‘Painted People’: Who Were the Picts? | History Hit

‘Painted People’: Who Were the Picts?

Detail from a Pictish symbol stone depicting a battle scene
Image Credit: Julie Beynon Burnett / Shutterstock.com

Throughout history, the Picts have been enigmatic figures. Regarded as everything from savage warriors to a semi-mythical race of forest-dwellers, the Picts are survived by very little evidence about who they were, how they lived and what they believed. Even the historical records that do remain have been written from an outside, biased perspective, with ancient Roman writers in particular emphasising the Picts’ savagery in the face of a number of failed incursions into their territories.

What we do know is that they were a group of diverse Iron Age people who lived in the northern and eastern parts of Scotland, and that they flourished from around 300 AD to 900 AD. Today, Pictish stone carvings, brochs, burial mounds and a few precious items are all that remain of the Pictish people.

So who were the Picts?

The word ‘Pict’ means ‘painted people’

The word ‘Pict’ comes from the Roman name ‘Picti‘, meaning ‘painted people’. The term, which was first used around 1,700 years ago, is traditionally thought to refer to the practice of tattooing or body painting, and was developed to distinguish between Roman and non-Roman Britons during the time of the Roman occupation of the British Isles.

The earliest surviving mention of the Picts dates from 297 AD, when the orator Eumenius wrote that the Britons were already familiar with the partly-naked ‘Picti and Hiberni (Irish) as their enemies.’ Just as the word ‘Europeans’ is used to describe a diverse group of peoples, languages and customs, so was ‘Picti’ used to refer to any person living in modern-day Scotland during the period.

As such, the term was likely used pejoratively by the Romans to refer to the people living in Scotland; however, by around 600 or 700, it’s clear that the tribes came to self-identify as ‘Picti’. In spite of their name, there is limited evidence to suggest that the Picts did indeed tattoo themselves.

One of the Aberlemno Pictish Stones in Scotland

Image Credit: Fulcanelli / Shutterstock.com

They were probably descended from native Scots

The Picts likely wrote their own origin story, which states they sailed to Scotland from ancient Sycthia (modern-day Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe), since histories written by authors such as Herodotus (an ancient Greek author) did describe a painted people living there.

However, this is unlikely to be true: the myth was likely an attempt by the Picts to locate their origins in the classical world, which was part of the trend for developing kingdoms at the time since it allowed kings and elites to solidify their claims to rulership.

Instead, the Picts were probably descended from the native people of Scotland such as the Caledones or Vacomagi who lived in northern and eastern Scotland around 1,800 years ago.

The Romans wrote about them pejoratively

Following the Roman conquest of much of Britain in 43 AD, the Celtic people south of modern-day Scotland became largely Romanised. In contrast, the Picts were regarded as savage, barbarous, backward and troublesome warriors.

Indeed, the Picts frequently clashed with Roman legions but never entirely succumbed to Roman rule. This is evidenced by the existence of both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, which were built as a way of keeping the irritating Picts out of the south.

Though the Romans wrote about the Picts as savage warriors, by the time the Norsemen were compiling their histories and sagas, the Picts were written about as a semi-mythical race of fairies.

Tristan Hughes visits the best preserved military bathhouse in Britain and a famous nearby temple.
Watch Now

The Romans forced the Picts to coordinate their efforts

Before the Romans came to Britain, the northern people were likely fragmented tribes who spent most of their time at war with one another. The Roman threat from the south, however, likely forced them together in an embryonic Pictish state, which allowed the tribes to better resist the invaders and plunder their supplies. Under the threat of Roman rule, the Picts later created two politically and militarily powerful kingdoms which dominated a large part of Scotland.

By the time the Romans had abandoned Britannia in the 5th century AD, the northern tribes had more universally transformed into what became the Pictish Kingdom. Indeed, by the 7th century, there was a united ‘Pict-land’, and in 843, Kenneth I MacAlpin, king of the Scots, also became king of the Picts, uniting the peoples into the kingdom of Alba, which later evolved into Scotland.

We know little about their way of life

Based upon archaeological evidence, the existence of Pictish symbol stones and written sources, archaeologists and historians have long debated about the Pictish way of life. Questions have arisen, such as whether they thought of themselves as one people with a distinctive culture, how long they ruled over a single kingdom, and when their kingdom came to an end.

The more precise details of their lives, religion and social structures are unclear. We know that they were a primarily agricultural society who initially generally followed a religious system of Celtic polytheism, before the Pictish elite later converted to Christianity.

Pictish symbol stone in northern Scotland

Image Credit: Julie Beynon Burnett / Shutterstock.com

It is also unclear when the Pictish kingdom came to an end. We do know that by the early 10th century AD, outsiders began to refer to the region as the Kingdom of Alba rather than the Kingdom of the Picts; however, it’s unclear whether this was because a new kingdom was established or whether Alba was a closer approximation of the Pictish name for Picts.

Similarly, the Pictish language (which is now entirely extinct) didn’t disappear suddenly, but was rather replaced by a process of ‘Gaelicisation’. By the 11th century, all of the inhabitants of northern Alba were fully Gaelicised Scots. Pictish identity was thus forgotten, only to be later revived in myth and legend.

Lucy Davidson