The Picts and their Legacy

The following information will be a compilation of any material that is about or related to the Picts. I will reference all materials where possible.

While my husband and I were on our honeymoon in the UK we traveled from England to Scotland. On a drive from St. Andrews to Glamis, to visit their castle, we arrived too late to enter. So we decided to head back to Edinburgh for the evening. By chance we saw one of those signs that are used to show tourist a nearby attraction while we were entering the small town of Meigle. It pointed the direction to 'PICTISH STONES'. I had no idea what they were. I had read about the Picts and the early history of Scotland, but had no idea what these 'STONES' were, but thought they sounded interesting. Once we entered the museum, and started looking at the stones, we immediately noticed similarities to carvings found in the New World. Upon looking further at the reference materials they had at the museum on Pictish stones, myths, art, symbology, etc. we came across photos of the housing structures erected by the Picts. These too were very similar to structures that I have seen and studied for years as an anthropologist in the United States. We bought several books on the Picts, their symbols, stones, and on the early history of Scotland.

By the way, this background is from a photograph I made of one of the Pictish stone housed in the Meigle Museum (cataloged as Meigle 26).

There is evidence in Scotland of important prehistoric population centers, particularly in the Western Isles, which were peopled mostly by the Picts who originally came from the European continent. By the time Roman Governor Julius Agricola invaded in AD 81 there were at least 17 independent tribes including the Britons in the southwest for him to contend with. The Romans reached north to the Forth and Clyde valleys, but the Highlands deterred them from going farther. By AD 120 they had retreated to the line where the Emperor Hadrian had built his wall to keep the Picts at Bay (not far from today's border). By AD 163 the Romans had retreated south for the last time. The Celtic influence began when "Scots" arrived from Ireland in the 6th Century, bringing the Gaelic language with them. The Picts and Scots united under Kenneth McAlpin in AD 843, but the Britons remained separate until AD 1018 when they became part of the Scottish kingdom.

For reference as to certain periods of time periods, the following timeline may be helpful.

The Picts were a group of tribal peoples known to be living north of the Forth - Clyde line between the arrival of the Romans in northern Britain c.AD 100 and the mid 9th century.

Their own records have perished apart from a list of their kings, though Roman, Irish and Anglo-Saxon sources give us a few details of their history. We do not even know the Picts own name for themselves: the word Pict, for long said to have been derived from the Latin Picti, meaning "the painted people" might perhaps derive from a tribal name like Pexa. Traditional lore in Scotland often refers to them as Pechts.

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Pictland c. AD 600 - Showing the major peoples who inhabited early Scotland. The Picts mainly occupied the low lying fertile ground along the eastern coast of Scotland, while the Scots and Britons occupied the south west areas of Scotland.

The first known literary reference to the Picts by Eumenius at the close of the third century refers to Caesar fighting Picts and Scots. Also the discovery of the probable tribal name Pexa dating from the Severan campaign of the early third century means we should put the dawn of the Pictish era considerably earlier than 297 AD which has been the standard practice. A later Roman source refers to Caledonians and other Picts and it seems fitting to date the Pictish period from the initial contact between the Romans and the then natives of what we now call Scotland.

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The Romans in North Britain - showing the main sites where the Romans are known to have been in their campaigns against the Picts. It is known that while in Scotland the Romans traded with the natives, one of the more notable exports being Caledonian bears to participate in the bloody entertainments of the Circus.

Various Roman writers mentioned the Picts including an intriguing mention by Dio Cassio in the 4th century who wrote that the Picts had a democratic form of government. Hopefully the historic bias of our archaeologists towards digging up yet more Roman signal stations and marching camps is now being replaced with a stronger commitment to studying our own forebears including the Picts.

This impression was enhanced by the fact that the unique art of the Picts was perceived as having come into existence with no obvious predecessor. References in Roman and other sources to the practice of matriliny, or descent through the mother line added a further gloss to this air of mystery. Due to a lack of historical resources write by the Picts themselves, they were for a long time seen as a mysterious and enigmatic people.

In fact we now know that the Picts were in all probability simply the descendants of the original inhabitants of the northern part of the British Isles, the people who raised the great megalithic structures of Calanais, Stenness, Brodgar and Maes Howe and the earlier chambered cairns at Clava near Culloden. Even the system of matriliny is now perceived of as being much more common among early European tribal peoples than previously supposed. However, even today when the Picts are becoming more clearly understood, there are still people who look for their origin outside Scotland and even the British Isles. This is a result of a process started in the 13th century when spurious histories were created to bolster English claims to Scottish territory and which led to further histories being invented in Scotland to rebut these claims. Nowadays most serious scholars see the Picts as being indigenous to Scotland, though they were undoubtedly influenced by other socities and peoples.

The mysterious Picts were farmers, craftspeople, hunters, fishers and warriors who were largely converted to Christianity between the 5th and 7th centuries. They developed a superb and highly original art which chiefly survives in the form of sculptured stones: it is from these carvings that most of what we know about this ancient people is derived. A unique and mysterious series of animal, object and abstract symbols are incised on what are known as Class I Pictish symbol stones. With the arrival of Christianity the Picts developed the intricate and beautiful Class II cross-slabs, on which the native symbols are combined with the Christian cross. These carved stones, along with the exquisite jewelry and illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, represent some of the high points of Celtic art.

The Picts dominated what is now eastern and northern Scotland until they merged with the Scots, an event still shrouded in mystery and conjecture. The lack of Pictish written records is greatly offset by the unique heritage of their carved stones.

The role of kingship within Pictland is the subject of much debate. The Pictish monarchs were not kings in any feudal or post-feudal sense and there has been much speculation as to how kingship was inherited.

The Pictish King Lists which have survived are notable in that no king is ever preceded by his father. Recent research suggests that in fact some of the parents of the kings mentioned might in fact have been females. This corresponds with research suggesting that sovereignty was vested in a female line and that the kings came to the throne by marrying the appropriate female. This was an ancient tribal system that came from the far distant past and underlines the continuity of occupation within the area known as Pictland. The kings married the representative of sovereignity, the queen, and could only be succeeded by their own brother or a sister's son. Remnants of this type of succession exist as late as the 11th century when the sons of Malcolm Canmore succeeded each other on the throne of Scotland. There is also a strong suggestion that the Pictish Kingship system was matrilocal - that kings would be brought in form other tribal groupings to marry the queen. This might be the explanation for the merging of the Scots and Picts under Kenneth MacAlpin. The picture is becoming clearer but we still have a lot to learn. What can be said is that kingship among the Picts was neither feudal nor followed the rule of primogeniture - inheritance by the first born son.

Apart from the Pictish King list we have no surviving indigenous material regarding the Picts. This is not to say the Picts never wrote anything down but that Scotland has been subjected to various violent political upheavals that involved wholesale destruction of early records.

Accordingly we are forced to go to external sources to find out the little historical information available about the Picts. There are several references to the Picts in Roman sources - the earliest possibly being contained in a list of forts on the Antonine wall probably compiled during the Severan Campaign of AD 196. For long the earliest reference was believed to be in the works of the Roman panegyrist Eumenius circa 297 and the text can be accessed in Monumenta Historia Britannica, ed. T. Hardy 1848. The later Roman historians Ammianus Marcellinus and Dio Cassius who also mentioned the Picts can also be found here. One earlier source than any of these is Tacitus's Agricola, which describes the author's father-in-law's campaign culminating in the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 80. This much vaunted victory for the Romans saw them leave Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde axis immediately after! Some modern historians, perceiving the Caledonians and Picts to be effectively the same people, now date the dawn of the Pictish era from this significant date rather than AD 297 - a date predicated on nothing more than a reference in a Roman text.

Later references to the Picts come from a variety of sources. These include the Irish Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the early historians or pseudo-historians Gildas, Nennius, Adomnan and Bede writing in the early medieval period. In addition there are references to the Picts in a variety of sources derived from oral tradition. The most detailed bibliography of the Picts is the Pictish Panorama by Dr. J. Burt, Pinkfoot Press 1994.

The tribal peoples of Scotland when the Romans came were predominantly P-Celtic speaking (which means that they spoke a language akin to the ancestor of modern Welsh). In the West was the Brythonic area of Strathclyde while Central and Eastern Scotland south of Fife seem to have been under the sway of the people known as the Gododdin (earlier Votadini), one of whose battle raids is the subject of the oldest known poem from these islands. Whether the Picts were descendants of the Caledonians or the Caledonians (Caledonii) were a Pictish tribe is difficult to say but recent thinking has led to the idea that these peoples were themselves the direct descendants of the megalith builders who have left us such magnificent structures as Calanais, Stenness and awe-inspiring chambered cairns like Maes Howe.

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The Pictish Tribes c.AD 150 Essentially tribes are groups of families living within specific territories and claiming descent from a common ancestor. The men were probably all warriors at certain parts of their lives and each group was self-sufficient.

From the time of Roman presence in Scotland most references are to two tribes or tribal confederations, the Caledonians in the north and the Maetae, who were close to the Antonine Wall, in the south. This corresponds to later Pictish history when there are said to have been two main centres of power, in the North and South.

Later, generally thought to have been c.AD 500, Q-Celtic speaking (Gaelic) tribes from Ireland settled in modern Argyll, founding the tribal kingdom of Dalriada which later became the dominant partner when the Scots and Picts became united in the 9th century. There is no doubt that the West Scotland and Ulster in particular were in contact for long before the Pictish period and the actual constitution of the various tribal confederations was no doubt fluid. Some scholars believe that Gaelic must have been in use in Pictland before AD 500. Within a century or so of this date there are grounds for believing that Anglian peoples speaking an early form of what we now know as Scots (like English, a Germanic tongue), were settling in south east Scotland. It is possible that some of the Roman auxiliary troops had spoken a Germanic language in Scotland at an earlier period.

The term Scotti - first used by Romans to describe pirates attacking the British mainland from Ireland soon became a term for all the inabitants of the emerald isle. It is generally told that the Scots came over to Pictland to found the kingdom of Dalriada in Argyll around 500 AD. However we can be sure that the populations on both sides of the Irish Sea had been in contact since Stone Age times and that they had much in common with each other. If the Gaelic speaking Scots only arrived in 500 AD they were remarkably successful in that 350 years later the Picts and Scots were united under a Scottish King, Kenneth Macalpin. This followed on the earlier successes of the Celtic Church under the leadership of Columba, whose monks and priests were Gaelic-speaking and converted much of Pictland to Christianity. There is no firm evidence for a conquest of all the Picts by Kenneth Macalpin and it is quite likely that the merging of the peoples came about through dynastic change rather than conquest. What is undeniable is that the language of the Scots of Dalriada, Gaelic, survives in placenames throughout Scotland to this day, showing the dominance of Gaelic culture in the early medieval period. This may be due mainly to the importance of the early Celtic Church in Pictland or to the dynastic supremacy of Dalriada.

Until recently there wasn't a lot of interest in excavations relating to Pictish sites and as a result we don't have a lot of information regarding Pictish settlements. As the number of archaeologists and academics interested in the study of the Picts increases more material evidance will become available.

Buildings surviving from the Pictish period include brochs (round stone towers), souterrains (possibly underground storage passages once attached to surface dwellings), hillforts, crannogs and houses of several different kinds. Pictish houses largely survive in the treeless Northern and Western Isles, where buildings had to be constructed of stone. Different house styles employing wood or turf would once have existed in other parts of Pictland, reflecting its environmental diversity and the length of time it existed. Few traces of such structures survive above ground, but their form can be guessed at from marks that can show up among modern day crops in aerial photographs, revealing the sites of ancient settlements.

Major ecclesiastical sites are also of great importance and the recent excavation at Portmahomack in Easter Ross should lead to a deal of new infomation becoming available. Given that archaeologists' traditional obsession with all things Roman is at last beginning to fade, we can perhaps hope to see many more Pictish site investigations in the future.

Domstic artefacts of Pictish provenance are extremely rare though we have some remarkbale silver objects which have survived.

One of the methods commonly used in defining the areas once inhabited by the Picts is by looking at Pit name distribution. Throughout Pictish Scotland there appears a number of place names that start with the prefix "Pit" (eg. Pitcaple, Pitcur, Pitlochry etc).

The "Pit" prefix has been generally accepted as being Pictish in origin and is thought to mean a piece of land, perhaps defined by its yield rather than a specified area. The term is believed to be akin to Latin petia which in turn gave rise to the word piece. It is striking that the majority of Pit names appear to have a Gaelic word as the secondary part of the name. While not all Pit names may be directly related to archaeological evidence of settlement sites, the Pit names do give us a clear indication of some of the areas inhabited by the Picts.

Brochs survive mainly in the North and West of Scotland where a lack of timber lead to the creation of these stone fortified dwellings, which are unique in early architecture.

Scattered examples also can be found in the East and South of Scotland. The design of these defensive structures is remarkably efficient illustrating both ingenuity and practicality on the part of their creators.

The Broch of Mousa (above) in Shetland was probably built between the last century BC and the first century AD. The tower is 15m (50ft) in diameter and still stands to height of 13m (42ft). The broch was last occupied in the Viking period and is mentioned in both the Egils Saga and Orkneyinga Saga as late as 1153AD.

(right) The inside of a Pictish souterrain at Pitcur, Perthshire. This is one of the few remaining souterrains (often referred to as Picts' Hooses) in which the roof sections - the large slabs of stone forming the roof - remain intact. Such passageways are believed to have been used as food stores (traces of grain have been found at some sites). Other suggestions have included some sort of ceremonial use, and that they were used as hideouts.

These passageways are often connected to dwelling houses on the surface suggesting a close link with daily life. They are found all over Scotland and their function is still the source of much debate.

(right) Still impressive, the remains of the hillfort at Monifieth Laws. Located on a position which provides commanding views over all the surrounding countryside it is easy to see why the hillforts became such important strategic sites. This site shows signs of continuous occupation from prehistoric times through to the late medieval period.

(left) Tap o' Noth, Rhynie, Aberdeenshire. The collapsed rectangular wall of the fort, the second highest hillfort in Scotland, can still be clearly seen.

The timberlaced wall, which probably stood to around 6m in height, was at some point set on fire. This is thought to have caused a process known as vitrification, in which the stones became so hot that they started to melt and were fused together into a solid mass. It is unknown whether this was a deliberate action or occured while the fort was under attack. Attempts to recreate the process of vitrification have met with limited success.

Crannogs are a type of ancient loch dwelling found throughout Scotland and Ireland. They were built out in the water as defensive homesteads, secure from potential invaders. People began living in these island homes as early as 5,000 years ago, and continued to do so up until the 17th century AD.

Here in the wooded heartland of Scotland, the prehistoric crannogs were originally timber-built roundhouses supported on piles driven into the lochbed. Today, they appear as tree-covered islands or remain hidden as submerged stony mounds.

(right) Reconstruction of a Lochside Crannog at the Scottish Crannog Centre, Loch Tay.

The Centre is open to the public from April - October ( ).

The crannog people lived in close harmony with their environment, building their houses near good agricultural land and fresh water. They understood the need to give to, as well as take from their natural surroundings. The woodlands would have been carefully managed to preserve the supply of timbers to meet all of their needs.

Domestic architecture seems to have varied considerably both geographically and chronologiclly, with a variety of round and rectilinear forms utilising both timber and stone architecture, according to area and style. Some large timber hall structures are thought to have been built in Pictish times though whether their function was communal part of the social activity of an elite is impossible to say. It is notable that a number of buildings and settlements from the period have no defensive element in their construction, suggesting peaceful times.

(right) The remains of an early dwelling site and its associated souterrain at Mains of Ardestie, Angus. The foundations of the stone dwellings are all that remain of this Pictish dwelling. The unroofed souterrain passage can be seen just to the top right of the photo.

It is likely that the daily life of the Pictish peoples was not significantly different from that of the other tribal peoples of contemporary Britain and Northern Europe. Several families linked together forming tribes which tended to live in small communities practising basically self-sufficient agriculture, though there would have been some inter-tribal and possibly longer distance trading. The Romans are believed to have provided a market for Caledonian bears to provide entertainment in their bloody circuses.

Domestic artefacts like the spindle whorl found at Buckquoy, Orkney (right), as well as knives, mirrors and combs give a limited picture of Pictish life though we have little or no evidence for their weaving, cooking or agricultural practices due to the effects of Scottish weather on such artefacts as would have been used.

There is evidence from some Symbol Stones for the Picts having for harps and pipes and others show such artefacts as ironworking tools.

(left) Pictish Hammer Symbol from the Class I stone at Abernethy, Perthshire.

(right) Pictish Shears Symbol from the Migvie stone, Aberdeenshire. Often it is the symbols on the Pictish stones which provide evidence for the use of such tools.

(left) A wood-carver's toolbox found preserved in a peat bog at Birsay, Orkney.

There are a considerable number of cauldrons depicted on Symbol Stones and these are likely to have been the primary cooking implement, most likely suspended over a central hearth in the home, though their depiction on the stones and the discovery of some in ritual contexts suggests they had other less mundane functions or associations.

Apart from the awe-inspiring symbol stones, outstanding examples of the creativity of Pictish craftsmen survive in the form of gold, silver and bronze metalwork, largely in the form of jewellery for personal adornment.

Hoards of precious objects, concealed in Pictish times, have sometimes come to light: only a few pieces survive of what was said to be an entire set of silver armour and weapons, found in a burial mound called Norrie's Law in Fife early last century. Local legend told of a warrior called Norroway, mounted on a horse and clad in silver, buried in the mound.

Mirror Symbols occur frequently on the Pictish symbol stones, usually in addition to another symbol pairing. Despite the high occurence of mirror symbols few intact mirrors have been found in Pictland. The Birdlip Mirror (left) was discoveed near Gloucester in England and shows the type of design that might have been used to decorate Pictish mirrors.

Pictish skill in metalwork was second to none in Europe during the Dark Ages. Massive double-link silver chains (perhaps symbols of rank) are a characteristically Pictish product, found at several sites throughout Scotland. Such artefacts, and the stones themselves, hint at the superb work the Picts must have created in wood, textiles and leather, but almost nothing survives in these perishable materials to prove this.

The surviving corpus of Pictish Symbol Stones is the main body of evidence we have regarding the Picts. Whether early pagan symbol stones or great Chistian cross-slabs the artistry and beauty of these remarkable stones preserves a unique indigenous artistic tradition.

The realistic representations of animal forms suggests a close affinity with the natural world while the intricacy and precision of the geometric and inter-link patterns shows a highly developed and stylised artistic awareness. The Golspie Stone, Sutherland (right) a Class II Pictish cross-slab. One of a collection of stones now housed at Dunrobin Museum, Sutherland.

The influence of the Pictish Symbols on the development of Insular Celtic Art as exemplified in the Book of Kells an other illuminated manuscripts is at last beginning to be understood.

While much research continues to be done on the development of Pictish Art there are clear resonances with earlier abstract forms such as the rock art of New Grange in Ireland which dates from before 3000 B.C. The choice of symbols, whether animal or abstract, can be put into a European context dating back millenia, suggesting perhaps that Pictish Art can be seen as an example of continuity rather than an exceptional "one-off". Today in Scotland many craftworkers and artists are deriving inspiration from this age-old artistic tradition.

Pictish Reading References

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