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The Celtic Picts of Scotland

Suzette is a retired teacher who has been writing online for more than 10 years.

Who Were the Celtic Picts?

In my opinion, the Celtic Picts are one of the most interesting Celtic tribes in the British Isles. They inhabited the area we now know as Scotland, north of the rivers Forth and Clyde. They were a dominant force in the region for at least 600 years, and their neighbors were the Gaels, Britons, Angles and Vikings.

This mysterious, enigmatic Celtic tribe had some unusual features: the tattoos that covered their entire bodies and the war paint they wore in battle to frighten their enemies. In fact, they were called "Picts" by the Romans because they were "painted people." Even today, we don't know what they called themselves.

Three drawings of Celtic Pict men and women with tattoos covering their bodies. "Pict" was a Roman term meaning "painted ones."

Three drawings of Celtic Pict men and women with tattoos covering their bodies. "Pict" was a Roman term meaning "painted ones."

Brief History of the Picts

During the late Iron Age and early Medieval periods, the Picts were a tribal confederation of Celtic peoples living in ancient eastern and northern Scotland. They were fierce warriors who stopped the invasions of the Romans and the Angles in their lands north of the rivers Forth and Clyde. Yet they were a mysterious people who suddenly disappeared from Scotland and history during the Dark Ages.

The Picts spoke the now-extinct Pictish language, which was thought to be related to the Brythonic languages spoken by the Britons who lived south of them in England. Very little of Pictish writing has survived, so what we know of their culture comes from archaeological digs and finds. For example, we know that the Pictish society was typical of Celtic tribes during the Iron Age in Northern Europe and that they traded with neighboring tribes.

Because they left no written records or histories behind, much of what we know about their time in Scotland stems from the Pictish stones and the Brythonic place name elements still found in the region. We also know about Pictish history from Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentic Anglorum, which was written around the late 6th century, and from various Irish annals.

Where Did the Picts Come From?

The first time the Picts appear in writing is in the chronicles of the Romans, who had invaded Briton in 43 AD and stayed until the 10th century. The Picts are believed to be descendants of the Celtic Caledonii tribe and other Celtic tribes mentioned by the Roman historians or found on Ptolemy's world map.

Historians believe that a Pictish federation of Celtic tribes was formed partly as a response to the growth and northern movement of the Roman Empire. How and why this happened is not known today. Speculation is that they banded together to stop the Roman Empire from seeking their lands north of Hadrian's Wall.

This map shows where Britons, Scots and Picts lived 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.

This map shows where Britons, Scots and Picts lived 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.

Timeline of the Picts: Key Figures and Events

When the Angles of Bernicia overran the British kingdoms, one of which was the Anglian kingdom of Deira, they became the most powerful kingdom in Britain. Deira and Bernicia together were called Northumbria.

It is believed the Picts were probably a tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Brideimac Beli in 685 AD. The Anglicans suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Dun Nectain that stopped their northward expansion. The Picts sent the Angles back south to Britain.

By the mid 9th century, Vikings had destroyed the kingdoms of Dal Riata and Northumbria, greatly diminished the power of the Kingdoms of Strathclyde and founded the Kingdom of York. During a major battle in 839 AD, the Vikings killed the King of Fortriu, Eogan man Oengusa.

Sometime in the 840s AD, Cinaed mac Alpin (Kenneth MacAlpin) became the king of the Picts. He united the Picts and the Scots, and together these tribes formed the new Kingdom of Scotland. At this time, they routed out the Vikings.

What Happened to the Picts?

It is believed that, over several decades, the Picts merged with the Gaels. Pictland, also called Pictavia, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba, which eventually came to be called Scotland.

Alba expanded, absorbing the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Bernician Lothian. By the 11th century, historians believe the Pictish people and their identity had been subsumed into the "Scots" conglomeration of people.

During the Dark Ages, the Pictish language did not suddenly disappear, but a process of Gaelicisation (which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reign of Kenneth MacAlpin. Eventually, the inhabitants of Alba became fully Gaelicised Scots, and the Pict identity was forgotten. Later in British Isles history, the idea of the Picts as a Celtic tribe was revived in myth and legend.

More About the Name "Picts"

We don't actually know what the Picts called themselves because "Pict" is what the Romans called this Celtic people. The Latin word Picti appears first in a panegyric written by Eumenius around 297 AD. As mentioned previously, the word means "painted or tattooed people." Picti seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus.

Old English called these people Pechts, and the Welsh called them Fichti in ancient writings from Ireland. The name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (the modern Irish Cruithne) was given to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster.

We have only heard these names second- or thirdhand from speakers of the Brythonic or Gaelish language as Pictish written recorded history did not begin until the Dark Ages.

This is the Indo-European Language Tree; the Pictish Celtic languages are branches.

This is the Indo-European Language Tree; the Pictish Celtic languages are branches.

The Language of the Picts

Although the Picts were a Celtic tribe and loosely connected by language, the Pictish language has not survived. During the 5th century, Pictish came under increasing pressure and influence from the Gaelic language of Dal Riata until its eventual replacement. Evidence of a Pict language is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments and the contemporary records.

What this evidence tells us today is that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages. The Pict languages are related to the southern Brythonic languages.

Pictish Place Names

Place names prove the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. The Brythonic prefixes Aber-, Llan- and Pit- in modern place names indicate regions inhabited by Picts from the past:

  • Aberdeen
  • Lhanbryde
  • Pitmedden

Place names also show the emergence of the Gaelic languages into Pictland. During the 8th century, the word Atohll meant "New Ireland" and was an indication of the Gaelic influences on the Pict languages.

Medieval Welsh traditions credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts. Wales has traced their principal royal families—the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefwr—and King Cunedda Wiedig to the Pict language, and the Picts are said to have invaded North Wales from Lothian.

Theories About the Language

There are several theories on the origins of the Pict language:

  1. It's an Insular Celtic language allied with the P-Celtic (Brythonic) language (Welsh, Cornish Cumbria, Breton and Brittonic).
  2. It's an Insular Celtic language allied with the Q-Celtic (Goidelic) language (Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx).
  3. It's a Germanic language allied with Old English, the predecessor to the Scots language.
  4. It's a Pre-Indo-European language, a relic of the Bronze Age.

Most historians and linguists today attribute numbers one and two to the Pict language and agree that Pictish was a branch of the Brythonic language. They do not believe today that numbers three and four are attributed to the Pict language.

Pictish influenced the development of Modern Scottish Gaelic by influencing the syntax of Scottish Gaelic. Therefore, it bears greater similarity to the Brythonic language than does Irish Gaelic. Evidence of place names and personal names demonstrates that Insular Celtic languages related to a more southern Brythonic language that was formally spoken in the Pictish area.

Today, Scottish Gaelic, unlike Irish, maintains a substantial closeness to Brythonic loan words and uses a verbal system modeled on the same pattern as Welsh.

Research on the Language

Throughout history, historians and linguists have looked into the Pictish language.

  • In 1582, George Buchanan aligned the Pictish language with Gaulish, a P-Celtic language.
  • George Chalmers in the early 19th century considered Pictish and Brittonic one and the same. P-Celtic orthography in the Pictish king lists and place names were predominant in historically Pictish areas.
  • Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes published a philological study in Irish annals and stated that Pictish was closely related to Welsh.
  • Toponymist William Watson also did research on Scottish place names and concluded that the Pictish language was a northern extension of British and that Gaelic was later introduced from Ireland.
This is an archaeological dig in the village of Rhynie, Scotland, showing Pict drawings.

This is an archaeological dig in the village of Rhynie, Scotland, showing Pict drawings.

Modern Archaeological Finds From the Picts

In 2013, archaeologists Dr. Gordon Noble (University of Aberdeen) and Dr. Meggen Gondek (University of Chester), who are both co-leaders of the Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP), led an archaeological dig of a medieval settlement and unearthed significant Pict artifacts. This was one of the first large-scale digs at this kind of site.

What Was Found

They consider this find to have been a Pict seat of power in the tiny Scottish village of Rhynie. The remains are of what would have been an elaborate system of defensive enclosures, including two deep ditches and a massive timber palisade. The dig also yielded remains of further wooden structures, including evidence of buildings.

The archaeologists unearthed Pict artifacts and a collection of eight Pictish symbols, all dated to approximately 400–900 AD. The symbol stones provide a record of the Picts' identity, beliefs and lifestyle, although the carvings have not yet been translated at the time of this writing.

Significance of the Findings

According to Dr. Gondek, "This is one of the most significant finds of early medieval imported goods in the north of Brittany." It shows "an important force in power politics of early medieval Scotland."

This archaeological finding is important because very little is known about the power structures and centers of the Picts. Noble and Gondek believe this find provides an exciting opportunity to find out more about how power was consolidated when the first kingdom of Scotland was emerging.

According to Dr. Noble, the findings of this dig will affect how we understand the trade networks and political relationships during this period. He states that the imported pottery found at the dig is highly significant, and it suggests that Rhynie had political trading links with the kingdoms of the west.

Dr. Noble said, "With this excavation, we are getting the real physical evidence of who they were as a people—we just have to keep digging to find out more."

This is a Scottish medieval ethnicity map reflecting when Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and Scots.

This is a Scottish medieval ethnicity map reflecting when Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and Scots.

The Discovery of a Genealogical Pict Marker

In 2013, Dr. Jim Wilson, a senior lecturer in population and disease genetics at the University of Edinburgh and chief scientist of the ancestry testing company ScotlandsDNA, discovered a DNA marker that suggests that 10% of Scottish men (one out of ten) are directly descended from the Celtic Pict tribe. With this new information, the mystery of the disappearance of the Celtic Pict tribes from the Late Iron Age may have been solved.

Dr. Wilson found a Y chromosome marker arising among the direct ancestors of the Picts. He concluded that this is the "first evidence that the heirs of the Picts are presently living among us."

Prevalence of the Marker

He tested the father line marker and found R1b-S530 in more than 3,000 British and Irish men. It is ten times more common in those with Scottish grandfathers than those with English grandfathers.

Out of those tested, a total of 170 men presently living in Scotland have been found to carry this Pict marker, although Dr. Wilson believes the number to be far higher. Ten percent of more than 1,000 Scottish men tested carry the R1b-S530 marker, and only 0.08% of English men have it.

Wilson further found that only 3% of the men in Northern Ireland carry the Pict lineage, and it was only seen once in more than 200 men from the Republic of Ireland. It is believed that the presence of this marker in Northern Ireland came from the plantations of Lowland Scots in the 16th and 17th centuries.

What was surprising to Wilson was the really huge difference between Scotland and England. According to Wilson, "It is a clear sign that, while people do move around, there remains a core who have remained at home." He continued, ". . . if we can see that about 10% of the father lines look to have Pictish origin, then we can make the prediction that probably a lot of other lines do."

What This Research May Reveal About Pictland

Wilson also agrees with what historians have found over the years about ancient Pictland. It has been defined by historians as the area where Pictish symbol stones and Pictish place names are found, such as those that have the prefix Pit- or Pett-.

This heartland lies in Scotland, north of the River Forth, and Pictish names are seen specifically in Fife, Perthshire, Tayside, the northeast and around the Moray Firth coastlines. Within Scotland, there is a strong concentration of the R1b-S530 group in these areas.

It has always been assumed that the Picts disappeared, but with the discovery of the Pict genealogical marker, history has been rewritten. It is now believed that the Picts were overtaken by political events and became assimilated by incoming Scots invading from Ireland.

And, with Scottish men today having the Pict marker in their DNA, it is obvious that the Picts never completely disappeared.

Sources

BBC Scotland's History. (2014). The Kingdom of the Picts. BBC. www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/kingdom_of_the_picts/.

University of Aberdeen. (n.d.). https://www.abdn.ac.uk/.

Ross, S. (2013, March 25). One in ten Scots men descended from Picts. The Scotsman. https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/one-ten-scots-men-descended-picts-1583551.

Comments

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on April 27, 2016:

Yes, I find the Pics fascinating. DNA has really changed what we know about these ancient tribes and how they affect us in our lives today. DNA is opening a startling array of information about ourselves and those before us.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on March 24, 2016:

What a fascinating read! I remember being young and reading about the mysterious Picts, how they had disappeared. How wonderful it is today, with DNA testing and linguistic studies, how we have been able to learn so much more about those previously hidden histories.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 07, 2015:

Snakesmum: I agree with you, the Pict history is unusual and interesting. The tatooing of their bodies was way ahead of its time. LOL! I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and that you stopped by.

Snakesmum on February 24, 2015:

Interesting hub - didn't know much at all about the Picts and their history, and surprised they came from present day Ireland. They appear to have been a very independent people.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 22, 2014:

Thank you Theresa. Yes, when I saw the royal couple in New Zealand and saw the Maori that greeted them, the Picts were very much like them in the tattoo area - all over the body. This was interesting to research and write as I knew little of the Picts myself.

Thanks for you visit and input.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on July 21, 2014:

suzette - Very, very interesting. I had heard occasional references to the Picts over the years, but never knew who they were or what happened to them. Very interesting that 10% of men in Scotland carrying the Pictish marker. The total body tatoos reminded me (kind of) of the Maori of New Zealand?Australia. Hope all is well. Theresa

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 12, 2014:

Thank you so much, Pamela for your kind comments. I would like to do DNA testing on myself sometime too. I think it is so interesting that we can do that today. It certainly answers a lot of questions. I find the Celts in any of the British Isles to be so interesting - I love their culture and what they achieved with so little available in those days. Thanks so much for your interest and visit. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 12, 2014:

Thanks, Audrey for taking the time to read this. I find the Celts to be so interesting. I appreciated your interest.

Pamela Dapples from From Canada to Hawaii and now In Arizona. on June 12, 2014:

This was so interesting. I learned a lot. Makes me want to do the DNA testing. And I remember asking a professor in the mid 1990's while I was in his Medieval Studies class, "Who were the Picts?" He paused, became silent and then said, "That's a good question. I'm going to start studying and try to find out." You've answered the question very succinctly. Voting way up and sharing on Pinterest.

Audrey Howitt from California on June 11, 2014:

What a wonderful hub!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 10, 2014:

Nell: From what I can find, the Scots and Irish Gaelic are different, but the Scots inhabited what is today Ireland. Irish Gaelic came to Ireland from Galicia in Spain. Scottish Gaelic came from Britain and the Brythonic Insular Celt languages. This is really getting confusing, but interesting.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 10, 2014:

Nell: I was amazed by that fact too, that the Scots originally came from Ireland. Now the question is who are the Irish and where did they come from? So glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks for your comments. Most appreciated.

Nell Rose from England on June 09, 2014:

How amazing that Scots originated from Ireland! Who knew?! lol! and the picts were a fascinating lot, I love the mystery that surrounds them. Amazing to thing that they still have dna traces in Scotland today with the modern population! Wonderful hub Suzette! Totally amazing, voted up and shared, nell

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

epbooks: Thank you so much for your comments. I am going through a period of Celtic history interest and found the Picts to be so interesting with their all body tattoos. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

Martie, thank you. I find these Celtic tribes to be so interesting and especially the Picts, because of the whole body tattoos. Even the women and children did this. Thanks so much for your visit and comments. Most appreciated.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on June 09, 2014:

Wow- you've really done your research. Very interesting hub!!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on June 09, 2014:

Fascinating history. I enjoyed every word of it. I hope researchers will discover more facts about the Picts. Well done, Suzette :)

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