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The Picts were a confederation of tribes in central and northern Scotland from the 3rd century to the 11th century. They lived to the north of the Forth and Clyde. They were the descendants of the Caledonii and other tribes named by Roman historians or found on the map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also known as Pictavia, became the kingdom of Alba during the 10th century and the Picts became the Albannach or Scots

The name which the Picts called themselves is unknown. The Latin word Picti is taken to mean painted or tattooed people.Pict first appears in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297. Although Picti is usually taken to mean painted or tattooed in Latin, the term may have a Celtic origin, e.g. the Pictones of the Loire. The Gaels of Ireland and Dál Riada called the Picts cruithne, (e.g. Old Irish cru(i)then-túath).Presumably from Proto-Celtic *kwriteno-tout?. There were also cruithne in Ulster, in particlar the kings of Dál nAriadi.The cruithni are discussed by Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, pp. 106–109, Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland, pp. 48–50. The Britons and early Welsh of the south knew them as prydyn, or the more modern pryd; Britain and Briton come from the the same root. Welsh name ref wanting, someone must know what it means. Designs ? Their Old English name gave the modern Scots form Pechts. e.g. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives pihtas and pehtas.

Archaeology gives an impression of the society of the Picts. Although very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history, from the late 6th century onwards, is known from a variety of sources, including Saints' lives, such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals. Although the popular impression of the Picts may be one of an obscure, mysterious people, this is far from being the case. When compared with the generality of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Pictish history and society are well attested. Sources for Pictish history include Irish Annals - the Annals of Ulster, Tigernach, Innisfallen, Ireland (the Four Masters), and Clonmacnoise all report events in Scotland, some frequently; the Lebor Bretnach, Scottish recension of the Historia Britonum of Nennius; the history and continuatation of Bede; the Historia Regum Anglorum of Symeon of Durham; the Annales Cambriae; Saints' lives; and others.



The archaeological record speaks to the material culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its similar Gaelic and British neighbours, nor very different from the Anglo-Saxons to the south. See, e.g. Campbell, Saints and Sea-kings for the Gaels of Dál Riada, Lowe, Angels, Fools and Tyrants for Britons and Anglians. Although analogy and knowledge of other "Celtic" societies may be a useful guide, these extended across a very large area. Relying on knowledge of pre-Roman Gaul, or 13th century Ireland, as a guide to the Picts of the 6th century may be misleading if analogy is pursued too far. Celtic is a word with many meanings, and may itself be unhelpful if overused.

As with most peoples in the north of Europe in Late Antiquity, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers. Place names suggest that transhumance was common. Their crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye, kale, cabbage, turnips and spinach, peas and beans. The pastoral economy meant that hides and leather were readily available. Wool was the main source of fibres for clothing, and flax was also common, although it is not clear if it was grown for fibres, for oil, or as a foodstuff. Along the coasts and rivers, fish, shellfish, seals and even whales were exploited. The importance of domesticated animals argues that milk products were an major part of the diet of ordinary people, while the élite would have eaten a diet rich in meat from farming and hunting. Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, pp. 49–61.

No Pictish counterparts to the areas of denser settlement around important fortresses, in Gaul and southern Britain, or any other significant urban settlements, are known. Larger, but not large, settlements existed around royal forts, such as at Burghead, or associated with religious foundations. The interior of the fort at Burghead was some 12 acres (5 hectares) in size, see Driscoll, "Burghead"; for Verlamion (later Roman Verulamium), a southern British settlement on a very much larger scale, see e.g. Pryor, Britain AD, pp. 64–70. No towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century. Dennison, "Urban settlement: medieval".

The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, but archaelogical evidence shows it to have been similar to that in Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. Recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictland. Kilns were used for drying corn, not otherwise easy in the changeable, temperate climate. Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, pp. 52–53.

The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions. It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade with Pictland, but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. This trade may have been controlled from Dunadd in Dál Riada, where such goods appear to have been common. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show. Trade, see Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, pp. 65–68; seafaring in general, e.g. Haywood, Dark Age Naval Power, Rodger, Safeguard of the Sea.

Brochs are popularly associated with the Picts. Although these were built earlier in the Iron Age, with construction ending around 100 AD, they remained in use into and beyond the Pictish period. Armit, Towers In The North, chapter 7. Crannogs, which may originate in Neolithic Scotland, may have been rebuilt, and some were still in use in the time of the Picts. Crone, "Crannogs and Chronologies", PSAS, vol. 123, pp. 245–254. The most common sort of buildings would have been roundhouses and rectangular timbered halls. Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, pp. 52–61. While many churches were built in wood, from the early 8th century, if not earlier, some were built in stone. See Broun, "Nechtan mac Der Ilei", Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, p. 89.

The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. See Legends of the "Painted People" below. Naturalistic depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and Ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on stones, and elsewhere, are obscure in meaning. A variety of esoteric explanations have been offered, but the simplest conclusion may be that these symbols represent the names of those who had raised, or are commemorated on the stones. Pictish arts can be classed as Celtic, and later as Hiberno-Saxon. Harps are shown on Pictish scenes, indeed the harp proper, as opposed to the lyre may have originated in Scotland. Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves. For art in general see Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, pp. 26–28, Laing & Laing, p. 89ff., Ritchie, "Picto-Celtic Culture"; Irish poets' view, see Forsyth, "Evidence of a lost Pictish Source", pp. 27–28.


Early Pictish religion is presumed to have resembled Celtic polytheism in general. The date at which Pictish kings converted to Christianity is uncertain, but there are traditions which place Saint Palladius in Pictland after leaving Ireland, and link Abernethy with Saints Brigid and Darlugdach of Kildare. Clancy, "'Nennian recension'", pp. 95–96, Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men, pp. 82–83. Saint Patrick refers to "apostate Picts", while the Y Gododdin does not remark on the Picts as pagans. Markus, "Conversion to Christianity". Conversion of the Pictish élite seems likely to have run over a considerable period, beginning in the 5th century and not complete until the 7th. Recent archaelogical work at Portmahomack places the foundation of the monastery there, an area once assumed to be among the last converted, in the late 6th century. Mentioned by Foster, but more information is available from the Tarbat Discovery Programme: see under External links. This is contemporary with Bridei mac Maelchon and Columba. The process of establishing Christianity throughout Pictland will have extended over a much longer period. Pictland was not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland. It also had ties to churches in England, as seen in the reign of Nechtan mac Der Ilei. Broun, Nechtan mac Der Ilei, Bede, IV, cc. 21–22.


The means by which the Pictish confederation formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes are as obscure as the processes which created the Franks, the Alamanni and similar confederations in Germany. The presence of the Roman Empire, unfamiliar in size, culture, political systems and ways of making war, should be noted. Nor can we ignore the wealth and prestige that control of trade with Rome offered. See the discussion of the creation of the Franks in Geary, Before France, chapter 2.

Pictland had previously been described as the home of the Caledonii. e.g. by Tacitus, Ptolemy, and as the Dicalydonii by X, Y. Other tribes said to have lived in the area included the Verturiones, Taexali, Venicones, &c, &c. Ptolemy, X, Y Except for the Caledonians, the names may be second- or third-hand: most likely as reported to the Romans by speakers of Brythonic or Gaulish languages. Caledonii is attested from a grave marker in Roman Britain, see X.

Pictish recorded history begins in the so-called Dark Ages. It appears that they were not the dominant power in Northern Britain for the entire period. Firstly the Gaels of Dál Riada dominated the region, but suffered a series of defeats in the first third of the 7th century. The Angles of Bernicia, later called Northumbria, overwhelmed the surrounding British kingdoms, and the neighbouring Anglian kingdom of Deira, to become the most powerful kingdom in Britain. For the kingdoms of Bernicia, and Northumbria, see e.g. Higham, The Kingdom of Northumbria. The Picts were probably tributary to the Angles until the reign of Bridei map Beli, when the Anglians suffered a defeat at the battle of Dunnichen which halted Anglian expansion northwards. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland, and to advance against the Britons, for the remainder of the Pictish period. Need to add ref or Dunnichen and Bridei articles sufficient?

In the reign of Óengus mac Fergusa (729–761), it appears that Dál Riada was very much subject to the Pictish king. Although it had its own kings from the 760s, it appears that Dál Riada did not recover. Broun, "Pictish Kings", attempts to reconstruct the confused late history of Dál Riada. The silence in the Irish Annals is ignored by Bannerman in "The Scottish Takeover of Pictland and the relics of Columba". A later Pictish king, Caustantín mac Fergusa (793–820) placed his son Domnall on the throne of Dál Riada (811–835). After Broun, "Pictish Kings". Pictish attempts to achieve a similar dominance over the Britons of Alt Clut (Dumbarton) were not successful. Cf. the failed attempts by Óengus mac Fergusa.

The coming of the Viking Age brought great changes in Britain and Ireland, no less in Scotland than elswehere. The kingdom of Dál Riada was destroyed, certainly by the middle of the 9th century, when Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles. Northumbria too succumbed to the Vikings, who founded the Kingdom of York. The kingdom of Strathclyde was also greatly affected. Is something needed on the Vikings?

The king of Fortriu Eógan mac Óengusa, the king of Dál Riada Aed mac Boanta, and many more, were killed in a decisive battle against the Vikings in 839. Annals of Ulster (s.a. 839): "The (Vikings) won a battle against the men of Fortriu, and Eóganán son of Aengus, Bran son of Óengus, Aed son of Boanta, and others almost innumerable fell there." The rise of Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) in the 840s, in the aftermath of this disaster, brought to power the family who would preside over the last days of the Pictish kingdom and found the new kingdom of Alba, although Cínaed himself was never other than king of the Picts.

In the reign of Cínaed's grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda (900-943), the kingdom of the Picts seems to have become the kingdom of Alba. The change from Pictland to Alba may not have been noticeable at first; indeed, as we do not know the Pictish name for their land, it may not have been a change at all. The Picts, and the Pictish language which marked them out, did not disappear suddenly after the change, if change it was, but the process of Gaelicisation which had been ongoing for centuries carried on under Caustantín and his successors. When the last Picts had become Gaels, and Scots, the Picts were soon forgotten. Later they would reappear in myth and legend. Broun, "Dunkeld", Broun, "National Identity", Forsyth, "Scotland to 1100", pp. 28–32, Woolf, "Constantine II"; cf. Bannerman, "Scottish Takeover", passim, representing the "traditional" view.

Pictish Kings and Kingdoms

The early history of Pictland is, as has been said, obscure. In later periods multiple kings existed, ruling over separate kingdoms, with one king, sometimes two, more or less dominating their lesser neighbours. Broun, "Kingship", for Ireland see, e.g. Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, and more generally Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland. De Situ Albanie, a late document, the Pictish Chronicle, the Duan Albanach, along with Irish legends, have been used to argue the existence of seven Pictish kingdoms. These are as follows, those in bold are known to have had kings, or are otherwise attested in the Pictish period:

  • Cait — situated in modern Caithness and Sutherland
  • Ce — situated in modern Mar and Buchan
  • Circinn — perhaps situated in modern Angus and the Mearns Forsyth, "Lost Pictish Source", Watson, Celtic Place Names, page wanting.
  • Fib — the modern Fife, known to this day as 'the Kingdom of Fife'
  • Fidach — location unknown
  • Fotla — modern Atholl (Ath-Fotla) Bruford, "What happened to the Caledonians", Watson, Celtic Place Names, page wanting.
  • Fortriu — cognate with the Verturiones of the Romans; recently shown to be centered around Moray Woolf, "Dun Nechtain"; cf. earlier works, e.g. Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, p. 33.

More small kingdoms may have existed. Some evidence suggest that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney. Adomnán, "Life of Columba", tr. & ed. notes on pp. 342–343. De Situ Albanie is not the most reliable of sources, and the number of kingdoms, one for each of the seven sons of Cruithne, the eponymous founder of the Picts, may well be grounds enough for disbelief. Broun, "Seven Kingdoms". Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and their names, the Pictish nation was not a united one.

For most of Pictish recorded history the kingdom of Fortriu appears dominant, so much so that king of Fortriu and king of the Picts may mean one and the same thing in the annals. This was previously thought to lie in the area around Perth and the southern Strathearn, whereas recent work has convinced those working in the field that Moray (a name referring to a very much larger area in the High Middle Ages than that of the traditional county of Moray), should be seen as the core of Fortriu. Woolf, "Dun Nechtain".

The Picts are often said to have practised matrilineal succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede's history. In fact, Bede merely says that the Picts used matrilineal succession in exceptional cases. Bede, I, c. 1 The kings of the Picts when Bede was writing were Bridei and Nechtan, sons of Der Ilei, who indeed claimed the throne through their mother Der Ilei, daughter of an earlier Pictish king. Clancy, "Nechtan son of Derile".

In Ireland, kings were expected to come from among those who had a great-grandfather who had been king. Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, pp. 35–41 & pp. 122–123, also p. 108 & p. 287, stating that derbfhine was practised by the cruithni Ulster. Kingly fathers were not frequently succeeded by their sons, not because the Picts practised matrilineal succession, but because they were usually followed by their brothers or cousins, more likely to be experienced men with the authority and the support necessary to be king. Byrne, Irish Kings and High-Kings, p. 35, "Elder for kin, worth for rulership, wisdom for the church." See also Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots, pp. 32–34, Smyth, Warlords and Holy Men, p. 67ff.


The Pictish language does not survive. Evidence is limited to place names and to the names of people found on monuments and the contemporary records. The "problem" of the Pictish language was largely solved in 1582, by humanist scholar, and native Gaelic-speaker, George Buchanan, who expressed the view that Pictish was similar to Gaelic. The rest is postscript. This may be something of an oversimplification. Forsyth, Language in Pictland, offers a short account of the debate. Cowan, "Invention of Celtic Scotland" may be helpful for a broader view.

The evidence of placenames and personal names argue strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly Brythonic languages. Forsyth, Language in Pictland, Price "Pictish", Taylor, "Place names", Watson, Celtic Place Names. For K.H. Jackson's views, see "The Language of the Picts" in Wainright (ed.) The Problem of the Picts. Columba, a Gael, needed an interpreter in Pictland, and Bede claimed that the Picts spoke a different language from the Britons, statements which say nothing about the nature of the Pictish language. It has been argued, with more force than utility, than one or more non-Indo-European languages survived in Pictland, an argument based on limited negative evidence and the long discarded view that languages and material cultures can spread only through invasion and migration. Forsyth, Language in Pictland; the relationship between Basque and Pictish theorised by Federico Krutwig, lacks support in English-language publications. The website of Gorka J. Palazio presents some of Krutwig's ideas in English.

The absence of surviving written material in Pictish does not mean a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and its naturalistic style gives every reason to suppose that such images were of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it will have been common enough. Forsyth, "Literacy in Pictland".

Placenames often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with "Aber-", "Lhan-", "Pit-" or "Fin-" indicate regions inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, Pittodrie, Findochty, etc). Some of these, such as "Pit-" (portion, share) were formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous "shires" or "thanages". For place names in general, see Watson, Celtic Place Names, for shires/thanages see Barrow, "Pre-Feudal Scotland."

The evidence of place names may also reveal the advance of Gaelic into Pictland. As noted, Atholl, meaning New Ireland, is attested in the early 8th century. This may be an indication of the advance of Gaelic. Fortriu also contains placenames suggesting Gaelic settlement, or Gaelic influences, and ties of the Eoganacht to Circinn are Watson, Celtic Place Names, page numbers wanting.

Legends of the "Painted People"

Popular etymology has long interpreted the name Pict as if it derived from the Latin the word Picti meaning "painted folk" or possibly "tattooed ones"; and this may relate to the Welsh word Pryd meaning "to mark" or "to draw". Julius Caesar, who never went near Pictland, mentions the British Celtic custom of body painting in Book V of his Gallic Wars, stating

Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem, atque hoc horridiores sunt in pugna aspectu,

which means

In fact all Britanni stain themselves with vitrum, which produces a dark blue colour, and by this means they are more terrifying to face in battle.

The phrase vitro inficiunt is traditionally translated as "stain with woad", but could as well have meant “infect with glass”-describing a scarification ritual which left dark blue scars-or “dye with glaze”, forming a direct reference to tattooing. Subsequent commentators may have displaced the 1st-century BC southern practices (of the Brittani, a tribe south of the Thames) to the northern peoples in an attempt to explain the name Picti, which came into use only in the 3rd century AD. Julius Caesar himself, commenting in his Gallic Wars on the tribes from the areas where Picts (later) lived, states that they have “designs carved into their faces by iron”.

If they used woad, then it probably penetrated under the skin as a tattoo, but there is some recent controversy over this as the woad damages the skin to produce scar tissue, but the blue colour is lost. More likely, the Celts used copper for blue tattoos (they had plenty of it) and soot-ash carbon for black. Further study of bog bodies may provide more information on the specific tattooing techniques (if any) used by the Picts.


  • Adomnán, Life of St Columba, tr. & ed. Richard Sharpe. Penguin, London, 1995. ISBN 0-14-044462-9
  • Armit, Ian, Towers In The North: The Brochs Of Scotland. Tempus, Stroud, 2002. ISBN 0752419323
  • Bannerman, John, "The Scottish Takeover of Pictland and the relics of Columba" in Thomas Owen Clancy & Dauvit Broun (eds.), Spes Scotorum: Hope of Scots. Saint Columba, Iona and the Scotland. T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1999. ISBN 0-567-08682-8
  • Barrow, G.W.S. "Pre-feudal Scotland: shires and thanes" in The Kingdom of the Scots. Edinburgh UP, Edinburgh, 2003. ISBN 0-7486-1803-1
  • Broun, Dauvit, "Dunkeld and the origin of Scottish identity" in Clancy & Broun (1999).
  • Broun, Dauvit, "National identity: early medieval and the formation of Alba" in Michael Lynch (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford UP, Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0-19-211696-7
  • Broun, Dauvit, "Pictish Kings 761–839: Integration with Dál Riata or Separate Development" in Sally M. Foster (ed.), The St Andrews Sarcophagus: A Pictish masterpiece and its international connections. Four Courts, Dublin, 1998. ISBN 0-85182-414-6
  • Broun, Dauvit, "The Seven Kingdoms in De situ Albanie: A Record of Pictish political geography or imaginary map of ancient Alba" in E.J. Cowan & R. Andrew McDonald (eds.), Alba: Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era. John Donald, Edinburgh, 2005. ISBN 0-85976-608-X
  • Bruford, Alan, "What happened to the Caledonians ?" in Cowan & McDonald (2005).
  • Byrne, Francis John, Irish Kings and High-Kings. Batsford, London, 1973. ISBN 0-7134-5882-8
  • Cambell, Ewan, Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots. Canongate, Edinburgh, 1999. ISBN 0-82641-874-7
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  • Woolf, Alex, "Ungus (Onuist) son of Uurgust" in Lynch (2001).

Further reading

Foster (2004) is considerably revised from the 1996 edition, and offers the most complete introduction to the subject. The articles in Lynch (2001) will be useful, but this is not referenced and may be best read in conjunction with another work. Laing & Laing (2001) provides good coverage of Pictish art, but is not well illustrated and otherwise outdated. Cummins (1999) attempts a narrative, with mixed success. Smyth (1984) makes some interesting points, but may not be a suitable introduction. The relevant works in the new Edinburgh history of Scotland - Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland, and Woolf, From Pictland to Alba - are expected in 2007–2008.

External links

See also

Wikipedia contributors, 'Picts', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 February 2006, 23:31 UTC, [1]

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