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.
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
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
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
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.