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  The Picts

Who were the Picts?

Birsay Warrior: Illustration by Sigurd Towrie

From the accounts of Britain made by the classical authors, we know that, by the fourth century AD, the predominant people in northern Scotland were referred to as "Picts".

Throughout history, these Picts have been shadowy, enigmatic figures.

From the outset, they were regarded as savage warriors but by the time the Norsemen were compiling their sagas and histories, the memory of the Picts had degenerated into a semi-mythical race of fairies.

Theories abound, although these days it is generally accepted that the Picts were not, as once believed, a new race, but were simply the descendents of the indigenous Iron Age people of northern Scotland.

The cloud of uncertainty that surrounds the Picts is simply because they left no written records.

Because of this, we have no clear insight into how they lived, their beliefs or society. All we know of them is from second-hand anecdotal evidence, lifted from the various historical writers who recorded their own, possibly biased, impressions of the Pictish people.

The earliest surviving mention of the Picts dates from AD297.

In a poem praising the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus, the orator Eumenius wrote that the Britons were already accustomed to the semi-naked "Picti and Hiberni (Irish) as their enemies."

From Emenius' statement, we can see that the Picts were already a major thorn in the Roman Empire's side. And they continued to be a problem for their neighbours – continually harassing them for centuries after the Roman legions abandoned Britain. But who were they?

The term "Picti" was more than likely a Roman nickname used to describe the people north of Hadrian's Wall. In much the same way as the term “European” is used today to describe people from a number of countries, Pict was a blanket term applied to an agglomeration of different people in the northern Scotland, probably with different cultures and, if the Life of St Columba is to believed, language.

The Painted People

The word "Pict" means "painted people", probably referring to the Pictish custom of either tattooing their bodies or embellishing themselves with "warpaint". However, their Irish term "Cruithni", meaning "the people of the designs", seems to parallel the Roman name, so it may be that "Picti" was an adaptation of the name they called themselves.

The toponymic elements "Pett" and "Pitt" are certainly a common feature of placenames in Pictish territories. The Norsemen, when they arrived in Orkney, certainly described the inhabitants at "Pettr"

Before the Romans arrived in Britain, these northern peoples were probably fragmented tribes who spent much of their time fighting among themselves.

The Roman threat from the south, however, appears to have forced them together in an embryonic Pictish state. This allowed the tribes to resist the continental invaders as well as take advantage of the opportunity for plunder.

This forced co-operation in the face of the Roman invaders developed over time. By the time the empire abandoned Britannia in the fifth century AD, the northern tribes had begun to form into what would later become the Pictish Kingdom.

The Pictish Nation

The Pictish nation was made up of several federations, each with its own leader or king.

Orkney was, at least for a time, part of the Pictish Kingdom, probably with its own local ruler, but owing fealty to a central High King.

The extent of this allegiance is debatable but it seems likely that people of Orkney maintained considerable independence, by virtue of their isolation - an independence that may have prompted certain measures to keep the islands under control.

Adomnan, the biographer of St Columbus, states that there were Orcadians at the court of the Pictish High King, Bridei, in 565 AD. He described these Orcadians as "hostages", which implies that relations between Orkney and Pictish King were perhaps strained. The hostages would have been Bridei's insurance policy to keep Orkney on a tight leash.

Some historians, however, have pointed out that these "hostages" could have an altogether less hostile interpretation and that they were merely guests at the King's court.

Where we know little about the Picts of what is now mainland Scotland, we know even less about the people of Orkney in the Pictish period. This is primarily due to the fact that the Romans, the major chroniclers of early British History, never made it this far north in any great numbers – if at all.

Their language is a mystery; the meaning of the symbols stones they left remains an enigma.

Despite having uncovered several examples of Pictish houses in Orkney, we can only speculate about their everyday life, religion and social structure.

Although recent archaeological work in Orkney, and mainland Scotland, continues to shed light on the Picts, many of the theories about their way of life remain educated speculation, with scholars divided on many elements.