A wild land steeped in legends, Scotland has fascinated people for centuries. Little is known about Scotland’s pre-Roman past. Indeed, the textual sources that have reached us are rare and oriented, however, they are not the only elements of knowledge: archeology and linguistics shed new light on this field.
What do we know of the Picts? In what historical context did they live?
The Picts populated the northern part of Great Britain, and more precisely the north of Scotland, from the 3rd century and suddenly disappeared in the middle of the 9th century AD Agricola , governor of Brittany in 77, identified them as descendants of Caledonia and gave the name Caledonia to the region. The Romans would have attributed to these people the name of “pict” (lat. pictii ), that is to say “painted men” , tattooed. On the eve of the Roman conquest, Pictish society was organized into confederations of tribes which would gravitate around an “over-king” and whose succession would be matrilineal, that is to say according to maternal lineage. It is structured in two levels, the family cell and the clan (“lineage”), the leaders of these clans are part of the warrior aristocracy and share power with the druids.
Despite this marked social hierarchy, social cohesion is very strong within groups because individuals are linked to each other by a common ancestor, they share the same story of origins. The founding myth of the Picts is known to us thanks to a copy of the Pictish Chronicles of Bishop Isidore of Seville (†636), it is said that Cruithne, son of Cinge, reigned for a century and had seven sons, who were divided the white island [Alban, Caledonia], in seven clans. Seven clans to which they gave their name. These seven sons are sometimes identified as the Seven Northern Sages, the primeval sages who resided in the northern stars (around the constellation Ursa Minor).
These clan societies, in full identity development, were shaken by the successive phases of Roman conquests and then barbarian migrations.
Caesar conquered the island in 54 and, using the conflicts between the natives to his advantage, he managed to conquer southern Brittany. During this first phase of occupation, the south developed important central places in which the trade did not cease increasing (metals, slaves), just like the breeding and the agriculture. This influx of wealth intensified tensions between the chiefdoms as all sought to control the lines of communication and extend their power. The desire for independence and the problems of succession do not improve the situation.
These conflicts justified new Roman interventions on the island soil, thus, in 43, the Emperor Claudius sent nearly 50,000 soldiers to pacify and structure the territory. Brittany truly became a Roman province and was administered by Roman governors. However, the latter’s measures were so brutal and humiliating for the subjugated peoples that they provoked numerous revolts, such as the infamous rebellion of Queen Boudicca (or Boadicea) in 60-61. A Roman procurator had claimed that the king of the Iceni , Prasutagus, had made the emperor co-heir to his kingdom; Faced with this shameless affront, the king’s widow, Boudicca, protested. She was publicly whipped and her daughters given to Roman soldiers. This was the signal for revolts. Despite some victories, the Celts were massacred – Bouddica was forced to poison herself – and the empire decided to once again strengthen its grip on the territory. Between the 1st and 2nd centuries, the island was finally pacified, Agricola had succeeded in subduing the peoples of Wales, northern Brittany and then northern Scotland at the battle of Mons Graupius in 83 . However, some resisted again and again… Continued attacks by the Picts slowed and then blocked Roman expansion. In 122-127, the Latins, tired of these decades of conflict, erected an imposing defensive system ( limes ) linking the North Sea and the Irish Sea: the famous Hadrian’s Wall . It remained the only building to stand before the Picts – the Antonine Wall (139-149), built further north, was quickly abandoned. Harassed by the peoples of Scotland and Ireland, Rome had to face, in the 3rd century, a new threat: the aggressions of the Germanic populations, the Franks, the Saxons then the Frisians, the Angles and the Jutes. Despite the reorganization of defense systems, barbarian pressures and political crises reduced the power of Rome, and in 409-410, the Bretons were definitively left to fend for themselves.
This progressive dislocation of Roman power leads us little by little towards the period of the High Middle Ages, still too often called “Dark Age”.
Pictish warriors attacking Hadrian’s Wall (source: “Pictish warrior AD 297-841” written by Paul Wagner and illustrated by Wayne Reynolds)
Birth of Scotland
After the 5th century, Scotland was occupied by the Picts in the north, the Scots – from Ireland – in the west as well as Britto-Roman peoples in the south, with the Selgovae in the center and the Votadini in the east . The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcelluis (~†395), writes that the Picts were divided into two groups, the Dicalydones and the Verturiones. In the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxons absorbed the territory of the Votadini and continued their ascent towards the north, but the Picts, decidedly pugnacious, stopped them at the battle of Nechtansmere ( 685 ). The Picts, under the dynasty of the Fortriu kings (Verturiones), defended themselves against the Anglo-Saxons but also against the Scots, who were more and more numerous in the territory. Nevertheless, in the 8th century Viking pressure probably caused the Pictish and Scot kingdoms to ally against this common enemy: in 840 the glorious Dal Riata king Kenneth mac Alpine , whose father was Scot and whose mother was Pictish, achieved the unification of what will henceforth be called “ Scotland ”. The precise conditions of the disappearance of the Picts are obscure, but it is probable that they were assimilated by the Scots. The end of the Pictish kingdoms sound the birth of current Scotland.
Gaul, Great Britain, Ireland, all experienced population migrations which each brought their cultural wealth. Among these legacies, Christianity is the one that will spread and anchor itself to the ends of the island.
Between Druidism and Christianity
Christianity spread on the island, with some slowdowns, from 4th-5th century thanks to merchants and soldiers as well as some missionaries. Saint-Ninian (†432) was the first bishop to come to Scotland, he built a church there, the Candida Casa, and evangelized the south and east of Scotland as well as the north of England. However, it was not until 563 that Christianization really marked the Scottish territory: an Irish prince, Saint Columba , set up his monastery on an ancient druidic site, the island of Iona . By this act, he symbolically destroyed the last traces of Druidism. But, despite the new religion, various cultures continued to shape the face of present-day Scotland. Indeed, even if doubts are cast as to the Celticity of the Picts, the strong influence of Celtic culture, and probably other unknown Indo-European cultures, is reflected in their art.
Iona Monastery (source: Michelin guide)
– Michel-Gerald BOUTET. On the Religion of the Picts and the Last Druids of Scotland. Academy. 2016[en ligne] , accessed June 19, 2020. URL: https://www.academia.edu/25861219/Sur_la_Religion_des_Pictes_et_les_derniers_druides_d%C3%89cosse
– Iain FRASER. The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland, Edinburgh: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland. 2008.
– Toby D. GRIFFEN. The grammar of the Pictish symbol stones. Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, p.11.
– Stephane LEBECQ. History of the British Isles. PUF, 2013, p.976.
– Frédéric KURZAWA, The Picts: originally from Scotland. Yoran, 2018.
– VScatalog Canmore, of National Record of the Historic Environment : https://canmore.org.uk/
MAIN PRIMARY SOURCES
The Picts are first mentioned in the writings of Aristotle and Pytheas of Marseilles in the 4th-3rd century BC. AD, then, in 98 AD. AD, Tacide describes their fierce attacks on the Romans in De vita Agricolae . The following texts are later. The main textual source is the Ecclesiastical History of the People of the Angles written by the monk Bede the Venerable (†735), who himself drew inspiration from Gildas’ (†565) work De Excidio Britanniae . Other texts also reveal scattered information: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ( end of the 9th century ) , the Irish annals, the hagiographies or even the famous Historia Brittonum (830) by Nennius (?) in which the “chief of war” Arthur appears for the first time.
The founding myth of the Picts est known thanks to Poppleton’s manuscript (14and s.), a copy of the Pictish Chronicles of Isidore of Seville (†636).