The People of the Arthurian Age, Episode III: The Picts

There have been several references in my last few posts to a mysterious people known as the Picts, so it’s about time that I talk a little about them. They don’t have a major part in The Retreat to Avalon, the first book of The Arthurian Age, but they have a major impact on Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries, resulting in much of what leads to the ascendance of King Arthur.

The Picts, from the Latin “Picti”, or “Painted Ones”, was a collective name for some of the Iron Age tribes of Scotland. By the medieval period, they were mainly in northeast Scotland, but there is evidence that, early on, they lived all across Scotland, including the southern part, alongside Brittonic tribes.

Vicortian depictions of Picts
19th Century drawings of Picts based on ancient descriptions.

They were called Picti because they either painted themselves for war (leaving aside the historical inaccuracies, recall the woad-blue painted Scots in “Braveheart“), or were tattooed. Perhaps both, but not necessarily all of them. While there seem to be many cultural and language similarities between the Picts and their southern neighbors, the Britons, this particular cultural feature appears to set them apart in the eyes of the Romans.

Picts plagued the Romans

Another feature is that while the Romans had pretty much pacified Britain in the first century, CE, they found the Picts and Britons of what would become Scotland to be a major headache. Forays into the region made it as far as Inverness, but never lasted for long in the face of relentless guerrilla warfare tactics. By the early third century, the Romans decided to stay behind Hadrian’s Wall. As Roman power waned in Britain, the Picts joined the Irish and Germanic tribes in devastating raids on the Britons south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Picts were not Scythians
Iron Age Scythians

So who were the Picts? Ancient sources believed they were conquerors from Scythia. No one believes that anymore, but it is curious that they were said to come from the birthplace of Indo-European culture (discussed in this post), which is what the Celtic languages come from. Perhaps this link was due to an ancient oral tradition lost to time?

Reconstruction of a Pict
Digital reconstruction of a Pict from a burial near Blair Atholl. From this article.

As I’ve said before, language and culture are closely tied. The Picts appear to have had a similar culture to the Irish and the Britons, and spoke a dialect of British “P-Celtic”, the language that would become Welsh, Cornish, Breton, etc. There are no surviving documents written in Pictish, which died out around 1,100 CE. We only know about the language, and how it relates to Brittonic, from names of people, usually on stone carvings, or in place names. It may be that the relative isolation of the Pictish tribes, and possibly the influence of the Pre-Celtic language of their ancestors, led to their dialect being different from their southern neighbors.

Update: A recent article (April 2023) discusses new research into Pictish genetics. I’m pleased to report that it supports what I wrote in this article.

A study of two new Pictish genomes shows Picts descended from Iron Age British populations

In any other respect, the Picts seem to have been much like their British, Irish and Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Irish bards described the Picts as being much like the Irish. The bards were likely comparing them to their other neighbors, the Romanized Britons. In general, they were the same as other Celtic cultures, as described in this article.

There is a belief that Pictish rulers followed matrilineal (traced through the mother’s line) succession. This comes from ancient Irish legends of the Picts and a mention in the writings of Bede, an eighth century Anglo-Saxon saint. However, this is probably not entirely accurate. Research suggests that matrilineal succession may have been an option, but what was more likely is that the Picts used a form of tanistry, in which a king would be succeeded by a brother before a young and inexperienced son.

Pictish roundhouse

The Picts were primarily a farming and pastoral society, moving their animals from fixed winter to summer pastures. They were accomplished seafarers, feared pirates, and likely traders. They had no towns, only a few very small settlements outside of major strongholds. The Picts were portrayed as primitive savages through much of history, but archaeology is proving that they had a vibrant culture of art and architecture at least comparable to their Anglo-Saxon contemporaries. In stone-carving, they showed incredible skill, able to draw complex animal and geometric designs.

Pictish stone carvings

So how do the Picts fit into the Arthurian Age? History and legend point to the depredations of the Picts as being the primary reason that Vortigern (the first High King of the Britons after the Romans left) invited Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to Britain. This has tremendous implications for Britain that set up the story of Arthur, and will be explored in Book 3 of The Arthurian Age trilogy.

Picts fighting Britons

For instance, in the ancient Welsh poem, “Who is the Gatekeeper?“, there is an interesting reference to Arthur fighting “Dog-Heads” at Din Eidyn (Edinburgh). This is likely a reference to a Pictish tribe or perhaps military unit. Many Celtic names used the term “hound” to indicate warrior status.

As discussed in previous posts, St. Ninian converted the Southern Picts (probably those of the Galloway and Strathclyde regions), and St. Patrick referred to apostate Picts- those who had been converted, but returned to pagan ways. Christianity did not take firm root over all of Pictland (or Pictavia) until about the seventh century.

Aberlemno Churchyard Pictish Carved Cross, (8th-9th C.)

It’s interesting that Britons and Picts could live in close proximity, under the same rulers, and yet note ancestral differences. Historical legend speaks of a Pict, Caw, who lived in the region of Alt Clut. In the obfuscation of the centuries, he is sometimes referred to as the King of Strathclyde, but we know from this article that Strathclyde was known as Alt Clut in his time, and was a kingdom of Britons. Alt Clut / Strathclyde was never ruled by Picts, despite their best efforts. Also, as discussed in this article, kingship was not a concrete concept in his time. What is more likely is that Caw was a warlord and client of the king of Alt Clut.

In The Retreat to Avalon, Caw is a neighbor to Gawain’s family, and there is tension between them. In the history and legends of Dark Age Britain, Caw and his family are a fascinating subject, full of surprising links, conflict and paradoxes. In the first book, there is a hint of these. We will see more in the upcoming The Strife of Camlann, Book 2 of The Arthurian Age. Until next time, thanks for stopping by, and please feel free to comment, ask questions or just say hi!

The Strife of Camlann
As promised, here is a sneak peak at one of the pictures from the upcoming, The Strife of Camlann.
One of these people is a Pict. Fantastic art by Luka Cakic.

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