ARCHAEOLOGICAL digs could reveal new evidence that the ancient Scots known as Picts were a sophisticated people who could read and write – not the tattooed, half-naked barbarians portrayed in Hollywood blockbusters.

The Picts – a pejorative Latin term meaning painted one – populated northern Scotland in the first century and famously fought off the invading Romans.

They survived for around 600 years, until they were wiped out by the Vikings after they invaded in AD 839 and the only written historical accounts were penned by their enemies, who perpetuated the stereotype that they were primitive savages.

Dr Katherine Forsyth, a reader of Celtic and Gaelic, at the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities, said: “If you look at recent Hollywood blockbuster films like Centurion or The Eagle, or the last series of Doctor Who, Picts appear as crazy, war-mad, naked savages, covered in tattoos.

“That’s a very old stereotype that goes back to Roman times but it’s a notion that still has traction, unfortunately.

“It began as Roman propaganda. The Picts were the descendants of the people who fought the Romans. They are the iconic enemies of Rome, so they appear in Roman texts as barbarians and that notion becomes fixed and is perpetuated in much later sources. That’s coloured people’s perception of the Picts until the present.”

Forsyth said the perception began to change when people “started to look at the evidence in more detail” and it was discovered that the Picts were “very sophisticated” and produced sculpture, artwork and metalwork which was as advanced as their Anglo-Saxon and Irish neighbours.

The only writing about the Picts was penned by the Romans, Anglo Saxons and early Irish people so experts had to rely on archaeological finds, which were re-examined.

“The evidence was there all along,” Forsyth explained. “It was a question of looking at things we already had in a less naive way. And it was found that, of course, the Picts wore clothes, and they were as intelligent as you or I. The evidence we’ve got shows how accomplished they were.”

Dr Alex Woolf, senior history lecturer at the University of St Andrews, said Pictish writings were destroyed after they were decimated by the Vikings.

He said: “Some Picts were literate. There would have been literate churchmen and some of the aristocrats would have been trained to read and write. It’s not impossible there were books in the Pictish language, but sadly none has survived.

“Presumably what happened was once the language died out librarians chucked them out, probably in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.”

Woolf is hopeful that archaeological digs could reveal more about the Picts, and could even cement their newfound reputation as a “civilised” people.

He said: “One of the areas which is very exciting at the moment is new archaeological work being done around the north east, and a major excavation at Dunkeld.

“What we don’t know about the Picts, and what we need to know, is how ordinary people lived. Most of the focus of the archaeology has been on major royal sites and churches, which is where the artistry comes from.

“When I wrote my book From Pictland to Alba I had to be upfront and say that what I was giving was a generalised account that we knew was mostly based on English and Irish material and we just assumed the Picts were more or less the same.

“What we really need is more lowland, rural settlements to be excavated which will tell us whether I was right in guessing that.

“And because there’s more and better archaeology in Scotland these days there’s real hope for that.”


A new historical drama series about the brutal Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 has been billed as Sky’s most ambitious yet.

Roman emperor Cladius’s army battles native Celts depicted as wild warriors and magical druids who can channel the powerful forces of the underworld.

Writer Jez Butterworth, whose credits include James Bond film Spectre, said: “Besides being hard, hard warriors, the Celts have a belief system which makes them almost invincible. It’s a deep, heavy magic.

“Last time the Romans tried to invade, the mighty Julius Caesar took one look, turned around and went straight home. Now, almost a century later, the Romans are back.”

The series to be broadcast on Sky Atlantic next year stars Kelly Reilly (True Detective), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead), Mackenzie Crook (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).