A New History o Scotland, Pairt 1: Wha were the Pechts?

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bi Stuart McHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
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The past couple o decades haes seen a growein interest in the Picts, the auld fowk that were bidin in Scotland whan the Romans invadit fae England.  Ower the centuries ther haes been monie theories o wha they were an whaur they’d come frae.  Nouadays wi advances in archaeology an ither areas we hae whit micht be a clearer notion than ivver afore. Mebbe.

The first thing tae realise is that they didnae get their name fae the Romans.  Aw the evidence pynts tae them haein a name amang their neebors somethin like Pech, or Pecht, that jist happens tae be the name they kept in oor ain oral traditions.  When the Roman uised the term Pict (an the first o them that screived Pict, uised it twice an Pect aince) they seem tae hae meant awbody north o Hadrian’s Wa, no the short term Antonine Wa that ran fae the Forth tae the Clyde.

Ane o the problems we hae is that sooth o Hadrian’s Wa the Roman Empire ruled fer fower hunder year – up here the langest potential, limitit, military occupation wis aroun fifteen year, but historians (mebbe jist a wee bittie influenced by the ideas o the British Empire) have aye biggit up the Romans’ influence in Scotland.  Mind this – they conquert England but they didnae conquer here.  

Aw evidence pynts tae the Picts bein the descendants o the oreeginal,indigenous fowk o Scotland – warrior tribes wi subsitence economies based roun the keepin o cattle.  In years eftir the Romans left – at the stairt o the 5t century – things began tae cheenge an wi near constant pressure fae the expandin kingdom o Northumbria in north-east England, the northren tribes were forced intae becoming mair centralized.

Ae suggestion is that the southren Scottish tribes merged into the Gododdin in the east an the fowk on the west as far north as the Clyde cam thegither as the Britons o Strathclyde.  North o them aw the tribes held on tae the auld name o Pict, an it’s fae them that the development o the eventual Pictish kingdom cam aboot.  

Aw o them seem likley tae hae been speakin variants o an auld leid like Welsh. Ower in the west, in Argyll, were anither bunch o tribes – the Scots, that spoke a different variant o the auld Celtic speech that survives till the day as Gaelic. We wuidnae be far fae the mairk gin we thocht o aw these differin tribes o fowk as cousins.

Oniewey, history, archaeology an linguistics aw pynt tae the fact that the Scots were likely natives o Scotland, the same as the Picts, an certainly hadnae come ower fae Ireland in the 5t or 6t century.  The raisoun we hae gotten sic a tale seems likely tae hae been doun tae ‘spin’ bi early Christian missionaries keen tae bigg up the pouer an influence o Columba an his fowk, that aw did come fae Ireland.  They spreid out fae Dalraida an in time convertit the haill kintra tae the new releegion, tho vestiges o the auld weys survived a lang time, mebbe some place even til the day.

In the 7t century the expansionist Angles o Northumbria cam gey near tae takkin ower the haill o Scotland but were routit at the Battle o Dunnichen in 685, a battle which paved the wey fer the lang term creation o Alba, later cried Scotland.  Dunnichen is a guid example o hou murky our auld historie cin be wi fowk still airgiein the day ower whither it wis focht near Forfar or Aviemore.

Fer a vareity o raisouns there are nae real early sources o hitory survivin in Scotland an we maun aye rely on whit ithers seyed.  Ower the century eftir Dunnichen there are reports o a wheen o battles focht in Pictland, sometimes atween Picts and Scots, ithers atween Picts an Britons an a few atween the Picts theirsels.  

These have aye been considert tae be pairt o some dynastic struggle but gien the nature o tribal society they micht hae been mair like inter-clan battles.  Eftir aw the Romans described the Pcits as bein ‘addicted to raiding’ an this wis somethin the Embra an London governments were still sayin aboot the Highland clans up til the 18t century.  As time went bi there are records o Picts leadin the Scots an, apparently Scots leadin the Picts an again the notion o them bein like cousins wuid seem tae mak sense.

Bi the time the Vikings began their raidin at the stairt o the 9t century there had been instances o Picts and Scots haein the same King, or high chief or whitivver he micht hae been, the name o king, while jist whit educated Christian screivers wuid aye uise, is no necessarily fittin tae whit seems tae hae been, fer a gey lang time, essentially a tribal warrior society.

In the case o the invadin Norsemen there is litte wunder that the Picts an Scots were lookin tae band thegither, fer they cam near tae takkin ower the haill o Scotland an endit up wi control o maist o the Hebrides, the Northren Isles and near aw the mainland north o Inverness.   Fer monie years fowk thocht there had been some kin o conquest o the Picts bi the Scots, but modren thinkin sees them comin thegither thru an alliance o ae kin or anither. Nouadays some fowk reckon that Kenneth Macalpine, lang seen as the first king o Alba, wis as muckle o a Pict as a Scot. Fae the 9t century onwards this combined kingdom,or nation, wis cried Alba, onlie later cheengin tae Scotland an tho the Pictish leid seems tae hae deid oot bi the 12t century, the Picts themsels are still amang us, or their descendants oniewey.

So ye micht say that the Picts are the ancestor fowk o Scotland and gin ye want tae, ye cuid include the Scots in that forbye.

Pairt 2 neist week

Stuart McHardy is a screiver an shennachie an is the author o A New History of the Picts, publisht bi Luath Press in 2011.