A New History of Scotland, Part 1: Who were the Picts?


by Stuart McHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

Over the past couple of decades there has been a growing interest in the Picts, the ancient people living in Scotland when the Romans invaded from England.  Over the centuries there have been many theories as to who they were and where they came from.  With recent advances in archaeology and other disciplines it is possible we can now see them clearer than in the past.  Perhaps.

The first thing we should realise is that they weren’t given their name by the Romans.  All the evidence points to them having been called something like Pech or Pecht, a name that has survived in oral tradition.  When the Romans used the term Pict (and in the document that first mentions Pict, it is written Picti and Pecti).  They seem to have been referring to all the tribal peoples north of Hadrian’s Wall, not just to north of the Antonine Wall that ran from the Forth to the Clyde.

One ongoing problem in our history is that south of Hadrian’s Wall the Roman Empire ruled for four centuries while in Scotland the longest continuous military occupation was no more than fifteen years.  But historians (perhaps somewhat influenced by the ideas of the British Empire) have always tended to play up Roman influence in Scotland.  We should always remember that though they conquered England, they didn’t conquer here.

Such evidence as we have suggests that the Picts were the descendants of the original, indigenous peoples of Scotland – warrior tribes living in subsistence economies based on cattle rearing.  After the Romans left Britain at the start of the 5th century things began to change and there was almost constant pressure on the Picts from the expanding kingdom of Northumbria in north-east England.  This forced all the northern tribes to become more centralized.

This perhaps accounts for the development of the Gododdin in the south east of Scotland while the people on the west as far north as the Clyde emerged as the Britons of Strathclyde.  To the north of them the tribes held onto the old designation of Pict, and here arose, over time, the historical kingdom of the Picts.

All of these peoples probably spoke a language akin to Old Welsh, while over in the west, were another tribal society, the Scots, who spoke a different variant of the old Celtic speech that survives today as modern Gaelic.  It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to think of all of these tribal peoples as cousins.

Recent research in history, archaeology and linguistics all strongly suggest that the Scots were most likely natives of Scotland, just like the Picts, and certainly didn’t come over from Ireland in the 5th or 6th century.  The reason such a story has survived is probably due to ‘spin’ by early Christian missionaries keen to enhance the prestige and influence of Columba and his companions who, of course did hail from Ireland.  Their mission spread out from Dalriada and over time the whole of Scotland was converted to Christianity,though  the vestiges of the old religion lingered for a long time, and might not yet have disappeared completely.

In the 7th century the expansionist Angles of Northumbria came very close to conquering all of Scotland but were routed by the Picts at the Battle of Dunnichen in 685.  This battle essentially laid the ground for the eventual creation of Alba, the earliest name for Scotland.  Dunnichen illustrates the murkiness of much of our history with people today disputing whether it took place near Forfar or Aviemore.

Due to a variety of reasons, invasions from the south mainly, there are few extant early sources of Scottish history and we have to look outside Scotland for records of the early period.  In the centuries after Dunnichen there are reports of a fair number of battles here, some between Picts and Scots, others between Picts and Britons, Britons and Scots and some between the Picts themselves.

These inter-Pictish battles have generally portrayed as dynastic struggles but given the nature of tribal society they may well have been more akin to inter-clan battles.  The Romans had described the Picts as being ‘addicted to raiding’, something the Edinburgh and London governments were still saying of the Highland clans as late as the 18th century.

As time went by there are references to Picts leading the Scots and Scots leading the Picts underlining the close relationship between the two,  By the time the Vikings raids began at the beginning of the 9th century there had been several instances of Picts and Scots having the same king, though we should remember that the term king was part of the mind set of the Classical and Biblically trained scribes we rely on.  Whether such men were kings as we understand the term, in light of the tribal nature of their societies, is perhaps open to question.  When it came to the massive incursions of the Norsemen we can see good reason for Picts and Scots looking to unite.

The Norsemen came close to conquering all of Scotland and for centuries did rule over most of the Hebrides, the Northern Isles and much of the mainland north of Inverness.  For a long time it was thought that the Picts had been conquered by the Scots but modern thinking is that they united in a relatively peaceful fashion.  Some even think that Kenneth Macalpine, long believed the first real king of Alba, was as much a Pict as a Scot.  From the 9th century onwards this combined kingdom, or nation, was called Alba, later being called Scotland and although the Pictish language seems to have disappeared by 12th century, the Picts themselves are still among us, or their descendants are.

It seems that the Picts are the ancestor people of modern Scotland and that the Scots too were once Picts.

Part 2 next week

Stuart McHardy is a writer and story-teller and is the author of A New History of the Picts, published by Luath Press in 2011.