History and background to Scotsand Picts
Who were the Picts?
The origin of the Picts is clouded by the many fables and legends about
them. There are numerous theories as to who the Picts were and where they
came from. Experts even disagree over what they ate and drank and what language
The Picts were an ancient and artistic people who defied the might of Rome
which conquered the rest of Britain. They were a sophisticated , hardworking,
clever people, skilled in farming and fishing.
How do we know about the Picts?
The Picts left few written records. Our main sources of information are
Roman and Greek writings , as well as designs and symbols left on great
Pictish stones. We also know that their story tellers passed stories down
through the ages by word of mouth.
The Picts remain possibly the biggest mystery of European history. Who were
these fierce and independent people who lived north of Hadrians Wall
and even as far as the Shetlands? Where did they come from? What language
did they speak? What did they call themselves and more fundamentally what
became of them?
Picts are first recorded in history in the third century AD. Eumenius, a
Roman writer, describes the "pictus" as fierce and skilled in
battle. It is not clear whether "pictus" (the Latin for painted)
was intended, or if this is a Latin form of some indigenous name.
Picts and Romans
Although the Romans reached Scotland and often defeated them in battle,
they never conquered the Picts or Pictland. The Roman Empires expeditions
north resulted in few gains.
It was Hadrian who decided that these northern lands were not worth sacrificing
any more legions for. So he pulled back the Empire to the Tyne and the Solway
where the famous wall which bears his name was built, stretching 70 miles
from coast to coast.
Perhaps because of frequent attacks against the wall, Antoninus Pius advanced
the Empires northern frontier to the thin neck between the Forth and
Clyde where the Antonine wall was built. A shorter wall, only 30 miles long
but with some 20 forts, it may even have separated some Pictish tribes on
either side. The Picts ceaselessly attacked the wall, and the Romans lost
and regained it twice before finally retreating to Hadrians wall by
the end of the 2nd century AD. By studying the Roman accounts of these Pictish
Wars, it appears that most Pictish lands were north of the Antonine Wall.
The Roman name "Picti" means painted ones and the
Romans believed the Picts were little more than naked savages. However,
it is now thought that this is an exaggeration.
Given Scotlands climate, it is unlikely that the Picts spent a lot
of their time undressed.
It is believed that they wore clothes coloured with natural dyes and used
leather for footwear and jackets.
The Picts were also thought to be excellent farmers, growing crops and keeping
animals for food and clothing. Certainly, horses were important to the Picts
as they are depicted on many of their carved stones.
The Race of Picts
Scotlands sculptured stones, created by the Picts of ancient Alba
tell the stories of a race of people who defied Rome and survived the invading
Vikings, thus preserving a separate culture and race in Scotland. It is
in these sometimes mighty, sometimes delicate stones that the history of
ancient Scotland is now recorded.
The Picts were often attacked by the Britons and eventually all the Pictish
tribes agreed to support one High King who would rule all of Pictland. The
Picts, unusually, were a matrilineal society, i.e. bloodlines passed through
the mother. Pictish kings were not succeeded by their sons, but by brothers,
nephews or cousins as traced by the female line in a complicated series
of intermarriages between 7 royal houses. It is this rare form of succession
which in 845 AD gave the crown of Alba and the title Rex Pictorum - King
of the Picts - to the son of a Pictish princess by the name of Kenneth,
Son of Alpin.
The Picts survived as a distinct people until early in the 10th century.
However, there is no record of them dying out or moving elsewhere. It is
most likely that the Picts simply became the largest population within the
developing multi-ethnic nation of Scotti, Picts, Britons and Angles which
we now call "Scotland".
Who were the Scotti?
The Pict and the Scotti cultures developed independently on either side
of the Grampian mountains, which accounts for the significant differences
between the two (although both were originally pagan societies, believing
in magic and sacrifice). The Scotti have until recently been thought to
come from Ireland and settled in the lands around Dunadd in Argyllshire.
New evidence makes us question this idea, but as the coast of Northern Ireland
is so close to Scotlands west coast there must have been frequent
travelling between the two islands.
The designs and symbols on stones in Pictland are very different from the
Scotti stones, as are the jewellery designs. They also spoke different languages.
The Scotti had a King, who decided who received land and who protected the
Kingdom of Dal Riada from invaders. The King was helped by loyal nobles,
who would help to protect the Kingdom, by providing men and ships. In return
for such loyalty, the King would give special pieces of jewellery to the
nobles. These showed that the wearer was important and had found favour
with the King. New Kings were crowned in Dunadd, the capital of the Scotti
kingdom and would return there in times of danger.
St. Columba & the Scotti
The Scotti way of life changed forever with the arrival of Columba and a
group of monks who brought Christianity to Dal Riada . Columba had been
banished from Ireland in 563 AD possibly for leading battles against rich
Irish monasteries. With 12 supporters he sailed to Iona. It is thought that
he crowned a fellow Irishman, Aidan, King of Dal Riada. In return Aidan
gifted Iona to Columba. He established a monastery there from where his
brand of Christianity quickly spread across the mainland. The monks had
also brought with them books, and the skills of reading and writing. It
was on Iona that the Book of Kells was produced, a masterpiece of Dark Age
It is thought that the King of Dal Riada accepted Christianity in order
to strengthen his power. For the Scotti warrior Kings, Columba was seen
as a useful asset. The monastery taught their heirs, and Columba was an
advisor to the King and ambassador to Pictland and Ireland. Columbas
blessing was treasured by Kings which was seen as a powerful symbol
of their authority. In return for Columbas support, the Scotti gave
land to the monastery as well as protection.
Columba died in 597 AD, but the monasterys influence continued. Pilgrimages
to Iona became more frequent; Kings wanted to be buried near Columba; and
a network of Celtic crosses and processional routes developed around his
Picts and Northumbrians
The Picts and the Scotti often fought. However, the Picts also had another
enemy King Edwins Northumbrians. King Edwin took control of
all the land as far north as the River Forth and renamed the fort
on the slope (Din Eidyn) "Edwins-burgh". He then moved
further into Pictland and took control of southern Pictland. A new Pictish
High King was found, with the tribal king Brudei as the new war leader.
This war ended at the battle of Dunnichen where the Picts were able to trap
Edwins army, ridding Pictland of the Northumbrians.
Picts and Christianity
The Picts then faced a choice over which brand of Christianity to follow.
The Church of Rome had been established during the Northumbrian occupation,
but the Scotti followed the Columbans and believed that the Picts should
do the same. The Columban church had tried hard to bring the Pictish and
Scotti peoples closer together. Nevertheless, King Nechtan ordered that
the Columban church be expelled from Pictland altogether. It is thought
he did this for 3 reasons :
- He thought that the Scotti might gain power over Pictland if the Columban
church continued to grow;
- He wanted to avoid another war with Northumbia; and
- He wanted to be part of the Church that most countries in Europe
After Nechtans order, relations between the Picts and the Scotti dissolved
entirely. 12 years of conflict followed and the Picts gained control of
Dunadd, the Scotti capital.
The Picts might have kept control of the whole of Pictland and Dal Riada
were it not for the arrival of a common enemy the Vikings.
The Viking Threat
The Viking invasions of Scotland heralded a new type of warfare. The Vikings
adapted their boats to allow a large number of warriors to be carried on
the lengthy sea journeys made possible by Norse navigational and rigging
skills. The Viking invasion was first recorded in 793 AD - the destruction
of the monastery on Lindsfarne. Raids on Iona began a year later and Orkney
and Shetland; the Hebrides and some areas of the mainland in turn became
Norse colonies. The presence of many Norse place names bears witness to
the settlement of these invaders.
The Danes, continued the North Sea crossings, and also battled with the
Picts in 839 AD and defeated them. Under pressure too from Viking attacks,
the Scotti fled into Pictland. The Picts in turn were too busy trying to
solve their own Viking problems, to stop this influx of refugees. One King
was needed to unite the Picts and Scotii and fight against their common
Kenneth MacAlpin was born around 800AD in Dal Riada during the Pictish occupation.
His father, Alpin, had been beheaded fighting for a Pictish king and historical
sources suggest that his mother may have been a Pictish princess.
Due to the ferocious Viking raids, the Pictish Kingship was almost completely
destroyed. Wrad, a Pictish warlord, eventually became King of the Picts
at the same time as Kenneth became King of Dalriada.
When Wrad died in 842 AD the throne was contested. Wrads sons thought
themselves the rightful heirs, while Kenneth, through royal Pictish descent
on his mothers side, claimed the Crown for himself. Kenneths
claims were backed by his many Scotti and Pictish followers and he triumphed
in Pictland. His first big challenge as King was a Viking invasion fleet,
140 ships strong which threatened Dal Riada . The Scotti were forced to
flee to Kenneths new Pictish kingdom. Kenneth rewarded his Scotti
followers with land taken from Wrads supporters.
Kenneth MacAlpin was able to face the Viking threat, and used it to bring
the Pictish and Scotti people together. He married some of his older offspring
to powerful Viking families. He allowed the Vikings to retain Dal Riada
and joined them in fighting the Britons. He re-established the Columban
church near Scone but also permitted the Picts to maintain worship following
the Church of Rome at St Andrews. MacAlpin successfully united the people
and was the first King of a united Scotland.