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See You See Me - Scots and Picts

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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 they spoke.

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 Hadrian’s 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 Empire’s 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 Empire’s 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 Hadrian’s 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.

Pictish Life

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 Scotland’s 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

Scotland’s 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 Scotland’s 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 European art.

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. Columba’s blessing was treasured by Kings – which was seen as a powerful symbol of their authority. In return for Columba’s support, the Scotti gave land to the monastery as well as protection.

Columba died in 597 AD, but the monastery’s 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 shrine.



Picts and Northumbrians

The Picts and the Scotti often fought. However, the Picts also had another enemy – King Edwin’s 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) "Edwin’s-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 Edwin’s 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 :

  1. He thought that the Scotti might gain power over Pictland if the Columban church continued to grow;
  2. He wanted to avoid another war with Northumbia; and
  3. He wanted to be part of the Church that most countries in Europe were following.


After Nechtan’s 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 enemy.

Kenneth MacAlpin

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. Wrad’s sons thought themselves the rightful heirs, while Kenneth, through royal Pictish descent on his mother’s side, claimed the Crown for himself. Kenneth’s 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 Kenneth’s new Pictish kingdom. Kenneth rewarded his Scotti followers with land taken from Wrad’s 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.



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