Early Cultures: The Picts


Human civilization, first comprised of Neolithic populations originating in Spain and France, has existed in the area defined as present-day Scotland since approximately 8,500 B.C.E.

The discovery of distinctive spiral grooves carved into many rocks and boulders throughout northern and northeastern Scotland serves to link these early settlers to their contemporaries in Spain, France, and Ireland. Many centuries later there is evidence of emigration by the Beaker Folk from northern and central Europe. Archaeological evidence of pre-Celtic occupants has been found throughout Scotland in the form of chambered burial cairns and a wide distribution of stone circles. The earliest of these standing stones dates from about 3,300 B.C.E., which roughly coincides with the most widely accepted approximate date of the arrival of the Beaker Folk. It is likely that these two populations would have coexisted and eventually merged to become ancestors of the Picts, so named by the Romans from the Latin “pictus” (“painted”), for their affinity for painted and tattooed skin.

Little is known of the early history of the Picts, but the invading Romans soon felt the effects of their unswerving devotion to homeland. For hundreds of years the Romans waged war on the Picts, killing their tribal chiefs and kings at every opportunity; however, Roman efforts were never sufficient to completely defeat them or to gain a permanent stronghold in the land upon which they lived. The Picts harrassed the Romans in return, defending their borders by burning newly-built Roman forts and slaughtering soldiers, until the Emporer Hadrian ordered the construction of a great wall in order to prevent the southerly advance of the Picts and to minimize further casualties and loss of territory.

Hadrian’s wall spanned 70 miles of Scotland, the entire breadth of the country from coast to coast, but did little to subdue the Picts. They continued to attack, and soon a second wall north of Hadrian’s was begun. The Antonine Wall was 39 miles long and contained 20 forts which were manned by Roman legions for over 40 years. Still the battles continued, and the legions lost and regained the wall twice before making a final retreat to Hadrian’s wall in sheer desperation.

A temporary truce finally came in 208 C.E. when Septimus Severius sailed into the Firth of Forth with 40,000 Roman centurions. The ensuing battles must have been of such severity that both sides thereafter maintained their distance either side of Hadrian’s wall, and an uneasy peace lay between them for nearly a hundred years.

The Picts continued to wage war elsewhere, engaging the Scots in the west, the Britons and Angles in the south, and the Vikings in the north.

During the lifespan of the unified Pictish culture, they are believed to have had 69 kings in a matrilinear society, in which the aristocratic bloodline was bestowed by the mother within a complex system of intermarriage between seven royal houses. In Pictish society, kings were not succeeded by their sons, but by their brothers, cousins, or nephews. It was because of this custom of matrilinear ascension that in the year 845 A. D. the kingship passed to Kenneth MacAlpin, already king of Alba (Scotland), and a Celtic Scot whose mother was a Pictish princess. His kingship marked the beginning of the end for the Picts as a distinct cultural entity in early Britain, for soon after his ascension, legend would place responsibility for the murder of every remaining member of the seven Pictish royal houses squarely on the shoulders of Kenneth MacAlpin.

The Picts continued to resist Scottish domination even after their aristocracy was exterminated, but they were outmanned and outmaneuvered. The Scots formed critical alliances with the Vikings in the north and the Angles in the south, and were able to decimate the Pictish army and overrun their religious sites. Within a span of only three generations of MacAlpin kings, the Pictish culture completely disappeared.

Since the Picts, like the neighboring Celts to the south, never adopted the custom of passing traditions and a comprehensive history to subsequent generations in writing, what remains today of the legacy of the Picts are unverifiable lists of the 69 Pictish kings, multitudes of beautifully carved stones and crosses, and the words of Roman poets and historians who described them primarily as a fierce and barbaric race. It is through the critical examination of these same words that we learn both the best and worst of the Picts: they were warlike, indeed, but very nearly invincible in the defense of hearth and home.