gaels (who the Romans called ‘Scoti’, from whom the Scots derive their name and is related to the word ‘Scythian’), so they decided to use the Roman tactic of recruiting Germanic foederati to fight them; as the Romanized Britons had become dependent on the Roman soldiers and were mostly unable to respond effectively with their own militias. The British tyrant ‘Vortigern’ recruited two leaders from Jutland (mainland Denmark) named Hengest and Horsa (both names meaning ‘horse’) and their warbands to defend the Britons against these invaders, in exchange for land in the South-East of Britain. Despite their success, the Romano-British nobles feared these heathen warriors and wanted them out of Britain. Vortigern tried to convince them to leave, but since he had given them his word that they could stay (and also married Hengest’s daughter and thus, to them they were family) they saw this as oathbreaking and reacted by making war on the Britons. They successfully conquered the South-East, and soon many other Germanic tribes from Angeln ( in Schleswig) and Saxony settled on the East coast. These tribes became what are today known as the Anglo-Saxons.

Throughout the 5th and 6th Centuries, the Anglo-Saxons had little to do with Scotland. An ambitious warlord named ‘Ida’ is said to have taken control of Bamburgh on the Northumberland coast and founded the kingdom of Bernicia. Though this region lay close to Scotland’s modern border, during this time they were more concerned with fighting the Britons (and each other) to the South. This was to change at the dawn of the 7th Century with the rise of a ruthless Bernician king named ‘Aethelfrith’. Intent on expanding the borders of Bernicia, he campaigned against his neighbours to the South and extended his hegemony into Scotland. He came to blows with another powerful warlord in Scotland at the time, Aidan MacGabran, King of Dal Riada (the Gaelic part of Scotland). They met at a place called ‘Degsastan’ somewhere in the Scottish Borders, and a battle ensued in which Aethelfrith would emerge the victor; which set the course for Anglo-Saxon domination in Scotland over the next century, having gained a foothold in the Borders region.

After Aethelfrith’s death, his kingdom was taken by his enemy, Edwin of Deira (Yorkshire), whose own kingdom fell apart upon his death. Aethelfrith’s son, Oswald, then became king of Bernicia and went on the unite the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira to form what became known as ‘Northumbria’. Irish annals record a ‘siege of Etain (Edinburgh)’ in 638 during Oswald’s reign, which, while not mentioning who was involved, suggests that he managed to conquer the British kingdom of Gododdin (Lothian); which brought the realm of Northumbria to the borders of the Picts. After his death, he was succeeded by his younger brother, Oswy, who then became the most powerful king of Northumbria. He campaigned as far West as Galloway and as far North as Angus, and all of the most powerful kingdoms in Scotland and England paid tribute to him. After his death, his son, Egfrith, managed to reinforce his kingdom’s authority by defeating the Picts at the Battle of Two Rivers near Perth in 671. However, another Pictish rebellion 14 years later convinced Egfrith to launch an ill-advised mounted campaign once again into Southern Pictland, only to be defeated and killed at the Battle of Nechtansmere, probably at Dunnichen in Angus.

The Picts had shaken off the yoke of Northumbrian servitude once and for all, never again would the Anglo-Saxons march North of the Forth until the reign of Aethelstan of Wessex in the 10th Century, and so their territory was restricted to the South-East. The Picts then became the dominant power in Scotland during the 8th Century, gaining submission from the Gaels of Dal Riada and the Britons of Strathclyde. This was not to last, however, as all of the peoples of Britain would feel the fury of the Norsemen at the end of the 8th Century. The Norsemen were the last wave of Germanic heathen folk to invade Britain, as they began their raids first on Lindisfarne in 793, then on the Northern and Western Isles in 794. In subsequent years they settled on Shetland and Orkney as bases from which to launch further raids rather than sailing all the way from Norway. By the middle of the 9th Century, they had also colonized the Hebrides, mingling with the local Gaels (for some reason, no trace of Pictish culture survives from the Isles after this period, possibly because the local Picts were outnumbered by Norse settlers, which was not the case on the Gaelic Inner Hebrides).

It was during this time that the Jarl of Orkney, Sigurth the Mighty, launched campaigns onto the Scottish mainland, conquering Caithness and Sutherland (which was ‘southern land’ from an Orcadian perspective). His forays into Ross and Moray brought him to blows with the reigning Pictish king and his kinsmen, who were wiped out by Sigurth’s armies (though it was the Picts who had the last laugh, as the captured head of the Pictish king’s teeth rubbed against Sigurth’s leg, which became an infected wound and he died). This threw the Pictish kingdoms into civil war, shattering their collective power in Scotland. From the struggle for power emerged Kenneth MacAlpin, king of Dal Riada (which was previously under Pictish control), who defeated his rivals in battle and became King of the Picts. Though still dependent on the support of the Pictish nobles, this marked the beginning of Gaelic supremacy in Scotland.

Norse settlement continued throughout this period, as Norse-Gaels from Ireland, led by Olaf the White, sacked the Strathclyde Briton’s stronghold of Dumbarton, forcing the Britons to relocate their centre of power to Govan further inland. These ‘foreign Gaels’ subsequently settled in Galloway. From this point on, however, favour began to swing in favour of the Scottish Gaels who, by the 10th Century, had annexed Lothian form Northumbria. By this time, their kingdom was centred at Scone and was known as ‘Alba’ in Gaelic and ‘Scotland’ in English and they shared power with the kings of Moray (also Gaelic), though this sometimes led to fighting between the two. It was at this point that the Picts ceased to form a distinct entity and disappeared from history following ‘Gaelicization’. The new unified kingdom then became threatened by the Saxon king Aethelstan, who gained submission from Constantine II following an invasion of Scotland. An attempt to regain power by the Scots, Strathclyde Britons and the Norse-Gaels of Dublin met with defeat at the Battle of Brunanburh in 934. However, Aethelstan’s power had still been sufficiently weakened by the long campaign, and the young kingdom of Scotland was able to survive.

In the 11th Century, Gaelic dominance in Scotland reached its peak, as Strathclyde and the Borders region were annexed during the reign of Malcolm Canmore. However, his reign also signalled the beginning of the decline for Gaelic culture, as Malcolm’s second wife was of the House of Wessex (whose family had fled to Scotland following the Norman invasion) and it was likely under her influence that English became the language of the Scottish court. Though the Scottish nobles tried to reverse this process by supporting Malcolm’s brother, Donald, and his claim to the throne after Malcolm’s death, it was too late. Malcolm’s sons had fled to England and were supported by the Norman king, Henry II. Despite the regime change imposed on England by William the Bastard in 1066, the hybrid Anglo-Norman culture was simply imported to Scotland by Malcolm’s sons after they returned to Scotland and overthrew their uncle with English support, particularly David I.

It was he who founded the burghs of Scotland and imposed ecclesiastical reform that brought the Church of Scotland in line with the rest of Catholic Europe. He stripped the kingdoms of Moray and Galloway of their remaining autonomy and invited Norman and Flemish knights from England and gave them the land and titles that he had taken from the displaced nobles. It was also during his reign that Edinburgh became the capital. David’s successor, William, spent much of his reign launching failed campaigns into Northumberland in an attempt to annex the region. It was not to be though, and so under his successor, Alexander II, Scotland’s border became fixed to what it is today (with the exception of Berwick, which would change hands over the centuries). Alexander was focused on a more realistic acquisition, the Hebrides.

While the Hebrides had formed their own kingdom with the Isle of Man, they had recently come under Norwegian domination, as the Northern Isles had been for two centuries. Alexander died on his way to the Hebrides to begin his campaign, but the fight was taken up by this son, Alexander III, who managed to drive away the army of the Norwegian king, Haakon the Old, at the Battle of Largs in 1263. Haakon retreated to Orkney and died there and his son, Magnus VI, had no interest in reasserting his father’s claim; and so he ceded the Hebrides to Scotland and acknowledged Scottish authority over Caithness, which had also been disputed. From this point, Gaelic culture became dominant in the Hebrides, while the Northern Isles still belonged to Norway (for now). As Norse culture in Scotland went into retreat, Germanic culture still found room for expansion in the Lowlands, as the dichotomy between the Gaelic Highlands and Germanic Lowlands would become a feature of later centuries.

The Celtic and Germanic peoples had a lot in common, they all worshipped Wotan as the chief god in heathen times (though they obviously had different names for him) and they also practised a mixed economy of pastoralism and agriculture supplemented by some hunting traditions. There were, however, noticeable differences; not just linguistic, but also cultural. In general, the Teutons tended to focus on the solar solstices and equinoxes as the most important times of the year, while their Celtic counterparts placed more emphasis on lunar festivals, though these were all present in both cultures. This displayed a heavier emphasis on agriculture by the Norse and Anglo-Saxons and pastoralism by the Picts, Gaels and Britons. To the Celts, cattle were considered the most sacred animals, while the Teutons held more reverence for the boar (cattle-raiding was not a feature of Germanic culture). There were also differences in political structures; while the Celtic peoples retained a more decentralized tribal structure, the Anglo-Saxons had been influenced by the military hierarchy of the Romans, and so the loyalty of the warband to their leader was more important than loyalty to their tribe. Though Anglo-Saxon kings were much more answerable to their folk than the later Norman kings (who saw the folk as mere ‘subjects’), this meant that Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were more centralized and homogeneous, unlike the complex system of high kings and sub-kings present in Scotland and Ireland.

There were also differences in their styles of warfare; Germanic warriors preferred to meet their foe on the open battlefield most of the time, in contrast to the heavy reliance on skirmishes and ambushing by the Celtic peoples. The main formation of Germanic armies was the shieldwall, which placed more emphasis on teamwork than the Celtic preference to fight for individual glory (although there is evidence that the Picts adopted the shieldwall and used it against the Northumbrians at the Battle of Nechtansmere). Germanic swords, shields and spearheads also tended to be larger than those used by Celtic warriors and they seem to have utilized more armour in the form of mail shirts and iron helmets, which could be very richly decorated. The Teutons also had light cavalry, but they were primarily infantrymen; and so the Norse became famous for their skills with the axe and, because of the increasing reliance on armour from the 10th Century onwards, chose to forego the shield and used much larger axes wielded with two hands (a style which was adopted not only by the Anglo-Saxons, but also by the Irish and Hebrideans). Yet the warrior culture of all these diverse peoples was the same, they all celebrated their victories in the mead hall and treasured honour and loyalty as the highest virtues. They are sister-cultures which compliment each other well, and it is a shame that they are sometimes seen as antithetical to one another.

To be continued…

Wulf Willelmson