The Picts – The Enigmatic People of Pre-Viking Britain

The Picts, a group of peoples residing in northern Britain during the Pre-Viking and Early Middle Ages, have long intrigued historians and archaeologists. Their intriguing culture and unique place in British history have sparked numerous debates and reevaluations. In this article, we delve into the fascinating world of the Picts, shedding light on their origins, language, society, and historical significance.

The Picts: Rediscovering a Forgotten People

The Picts, living north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, left a lasting impact on the history of Britain. Despite limited written records, early medieval texts and Pictish stones offer insights into their way of life and geographical distribution.

The term “Picti” first appeared as an exonym in written records of the late third century AD, but it later became an endonym during the Verturian hegemony in the late seventh century. This lasted for approximately 160 years until the Alpínid dynasty took over, leading to the merging of the Pictish kingdom with Dál Riata, forming the Kingdom of Alba. However, the concept of “Pictish kingship” persisted for a few more decades until it gradually faded away during the reign of Caustantín mac Áeda.

Language and Cultural Aspects of the Picts

Early medieval sources indicate the existence of a distinct Pictish language, believed to be an Insular Celtic language closely related to the Brittonic language spoken by the southern Britons. Over time, Middle Gaelic gradually replaced Pictish from the late ninth century onwards. The Picts are thought to be descendants of the Caledonii and other Iron Age tribes mentioned by Roman historians and on Ptolemy’s world map.

Archaeological findings provide glimpses into Pictish society, which shared similarities with neighbouring groups in northern Europe during the early medieval period. Although little Pictish writing has survived, external sources such as Bede’s “Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum,” hagiographies of saints like Columba by Adomnán, and Irish annals shed light on their history.

Reevaluating the Notions of Pictishness

In recent decades, there has been a critical reassessment of the concept of “Pictishness.” Early 20th-century views depicted the Picts as exotic and enigmatic “lost people.” However, subsequent scholarship challenged this notion, highlighting discrepancies between archaeological and historical records and conventional expectations about historical peoples.

The culture-historical paradigm of archaeology, prevalent since the late 19th century, gave way to the processual archaeology theory. Textual sources, including works by Bede and Adomnán from the seventh and eighth centuries, have also been subjected to reappraisal. While these works recount events from previous centuries, their allegorical and pseudo-historical nature has been recognized, emphasizing the importance of considering the context in which they were written.

To avoid falling into the trap of the “Ethnic Fallacy,” it is crucial to understand that the Picts referred to by outsiders in late antiquity were distinct from those who later adopted the name for themselves. These later Picts differed in terms of language, culture, religion, and politics. The term “Pict” appeared in Roman sources in the late third century, often used pejoratively to emphasize the supposed barbarism of the unromanized people in northern Britain. It is believed that the term only became an endonym in the late seventh century under the Verturian hegemony.

Unravelling the Origins and Etymology

The origin of the Picts is shrouded in mystery, but various theories have emerged. According to Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” the Picts were settlers from Scythia who arrived on the northern coast of Ireland by chance. They were then redirected to northern Britain, where they settled and intermarried with the indigenous people.

The Pictish Chronicle recounts a similar story, attributing the founding of the Pictish nation to a mythical leader named Cruithne and his sons. However, it is important to note that Bede’s account is considered pseudohistorical and likely of Pictish origin, created to legitimize the annexation of Pictish territories by Fortriu.

In 2023, a groundbreaking study sequenced the whole genomes of eight individuals associated with the Pictish period. The results suggested broad affinities between the Picts, Iron Age Britons, and present-day populations in western Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Northumbria. This supports the theory of the local origin of the Pictish people.

Tracing the Pictish History

The area inhabited by the Picts was previously described by Roman writers as the home of the Caledonii. The Picts emerge in written history during the Early Middle Ages. They were tributary to Northumbria until their defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685, which halted the Anglian northward expansion. Thereafter, the Picts maintained dominance over southern Scotland until the Viking Age, which brought significant changes to the region.

Dál Riata, located in what is now Argyll, was subject to Pictish rule, and even though it had its own kings, it did not regain full political independence from the Picts. The Viking invasions in the 9th century reshaped the political landscape of the British Isles. The Vikings conquered and settled in various areas, including parts of Pictland. Eventually, Cínaed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpin) became king of the Picts in the aftermath of the Vikings’ destructive actions.

During the reign of Cínaed’s grandson, Caustantín mac Áeda, the region began to be referred to as the Kingdom of Alba. Pictish identity gradually faded, and the inhabitants of northern Alba became fully Gaelicized Scots by the 11th century. While the Picts ceased to exist as a distinct tribe, their legacy persisted in myth and legend.

Kings, Kingdoms, and the Evolution of Pictish Governance

The early history of Pictland remains unclear, but evidence suggests multiple kings ruling over separate kingdoms. Fortriu, which encompassed the area around Moray, was dominant for most of the Pictish period. The Pictish Chronicle and other sources mention seven Pictish kingdoms, including Cait, Ce, Circin, Fib, Fidach, Fotla, and Fortriu.

However, the existence of more small kingdoms cannot be ruled out. The nature of kingship changed over time, becoming less personalized and more institutionalized. The Pictish nobility practised a form of agnatic seniority, with kings often succeeded by their brothers or cousins. The later Mormaers and the Pictish shires and thanages appear to have been adopted from neighbouring regions.

Peering into Pictish Society

Archaeological findings provide valuable insights into Pictish society, revealing similarities to their British, Gaelic, and Anglo-Saxon neighbours. The Picts were primarily farmers, cultivating crops such as wheat, barley, oats, and rye. They reared cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, emphasizing the importance of animal husbandry.

Fishing and hunting with dogs and falcons were common activities, while the pastoral economy enabled the production of hides, leather, and wool for clothing. Settlement patterns did not indicate the presence of significant urban centers, and long-distance trade with Pictland is evidenced by the discovery of imported tableware and storage vessels from Gaul.

The Picts are often associated with their enigmatic symbols, depicted on standing stones and other artefacts. These symbols remain undeciphered, adding to the allure and mystery surrounding the Pictish culture. While theories of tattooing among the Picts have been proposed, the evidence is limited. The Picts‘ naturalistic art style depicts scenes of everyday life, including reading and carrying books, highlighting their engagement with literacy.

The Pictish Language: A Linguistic Enigma

The Pictish language, now extinct, is known primarily through place names, personal names, and records in other languages. These suggest that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages closely related to the Brittonic languages. The absence of surviving written material does not imply a pre-literate society, as literacy was likely present among the clergy and in monastic settings. Ogham inscriptions on Pictish stones continue to puzzle scholars, with interpretations ranging from non-Celtic languages to Celtic origins. The linguistic complexities of the Pictish people remain a subject of ongoing debate.

Unlocking the Legacy of the Picts

The Picts, once an influential group in northern Britain, left an indelible mark on the region’s history. Their enigmatic culture, origins, and historical significance continue to captivate researchers and enthusiasts alike. By examining the available evidence from early medieval texts, archaeological discoveries, and genetic studies, we can unravel the mysteries surrounding the Picts and gain a deeper understanding of their place in the tapestry of British history.

*Feature Image: Photograph by Mike Peel (, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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