Known as 'Picti' by the Romans, meaning 'Painted Ones' in Latin, these northern tribes constituted the largest kingdom in Dark Age Scotland. They repelled the conquests of both Romans and Angles, creating a true north-south divide on the British Isles, only to disappear from history by the end of the first millennium - swallowed whole by the history of another group, the Gaels. Together they created the Kingdom of Alba.
The Picts took part in one of the most decisive battles in Scottish history - the Battle of Dun Nechtain (Dunnichen). If the Picts had lost, Scotland might never have existed. For the Angles of Northumbria it was simply a disaster - ending their domination of Scotland.
The Battle of Dun Nechtain was fought on Saturday 2nd March 685 AD and is one of the best recorded events in Dark Age Scotland. We even know that it was fought at 3 o'clock in the afternoon.
The Kingdom of the Angles under King Oswui had rapidly expanded north, moving their frontier from the River Forth to the River Tay. Since 653 AD many of the major groups of people in Scotland - Britons, Gaels and much of Pictland - had been subject to the overlordship of King Oswui. In 672 AD, after the death of Oswui, the Picts rose against their overlords, expelling Drust, their Northumbrian puppet king.
The new King of Northumbria, Ecgfrith, wasted no time in wreaking revenge on the Picts. The Picts were massacred at a battle near the town of Grangemouth, where the rivers Carron and Avon meet. According to Northumbrian sources, so many Picts died they could walk dry-shod across both rivers. By 681 AD Ecgfrith had founded a bishopric at Abercorn on the southern shore of the Forth - a symbol of Northumbria's secure grip over the Picts.
The defeated Picts took Bridei, son of Bili, as the king of a much depleted Pictland. King Bridei was actually the cousin of his mortal enemy, King Ecgfrith of the Angles, but, in true Dark Age fashion, this didn't diminish their mutual desire to destroy each other. An almighty battle was on the cards.
The Chronicle of Holyrood gives us the best account of the battle: "In the year 685 King Ecgfrith rashly led an army to waste the province of the Picts, although many of his friends opposed it...and through the enemy's feigning flight he was led into the defiles of inaccessible mountains, and annihilated, with great part of his forces he had brought with him."
The Angles were advancing up Strathmore, probably aiming for the Pictish fortress of Dunnottar, when they fell into Bridei's trap. Sighting a Pictish warband, the Angles set off in pursuit, then, as they came over the cleft in Dunnichen Hill, they found themselves confronted by the main body of the Pictish army. Caught between the Picts and the loch below the hill, the Angles bravely faced their doom.
The politcal map was altered. The Picts, Gaels and many Britons were freed from Northumbrian overlordship. Gaelic poets as far away as Ireland celebrated the battle's outcome. The Pictish frontier returned to the River Forth near Edinburgh and the Bishop of Abercorn fled, never to return. The Angles never fully recovered as major force in Scotland.
It is no coincidence that the Picts mysterious disappearance occurs at the same time as the creation of the kingdom of Alba. For many years Gaelic influence in Pictland had been on the rise. The Gaelic religion of Christianity had spread throughout Pictish lands and with it many Gaelic traditions. Furthermore, through a mixture of conquest and inter-marriage Gaelic or Gaelicised royalty had succeeded to the Pictish throne (a notable example of this being Kenneth MacAlpin).
Finally in 878 AD the Pictish king, Áed, was murdered and replaced by a Gael - Giric. Giric accelerated the Gaelic takeover of Pictish politics during his reign making the Gaelic language and traditions commonplace. Even after Giric was finally deposed in 889 AD future Pictish kings such as Donald and Constantine embraced Gaelic culture. By 900 AD Pictland ceased to exist. The reign of Donald is listed in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba as a king of Alba. Pictland and Dál Riata had gone and in their place Alba - a Gaelic word for Scotland - was created. In this simple listing in an obscure book Scotland has its origins.