The Picts

The Picts are a group of people who lived in Northern Britain during the Roman times and the traditional Arthur period. The Picts were some of the very first settlers of Scotland. There are myths that tell of their lineage, being apparently descended from the Celtic goddess “Brighid”. The first king of Scotland, Kenneth I, was a descendant from this line, and his mother was a Pictish queen. The beginnings of this ancient civilization dates back to 312, the first record consisting of a list of kings. The first recorded king of the Picts was called Vipoig, ruling from 312 to 342.

Fighting the Romans

For the Romans, who at the time controlled much of Britain, the Picts were nothing more than a group of savages who fought naked and with little weaponry, but time proved their fearsome prowess. The Roman Empire tried to enter their territory countless times, but the Picts fought back the greatest military force the world had ever known, and won every time. They were the only people that Rome’s legions couldn’t conquer.

The Romans where accustomed to win when they started their invasions to Britain. There was no powerful civilization they came into contact with that wasn’t conquered. The Roman legions were feared; nobody had ever encountered such formidable enemies.  But the Romans had never faced an enemy like this group. They were simply expecting another victory (and an easy one, as they thought of the Picts as land-people who simply lived in small communities, farmed, fished, with little to no knowledge about battles). At first, the Picts retreated when the Romans started fighting, so they thought that their troops proved their mastery. Nonetheless, such victory was no more than a flight of fancy. The Picts returned out of the woods when the Romans were setting a camp, so they were caught unaware and were massacred by the Picts. They used the same treachery over and over: they gave the Romans a false sense of security, only to strike at them when their guard was down. They would lure the Roman cavalry away from their infantry, and a second squad would massacre them.

Their History and Origin

The Picts were invading Britain during the time of the Roman withdrawal. The legend says that Vortigern invited the Saxons to oppose them. Monmouth says that the Picts opposed Arthur and that he might had them wiped out. Bede says that Picts arrived after the Britons, coming from what today would be Ukraine. Monmouth says that the Picts’ immigration happened under King Sodric’s ruling. They have been linked to the Basques of Spain, and believed to be Goths during the 18th century. Another theory claims that they came from Norway or Scandinavia. Even though they spoke Celt, it’s not very clear if they were closely related to other Celtic people. Apparently, no written record is really left of them and not even their neighbors seemed to socialize with them, as they didn’t even mention them. That’s why the Romans were the first ones to ever talk about the Picts.

Characteristics of the Picts

The colorful tattoos of the Picts The name of “Picts” came from the Romans who observed them. Apparently, “Pict” is a derivation of “the painted” or “the tattooed”, in reference of the blue tattoos that covered the Picts’ bodies. The Roman sources tell that they shaved every part of the body, except for the head and upper lip. The only clothing they wore were iron chains around their waists and throats, as iron was considered (by them) to be more valuable than gold. Picts also used them to carry their weaponry. Otherwise, their bodies were tattooed from head to toe with designs, drawings of animals, and simply-colored tattoos. They were, in fact, so beautiful that the Romans thought they didn’t dress in order to show their tattoos off.

Still, the Picts might have been wronged as a civilization. Far from the primitive people of popular culture, they built a sophisticated culture that surpassed the Anglo-Saxons in many aspects. Some recent studies show an important archaeological discovery in Scotland, a Pictish monastery at the peninsula of Easter Ross (Portmahomack), that shows how capable of great art and architecture they really were. Said monastery, apparently centered on a church that was the house of 150 workers and monks, was similar to the religious center of St. Columba at Iona, and they might have made gospel books of the likes of the Book of Kells and religious artifacts too. Some architectural historians discovered that the Picts built the monastery using the proportions of “the Golden Section” (a name given to a mathematical principle during the Renaissance). It can also be appreciated in Notre Dame Cathedral and the Egyptian Pyramids. Such techniques were seen as too advanced for the Picts, but this proves their real capabilities.

The Decline of the Picts

The monastery met with a major fire in the 9th century were many sculptures were shattered, implying that it was sacked by the Vikings during their intent of territory expansions in Scotland. The site was still occupied but the monastic evidence vanished. The Picts (who were slowly converted to Christianity) and Scots through their shared religion joined forces against a mutual enemy, thus creating the Kingdom of Scotland.

Despite their fearless warrior culture and advanced constitution, they more or less vanished during the 10th century. During that time, Scotland became controlled by the Scots, (who were Irish Gaels), and the Picts’ language was replaced by Gaelic, losing their cultural identity in the process. Their kingdom was completely transformed into “The Kingdom of Alba” and that’s where the traces of their culture were lost (more or less during 1100). Martin Carver, professor of archaeology says that “The Picts have always been an attractive lost people, they are one of the most interesting lost peoples of Europe. The big question is what happened to them, and did they ever really make a kingdom of their own?” The feral Picts that the Roman Empire couldn’t conquer simply faded and left little to no trace of their existence.

Recent Comments

  • Mr. Kim L. Hubbard
    December 17, 2019 - 12:47 am · Reply

    Jason, I am currently doing some genealogical research into the maternal side of my ancestry, which was from Northern Scotland, of the McArthur clan, specifically. In the process of my research, I came across some very basic history of the PICTS, but had never even heard of the, before. I had also heard that the PICTS have no descendants that can be traced through DNA. Is this true and, if so, how could their DNA have been wiped out? If not, are their any direct descendants that can be traced? They are certainly a mysterious people and your research into their history is quite fascinating. Any help would be deeply appreciated. Be well. Cheers, Kim L. Hubbard

    • Jason Hamilton
      December 19, 2019 - 11:21 am · Reply

      I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much help, as I’m not an expert in the science of that. Though I am about to start a book on DNA and the British Isles. It’s called Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland. I don’t know if it covers the Picts, but you can check it out if you want.

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