pictish beast border

Pictish Nation

Picts based on symbol stone image, copyright Jennifer Morgan
This image, created by Jennifer Morgan, shows detail from a symbol stone found on the Brough of Birsay in Orkney, (or Dragon's Tooth Isle as it's called in Dragon Seer). The figure to the right is obviously a leader. His garment is fringed, his hair is curled and he carries an elaborate shield. The figure on the left is young. He has not yet grown a beard, which all Pictish men apparently wore. Symbol stones are one of our very few windows on Pictish life.

Who were the Picts? When the Romans invaded Britain in the first and second centuries AD, they found fierce warriors in the North. They called these people di Picti, which may mean "painted people" or "people who draw." The Picts lived across the north east of what is now Scotland, and Orkney was only a small part of their territory.

These Picts proved to be capable military opponents on both land and sea, and must have been well organized. We know the Picts continued to inhabit the north east of Scotland until the first half of the ninth century, early in the Middle Ages. Then the Picts disappeared as a separate people, absorbed through political changes and battles into the emerging nation of Scotland. The people living in the west of what is now Scotland were known as Dal Riata. They had moved into Scotland from Ireland, bringing with them Christianity and writing. Because they kept written records, we know much more about them. Perhaps because the Picts were slow to accept Christianity, we have no written records of their history, except things that were written down by outsiders who were often enemies.

Recent archaeological discoveries in Scotland suggest that some Picts were Christian. To find out more, you can visit the Tarbat Discovery Programme Page, which looks at the excavations of an ancient monastery in north east Scotland on the Moray Firth. The idea of a Pictish monastery suggests that the Picts may, in fact, have had written records which vanished. 

We know very little about the Picts. We don't know what name these people called themselves, what language they spoke, how they organized their society, or anything about the gods they worshiped or the stories they told. Their "material culture"--the tools they used, the kinds of cloth they wove, and the way worked metal for example, was all very similar to that of other people living in Northern Europe at the same time,
other peoples in Britain and the Norse in the Scandinavian countries. But in some ways, the Picts were quite different. The symbols they carved on their stone monuments and put on their jewelry were unique. Many peoples in Northern Europe at the time buried the dead with elaborate "grave goods," items from every day life that would serve the dead in the afterlife. The Picts did not do this, and their more simple burial customs suggest they practiced a very different kind of religion.

Maybe because so little is known about the Picts, they have attracted a great deal of attention and many strange theories. Almost all European languages spoken today are part of the same Indo-European family, so named because linguists can trace them all back to Sanskrit, which originated in India. Some people say the Picts spoke an older language belonging to an earlier time. Some believe the Picts placed more importance on the mother's line, having what is called a matrilineal society. There is very little evidence to support these theories. It seems likely that the Picts spoke a kind of Gaelic similar to that spoken in Wales and Brittany, the language used in England before the Anglo-Saxons brought their Germanic language which forms a good part of modern English.

For a very good overview of the Picts, visit
the Orkneyjar website, Who were the Picts?.

There is a strong archaeological record of Pictish occupation of Orkney--house sites, symbol stones, and many tools. But, unlike other parts of Northern Scotland, there are no "pit" or "aber" place names. Today, all the place names have Norse roots. The Norse conquest of Orkney seems to have been quite complete, but we have no idea how it happened. For a fine overview of the possible theories, you can visit the Orkneyjar website's page Pict and Viking: Settlement or Slaughter?
Or you can read Dragon Seer.   
 
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