This introduction is designed to give some insight into the people of the north that we came to know as the Picts. My intention is that it will give some background to anyone wishing to follow the stories.
My story takes place around the year 690 AD and though as the reader you understand that the date is early, the Picts and their culture not corrupted by Christianity would not use or understand this dating system. This is the first of many issues to poleaxe a writer delving into something that is for the most part, unknown. The time in history we tend to call the ‘Dark Ages’ was far from dark. It was much more vibrant and enlightened than past historians have given it credit for. As we learn more about the time, historians and scholars are beginning to see that the early history of Britain was dynamic. The only darkness seems to cover the Picts themselves. Writing about an ancient civilisation is always going to be difficult, and if the writer wishes to capture some authenticity of the time, then a great deal of painstaking research has to be done. If the subject is a civilisation that is surrounded in mystery, conjecture and flawed guesswork, not to mention, very little documentary evidence, the task can seem impossible.
The Picts are such a race, a people that seem to be interwoven with the thickest mists that can roll off the Highland mountains or drift in from the North Sea. They are an enigmatic illusion to some, and a legendary warrior class to others. To me, they became a fascination, and I knew I had to strip away most of the layers of fiction before I could find out what was underneath.
What I did eventually find, was a fabulous jewel of Scottish history that is even more interesting than the historians would have us believe.
The first revelation was the fact that though we now call them ‘Picts’, (Roman: Painted People) there are only three Roman writers of the time that used this term and one was Julius Caesar. He wrote that they ‘dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible. They wear long hair, and shave every part of the body save the head and the upper lip.’ It is now known that Julius Caesar never went further north than the Thames, and it is likely this story was given to him by one of his generals as an explanation for why these savages were taking so much overpowering. Rhetoric, not historical accuracy is probably what Julius Caesar was working with. There are also hints in Roman commentary, that the Picts called themselves Kalti, but I can find nothing to support this. The word has more than a passing resemblance to ‘Celtic’ so it could have been used as a ‘catch all’ term.
A more common name used at that time would have been ‘Cruthin’ yet even that word seems to be used to describe all people not conquered by the Romans. That could apply to others, not just the Picts. We don’t know what the Picts called themselves, so what did they see themselves as? Possibly the truth lies in the fact that the Picts as we know them were separate tribes, each with their own overlord and maybe even regional kings. This would give each one their own identity and their own personal name, obviously, these would probably not survive. It was only later that the Picts became a sort of confederation of tribes, and even then, it is doubtful that they would see themselves as a unified nation. The problem becomes greater when no written evidence survives, and it is likely that their extensive stone carving did the talking for them. Unfortunately, the most learned historians and scholars still know next to nothing about the symbols of the Picts. So, I decided to think, as a Pict of the time may think. To the individual trying to scrape an existence from some of the harshest landscapes of Scotland, his personal identity would reach no further than his family and his settlement. To a warrior of some standing, he would be accountable to a lord of some sort and to that lord, he would see himself as a vassal of a king, but of a king of the tribe, not of a nation. Even if a king proclaims himself, king of the Picts, would that mean anything to anyone but the most important warriors of the day? Probably not, so here I look at the mediaeval feudal system and overlay it onto the Picts. It fits quite snugly, all except for the church, which was something that came fairly late, particularly to the northern Picts. Even as Christianity made its way into modern day Sutherland and Caithness, the newly converted people saw the saints as important, this could mean that the idea of a single god was still difficult for them to grasp.
We now know too, that these people were far more advanced that previous historians had considered. Farming was important, and many types of crop were grown. Some Picts were wealthy and prosperous, they had fabulous artwork and jewellery, they also traded far and wide. They fished the rivers and the sea. They built large houses in wood or stone and were masters of stone carving. Their metalworking skills were equal to any other tribes of the period and they built forts and earthworks. They strengthened the stone ramparts by vitrification1, a method of which we have still not been able to replicate. Their soldiers were highly skilled, well equipped and horses were part of their armies, which were feared by their neighbours. In summary, they were just the same as their close neighbours and no more or no less advanced than any of them.
The only real anomaly is the name the Romans gave them. Painted People? There seems to be no evidence that they were tattooed, painted or otherwise decorated in any way. Their own carvings show nothing that could possibly be associated with such a decorative trend and yet if it was an important aspect of their culture, it would have surely been reproduced on their artwork. This leaves me thinking that a mistake in translation of the word Picti could be the cause as translations of modern Latin announce Picti as meaning spangled. Picta translates to picture, so could it be that the word was misused or even disparaging name given to what the secretary to Emperor Chlorus, Eumenius saw as a drab people? Certainly, I see no reason to use the name as anything other than a denomination that is a generalisation, of a people that may have had no name for themselves.
Another explanation is that the word Picti, may not mean what we think. Pict also comes from ancient British languages and means ‘the wheat growers’. Did the Roman soldiers hear other British people calling the Caledonian tribes ‘Wheat Growers’ and see similarities with the sound and so use it themselves? We just don’t know. It is clear that any Roman writers of the time can be discounted and many of the details written can easily be proven to be inaccurate.
As to their lands, here I have to surmount another problem. Place names as they stand today have only slight hints to their heritage and after the Viking conquest, a great number of place names changed to Nordic parlance. Then there is later Gaelic influence and Scottish too. This means that even if we assume a particular village had survived from the Pict times, which is unlikely, its name could have changed many times. With this in mind, in this story, the names of the settlements are based on early naming procedures2 with the inclusion of some inventiveness on my part. I have included some idea where they stood in the glossary but settlements came and went. The Picts were probably semi-nomadic, having winter and summer pastures in different places. We know in some areas, higher pastures were grazed in the summer and lower ones in the winter, in short, they would have to travel with their livestock under the influence of the seasons. Of course, some farmed fertile, sheltered land and probably stayed put but generally, the pattern would resemble the herding systems of later generations.
In summary, the people in the story are fictional but based on the little we know of the Picts. The places are also in the main, fictional but placed where settlements would exist, or where habitation of that period is known to have existed. The details are based on what little we know of their culture, their lifestyle and their achievements.
In all aspects of this work, I have tried to paint a complete picture of the Picts but using the English language to tell the story, and a little imagination to fill in the missing pieces, of which there were many.
I hope after all that, you thoroughly enjoy the story.
Peter Gray, February 2020