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The Picts

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Article by Lorraine MacDonald mailto:

The Picts

Background - Early Scotland

The question of the Picts should be approached as an integral part of the heritage of Scotland (and Celtic Britain and Europe as a whole) rather than as some isolated oddity. Early Scotland was populated by various individual tribes who were ruled by people of Celtic origin. The oldest recorded language found in Scotland is of Celtic root but what should be remembered is that there are a number of different Celtic languages. (Watson: Celtic Place Names of Scotland).

Also present at this time were the people whom the Romans called the Hiberni. These Hiberni were the Irish of the time. In Southern Scotland there were also the various tribes of the Britons. Both the Hiberni and the Britons were of Celtic origin.

To the Romans, the tribes were recognised by the Latin equivalent of their tribal names. However, it was only the tribes which came into contact with the Romans, usually in the form of battles, that were naturally considered by them to be the most powerful and prominent. From this came the Roman habit of calling the land after whoever they saw as being the most powerful tribe.

Origin Myth of the Picts

An early Irish origin myth gives 'Cruithne' as the eponymous ancestor of the Picts. In this myth it is said that the seven sons of Cruithne gave their names to the seven divisions of the Pictish kingdom. The names of the seven sons were Fib, Fidach, Foltlaig, Fortrenn, Caitt, Ce and Circinn. Fib is equated with Fife, the site of Fidach is uncertain, the others being Athfotla, Fortriu, Caithness, Aberdeenshire and Angus respectively. Regardless of the accuracy of the myth, these seven divisions did exist historically within Pictish territories.

It is interesting to note that Athfotla, ie Atholl, is equated with one of the sons, Foltlaig. Athfotla means 'new Ireland' and an area once identified as being occupied by the Picts, Argyll, is omitted entirely from the divisions of the Pictish Kingdom. So it seems that this creation myth came at a time when the Dalriada kingdom was already in place in the Argyll area.

There is also a possibility that the Picts were of Gaulish descent. The Pictones, sometimes given as Pectones, were a Gaulish tribe to be found on the Bay of Biscay south of the Loire

Historical Records

The first ever written record of the people known as the Picts came from Roman sources. In 297 A.D. the orator Eumenius referred to the Britons as 'already being accustomed to the Picti and Hiberni as enemies', implying that they had been making their presence felt for some time.

The people we call the Picts never used such a term for themselves. Scotland at that time was made up of tribal peoples who identified themselves simply by the name of their tribe. The idea of kings and kingdoms was only beginning to come into being.

Concerning the tribal identity of the peoples who came to be called the Picts, one reference came from a Roman in 310 A.D. who mentions "the Caledones and other Picts". There is some controversy over this translation,others giving it as "the Caledones, Picts and others". Depending on which translation you accept, this could either imply that the Caledonians were Pictish, or that the Caledones and Picts were only two of several tribes in the area.

Other tribal names of early Scotland, of Celtic root, include: Caereni, (people of the sheep) Lugi, (of the raven) Smertae (the 'smeared ones') and Decantae (nobles). Besides the Caledonii (the 'hard ones'?) were the Vacomagi and Venicones. Other tribes included the Epidii on the west coast and the Damnonii, Novantae and Selgovae further south. In later times a number of these tribes merged to form what became the 'Pictish kingdom'.

It was not long after this point that the influence of the Picts began to be felt in the north of the country. It is also from this point that confusion can set in. While the Caledonians were the power in the north, the Romans called the country Caledonia. So when the Picts came into power they likewise called the country Pictavia. The people were also then called Picts. At the same time the Irish were still calling them Cruithne. In Watson's own words: "it is important to keep in view that while all Picts were Cruithne, all Cruithne were not Picts".

The Picts were therefore one tribe amongst many others who happened to gain control over a particular area. They did not gain control over the areas in Ireland that the Irish Cruithne or non-Gaelic tribes lived on. Therefore, the Irish Cruithne were not Picts and should never be called such.

Further information

See the series of articles on the Picts and Scotland's Early History published by Dalriada Celtic Heritage Trust at:
Picts in the Dee and Don valley

Further reading

"In search of the Picts", by Elizabeth Sutherland, Ed.Constable, London.

"Picts", HMSO press, ISBN 0 11 493491 6

The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland
by J Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson
The Pinkfoot Press, Balgavies, by Forfar Angus DD8 2TH
ISBN 1 874012 03 2 and ISBN 1 874012 04 0
republished 1993
This is a web offset reprint of the 1903 ***Tome***
2 volumes 1000 pages 8-O 8-O

Contains everything which was then known about its subject and is still very up to date. Strongly recommended.

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