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Who were the Picts?

Updated: Jun 17

A representation of a Pictish warrior drinking (presumably beer or mead) on his horse, from the Bullion Stone, Angus, now held in the National Museum of Scotland

The Picts are perhaps the most mysterious historic ethnic group in Britain, as they have left us no written record of their own (though evidence from the Pictish monastery of Portmahomack suggests they did write). All that we know about them comes from outside accounts, from the Romans to their neighbors: the Gaels (Scottish and Irish) and the Anglo-Saxons. The Picts were absorbed into the Kingdom of the Scots through a complex political process throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, which seems to have begun in earnest during the reign of the Scottish king: Kenneth macAlpin (who was King of the Picts from 843-858 AD). All they have left us are their enigmatic sculptured stones, the earliest of which feature pre-Christian symbols and depictions of animals. Yet, we can discern several key features which distinguished them by reading what their neighbors had to say about them, though much is still a mystery.

One of the only sources that tells us of the origins of the Picts is the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, who says that the Picts originally came from Scythia and first landed in Ireland, but the Irish wouldn't let them stay because they reckoned the island wasn't big enough for both. However, they told them they could settle in the land across from Ireland (i.e. Scotland) and even gave them wives (Bede says this is why the Picts sometimes traced decent through their maternal line)1. The Welsh historian, Nennius, gives less details and simply says the Picts arrived after the Brythons (his own people, the ancestors of the Welsh and a good many other Brits) and that the Picts took Orkney and the lands adjacent to it2 (which in Welsh was known as Alban, which informs the Gaelic names for Britain and Scotland respectively: Albu (in Old Irish) and Alba).

This stone from Aberlemno, Angus, depicts a snake, a mirror and comb and a mysterious 'z-rod' symbol in the middle, the meaning of which is enigmatic and unknown

The name 'Pict' is said to come from the Latin Picti, which is thought to be a reference to the Picts' practice of tattooing. This is well attested by historical sources such as the Spanish scholar and cleric, Isidore of Seville, as distinguishing the Picts from their neighbors3. The English seem to have used the same name for the Picts, calling them Peohtas. Interestingly, while the Picts are often associated with Scotland north of the Forth, the name of the the Pentland Hills in Lothian ('Pent' being another word for 'Pict') and the Northumbrian cleric Peohtwine ('Pict friend'), who lived in Galloway, show that Picts lived all over what is now Scotland. The difference may have been that in these areas they were surrounded by other ethnic groups and were clearly not in charge, whereas north of the River Forth they were probably in the majority.

The Gaels called them Cruthin and the Welsh called them Prydyn; the last name is ultimately where 'Britain' derives from. Here we have our first indication that the Picts were considered the indigenous folk of Britain by outsiders, who claimed their own origins elsewhere. In the Book of Invasions, the Gaels are meant to have originated ultimately in Scythia, but to have arrived in Ireland via Iberia; some versions of the story also say that they passed through Egypt, which is why they claimed descent from an Egyptian princess named 'Scota' (from whose name the Scots were said to derive). The Brython have a completely different story: they claim descent from Brutus, a purported son of Aeneas of Troy, ancestor of the Romans4.

The genetic evidence refutes all these claims bar the Scythian origin myth, as it shows us that all three of these groups descend primarily from the Beaker Folk, who came over to Britain from the Low Countries in the Early Bronze Age (and who ultimately originated in Scythia)5. It may be too much to try and work out here exactly where these medieval origin myths come from, but at the very least we can attempt to figure out what distinguished the Picts from their neighbors.

These beakers and bronze tools, from the Numantine Museum of Soria, Spain, are of the kind that related peoples would have brought to the British Isles, who established trading links across the Atlantic and North Sea coasts

However, let us begin with one area which they had in common with their neighbors (apart from the common origin among the Beaker Folk): the Picts likely spoke a language related to Welsh, as place-names featuring such elements (most notably the 'aber' prefix denoting a river confluence) are found in areas associated with the Picts, even though there is no evidence that such language has been spoken there in more recent times (the locals would either have spoken Gaelic or Scots). Bede tells us that the Pictish name for Kinneil near Bo'ness was Peanfahel6, which is particularly interesting because it shows that the Pictish language was more closely related to Welsh, but that it had undergone the 'w-f' sound change in Gaelic that did not happen in Welsh (the name of the village means 'head of the wall', i.e. the Antonine Wall, for which the Gaelic name was Ceann Fhàil and the Welsh was Pengual; the sound-change in Welsh was 'w-gw/gu'). The additional 'a' after the 'e' in Peanfahel may also indicate the Pictish accent being influenced by Gaelic, as it isn't present in the Welsh Pengual.

A clue as to what may have distinguished the Picts is the fact that the Gaels also used the name Cruthin for some Irish tribes, particularly in Ulster. One of these tribes were known in Old Irish as Uí Echach Coba, who gave their name to the area of Iveagh in modern County Down. Their kings were historically of the Magennis clan, of which some of the male members have had their genetics tested and been found to carry haplogroup I2a-M284 7, which was most likely carried by the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in Southern England. This is our first clue that the Picts likely represent an indigenous group, but which is confounded by the fact that most men in what used to be Pictland carry haplogroup R1b-L21, just like most of the rest of the Irish, Welsh and Scots (because this was the main paternal lineage among the Beaker Folk).

Haplogroup R1b-DF13, the most common branch of L21, correlates most with those who either recently, or still do, speak Celtic languages

In both the Irish and Welsh languages, the names Albu and Prydain referred to Great Britain, but eventually came to refer specifically to Caledonia. This would seem to imply that whoever lived across Britain to start with became restricted to the parts of Scotland north of the Forth; and since the Gaels and Brython can be associated with R1b-L21, this must surely refer to the Neolithic Britons (who mainly carried a mix of local hunter-gather paternal haplogroups like I2a and Middle Eastern maternal haplogroups). The Picts retained peculiar similarities with Sardinia (whose folk are the closest proxy to the Neolithic Irish8 and presumably British too) in the forms of a musical instrument known as the 'triple pipes' in English and launeddas in Sardinian, as well as the brochs which resemble Sardinian nuraghe more than anything else (though there are enough architectural differences between them to suggest that brochs are not simply imported nuraghe designs). Also, the Picts have been described in Norwegian historical texts and Scottish folklore as short, dark people who build stone structures and hid underground when threatened.

This would seem to correspond best to the Neolithic Britons: the underground structures that they could have hid in are known as 'souterrains', which are found all over Scotland and Ireland, but their exact purpose eludes archaeologists (though they were usually accessed from roundhouses9). However, we are again faced with the problem that the description of the Caledonians by the Roman historian, Tacitus, says that they were tall and blonde or red-haired and resembled Germans10. That is a very different phenotypic description, but one which also corresponds well not only to the Beaker Folk, but many of the modern-day inhabitants of what was once Pictland (who in the main descend from the Beaker Folk).

The entrance to Finnis Souterrain, County Down, Ireland, which needs to be entered stooping for most folk

The conflicting and confusing evidence seems to point generally in a direction that we may consider made the Picts distinct: that both Neolithic and Early Bronze Age folk and their cultures persisted among the Picts, while the rest of the descendants of the Beaker Folk (the Gaels and the Brython) emphasized connections with Continental groups established during the Late Bronze age and Iron Age. A recent paper11 shows that England and Wales were continuously settled by immigrants from the Continent throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age, but not Scotland; which means it's likely that by the Iron Age, the inhabitants of England and Wales may have seen themselves as different from those in Scotland (who seem to have received little if any immigration after the initial settlement of Beaker Folk).

While this paper did not address Ireland, it is likely that Ireland was also affected to some degree by Bronze and Iron Age immigration, as Ireland was well-connected to other lands along the Atlantic coast all the way to Iberia during the Late Bronze Age (this culture is known as the 'Atlantic Bronze Age'). What became Pictland (Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde rivers) shows more evidence of contact with places like the Netherlands and Germany, reflected in a pottery style known as 'Covesea ware'12 after a site in Moray. However, genetic evidence of movement into Scotland by people from the Netherlands at this time seems not to be traceable at present, but closer examination of local haplogroups may one day show it to us.

This map shows the area most likely inhabited by Picts before their merging with the Scots in blue

The linguistic evidence would seem to suggest that the Picts were related both to the Brythonic and Gaelic peoples, perhaps being closer to the former to start with but later coming under increasing influence from the latter (until their final absorption into the Kingdom of Scots, by which point they were likely very similar culturally). However, the Gaels and Brythons considered the Picts to be a separate people, for which the defining feature may have been that they retained a stronger heritage from both the Neolithic Britons and the Beaker Folk than their neighbors.

While the Picts were absorbed into the Kingdom of Scots, they have left us the legacy of a distinct tradition that persisted in the northern reaches of Britain, while other cultures developed in the rest of the island. Despite the genetic input from the Beaker Folk, they perhaps more than any other group retained the memories of the Stone Age and Early Bronze Age until the beginning of historic times, before vanishing, as the Picts of Orkney were said to have done when they saw the Norse coming. Perhaps they simply held onto the old ways for too long and were unable to resist the change that came. However, my tours are meant to reconnect local folk with their ancestors who lived this very unique culture, as well as inform the world of how much may have been retained from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age compared to other parts of Britain. There is still much to be discovered, but perhaps we have at last begun to unravel the 'problem of the Picts'.

Conor Cummings

1Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I:1

2'Nennius': History of the Britons, III:12

3Isidore: Etymology, XIX.23.7

4'Nennius': History of the Britons, III:7

5Olalde, I. et al., 2017: The Beaker Phenomenon and the Genomic Transformation of North-west Europe

6Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I:7

7Manco, 2015: Blood of the Celts, p.171


9Armit, 2016: Celtic Scotland, p.133

10Tacitus: Agricola, 11

11Patterson, N. et al. 2021: Large scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age

12Coles, J.M. 1959: The Late Bronze Age in Scotland

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