Scotland the Brave Part Two: The Painted Ones

Who were these settlers of Scotland? Where did they come from? Where did they go? What were they like? Did they really paint themselves blue?

The Picts were, simply put, Celts. The earlier settlers of prehistoric Scotland such as the Caledonii of the northern Moray area (stretching to Sutherland in the west) gave way to the Picts. The Picts have been described as enigmatic, mysterious, and somewhat lost to the annals of history like a left footed sock. However, they are not as mysterious as one might think. Their history is well-documented in many cases, and new archaeological discoveries have shed light on their intelligence and the extent of their civilization.

Far from being mere painted barbarians rebelling against the advance of Rome, the Picts had an organized social structure. They had high kings and advanced artwork, and they were among the foremost stone carvers of that time period — Rome included.

The harper on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, cir...

An example of Pictish stone carving: The harper on the Dupplin Cross, Scotland, circa 800 AD (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most often cited descriptions of the Picts comes from Venerable Bede, an early medieval scholar and historian who detailed much of the history of northern England at the time and his kingdom of residence, Northumbria. At the time of his writing, he describes that the Picts and their southern neighbors were on speaking terms politically. Kudos to both sides for that, though as history would pluck up its irony harp, the Northumbrians were to blame for the eventual demise of the Pictish kingdom‘s influence — in Bede’s lifetime no less.

One of the more interesting references Bede makes in regard to the Picts is that their kings descended from the maternal line. The origins of this report are steeped in legend a bit like a cuppa you’ve gone and forgotten in the kitchen for half an hour. Legend states that when the Picts arrived in the British Isles (likely from Scandinavia), they first stopped by Ireland to politely inquire after some land. The inhabitants of Northern Ireland at the time (confusingly called Scots) said the Picts couldn’t sit there, but that there was a rather nice green island to the east visible on clear days, and they might fancy taking a wee maritime jaunt that-a-way.

According to this legend, the Picts had been a bit absentminded in their preparations for this new colonization attempt and had neglected to pack anyone with a set of…erm…double X chromosomes. To this the Scots responded that they’d be happy to give them a few of their own women under the condition that the Picts chose their kings from among the female line. So the Picts sailed away with their new wives and made a happy new home in what is now Scotland.

By examining the genealogy of Pictish kings, it does appear that the high kings were chosen by matrilineal succession, at the very least in some circumstances. (Bede states that this was most common when there was some dispute about succession, and it’s unclear how common of a practice it was.) What the role of women consisted of in Pictish culture is open to debate, but it would stand to some logic that if they valued women enough to acknowledge the passing of lineage through them (something not unheard of in other cultures, but still quite rare), they had some sort of social status.

This view is reinforced by an article by Dr. Ross Samson in “British Archaeology” in 1995 in which he supports the view of Pictish women holding a high amount of social stature relative to their foreign counterparts due to the number of symbol stones he believes to have been erected to mark their graves. According to Dr. Samson, one in five symbol stones (which he asserts were erected as memorials) seems to refer to women via the mirror and comb symbols carved into the faces of the stones. To put this number in perspective, in ancient Ireland, historians and archaeologists know the names of about 10,000 men — and only 200-300 women, or about 2%. If the Picts commemorated a staggering 20% of their women, that would be a tantalizing statistic indeed.

The Dunrobin stone with wonderfully preserved symbols. See the mirror and the comb at beneath the salmon and sword. Image via — if anyone knows the photo’s origin, do let me know.

The Picts were undoubtedly a warlike people — they defended their territory against the Romans first and then the people of northern England. Their name itself means “painted ones” loosely translated (An-Cruithne as dubbed by Irish Scots, which also indicates paint), and there is still some debate over precisely what that means. Most depictions (get it?) of the Picts do not show visible tattoos, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t exist — and their name could also refer to literal paint that would wash off and thus not feature largely in a legacy of artwork.

As is tradition in that northern bit of island, the Picts’ most famous battle at Mons Graupius involved them being outnumbered, outweaponed, and taking on a regimented force with singleminded courage. (Sound familiar? If not, see: Battle of Stirling Bridge, Battle of Falkirk, Battle of Bannockburn, Battle of Culloden to get a quick overview.) This particular painful battle left the Picts routed and dispersed — though not for long.

Not much is known about the religion of the Picts. It seems likely that they practiced a form of Celtic pantheism, but little is known of the religion that predominated their lands prior to their conversion to Christianity. What’s interesting is that following that conversion, some scholars referred to them as apostates. Why, I can’t say, but who doesn’t love a religious rebel? What is known is that by the eighth century, the Picts had constructed a monastery on Easter Ross that was producing chalices, metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts similar to the stunning Irish Book of Kells.

In addition to that, they were using the Golden Section or “Divine Proportion” in their architecture, which is a ratio of 1.618 to one — a ratio that is seen in nature in spiral shells and even in human faces considered to be beautiful. For all the talk of these Picts being howling barbarians, they seem to have treated their women well, valued art, and been capable of sophisticated mathematics. All of which are hallmarks of a cultured society.

Though their language is mostly undocumented — and what clues exist are subject to speculation and educated guesswork — it’s clear that the Picts were far more than roving warbands. They participated in politics and fought when necessary, and depending on whose tale you decide to ingest, their matrilineal form of succession ultimately gave birth to Cinead mac Ailpin (or, Anglicized, Kenneth Mac Alpin — the first King of Scots). Some myths say that mac Ailpin conquered the Picts, but historians of the 19th and 20th centuries have shied away from this view in favor of the first King of Scots being born of a Pictish mother and thus uniting the two peoples under a common ruler. It seems likely that these two groups, the long-established Picts and the Gaelic Scots who migrated from Ireland, simply intermarried and gradually smushed themselves into one jolly family with a common enemy to the south. And if that’s true, it might be a great argument against those who accuse the Scots of being too busy lopping off one another’s toes to create a unified nation — but that’s a discussion for another day.

Whichever way you slice with your claymore, the Picts have influenced the history and culture of a complex and beautiful land. Far from being a mystery cloaked in an enigma, there is concrete evidence of their existence and, more and more, of their sophistication as a people. I for one cannot wait for the next installment.

What do you think of the Picts? Do they make you want to churn up some woad and turn blue? How have they inspired the romance and legend of ancient Scotland?

If you’ve enjoyed learning about the Picts, you might like the following articles:

The Truth About the Picts, The Independent

Matrilineal Succession Among the Picts, Carla Nayland

Archaeologists Uncover Pictish Seat of Power, Past Horizons

And if you missed my first installment in the Scotland The Brave series, do go here and check it out!


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on May 15, 2012, in Scotland, Scottish History, travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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