Skip to main content

The Picts are commonly described today as a group of tribes and/or independent kingdoms who lived in the eastern and northeastern regions of Scotland during the ancient and early medieval period (from 600 BCE through 900 CE). Much of the information about the history of the Picts comes from the writings of their enemy: the Romans. The first written mention of the Picts comes in 297 CE when the Roman orator Eumenius reports that the Picts had attacked Hadrian’s wall.

We don’t know what the Picts called themselves: their name seems to have been derived from the Latin picti, which means “painted.” Their name may reflect a practice of painting and/or tattooing their bodies. Some Roman writers suggested that the Pict warriors came into battle naked, with their bodies blue from paint or tattoos. Modern writer Alistair Moffat, in his book Before Scotland, puts it this way:

“Celtic warriors almost certainly stripped off their tunics and leggings so that their gods, their enemies and their comrades could see their tattooed bodies—because the tattoos were powerful magical weapons in themselves, what a modern tattooist has described as ‘psychic armour’.”
When dressed, Pict men generally wore a cloak over a belted tunic. There is some indication that a woven woolen hood may have also been worn. Women wore long skirts and cloaks.


The Pictish language died centuries ago and our knowledge of it is fragmentary at best. Place names and personal names found on monuments provide some clues that Pictish was a Celtic language. With regard to place names, the prefixes “Aber”, Lhan”, and “Pit” (sometimes “Peth”) provide evidence of the areas inhabited by the Picts. Thus Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, and Pitmedden are probably Pict names.

Linguists have suggested that Pictish is a part of the Brittonic (Brythonic)  branch of Celtic and is thus related to Cumbric, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. While there have been some who speculated that Pictish was actually a non-Indo-European language, nearly all modern linguists disagree with this hypothesis.


Since the Picts did not leave very many written records, our knowledge of them comes from two primary types of sources: (1) written records by outsiders who often had an unfavorable view of the Picts, and (2) the archaeological record.

Part of the archaeological record related to the Picts in Scotland is the Pictish stones which have been found throughout the region. These stones, which are inscribed with symbols which seem to have been inspired by Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian iconography, are the most tangible and distinctive evidence of Pictish society. Some of them have ogham inscriptions. About 350 of these stones have survived, primarily in the northern and eastern regions of Scotland.

Dunnichen photo 396px-DunnichenMeffan_zps0a9cb0f1.jpg

Eagle photo 391px-Eagle_Stone_-_geographorguk_-_8563_zps094e6a33.jpg

The earliest of the Pictish stones have symbols inscribed on un-worked stone—that is, stone which has not been shaped or worked. Called Class 1 Pictish stones by some scholars, many of these date to the sixth through eighth centuries CE. These stones predate the spread of Christianity into the region. These stones may have served as personal memorials or as territorial markers.

While the characteristic of the Pictish stones are the symbols which are inscribed on them, there is some disagreement as to what constitutes symbols which are unique to Pictish art. Discussions of these symbols estimate that there may be as many as 60-65 unique symbols to as few as 30. Most Pictish scholars seem to feel that there are about 50.

Strathmartine Castle photo 580px-Strathmartine_castle_stone_zps5bb517e7.jpg

Fiscavaig photo 476px-Fiscavaig_stone_zps69004868.jpg

Serpent photo 450px-Serpent_stone_zps90825cba.jpg

Ablerlemm photo 450px-Ablerlemno4_zps102b5946.jpg

Some of the Pictish symbols are abstract geometric designs while others are representations of animals, including wolf, stag, eagle, adder, and salmon. The apparently mythical Pictish Beast, which has a pointed snout, curling antennae, and curved limbs, may be intended to represent a sea-monster. Geometric symbols are more common than animal representations. The animal symbols usually appear only in connection with abstract symbols.

A third group of symbols includes recognizable objects such as combs and mirrors, tongs and shears, hammers and anvils. These are most commonly shown in pairs.

While it is common to assume that the symbols represent ideas, there are some scholars who feel that the symbols might represent language in a manner similar to the ogham system.

Brandsbutt photo Brandsbutt_stone_zpsa2f1ee37.jpg

A Pictish stone with ogham markings is shown above.

Noting that the Pictish symbol system seemed to work quite well, Katherine Forsyth writes:

“Whatever it was intended to convey, it performed its function sufficiently well that people all over northern Britain found it useful and continued to use it, generation after generation, for perhaps as long as four centuries (from the fifth or sixth century to the ninth or early tenth). This fact is all the more striking when we realise that throughout that period the roman and ogham alphabets were also in use in Pictland.”
Aberlemnokirkyar photo Aberlemnokirkyardcropped_zps22469d68.jpg

Shown above is a Christian Pictish stone.

At Rhynie, eight Pictish stones have been found. Archaeological excavations have uncovered a substantial fortified settlement which may have been a royal site occupied by Pictish kings.

Graves and the bodies buried in them are often used by archaeologists in understanding the ancient past. Unfortunately, relatively few Pict burials have been uncovered. It appears that only a few selected individuals, both men and women, were given “formal” burials. Most frequently the body was placed in a pit and then covered with a small mound of earth or stones.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Meteor Blades, GainesT1958, JekyllnHyde, Angie in WA State, ROGNM, fcvaguy, Rolfyboy6, Pandora, TrueBlueMajority, BigOkie, RunawayRose, byteb, Jay C, rubyr, RoIn, Sandia Blanca, exNYinTX, missLotus, 88kathy, fugwb, mint julep, mbayrob, CanisMaximus, MazeDancer, antirove, high uintas, wader, Texknight, pat bunny, Hawksana, NYFM, defluxion10, hazzcon, kalmoth, Diana in NoVa, Major Kong, side pocket, WisVoter, KayCeSF, jcrit, libnewsie, radarlady, blueyedace2, chimene, MT Spaces, Tod, YucatanMan, Laurence Lewis, madmommy, owlbear1, Sara R, cspivey, Burned, zinger99, Orinoco, WB Reeves, Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse, 417els, bastrop, ruleoflaw, AnnCetera, 4Freedom, JVolvo, ER Doc, llbear, BlueMississippi, doingbusinessas, Bernie68, Temmoku, slksfca, NonnyO, cpresley, jlb1972, old wobbly, FoundingFatherDAR, anotherdemocrat, EdSF, glescagal, Mary Mike, la urracca, shesaid, eOz, mamafooce, Wreck Smurfy, yella dawg, KJC MD, dizzydean, on the cusp, Justus, GAS, mamamedusa, Involuntary Exile, bythesea, cumberland sibyl, mayim, boatjones, Snarky McAngus, Notreadytobenice, fayea, Marnie1, maggiejean, prettygirlxoxoxo, nchristine, Pale Jenova, Fineena, WakeUpNeo, petral, stevenwag, ArthurPoet, joe from Lowell, BlueOak, Just Bob, confitesprit, rb137, roadbear, serendipityisabitch, jakedog42, Polly Syllabic, WattleBreakfast, Otteray Scribe, txcatlin, not4morewars, Maximilien Robespierre, kerflooey, spooks51, Tommye, slowbutsure, BlueJessamine, FarWestGirl, LSmith, enhydra lutris, myrmecia gulosa, rschndr, bassinduo, James Allen, Heart n Mind, anodnhajo, Akprincessa, state of confusion, David54, CA ridebalanced, belinda ridgewood, OllieGarkey, 43north, terrybuck, arizonablue, dotdash2u, Ramoth, RonK, tn mountain girl, nuclear winter solstice, Linda1961, Aunt Pat, Ree Zen, howabout, Icicle68, IndyinDelaware, River Rover, OceanDiver, The Marti, eagleray, Kit RMP, Sorta Randle, Here since 02

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site