For a long time, they were considered painted savages. But today, we know: the Picts were not a primitive people. They had a fascinating culture.
Much remains unknown
The Picts were a Scottish tribe that ruled large parts of Scotland in AD. They got their name from the ancient Greek "picti," or the "painted people."
The Picts remain a mystery since little is written about them. Earlier researchers derived the erroneous assumption that they were primitive people because they left no writings.
Instead, the image of a naked and ferocious tribal warrior was projected onto them. An image that fitted beautifully with the romantic ideals of some writers of the time, who - made Picts look wild, romantic, but uneducated.
But something was wrong: could primitive people produce stone steles as elaborate as those in Shandwick? How about the Portmahomack excavations, which led to discovering a large Picts monastery? How could these supposed savages successfully defend themselves against well-organized empires like Dalriada? And did the absence of scriptures mean that there weren't any?
Today we know: the old belief was wrong. The Picts were a culture as eminent as the other British kingdoms.
The origin and language of the Picts
One cannot say for sure where the Picts originally came from. There is not enough evidence. That leaves only probable and less likely theories.
The one held by most scholars is that they were Celts who migrated to Britain between 1000 and 500 BC and merged with the locals. Julius Caesar came across them when he carried out the first campaigns on the British Isles.
This theory also says something about the language of the Picts. It is believed that Pictish is not that dissimilar to Welsh, based on places, names, and other clues. Of course, we can't prove that either, because there are no documents in the Pictish language.
But, one should not wonder why there aren't any writings in Pictish because writing only came with the Christian clergy, and they always wrote in Latin. Apart from that, no written work from the region and the era has survived the times.
Little information about their language can be found in the Chronicle of Iona. From there, we know about the difference between Pictish and Gaelic languages. Even if both were Celtic languages, they were so different that translators were needed.
When did the Picts live?
It's hard to pinpoint exactly. The word "picti" was already being used by a Roman scholar at the end of the 3rd century AD. And from about 900 AD, the word Picts disappeared from the books.
The Roman scribe of the 3rd century mentions the "Irish and Picts" of northern England. "Picts" meant "the Painted Ones". It is believed that the Romans were referring to the tattoos of the people of northern Britain. At least this view has prevailed, as there is no evidence that the bodies of the northerners were painted.
Professor John Hannavy puts forward another thesis in Scotland Magazine, issue 101, that the Romans could also have meant the pictographic language of the peoples. As can be seen on their stones - they used a lot of symbolism.
At the time, the Picts meant more of a Roman collective term for all tribes in north Scotland. The tribes did not see themselves as a unit and only united against the enemy from outside.
The Romans inhabited half of the British island in the first century AD and established their culture there. The north of Britain, i.e., Scotland, remained unoccupied but not unaffected. At least in the border area north of Hadrian's Wall, the inhabitants also traded with the Romans.
Around AD 410, the Western Roman Empire abandoned its provinces on the island. This is not to say that there were no more troops in the country; the border guards, for example, probably stayed on site. But the lack of Roman authority was noticeable, and over the years, the Roman way of life began to decline. With this, unfortunately, historiography started to disappear.
Other forces now took matters into their own hands. For example, the Angles and Saxons came across the sea from Germania. During this time, the Picts kingdom also began to emerge as a coherent entity.
Where did the Picts live? Where was their empire?
The heartland of the Picts began in the south roughly on the line between Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the north, it bordered on the Great Glen with Loch Ness, the line between Fort William and Inverness. But Pictavia, the land of the Picts, was in constant flux. Depending on the success or failure of the war, it could be larger or smaller.
At times, however, the influence of the Picts reached much further. For example, they took over the Orkneys, as well as the Isle of Skye. However, areas like the north of Scotland are likely to have had few residents, so it was easy for them to spread their territory there.
Pictavia can only be viewed in the context of the surrounding realms. First, there was Dalriada, the kingdom on the west coast held by the Scots.
Dalriada was often in conflict with the Picts, and so was Northumbria, an empire populated by Angles and Saxons who had emigrated to the island from Germania. Northumbria was in the southeast.
To the southwest, however, Pictavia bordered Strathclyde existed there until the seventh century when they were taken over by the Angles.
Ultimately, the two primary opponents of the Picts were Dalriada and Northumbria.
Daily life in Pictavia
Most Picts spent their lives as farmers. These farmers mainly settled in the fertile areas above Inverness and Edinburgh. They were probably subject to taxes and military service, but basically, they were free.
The Picts did not have cities with markets or currency. The population was presumably around 100,000.
Nobles ruled the peasants with a court of servants and warriors. These warriors formed the so-called "warbands." They counted around a hundred men who were flexible and fast because they were traveling on horseback. In battles, these professional soldiers formed the core of the army, while the peasantry provided the infantry.
Preferred weapons were swords, lances, and spears, as armor had not yet been discovered. It is more likely that warriors had protected themselves with tunics - and of course, round shields. The Picts rarely wore helmets.
The Great Battle of the Picts
There were two realms with which the Picts constantly had to deal: Dalriada and Northumbria. While Dalriada was still well spread, by the mid-seventh century AD, Northumbria established supremacy throughout the British Isles. Around 670, the Picts suffered a bloody defeat and were then obliged to bow to the Anglo-Saxons.
If this situation had continued, an independent Scotland would probably never have been established later. This situation changed when Brude (Bridei) III became a ruler of the Picts. He seized power in 680 and initially led victorious campaigns against Dalriada and the Orkneys. He then turned to Northumbria and challenged its king Ecgfriht. On May 20, the two sides met at Nechtansmere, which is believed to be where Forfar is today. Forfar is around 20 kilometers above Dundee.
Ecgfrith came with an army of a thousand men, a formidable force in those days. The Picts were certainly outnumbered. But they used a ruse. Feigning defeat, they lured the enemy into an ambush. Ecgfrith perished, the Anglo-Saxons were crushed, and Northumbria declined considerably in importance on the island. The influence of Dalriada also waned because of this. This victory also ensured that the north of Great Britain developed largely independently of the south.
Overall, the Picts were victorious at crucial times. They had their peak under King Angus. He overran Dalriada's fortress of Dunadd in 736 and razed it to the ground. Twenty years later, fate helped Picts when The British crushed Northumbria from the territory of Strathclyde. All major opponents of Pictavia were weakened.
This was until a new force appeared on the horizon...
Cult and Church of the Picts
Practically nothing is known about the pagan cults of the Picts. But the Picts had come into contact with Christianity quite early on. By the end of the 5th century, the southern areas of Pictavia have been predominantly Christian.
Initially, the Picts oriented themselves strongly towards the monastery of Iona, whose monks also frequently traveled to Pictavia. There were already encounters between Saint Columba, who founded Iona, and the then king of the Picts. For a long time, they made up the upper class of the clergy, but there was also a kind of reformation in which the king of the Picts turned to the Roman Catholic Church.
Christianization is also evident in Pictish art. The steles, for example, usually have a cross on one side. Add to that the excavation of the early medieval monastery of Portmahomack in northeast Scotland - right in the Pictish heartland.
In this monastery, one building was identified as a parchment factory. What else could you use them for other than to write? And monks wrote quite a lot. Here, then, the myth of the people without writings seems to have been definitively refuted. We just haven't found any yet.
Is there an end to the Picts?
Around 800 AD, another power came into play: the Vikings. It started with small raids targeting the monasteries. But soon, the Norse also took possession of land - for example, Caithness and Sutherland, the Orkneys, and the Hebrides. So it finally came to the battle in Scotland in 839, which ended devastatingly for the Picts. A whole line of rulers was wiped out in the process, namely that of Angus, who had led Pictavia to its height a good century earlier. The empire was decidedly weakened.
A new ruler emerged, whose name stands famously as a Scottish myth: Kenneth MacAlpin. Supposedly a Scot, and from Dalriada. That serves as proof that Dalriada ultimately took over the Picts.
In any case, around 900 AD, the word "Picts" disappeared from the chronicles of that time. The Gaelic term "Alba" came into use, which is still used today for Scotland. But that doesn't mean that the Picts were swiped away with it. Some historians have argued that only the name changed, with Gaelic being used instead of Latin and Alba is the Gaelic term for the Picts.
To put it bluntly: Nothing had changed except the name. Also, the term "Scots" now used by the English – simply refers to the same people whose language slowly turned to Gaelic under the influence of scholars, i.e., the Church.
So, the Picts never went away. You can still see them today - in Scotland.