Scientists and archaeologists were making huge leaps forward in the understanding of our ancient ancestors before the lockdown began. Here, Writer at Large Neil Mackay, uncovers what we know today about the mysterious and very misunderstood Picts

WE think of the Picts as an almost mythological people – mystical, mysterious, barbarian and pagan – lost to us in the mists of time.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Before the coronavirus lockdown began, archaeologists were making rapid advances in our understanding of these ancient ancestors. A standing stone carved by Pictish hands some 1,200 years ago was recently discovered near Dingwall, shedding new light on their art and culture. A 1,400-year-old Pictish cemetery was located on the Black Isle, giving us an insight into their religious beliefs and social rituals.

In recent years, scholars have been revolutionising how history views the Picts – a people who, until the 1950s, were seen as a subject too fanciful for serious academic study.

So who really were the Picts? The broad answer is that they were the inhabitants of Scotland long before the idea of Scotland even existed. They withstood the Roman occupation of Britain, maintaining their own distinct culture while other cultures were subsumed by the Empire. By the Dark Ages, the Picts emerged as a culture just as sophisticated as any other on the British isles at the time. The Picts helped shape modern Britain – and without them Scotland wouldn’t exist. Nor were they stubbornly pagan – they embraced Christianity.

Their greatest failing, though, is that they left us no written records beyond the strange hieroglyphics carved onto their standing stones. We still don’t understand what these symbols mean. Other contemporary cultures, however, like the Irish Gaels and the Anglo-Saxons, left plenty of written records. So the void in our understanding of the Picts was filled with either accounts by their neighbours and their enemies, or myths and legends. And so, a faulty understanding of the Picts has existed right up to the present day.

The recent 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath should have been a time for Scotland to reassess our understanding of the Picts. The 1320 document, written by Scottish nobles asserting the nation’s independence from England, states, in one digression, that ancient Scots “completely destroyed the Picts”.

That claim is historical nonsense – there’s not a word of truth in it – but it’s set the tone for much of the public’s understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of the Picts ever since. That erroneous, and ghoulishly gloating, claim is just one of the myriad myths that have grown up around the Pictish past. Addressing the falsehoods perpetuated in the Declaration of Arbroath would have been a perfect way to start a new national conversation about these most misunderstood, and intriguing, ancestors of ours.

So what do we know about them?

Origin story

The ancestors of the Picts were the tribes who lived in the north of Scotland, beyond the River Tay. In the first century AD, the Romans called these people Britanni, today we think of them as the Caledonii or Caledonians. These Caledonians defended their land with guerrilla attacks against the legions of Rome. Roman chroniclers such as Tacitus tell us that these tribes forged alliances against Rome – and finally took on the might of the Empire in a huge set piece battle at Mons Graupius in 83AD. The exact location of the battle is unknown but it was probably in Aberdeenshire and gave rise to the name of the Grampian Mountains.

The battle was a defeat for the Caledonians but at least two-thirds of their army survived. Resistance, weather, and landscape all made it impossible for Rome to complete its conquest of the entire island of Britain. The north remained free, and the Caledonian ancestors of the Picts continued their hit-and-run campaign against Roman forces.

As the writer Tim Clarkson notes in his seminal book The Picts: “The early years of the second century saw the northern barbarians launch a series of attacks on Roman Britain … The situation became so serious that the emperor Hadrian ordered his soldiers to build a mighty wall of stone along the Tyne-Solway frontier.”

Clarkson explains how the Caledonians morphed into the Picts: “Caledonians of the second and third centuries were an amalgamation of tribes, each of whom joined – or were forced to join – a larger political entity or confederacy ... By the end of the third century these 'confederates' had acquired or adopted a new name for themselves, of which the Latin term Picti was a Roman variant or equivalent.”

The word "Pict" first appears in Roman writings in 297 when the Hiberni – or Irish – are noted along with the "Picti" as enemies of Rome. There’s long been speculation that the name "Pict" is derived from Roman military slang "Picti" for Painted People – a reference to the tattoos on the bodies of Pictish fighters. Or the word Pict could be a corruption of Pritani, a term used to describe the inhabitants of these islands, and perhaps the source of the word Britain itself.

One of the greatest mysteries of history, though, is what the Picts of this time called themselves. That knowledge is lost to us forever. However, places in Scotland today which begin with "Pit" are almost certainly the sites of ancient Pictish settlements – Pittodrie, Pitlochry, Pittenweem. “From Fife to the Isle of Skye, and from Shetland to the Tay, the native inhabitants were almost certainly part of the Pictish nation,” says Clarkson.

Linguistically, it’s thought that the Picts spoke a Celtic language – but one that is closer to today’s Breton, Welsh and Cornish than Irish or Scots Gaelic.

The Picts were mysterious even in their own era. Chroniclers believed they originated in Scythia – an ancient land that was part of what’s now the Russian steppe. Legend had it that exploring Picts were blown off course, arrived in Ireland and were assisted by Irish princes. The princes gave the Picts wives – in return for a promise that any kings would come from the female line of a royal family – and told them to settle across the sea in Scotland.

The legend could have its roots in the fact that the Picts are believed to have practised matrilineal succession to the throne – in other words a man became king (there are no known Pictish queens, though plenty of Pictish princesses) through his mother’s bloodline not his father's. This made the Picts almost unique among all the civilisations of Europe at the time.

The Picts were also connected to the wider world, and making treaties and pacts with other tribes across Europe. In 367, Picts were an integral part of the so-called Barbarian Conspiracy when the Hibernians, Saxons, Franks and Picts launched a coordinated attack on Roman Britain. Although the assault failed, the audacity of the strike signalled Rome’s decline. Finally, in 410, Roman rule in Britain ended as the empire began to implode. It was now that the Picts could come into their own.

The Dark Ages

After the end of Roman occupation, the Picts found themselves facing British tribes to the south in the Lothians and Clyde Valley – the kingdoms of Alt Clut and Gododdin – and a powerful Irish nation across the sea. Pictland or Pictavia was in the process of becoming a patchwork of mini-kingdoms ruled by an overking.

In terms of how the Picts lived, Clarkson says that society in “early historic Europe had long since discarded any lingering egalitarian traits and was heavily stratified in terms of wealth and status, with the bulk of the population living as peasants on agricultural land ruled by lords who in turn constituted a sophisticated aristocracy”.

Although St Patrick viewed the Picts as savages, other early Christian missionaries saw them as worthy of salvation. It was an Irish abbess, Darlugdach, who was one of the first to preach to the pagan Picts, and built a church in Abernethy. She died around 525. Fillan, an Irish monk, also helped bring Christianity to the Picts. He’s likely to have stayed at a hillfort near St Fillans, which may have been home to Pictish aristocrats. It was the Briton St Ninian and Ireland’s St Columba, however, who led the most successful missionary work among the Picts, and brought the wholesale adoption of Christianity among the Pictish population.

Columba became the stuff of legend – battling wizards, performing miracles which cowed the heathens, and even having a brush with the Loch Ness Monster. However, Columba’s work may not have been all that difficult in reality.

“In every corner of the British isles,” says Clarkson, “paganism was retreating in the face of a sophisticated international religion whose leaders were rapidly gaining influence at the centre of political power … To a wise and ambitious [Pictish] king … the eventual triumph of Christianity may have seemed inevitable.”

Around the time of Columba, the Picts went to war with the Scots. Confusingly, these Scots – or Scotti – seem to have been originally from Ireland. They had colonised Argyll, eventually setting up the kingdom known as Dalriada which would stretch from northern Ireland to the Hebrides. This ancient ancestral quirk probably explains why Scottish and Irish Gaelic are so similar.

Clarkson says: “The harsh geography of the highlands lay between [the Picts and the Scots] to keep them apart, ensuring that they shared few cultural traits and did not even speak the same language.”

Dalriada’s rulers were in an expansionist frame of mind by the mid-550s but were put in their place by a show of force from the Picts known as "The Flight of the Scots".

The history of the Picts now descends into a series of battles and diplomatic alliances. Sometimes the battles were between Pictish warlords for the overkingship of the realm, at other times the fight was with enemies to the south, mostly the Anglo-Saxons in the area which became Northumbria. Sometimes the Picts were defeated, sometimes their opponents. This was a time of almost permanent conflict, and peace was fleeting.

Glory days

The last half of the 600s saw Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons hold dominance over the Picts, Dalriada and the Britons of southern and central Scotland. Picts began to rebel, though, as Northumbrian rule weakened thanks to feuds with their Anglo-Saxon rivals further south in England. The Picts, led by King Brude (or Bridei), eventually crushed the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685, killing their king Ecgfrith and most of his army.

As the Anglo-Saxon writer Bede said: “From this time, the hopes and strength of the English kingdom began to ebb and fall away.” The Picts were free again. With no more tributes being paid to Northumbria, the foundations were laid, says Clarkson, for “the great kingdom that would eventually rise to power the following century”.

After a mini version of the War of the Roses among Pictish aristocrats, one contender emerged victorious. Oengus became the new overking in 732 and stepped forward as one of the greatest rulers in Pictish history.

Oengus took on the Scots of Dalriada and beat them – but his son was taken hostage in revenge. As a result, Oengus, to put it mildly, went crazy. He invaded Dalriada, ritually drowned a prince and eventually, as Clarkson says, put the Scots of Dalriada “under a yoke of subjection”. His campaign became known as the Percutio Dalriatai – "The Smiting of Dalriada".

Thanks to war, trade, Christianity and treaties, both Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic culture were already influencing and enriching Pictish life considerably. However, after Oengus’s death in 761, the Picts descended once again into dynastic in-fighting. Soon, though, there were bigger threats to worry about: the Vikings were about to arrive and change everything.

Dalriada was the site of the some of the worst Viking atrocities – acts which would start to bring the Scots and Picts together in self-defence. Eventually Constantine, king of the Picts, installed his son Domnall as king of the Scots in Dalriada. Clarkson says this “was a big step towards unifying the two peoples as a single nation”.

Gaelic influence from the Scots of Dalriada on Pictish culture was much stronger, however, than Pictish influence on Gaelic culture, probably due to the strength of the Irish church. Clarkson says this “led to the slow erosion of Pictish culture and its replacement by a Gaelic counterpart”.

In 839, the united Picts and Scots faced down the Vikings – but were annihilated. Some call it "The Disaster of 839". From the chaos, however, emerged one of the Scotland’s most renowned figures, Cinaed mac Ailpin – Kenneth MacAlpin.

The twilight of the Picts

It’s unclear whether MacAlpin was a Pict or a Scot – perhaps he was both, a Picto-Scot. Either way, he’s the king credited with turning Scotland into a unified nation. He was king in Dalriada for two years before becoming king of the Picts in 843. His reign began the process of "language death" which saw the Pictish tongue disappear and be replaced by Gaelic.

One legend associated with MacAlpin is "The Treachery of Scone" where the Scots, led by McAlpine, invited Pictish nobles to a feast at Scone and murdered them. The story was the inspiration for the "Red Wedding" in Game Of Thrones. In reality, however, MacAlpin, says Clarkson, embarked “on a process of political change that would eventually turn his kingdom into Alba, the precursor of medieval Scotland”.

Clarkson deems this period "the twilight of the Picts". The last mention of the Picts came in 904, when they are referred to as part of an army battling Vikings at Strathern under the leadership of Constantine II, MacAlpin's grandson.

Soon Alba would become known as Scotia, and the Picts would fade into myth. Though, as Clarkson says: “The Picts did not vanish in any literal or physical sense. Their disappearance was entirely political – they merged with the Scots to eventually become the ‘Scottish’ nation.”

To assuage any doubt that the Picts are still very much with us in modern Scotland, just check your DNA. Testing in the heartland of what was once Pictavia – Tayside, Perthshire, Fife and Angus – shows that around one-fifth of us still carry the genes of our Pictish ancestors.