Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Pictii. What did the Picts look like?
When we think about the Picts, what image is most commonly conjured up? Aye...It tends to be blue painted barbarians that everyone associates with the early tribes of Scotland, an image we collectively just can’t shift due to centuries of poor artwork and bias which continues to proliferate with today’s films. So let’s go back to the sources, and the stones, and look at what the Picts really did look like, instead of propagating this blue Barbarian image any further. Before we delve deeper it’s important to first tackle these paintings, which has become a real pet hate. So we have a series of paintings of supposedly ‘Picts’ by John white in the late 16th century and another by Jacques le Moyne attributed to the same period. These paintings have been shaping people’s view about the Picts for centuries, and today they are the top google images when searching for images of Pictish peoples.
When they were painted, what sources were the artists drawing upon? The Picts were known and there was clearly some material available as its believed the artists read the roman sources which mentioned the Picts adorning themselves with blue paint. Aside from that, the paintings bear no traces of Pictish art that we see on the stones, which leads me to believe the artists had never seen a Pictish stone or any Pictish art for that matter. So were the artists more focussed on portraying Picts as naked, tattooed barbarians because that was the consensus at the time? If so, it is time to update this image we have. When unpicking the threads of the Pictish style, we have several sources to study; written accounts from the Picts themselves or more often their neighbours, various artefacts of textile or depictions of textile, and the hundreds of stone carvings that cover Pictavia. Sources The problem with written sources is that at the time, people were more concerned with documenting events than descriptions of people as that was generally known or passed along orally. Sometimes we get a slight comment on appearance, but this must always be taken with a pinch of salt especially when the writers are writing about people they believe to be beneath them for they will portray them as barbarians which often conjures up the age old image of naked and tattooed nutters (often then used in later periods as reference for unrealistic portraits of course!). The first thing to consider when looking at the Picts, is the definition of which Picts we are looking at. Whilst they are two faces of the same coin, the Iron Age Pictii are different from the early medieval Picts. And so I will treat each separately, as fashions are likely to be different between the two. Please see my earlier blog here on the Pictish timeline for further reading on this. Iron Age We will start with the earliest sources from Rome, which refer to the Caledonians, Picti, or Britons as there wouldn’t have been all that much difference between northern and southern tribes at that time This is in the earliest period of the Picts and so does not form our entire image.
We must acknowledge that the Romans already viewed the Picts as barbarians, and so were quick to describe them in what they believed to be a demeaning appearance, of which unclothed and tattoos were forefront. Most Roman sources mention tattoos, and whilst it is believed this is just a stereotype they used, I also believe there is no smoke without fire. I’m going to focus on just a few of the early sources, starting with probably the most referenced; that of Julius Caesar. Of the Britons, he wrote; "... Most of the inland inhabitants do not sow corn, but live on milk and flesh, and are clad with skins. All the Britains, indeed, dye themselves with woad, which occasions a bluish color, and thereby have a more terrible appearance in fight. They wear their hair long, and have every part of their body shaved except their head and upper lip..." Caius Julius Caesar: The Gallic Wars book 5, c.54 BC, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. Of course Julius is talking of the Britons as a whole, centuries before the Tribes in the north are referred to as Picts. But this is always worth a mention as it is the foundation of many later sources and has shaped the image of blue tattooed barbarians more than anything. To be honest the above is a poor translation, for which better answers can be found in The Problem of the Woad by S.K Lambert, which points out that the Latin ‘vitro’ better translates to glass and not woad. It was earlier believed to be a blue/green glass and thus conjured the association of woad. But...you cannot tattoo with woad (it’s caustic) and it is extremely difficult to body paint with also. Blue is indeed a very difficult colour to produce for body paint and tattooing, native to Britain of course. It is far more likely that red pigments were used, as such has been used for millennia to decorate caves and bodies alike as they are easy to produce, and work without health side affects. That said some old inks do go a sort of bluey grey, just not vibrant blue.
Leather cloak artefact and replica from the National Museum of Ireland
Tacitus, when writing about his step father Governor Agricola, wrote; "Who were the original inhabitants of Britain, whether they were indigenous or foreign, is as usual among barbarians, little known. Their physical characteristics are various, and from these conclusions may be drawn. The red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin. The dark complexion of the Silures, their usually curly hair, and the fact that Spain is the opposite shore to them, are an evidence that Iberians of a former date crossed over and occupied these parts. Those who are nearest to the Gauls are also like them, either from the permanent influence of original descent, or, because in countries which run out so far to meet each other, climate has produced similar physical qualities." Tacitus: Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola, c.98 AD, Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. I find this passage interesting because rather than just lump the collective Britons as one to dismiss them, Tacitus makes a point of comparing them to similar cultures he was already familiar with and it points to a melting pot of culture in the British isles which makes sense how different tribes spread around. In the late 4th century Greek writer Claudian Claudianus personifies Britain as "clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak"
(On the Consulship of Stilicho, II.247ff) and also wrote in his De Bello Gothicus; “Next the legion that had been left to guard Britain, the legion that kept the fierce Scots in check, whose men had scanned the strange devices tattooed on the faces / of the dying Picts.”
(Another translation in T.C Lethbridge The Painted Men; ...which curbs the savage Scot and studies designs marked in iron on the face of the dying pict...which alludes to iron tools or iron ore giving a red colour), and Solinus speaks of the Britons decorating their bodies with animal motifs, possibly to endow themselves with their power (Miracles of the World, XXII.12). Jordanes mentioned the tribes of Scotland in his Origin and Deeds of the Goths: "...they paint their bodies with iron-red, whether by way of adornment or perhaps some other reason..." which again points to red pigments, not blue. I find this very interesting! And so we have again the running theme of tattoos. What stands out to me most is the mention of strange devices on their faces, could this possibly be the same symbols we see in the stones that still mystify us today such as the double disc and zrod or crescent vrod? The mention of animals leads me back to the stones too, as they play a huge part in the carvings, as does the artwork found on artefacts like jewellery.
Pictish carvings that may have been the same inspiration for tattoos?
This is pretty much the extent of physical descriptions of the Picts (or Britons as a whole) from the Iron Age. Next we must look at any artefacts that point towards clothing. Sadly Scotland is sadly lacking in textile artefacts, so we have to piece together what we can.
We do have various textile finds from the late Iron Age, usually these are tiny scraps of fabric that have survived attached to pins and brooches. At Dunbar, a cist burial revealed two bodies with wool and linen fragments. At Craigie, near Dundee; A 2/2 twill wool on an iron annular brooch. At Leath Hill, Moredun, Gilmerton; tabby-weave, edged with a tablet-woven band, in association with ironwork from a burial. And a 2/2 diamond twill from Balmaclellan, Kirkcudbrightshire. Right: Caroline Nicolay in Iron age dress by AWD Photography / Andrew Chorley One of the main textile artefacts we have in Scotland from this period is the Falkirk check dated to approximate 3rd century ad. It is a tiny piece of wool cloth that was found inside a pot full of Roman coins near Falkirk. It’s a 2/1 twill with a check pattern in it. It’s too small to tell what garment it could have been from, but the check pattern is a fantastic clue in terms of style.
Falkirk check fragment
In the Moroccan city of volubilis once stood a bronze statue of Roman Emperor Caracalla, who was styled as a conqueror of the Caledonians. All that remains of the statue is a 3 foot long bronze segment of his cloak, which depicts acaptured Caledonian warrior. What is fascinating is that it shows him wearing check trousers and a cloak around his shoulders. This is important as it differs from other depictions of Caledonians in Roman carvings of the typical naked barbarian, and links in with the Falkirk fragment with Caledonians wearing check.
We also have various stone carvings and small figurines which show figures wearing cloaks known as the Birrus Britannicus which is named in a Roman tax edict as one of the main exports from Britannia.
Hooded archer figurine from Chelmsford.
Cloak wearing monks from Papils stone and housesteads , Hadrian’s wall
Jordan wearing one of our shop cloaks, based on the Birrus Britannicus. Many of the Pictish carved stones date to this period, and show some interesting characters
Rhynie man, Aberdeen. Tulloch Warrior, Perthshire. Early medieval Moving on into early medieval period where the Romans have left Britain and the native cultures are flourishing without an empires oppression. It is now we can start to imagine each culture becoming more distinct from its neighbours, with art and craft blossoming. Most of our evidence then comes from artefacts and stone carvings and so I will start with those.
I'm going to kick off with one of our proudest clothing artefacts; the Orkney hood, dated approx 250-615 AD.
I start with this hood as the dating places it possibly in the Iron Age, possibly early medieval so the lines do blur a little. The original artefact is sized for a child, made from beautiful herringbone wool with a tablet woven fringe. This is the only artefact of clothing we have from the entire Pictish period, hence why it is so cherished. What makes the Orkney hood so relevant to Pictish clothing is that it mirrors what we see on the stone carvings and what is written in Irish annals. In Pictish stone carving, we see three separate carvings of men hunting with crossbows, and wearing hoods that look like the Orkney hood, and carvings with different styles of hoods also more like the earlier Birrus.
My own Orkney hood hand woven by Linda Soos, Scottish weaver.
Drostan stone crossbowman from St Vigeans Museum. Note how useful a hood is for protection and concealment for hunting.
Pilgrim or wanderer from St Vigeans museum with his snazzy shorts and cloak.
So we know the Picts were fond of hoods. Who wouldn’t be in a country that’s wet most of the year? As an outer garment it’s very practical. The stone carvings tell us much more about clothing styles and hair styles which we can examine. Men are usually depicted wearing a tunic and trousers or shorts as the basics. Added to this might be a long coat, a cloak, or a hood. Sadly carvings of women are limited to just one or two which we can only really see a simple dress and cloak. Some of these carvings can be analysed alongside the book of kells, which is believed to have been worked on at least in part at Iona in the west of Scotland. Those working on the manuscript may have drawn inspiration from local clothing styles, but I also think there wouldn’t have been vast differences between the two nations.
Pictish rider from the St Madoes rider with shorts and hood
Kirriemuir riders Interesting here is the nobles fine clothes and layered cloak, and his fine shoes. It is mildly possible that we can see leg wraps on the top riders legs, like those Saxons would have been wearing around the time. But it’s difficult to say for certain, so this is a tentative suggestion.
Female rider sitting side saddle on the Hilton of cadboll stone. This is the only clear carving of a female. She is impressively the most prominent figure, sitting side saddle with heralds beside her.
We can gather plenty about tunics from the carvings from the small details such as length which has the most common (but not exclusively ) above the knee, different necklines, seams on clothing, and possible tablet woven detail around hems.
A closer look at neck lines from the St Andrews Sarcophagus and Brechin Cathedral stones.
Here on the Golspie stone we can see clear seam lines on the side of the tunic, and what looks like a band around the neck line, giving us some construction guidelines.
What is also fascinating about Pictish carving, is how it depicts hair styles among the Picts, with nobility usually having a full head of hair and well tailored beards, more refined than what is seen on the earlier stones. There is a good array of bone combs from throughout this time period, of all different shapes and sizes for men and women. One thing is for sure, certainly no dreadlocks ;) (though I won’t argue that aye, individuals could have had knotted hair, but it definitely doesn’t appear to be a style from all the evidence).
Various hair styles from stone drawings on Canmore.
When it comes to footwear we have somewhat more to go on. We see various style of shoes in Pictish carvings and the book of kells, which are further substantiated with archaeological finds, huzzah! Right: Shoes from the St. Andrews Sarcophagus
Meigle rider fragment with his fancy shoes, horse blanket and impressive weaponry.
Book of kells shoes detail
Shoe fragments were found at the monastic site of Iona on the west coast on Scotland, in Dalriata territory. The leather finds were dated to the late 6th to early 7th century AD and bear a striking resemblance to the meigle rider shoe, with the long toungue and heel, and some of the shoes in the book of kells. It is believed the book of kells was started on Iona before being moved to Ireland for safety from raiders, so this gives us a lot of confidence in context. Right - Iona shoe
The other shoe find we have is from Dundurn hillfort, which lies in the west of Pictavia near Loch Earn. The shoe is dated between 6th to 9th century AD. What makes the Dundurn shoe completely unique is the patterned decoration covering the shoe, and the construction of the shoe is overengineered compared to other contemporary shoes. It appears to be one-piece construction like the Irish Lucas type, but none with the same sort of decoration. The craft and artistry that went in to this shoe is astounding, and truly showcases the skill of the original craftsman.
The Dundurn shoe artefact and two replicas I have made (with added laces!).
As well as a leather shoe, we also have a stunning preserved leather satchel at loch Glashan crannog, dated between 6th to 9th century AD. In the life of St Columba, leather satchels and water bottles are both mentioned as everyday items. We also see satchels in the stone carvings and manuscripts, so this fills in a niche for practical leather items.
Comparing my crannog bag to the original in Kelvingrove museum
Whilst we see plenty of belts in stone carvings, we dont have any belt finds, but plain iron buckles have been found in various sites such as at the Pictish houses as Lair, where a very plain utilitarian buckle was found which could very easily be from a belt. Image right - Belt buckle from Lair excavation, Glenshee.
A simple belt based on the Lair find. This is also a period where more people were writing things of import down. In terms of written sources, there are various mentions of the Picts but the only one that has a physical description of specifically Picts is from Ireland. In The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, c 1100 (translated by Cathy swift) we have a fantastic description of three Pictish men; ‘I saw another bed-compartment there, with three men in it: three big, brown men: three round heads of hair on them, equally long at the neck and on the forehead. Three short black cloaks around them reaching to the elbows: long hoods were on the cloaks. Three huge black swords they had, and they carried three black shields, with three broad dark green spears above them. The shaft of each of them was as thick as the spit of a cauldron. Do you know men like them, Fer Rogain?’ ‘It is hard for me to think of men like them. I do not know three men like that in Ireland unless it is that trio there from Pictland, who went into exile out of their country and are now in Conaire's household."
This short mention is such a goldmine of information! The first image that comes to mind is the Birsay Pictish stone carved with three warriors. We’re these men rebounded, or a common story spoken around the campfire often? One thing is for sure, they were fearsome men.
Right: The Birsay men, from Orkney. Below: Our interpretation of the Birsay men
The mention of hoods fits perfectly with what we already know from the Orkney hood and stone carvings. It’s interesting that the hair style was mentionable, and I wonder if this is to distinguish them apart from holy men who would have had some sort of tonsure. I’m assuming brown men refers to their hair colour. The colour of their attire is also important, as black is notoriously hard to dye fabric in early medieval times, which possibly points towards these men being high born (if their deeds and considerable arsenal did not already). With many notable features, we could also assume that those items of clothing not mentionable such as tunic and trews were not noteworthy because they were not dissimilar to the local garments. I think tunics and trews would have been a universal standard. It definitely seems to be the hoods and colour that set these three Picts out from the crowd.
Looking to the Scots in the west, we have the Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin, an 11th century saga, based on 6th century events in Scottish Dalriata. Canu mac Gartnáín Flees into exile, and his retinue is described thus (I’m reading from a translation by Cathy swift); "A ship (curach) was made for him. They came towards the beach. It is thus they came to the sea, that is the 50 warriors. Purple five-fold cloaks around each one of them; 2 five-pronged spears in their hands; a shield with beaten gold on it; a sword with a gold fist-hold on their belt; their flowing hair of yellow gold across their backs. It is thus the 50 women came; a green cloak with fringes of silver; an under-tunic with red embroidery of gold, brooches (delg) of gold fully inlaid with a variety of many coloured jewels, necklaces of refined gold; headdresses of gold on the head of each one of them. The fifty gillies; (over) - tunics from yellow silk around them with silver. A fidchell-set on the back of each gillie with men of gold and silver; a bronze stringed instrument in the left hand of the gillie; two hunting hounds on chains of silver in his right hand." What this passage illustrates the most for me is colour. The beautiful colours and fabrics mentioned give us a real sense of how people dazzled and clashed, rather than the Hollywood scenes of dour brown on brown sackcloth. Purple is definitely a high status colour, and five fold cloaks are mentioned a lot in Irish annals. Whilst were not entirely sure how a cloak was folded five times, I’m prone to think it describes pleats giving a layered look and showing off more fabric like in a kilt. The cloak on the figure on the St. Andrews sarcophagus certainly looks pleated. We do see layered cloaks on some highborn Pictish riders on stone carvings, and folded cloaks in the book of kells. It’s fantastic to get some details on female clothing too, which we have so little detail for. It really illustrates the layers in clothing, the colours, the use of silver and gold threads, and all this mention of silver and gold brings us to the bling. What is most frustrating is that we still don't know the style of these dresses and layers. Did the women wear the earlier style of Iron age dress with open arms, or something plain like a long tunic, or a long dress with an apron like we see in the norse style?
Left: Caroline Nicolay, Pario Gallico. Right: Alex, Hedging Remedies Wearing the earlier iron age style dress Wearing the norse style of underdress & apron
Note the folded layers of cloaks on the figures of the St Andrews Sarcophagus
In terms of jewellery we mostly have brooches, which were typically worn on the shoulder to fasten cloaks. Brooches signified rank and importance, and so were key to a persons identity. We have many finds of pins and pennanular brooches from plain every items to incredibly intricate masterpieces fit for a laird. What’s rather unique are the huge chains, such as the famous Whitecleugh chain, believed to be elite status symbols.
Above Right: The Whitecleugh chain Below Right: lobed pin from the Gaulcross hoard
Brooches from St Ninians hoard, showing the fine craftsmanship that was prevalent.
And so to conclude...were the Picts naked blue savages? Certainly not I think. History is so much more fascinating than this fantasy. The evidence we have when collated, points to ingenious craft and artistic endeavours to produce high quality practical garments and jewellery, with very ostentatious styles and colours in the upper classes. If tattooing was used, it was more likely red/ black in colour and not a vibrant blue. The same could be said for the rest of Europe, and so it is refreshing to elevate the Picts above their barbarian stereotype and showcase that they were every bit as cultured as the rest of the world, and clearly a culture worth trading with (and going to war with when they wouldn’t trade nicely). A special thanks to Caroline Nicolay for contributing her knowledge of pigments, and to my apprentice Jordan O'connor for some of the artwork featured as an interpretation to what we think they could have dressed like. I hope you have enjoyed reading this, whether just to learn some more about the Picts, are researching iron age or early medieval european clothing, or as a way to make your own Pictish clothing for living history. Please feel free to contact us if you have any interesting facts to add, or even to debate what we have written. Thank you! Hamish