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