The Picts were the first unified people who could be called a Scottish Nation. Their fascination for our own time is only matched (and at least partly caused) by the gaps in our knowledge about them. They left behind a considerable legacy of stone carvings, metalwork, and circular drystone fortifications called brochs (There are some excellent pictures of brochs on the PictLadyCat site). They left no written records until some time in the sixth century AD when Christianity was introduced and Church historians began to record their history. Much of what we know about them is derived from these records and those of the Roman Empire, who warred with the Picts periodically from the first to the fourth century. Neither of these sources is likely to have been entirely objective or mainly concerned with Pictish civilization per se.
The territory of the Picts was the East Coast of modern Scotland, north of the Firth of Forth and east of the mountain range sometimes called the Spine of Britain. Archeological evidence indicates that this area was inhabited at least from the third millennium BC, although little is known of these early peoples. During the first millennium BC, Celtic Britons began to push north and establish settlements; most likely, there was a long period of warfare and partial amalgamation.
The classic source of Pictish history is Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731 AD. Bede was a monk living in Northumbria, the British kingdom just south of the Picts. As was the custom, he presented his work to his king, Ceolwulf, when it was completed. The Northumbrians had been acquainted with the Picts for many generations, so it seems probably that Bede's information about them would have been in reasonable accord with what was known at the time. According to Bede, the Picts were originally from Scythia (many early historians seem to have assumed that any people of unknown origin came from there). This particular lot were seafarers and who had been driven by storms around the coast of Britain, finally making landfall in Northern Ireland. On their asking leave to settle, the Irish told them there was no room, but suggested they might find land across the eastern sea, and even offered to help if they met resistance. Since the Picts had no women with them, they were allowed to take Irish wives, with the stipulation that their kings should thereafter be chosen from the female royal line. Bede is generally considered a serious historian, able to distinguish myth from fact, but he was writing at least 700 years after the event, and it's hard to know how reliable his sources were. Modern historians accept that the Picts chose their kings from the maternal royal line, something that was not common then, and Bede's history would explain that. Whatever their origin, most (but not all) scholars believe the early Picts spoke a non-Celtic language, no trace of which has survived. One bit of evidence for this concerns St. Columba, an Irish cleric who founded a monastery on Iona in the Inner Hebrides in the year 565 and is credited with establishing Christianity among the Picts. Adomnan, abbot of Iona about 100 years later, wrote a Life of St. Columba in which he reports that the Saint had to speak to the Picts through an interpreter. It seems possible that they spoke a form of Gaelic which was modified by the Britons and possibly other peoples who ultimately became the Pictish nation.
Whatever the case, by the end of the first century AD, there was an identifiable Pictish people occupying eastern Scotland above the Firth of Forth. In 84 AD, Agricola, the Roman Governor of Britain defeated a much larger force of Caledonians at Mons Graupius, somewhere north of modern Aberdeen. (At this time, the Romans called the whole area Caledonia, without distinguishing among the various peoples inhabiting it.) The victory was transient at best: the following year, Agricola and his legions were recalled to Rome. The Romans abandoned their attempt to occupy the region and built Hadrian's wall from Solway Firth to the mouth of the Tyne, and the Antonine wall further north, in an attempt to defend their southern territory. This was mostly unsuccessful: the Caledonians attacked across the Antonine Wall in 181, and across Hadrian's wall in 196, when the Roman Governor Virius Lupus finally had to buy them off. In 208, the Emperor Severus invaded the north with a large force but the Caledonians held them off until Severus died in 211. Near the end of the third century, Emperor Constantius invaded again but was still unsuccessful when he died in 306. From this time forward, Roman historians started referring to the northern people as Picts, a name supposedly derived from their custom of painting or tattooing their bodies. Over the next hundred years, there were periodic raids across the wall driving the Romans back until they finally abandoned all of their outposts in Britain in 409.
THE SCOTTI AND CHRISTIANITY
During the 4th century, the Picts were sometimes joined in their raids to the south by Celts from the kingdom of Dalriada in northeast Ireland. They were known as Scotti and began to settle in southwest Scotland in the area of Argyll during the 5th century. They named their new territory Dalriada and originally considered it to be part of their homeland in Ireland. By this time also (and perhaps earlier) there was evidence for a division between Southern and Northern Picts, with the dividing line somewhere around Aberdeen. During some later periods, this may have amounted to virtual independence of the two areas. St. Patrick had arrived in Ireland around 434 and Christianity was well established there. With the Scotti settled in Scotland, it was natural for the Church to take an interest in that land. St. Ninian is said to have traveled to Scotland and preached among the southern Picts, probably early in the 5th century. Darlugdach, Abbess of Kildare, came to Scotland in the latter part of that century; early in her mission she met the Pictish king, Nechtan son of Erip, and he gave her land near Abernethy to found a church. The greatest figure in bringing Christianity to Scotland was St. Columba, an Irish missionary who came to Scottish Dalriada about 563. Brude son of Maelchon was King of the Picts, and in 560 had defeated the Dalriadans in battle. Early in his mission, St. Columba traveled to Brude's stronghold and baptized the King and many of his people. Brude in return granted Columba the island of Iona off the West Coast of Scotland on which to found a monastery. Until his death in 597, Columba continued to preach and establish monasteries and churches among both Picts and Dalriadans and Christianity became the predominant religion in Scotland. One result of this was the beginning of literacy and written records of history.
THE PICTISH CHRONICLE
One of the most important of these histories, and the only one attributed to Picts themselves, was the Pictish Chronicle, a list of the 69 Pictish Kings and the length of each one's reign. The Picts had never developed a calendar and like many early peoples, kept track of important events according to the King and the year of his reign in which the event happened. The earliest version of the Pictish Chronicle is dated to 971-995, although the earliest original document is a copy from the 14th century. Several other versions exist, the latest dated to 1317. The earliest version is considered the most accurate on the basis of comparison to the Irish annals. The Chronicle includes brief details of only three kings: Drust son of Erp, Nechtan son of Erip, and Brude son of Maelchon. The reference to Drust is questionable - it claims that he reigned for 100 years and fought 100 battles - . Examination of the Chronicle does tend to confirm two important elements of Pictish history. Maternal royal succession is suggested by the fact that no king is recorded as the son of his predecessor although several sets of brothers ruled in succession. The occasional political separation of the Northern and Southern Picts is suggested by instances where one king rules alone, then jointly with another king and finally one of them rules alone. This could indicate times when the two parts of the kingdom were reunited after a period of separation. The Kings of the Northern and Southern Picts might have agreed to rule jointly over the whole kingdom, with the survivor ruling alone and his successor chosen from the maternal line as before. It might also explain differences among the various versions of the Chronicle if each part of the kingdom kept its own records while they were separated. There is a list of kings from the Pictish Chronicle at Home of Cineat site.
UNITY AND DIVISION
Just after 600 AD, Ethelfrid, King of Bernicia in northern England, defeated the Dalriadan Scots at the battle of Degsastan. He then conquered the Kingdom of Diera and added it to his own domain, calling the new kingdom Northumbria. Edwin, the deposed King of Diera, allied himself with the East Angles and then in turn conquered Northumbria. Ethelfrid was killed in the battle and his three sons, Eanfrid, Oswald and Oswy, found refuge among the Picts and Scots and lived there for the next 17 years. In 633, Edwin was defeated and killed by an alliance of Mercians and Welsh, leaving Northumbria under the rule of the Welsh King Cadwallon. Eanfrid was killed trying to regain the Kingdom of Bernicia, but his brother Oswald defeated Cadwallon's army and established himself as King of all Northumbria. He was killed in 642 fighting against the Mercians in but his brother Oswy assumed the kingship, defeated the Mercians in 655; both brothers were recognized as bretwalda or overlord, by the other English Kings. According to Bede and to the Irish annalists, they were also recognized by the Picts and Scots; since no battles were recorded by either authority, this may have been more or less voluntary. This may be due to Oswald and Oswy growing up among the northern peoples and becoming Christians. Since both recognized the spiritual authority of Iona, this would have been a major advantage for the Picts and Scots. However there was a growing conflict between the Celtic Church, represented by Iona, and the Church of Rome. Under Oswy, the synod of Whitby was called in 664 and both Churches presented their cases. Oswy ultimately decided in favor of Rome and most of the Irish clergy, and some of the English returned to Iona. The Picts and Scots were drawn together by their common faith and their dissatisfaction with Northumbrian rule, but things remained quiet until the death of Oswy in 670. A few years after that, the Picts invaded but were disastrously defeated by Ecgfrith, son of Oswy, and much of the north was subjugated. In 685, Ecgfrith decided to consolidate his conquest of the north and invaded with a large force. The Picts met him at Nechtansmere where they destroyed him and most of his army, and regained control of the occupied parts of their Kingdom. The Dalriadan Scots also regained their independence and the two peoples maintained good relations until Nechtan, son of Derile became King of the Picts in 706. Nechtan decided the Roman Church was right after all, and in 717, expelled the Celtic Church from his kingdom. Most of the eighth century was a time of great confusion, with both Picts and Scots involved in civil wars and battles against each other. About 724, Oengus son of Fergus established his rule over all the Picts and about 734 conquered the Dalriadans as well. After his death in 761, there was another period of confusion until 789 when Constantine son of Fergus became King.
Beginning about 794, Viking raiders started ravaging the coasts of England, Scotland and Ireland. Their longships attacked at random, killing and looting, and setting fire to whatever was left; in 806, Iona was attacked and looted, and the religious community murdered. Cut off from Ireland and subjected to continual savage raiding, the Dalriadan Scots went through a period of political upheaval and about 810, submitted to the rule of Constantine. This was probably a union of necessity for both peoples, since their very survival was at risk, and the Scots seem to have accepted him as their legitimate ruler. Constantine and his brother Oengus, who succeeded him in 820, both called their unified kingdom Fortren, perhaps feeling that it would indicate a union of choice rather than of conquest which might have alienated the Scots. On the death of Oengus, there was another period of upheaval with several kings ruling successively over a divided kingdom and the Dalriadans renewing their claim to independence. In 839, the Vikings attacked in force and in a great battle, most of the Pictish nobility and many of the Dalriadans were killed. Kenneth mac Alpin had established himself as King of Dalriada after the battle, and his mother was a Pictish princess, giving him a claim to the Pictish throne through the matrilineal succession. About 841, he became King of the combined kingdom of Picts and Scots and spent the next several years regaining Pictish regions which had broken away under local kings. He and his successors continued to fight the Vikings, who had settled in the Western Isles and around the mouth of the Liffey in Southeast Ireland. By the time of his death in 858, Kenneth mac Alpin had established the Kingdom of Alba in the form that was to persist down to modern times.
By the end of the tenth century, the Picts and the Dalriadan Scotti, per se, seem almost to have ceased to exist; in reality, the change was more semantic than political. The Gaelic name for Scotland was Alba and that was the name Kenneth gave his kingdom. In the tenth century, when Irish annalists starting writing in their own language, that was the name they also used. In the twelfth century, native Scottish writers began referring to their country as Scotia (Latin for Scotland). Whatever its name, the kingdom ruled by the successors of Kenneth was still the Kingdom of the Picts and Dalriadan Scots, and its Kings traced their line back to Kenneth mac Alpin and the 69 Pictish Kings. The kingdom of the Picts never vanished at all: nowadays, it's simply called Scotland.
My main source for the information in this page was The Age of the Picts by W. A. Cummins, Sutton Publishing Limited, 1995. It's fairly dry reading in some places, but it has a lot of information and is well illustrated. I also referred to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, CD-ROM 99.
There are a number of good web sites on the subject:
DeborahAnne MacGillivray Rogers' PictLadyCat site has lots of information and graphics.
The Pictish Nation has a great deal of Pictish history and many web links
The Pictish Arts Society site well justifies its name
I would like to express my thanks to DeborahAnne (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sean O Gallchoir (email@example.com) for suggesting that I slighted the Picts in my Celtic History page. They were entirely right and I hope this page makes up for the lack.
May 4, 2000