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The Celtic Picts of Scotland

Three drawings of Celtic Pict men and women with tattoos covering their bodies.  Pict was the Roman term for 'painted ones.'

Three drawings of Celtic Pict men and women with tattoos covering their bodies. Pict was the Roman term for 'painted ones.'

Illustration of Pict woman with tattoos.

Illustration of Pict woman with tattoos.

Serpent Stone with Pict drawings and engravings.

Serpent Stone with Pict drawings and engravings.

St. Vigeans Stone - carvings by the Picts.

St. Vigeans Stone - carvings by the Picts.

Pictish stone.

Pictish stone.

Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland.

Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland.

The Celtic Picts

One of the most interesting of the Celtic tribes in the British Isles are the Celtic Picts. They inhabited what is modern day Scotland, north of the Rivers Forth and Clyde. What is unusual about this mysterious, enigmatic, and unusual Celtic tribe are the tattoos that covered their entire bodies and the war paint they wore in battle to frighten their enemies.

They were a dominate force in what is now Scotland for at least 600 years and their neighbors were the Gaels, Britons, Angles and Vikings.

They were called Picts by the Romans because they were "painted people" and even today we don't know what they called themselves.

During the late Iron Age and early Medieval periods, the Picts were a tribal confederation of Celtic peoples living in ancient eastern and northern Scotland. They were a mysterious 'painted people' that just suddenly disappeared from Scotland and history during the Dark Ages.

They were fierce Celtic warriors that stopped the invasions of the Romans and the Angles in their lands north of the Rivers Forth and Clyde. Because they left no written records or histories behind, all we know of their inhabiting what is modern day Scotland from the Pictish stones throughout Scotland and the Brythonic place name elements in Scotland.

The first that the Picts appear in writing are from the chronicles of the Romans who had invaded Briton in 43 AD and stayed until the tenth century. It is believed the Picts over several decades had merged with the Gaels.

They spoke the now extinct Pictish language that was thought to be related to the Brythonic languages spoke by the Britons who lived south of them in England.

The Picts are believed to be descendents of the Celtic Caledonii tribe and other Celtic tribes mentioned by the Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy.

Pictland, also called Pictavia, gradually merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba, which eventually came to be called Scotland.

Alba expanded absorbing the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde and Berciacian Lothian and by the 11th century historians believe the Pictish people and their identity had been subsumed into the "Scots" conglomeration of people.

The Pictish society was typical of those Celtic tribes during the Iron Age in Northern Europe. They traded with neighboring Celtic tribes. Very little of Pictish writing has survived so what we know today of their culture comes from archaeological diggings and finds.

We know about Pictish history from Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentic Anglorum written approximately in the late 6th century and also from various Irish annals.

We don't actually know what the Picts called themselves because Pict is what the Romans called this Celtic people. The Latin word Picti appears first in a panegyric written by Eumenius around 297 AD. The word means "painted or tattooed people. Picti seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus.

Old English called these people Pechts and the Welsh called them Fichti in ancient writings from Ireland. The name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni, or Cruithini (the modern Irish Cruithne) was given to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster.

Historians believe that a Pictish federation of Celtic tribes was formed partly as a response to the growth and northern movement of the Roman Empire. How and why this happened is not known today. Speculation is that they banded together to stop the Roman Empire from seeking their lands north of Hadrian's Wall.

We have only heard these names from second or third hand from speakers of the Brythonic or Gaelish language as Pictish written recorded history did not begin until the Dark Ages.

When the Angles of Bernicia over ran British kingdoms, one of which was the Anglian kingdom of Deira, they later became the most powerful kingdom in Britain. Deira and Bernicia together were called Northumbria.

It is believed the Picts were probably a tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Brideimac Beli in 685 AD. The Anglicans suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Dun Nectain that stopped the Angles northward expansion. The Picts sent the Angles back south to Britain.

By the mid 9th century Vikings had destroyed the kingdoms of Dal Riata and Northumbria and greatly diminished the power of the Kingdoms of Strathclyde and founded the Kingdom of York. During a major battle of 839 AD, the Vikings killed King of Fortriu, Eogan man Oengusa.

In 840's AD Cinaed mac Alpin (Kenneth MacAlpin) became king of the Pict. He united the Picts and the Scots and together these tribes formed the new Kingdom of Scotland. At this time they routed out the Vikings.

During the Dark Ages, the Pictish language did not suddenly disappear but through a process of Gaelicisation ( which may have begun generations earlier) was clearly underway during the reign of Kenneth MacAlpin.

By the 11th century, the inhabitants of Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots and the Pict identity was forgotten. Later in British Isles history, the idea of Picts as a Celtic tribe was revived in myth and legend.

Indo-European Language Tree from which the Pictish Celtic languages are branches.

Indo-European Language Tree from which the Pictish Celtic languages are branches.

Where Britons, Scots and Picts lived 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.

Where Britons, Scots and Picts lived 4,000 to 3,000 years ago.

Pict song

Pict Language

Although the Picts were Celtic tribes and loosely connected by language, the Pictish language has not survived. Evidence of a Pict language is limited to place names, the names of people found on monuments and the contemporary records.

What this evidence tells us today is that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages. The Pict languages are related to the southern Brythonic languages. Place names prove the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland.

The Brythonic prefixes, Aber- Llan- Pit- in modern place names indicate regions inhabitated by Picts from the past:

  • Aberdeen
  • Lhanbryde
  • Pitmedden

Place names also show the emergence of the Gaelic languages into Pictland. During the 8th century, Atohll, means New Ireland and is an indication of the Gaelic influences in the Pict languages.

Medieval Welsh traditions credited the founding of Gwynedd to the Picts. Wales has traced their principal royal families, the Houses of Aberffraw and Dinefur to Cunedda Wiedig to the Pict language and the Picts are said to have invaded N. Wales from Lothian.

There are several theories of the Pict Language:

  1. Insular Celtic language allied with P-Celtic (Brythonic) language (Welsh, Cornish Cumbria, Breton, Brittonic)
  2. Insular Celtic language allied to the Q-Celtic (Goidelic) language. (Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Manx)
  3. Germanic language allied with Old English, the predecessor to the Scots language.
  4. Pre-Indo-European language a relic of the Bronze Age.

Most historians and linguists today attribute numbers one and two to the Pict language and agree Pictish was a branch of the Brythonic language. They do not believe today that numbers three and four attributed to the Pict language.

During the 5th century, Pictish came under increasing pressure and influence from the Gaelic language of Dal Riata until its eventual replacement.

Pictish influenced the development of Modern Scottish Gaelic by influencing the syntax of Scottish Gaelic and, therefore, bears greater similarity to the Brythonic language than does Irish Gaelic.

Evidence of place names and personal names demonstrates that Insular Celtic languages related to a more southern Brythonic language that was formally spoken in the Pictish area.

Throughout history, historians and linguists have looked into the Pictish language. In 1582, George Buchanan aligned the Pictish language with Gaulish, a P-Celtic language, and George Chalmers in the early 19th century considered Pictish and Brittonic one and the same. P-Celtic orthography in the Pictish king lists and place names were predominant in historically Pictish areas. And Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes published a philological study in Irish annals and stated that Pictish was closely related to Welsh.

Toponymist William Watson also did research of Scottish place names and concluded that the Pictish language was a northern extension of British and that Gaelic was later introduced from Ireland.

Today, Scottish Gaelic, unlike Irish, maintains a substantial closeness to Brythonic loan words and uses a verbal system modeled on the same pattern as Welsh. (Forsyth 1995a)

Archaeological dig in the village of Rhynie, Scotland showing Pict drawings.

Archaeological dig in the village of Rhynie, Scotland showing Pict drawings.

Reconstruction of round houses of the Picts in Scotland.

Reconstruction of round houses of the Picts in Scotland.

Modern Pict Archaeological Find

Recently archaeologist, Dr. Gordon Noble (University of Aberdeen) and Dr. Meggen Gondek (University of Chester) who are both co-leaders of Rhynie Environs Archaeological Project (REAP), lead an archaeological dig of a medieval settlement and unearthed significant Pict artifacts.

They consider this Pict find to have been a Pict seat of power in the tiny Scottish village of Rhynie. They unearthed significant Pict artifacts and a collection of eight Pictish symbols. They date their find of Pict life to have been from approximately 400-900 AD

The symbol stones provide a record of their identity, beliefs, and lifestyle, although the carvings have not yet been translated. This is one of the first large scale digs at this kind of site.

"This is one of the most significant finds of early medieval imported goods in the north of Brittany," according to Dr. Gondek, and it shows "an important force in power politics of early medieval Scotland."

The remains are of what would have been an elaborate system of defensive enclosures including two deep ditches and a massive timber palisade and remains of further wooden structures including evidence of buildings.

This archaeological finding is important because very little is known about the power structures and centers of the Picts. Noble and Gondek believe this find provides an exciting opportunity to find out more about how power was consolidated when the first kingdom of Scotland was emerging.

According to Dr. Noblel, the findings of this dig will affect how we understand the trade networks and political relationships during this period. The imported pottery found at the dig is highly significant according him, and suggests Rhynie had political trading links with the kingdoms of the west.

Dr. Noble said, "with this excavation we are getting the real physical evidence of who they were as a people - we just have to keep digging to find out more."

Scottish medieval ethnicity map when Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and Scots.

Scottish medieval ethnicity map when Kenneth MacAlpin united the Picts and Scots.

Genealogical Pict marker found

Recently, Dr. Jim Wilson, chief scientist and senior lecturer in population and disease genetic at the University of Edinburgh, discovered a DNA marker that suggests that 10% of Scottish men are directly descended from the Celtic Pict tribe.

That means, one out of ten Scottish men are descended from the Picts. With this new information the mystery of the mysterious disappearance of the Celtic Pict tribes from the Late Iron Age, who battled the Romans, has been solved.

Today, through research from the ScotlandDNA, and ancestry testing company also led by Dr. Jim Wilson, has determined from finding a marker that a large number of descendents of these northern tribes, know as the "Picti", by the Romans meaning "painted ones," are living in Scotland today.

Dr. Wilson, found a Y chromosone marker arising among the direct ancestors of the Picts, and concluded this is the "first evidence that the heirs of the Picts are presently living among us."

He tested the father line marker and found, R1b-S530 in more than 3,000 British and Irish men. It is ten times more common in those with Scottish grandfathers than those with English grandfathers.

Out of those tested, a total of 170 men presently living in Scotland have been found to carry this Pict marker although Dr. Wilson believes the number to be far higher. Ten percent of more than 1,000 Scottish men tested carry the R1b-S530 marker and only 0.08% of English men have it

Wilson further found that only 3% of the men in Northern Ireland carry the Pict lineage, but it is only seen once in more than two hundred men from the Republic of Ireland. It is believed the presence of this marker in Northern Ireland is because of the plantations of Lowland Scots in the 16th and 17th centuries.

What was surprising to Wilson was the really huge difference between Scotland and England. According to Wilson, "It is a clear sign that while people do move around there remains a core who have remained at home."

He continued, ". . ., if we can see that about 10% of the father lines look to have Pictish origin, then we can make the prediction that probably a lot of other lines do."

Wilson also agrees with what historians have found over the years about ancient Pictland. It has been defined by historians as the area where Pictish symbols stones and Pictish place names, such as those that have the prefix Pit- or Pett-.

This heartland lies in Scotland north of the River Forth and Pictish names are seen specifically in Fife, Perthshire, Tayside, the northeast, and around the Moray Firth coastlines. Within Scotland there is a strong concentration of the R1b-S530 group in these areas.

The Picts had the largest kingdom during Dark Age Scotland and fought off both of the Romans, Angles, and Vikings to preserve their independence.

It has always been assumed the Picts disappeared, but with the discovery of the Pict genealogical marker, history has been re-written and it is now believed the Picts were over taken by political events becoming assimilated by incoming Scots invading from Ireland.

And, with Scottish men today having the Pict marker in their DNA, it is obvious the Picts never completely disappeared.






Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on April 27, 2016:

Yes, I find the Pics fascinating. DNA has really changed what we know about these ancient tribes and how they affect us in our lives today. DNA is opening a startling array of information about ourselves and those before us.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on March 24, 2016:

What a fascinating read! I remember being young and reading about the mysterious Picts, how they had disappeared. How wonderful it is today, with DNA testing and linguistic studies, how we have been able to learn so much more about those previously hidden histories.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on March 07, 2015:

Snakesmum: I agree with you, the Pict history is unusual and interesting. The tatooing of their bodies was way ahead of its time. LOL! I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and that you stopped by.

Snakesmum on February 24, 2015:

Interesting hub - didn't know much at all about the Picts and their history, and surprised they came from present day Ireland. They appear to have been a very independent people.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 22, 2014:

Thank you Theresa. Yes, when I saw the royal couple in New Zealand and saw the Maori that greeted them, the Picts were very much like them in the tattoo area - all over the body. This was interesting to research and write as I knew little of the Picts myself.

Thanks for you visit and input.

Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on July 21, 2014:

suzette - Very, very interesting. I had heard occasional references to the Picts over the years, but never knew who they were or what happened to them. Very interesting that 10% of men in Scotland carrying the Pictish marker. The total body tatoos reminded me (kind of) of the Maori of New Zealand?Australia. Hope all is well. Theresa

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 12, 2014:

Thank you so much, Pamela for your kind comments. I would like to do DNA testing on myself sometime too. I think it is so interesting that we can do that today. It certainly answers a lot of questions. I find the Celts in any of the British Isles to be so interesting - I love their culture and what they achieved with so little available in those days. Thanks so much for your interest and visit. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 12, 2014:

Thanks, Audrey for taking the time to read this. I find the Celts to be so interesting. I appreciated your interest.

Pamela Dapples from Arizona now on June 12, 2014:

This was so interesting. I learned a lot. Makes me want to do the DNA testing. And I remember asking a professor in the mid 1990's while I was in his Medieval Studies class, "Who were the Picts?" He paused, became silent and then said, "That's a good question. I'm going to start studying and try to find out." You've answered the question very succinctly. Voting way up and sharing on Pinterest.

Audrey Howitt from California on June 11, 2014:

What a wonderful hub!

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 10, 2014:

Nell: From what I can find, the Scots and Irish Gaelic are different, but the Scots inhabited what is today Ireland. Irish Gaelic came to Ireland from Galicia in Spain. Scottish Gaelic came from Britain and the Brythonic Insular Celt languages. This is really getting confusing, but interesting.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 10, 2014:

Nell: I was amazed by that fact too, that the Scots originally came from Ireland. Now the question is who are the Irish and where did they come from? So glad you enjoyed reading this and thanks for your comments. Most appreciated.

Nell Rose from England on June 09, 2014:

How amazing that Scots originated from Ireland! Who knew?! lol! and the picts were a fascinating lot, I love the mystery that surrounds them. Amazing to thing that they still have dna traces in Scotland today with the modern population! Wonderful hub Suzette! Totally amazing, voted up and shared, nell

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

epbooks: Thank you so much for your comments. I am going through a period of Celtic history interest and found the Picts to be so interesting with their all body tattoos. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. Most appreciated.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on June 09, 2014:

Martie, thank you. I find these Celtic tribes to be so interesting and especially the Picts, because of the whole body tattoos. Even the women and children did this. Thanks so much for your visit and comments. Most appreciated.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on June 09, 2014:

Wow- you've really done your research. Very interesting hub!!

Martie Coetser from South Africa on June 09, 2014:

Fascinating history. I enjoyed every word of it. I hope researchers will discover more facts about the Picts. Well done, Suzette :)

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