The Picts, When and Where. A Timeline.
As a Scottish leatherworker, I take my inspiration from Scottish history, in particular the iron age and early medieval periods. Everything I make is influenced by history, even my business name Pictavia which was once a name for the Pictish kingdom. And so even as a craftsman, I spend much of my time delving into the past to better understand the world our ancestors lived in. It is a passion of mine to take this research, and turn it into something tangible like crafting a replica of a Pictish artefact. In this way I can shine some light on Pictish history, and help others to connect with it.
The truth is that not many people know much at all about early Scottish history, or Pictish history for that matter. It’s just not well understood, and wrapped up in a lot of ambiguity. Spanning nearly a thousand years with major changes throughout the culture, it’s important to define what is Pictish and what period those Picts belong to. so, I’m going to take you through a brief timeline of Scotland, from the 1st century AD, to the 10th century. Who were the Picts? And where are they now?
It all starts with the Romans. What did they ever do for us? Well...they wrote things down! Which helps massively, as there are almost no surviving literary sources written by the Picts themselves.
The Roman empire first invaded southern Britain in 55 BC under Julius Caesars rule, getting the lay of the land, with a more thorough foray in AD 43 during the reign of Emperor Claudius, encountering the native Celtic tribes of the British Isles.
In AD80 Governor Agricola, former commander of the twentieth legion, launched his campaign North, into what is now Scotland, which continued for several years against the natives. During this period, we could expect to see Brochs and hillforts dominating the skyline, and Crannogs in many Lochs. Encountering fierce resistance, Agricola built forts along what would become the Antonine wall, and some further north along the Gask ridge, and fought some major battles against the native tribes, which we shall collectively call the Caledonians for now. After years of campaigning, Agricola couldn’t hold his territory despite his victory at Mons Graupius, and was ordered to leave Britain.
It was around then Ptolemy produced a map of northern Britain, identifying the native tribes. It identified sixteen tribes inhabiting Scotland such as the Venicones, Taezali, or Caledonii, where we get the early name Caledonia for scotland.
After Agricolas withdrawal, many northern roman outposts were dismantled, and forces moved south as the northern tribes harried them. In AD 122 the Emperor Hadrian was forced to consolidate the northern frontier by beginning work on Hadrian's wall, to keep the northern tribes hemmed in. The construction was still on-going when in 138 Antonius Pius becomes Emperor and re-invades Caledonia by his proxy governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus. A new frontier was formed in 142, a turf wall stretching across the Forth-Clyde isthmus, called the Antonine Wall. It was again short lived as the northern frontier fell into decline again and when Pius died in 161 the Antonine wall was eventually abandoned and forces withdrawn back to Hadrian's wall. What we see here is a cycle of Roman campaigns gaining ground, becoming mired in guerrilla warfare, and the pressure of being isolated in an unforgiving landscape forcing retreat and consolidation, until the next Emperor steps up and resumes the cycle.
Ptolemys map of Caledonia
By the third century, reports indicate that the northern tribes had amalgamated into or absorbed by two major tribes; the Caledonii, and the Maeatae. Bigger means stronger, and these tribes could now defend their territory against the Romans. With these two tribes invading south, Emperor Severus was forced to intervene, bringing his two sons north with him to quell the northern tribes. In 210 the Maeatae rose when Severus was taken ill, and his son Caracallas harsh methods of retribution drove the Caledonii into joining the fray against Rome. Severus passed away in 211, and Caracalla succeeded as Emperor. After a futile attempt at maintaining an aggressive campaign against guerrilla warfare, Caracalla eventually settled for peace. This was the last of any major incursions into Caledonia. Any Roman presence north of Hadrian's wall soon after seems to only be for minor campaigns or skirmishes, without any political power to back it.
It’s not entirely clear why the Romans were pushing so far north in the first place. It is something that has always baffled me, as Scotland is not particularly rich in natural resources. I wonder if it began as the typical practice of merely expanding the border to gain whatever territory/resources they could, and instead encountered a land that may not have been plentiful, but also encountering such fierce resistance that it became a political stance. The fact that the invasion spanned several centuries, and many Emperors, but kept coming up short, leads me to believe that upon taking the throne each new Emperor perhaps saw themselves as being the righteous Emperor who would be the one to tame the savages and “make Rome great again” so to speak.
in 297 a document known as the Panegyric of Constantius Caesar mentioned two troublesome foes of Rome; The Hiberni in Ireland, and the Picti in northern Britain. This is the first mention of the Picts, and it’s believed it refers to all peoples in the east of Northern Britain. Among the Britons, they were known as the Priteni, but this term seems to have fallen out of favour and the term Pict sticks. This is possibly related to the meaning ‘the painted people’, referring to their body paint/tattooing which is mentioned in other sources such as Greek writer Herodian write in the early third century that the barbarians of northern Britain adorned their skin with designs such as animals.
In 364 A roman historian called Ammianus Marcellinus mentions Picts in a series of raids in the south, alongside Scots, Saxons, and Attacoti. This is also the first mention of Scots. In this period they were merely Gaelic speakers from Ireland or the west of the land around Argyll (the kingdom of Dal Riada) and the Saxons were from Germany (not yet settled in Britain). These raids culminate in the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of 367, which was so well coordinated and thorough, that it forced Emperor Valentinian I to send elite troops to restore order. But soon after the northern frontier deteriorated as Roman presence was withdrawn for campaigns elsewhere in the Empire, and native tribes grew in strength.
Picts by Jon Hodgson
By 410, Rome had fully withdrawn from Britain as Emperor Honorious sent word that no further assistance would be forthcoming from the Empire. There was no major Pictish victory that cast the Romans out for us to shout about. It seems to me the Roman machine forced the native tribes to bind together under oppression, who learned their enemy, and adapted with guerrilla warfare, making any gains the Romans won negligible against the long term cost of a protracted campaign. With forces being chipped away, and other campaigns requiring more resources, they simply withdrew and left the southerners to deal with the problem themselves.
The centuries of Roman aggression was the anvil in which the Picts were forged; the native tribes banding together or subjugating each other until only large strong tribes were formed which could effectively defend their way of life and progress as a more unified society.
The withdrawal of Rome marks the end of the iron age in Scotland, and opens the early medieval period.
With the vacuum left by the Roman withdrawal, the native tribes that were no longer oppressed or spurred on by Roman patronage were left to their own devices. Thus ensued a century of British fiefdoms strengthening their borders and reaching out for more land. The Picts were included in this, mentioned by Gildas as springing forth from their coracles alongside Scots to raid south. As a result, British tribes in the south brought in Saxon mercenaries to settle and provide a defence against northern attacks.
This was the start of the Saxon migration into Britain, alongside Angles and Jutes. During the 5th century we also have the emergence of two kingdoms of Britons in the North distinct from the Picts besides the kingdom of Dal Riada already mentioned; the kingdom of Alt Clut in the Clyde Valley to the West of Scotland, and the Kingdom of Gododdin in Lothian in the East. Between these two kingdoms marks the southern boundary of the Picts. With strong neighbours developing, the Picts were emboldened and strengthened in their own developing culture and identity.
A Pict in his Coracle
We now have sources referring to the land of the Picts as Pictavia which means Pictland. This is the first true indication of a Pictish polity forming with defined boundaries, speaking a P-celtic language similar to welsh rather than Gaelic, and a distinct art style of carved symbol stones which is the most visual legacy they left behind, and a feudal system under an aristocratic elite ruled by kings. What you would expect from a powerful medieval kingdom. So we already have some very major differences between the collective of iron age tribes dubbed Picti, and the early medieval Pictish kingdom that is forming.
A list of Pictish kings survives in variable copies, and is also a great source for who reigned when and provides insight into the system of succession. The king list begins in the end of the 5th century and continues into the 9th century. It shows that very few Pictish kings had father who were kings, or even Picts for that matter. It seems the Picts used a matrilineal system, with kingship being passed down through the female line to nephews and brothers. In this way the kingship wouldn’t pass to an unsuitable prince, but there would be a wider range of candidates.
In the 6th Century during Brude son of Maelchon's reign, was recorded in the Irish annals the first battle between the Picts and the Scots of Dal Riada in the year 559. The origins of the Scots as told by Bede is that they came from Ireland at the start of the century to found their new kingdom. However, the archaeological data does not support this theory, with the opposing theory being that the Scots were an indigenous culture already present as earlier Roman sources support. The Picts and Scots continued to wage war throughout the 6th century until the battle of Degsastan in 603 where Aedan Mac Gabrain was defeated by the Northumbrians under king Aethelfrith of Bernicia which slowed the Scots aggressive position for the time being.
Monks stone, Papil
The Picts were the last culture in the British Isles to cling to paganism before they eventually converted like their neighbours which marks another major change in the culture we should respect in terms of our definitions. Bede claimed that Christianity first came to the Picts via St Ninian in the south of the kingdom during the start of the 6th century, and later, by St columba who came as a missionary to the Northern Picts half a century later in 565. Although there are other sources of missionaries such as St Filan, Boethius, and Darlugdach previously to Ninian but none are mentioned by Bede, possibly as they were thought to be unsuccessful.
Columbas mission seemed to have the most success, starting with him forming his own monastery on Iona under the supervision of the kings of Dal Riada. From here he made forays into Northern Pictavia and after several meetings with King Brude was given permission for his monks to preach among the land. But by the 7th century, Pictavia was mostly a Christian kingdom under the spiritual authority of the Abbot of Iona. I think this would have also been the start of the Gaelic language spreading into Pictavia through the clergy. We have to look at this new religion not just being about faith, but that it connected Pictavia to the wider world in terms of language, and trade through the church.
Pictish cross, Dyce
From the 7th century onwards, literary sources mentioning the Picts and Pictland become stronger due to Christianisation. The Christian sources from the West of Scotland, Ireland, and from Northumbria become more documented as scribes and observers such as Adomnan and Bede made note of important events and people, often within living memory or only one generation from the events themselves which gives fresh and more reliable accounts than previous myths and legends, though should still be taken with a pinch of salt as they are often written to praise the lives of saints, rather than focus on the truth.
Through the beginning of the 7th century relations between the Picts and their neighbours were relatively peaceful. The Picts and Scots had both accepted spiritual authority from the Abbot of Iona, which seemed to have eased hostility between the two states somewhat. To the south, the kingdom of Northumbria was first united under king Aethelfrith, who was shortly after dethroned by his rival Edwin of former Deira in 617. Aethelfriths oldest son Eanfrith sought refuge in Pictavia, and fathered a son with a Pictish princess, whilst Aethelfriths two youngest sons sought refuge in Dal Riada. After nearly two decades in Exile, Eanfrith has a chance to claim his birth right when Edwin is defeated by his enemy Cadwallon, King of the Britons of North Wales in 633. Eanfriths reign was short-lived and ended in tragedy as he was assassinated by Cadwallon. His brother Oswald who had stayed in exile in Dal Riada then took up the throne with help from his patron Scots, and defeated Cadwallon in battle the following year and restoring Northumbria to his family and bringing peace.
One of the most notable events from the 7th century is the conquest of Gododdin, mentioned in the Irish annals to have occurred in 640 as ‘the siege of Etin’ and in the surviving welsh poem Gododdin. This was an attack of the fort of Eidyn (now Edinburgh) by king Oswald of Northumbria, expanding his kingdom northwards. The Picts would no doubt have been glad to see their rival kingdom Gododdin perish, however it had previously acted as a buffer between Pictavia and the southern kingdoms. With Northumbria pushing north, the southern borders of Pictavia were potentially threatened. This is apparent when according to Bede, another two decades later Oswui, younger brother of Oswald, defeats his rival Penda of Mercia, and then seems to strengthen and expand his borders which includes pushing north into the southern provinces Pictavia and Stirlingshire spelling the final end for the kingdom of Manau (formerly the Maeatae).
Pictish warriors marching to war, Fowlis Wester
Although Pictavia was within the Christian fold, The Synod of Whitby in 664 showed that there were still strong divisions between kingdoms. This was a gathering of churchmen in Northumbria to discuss the differences between the Celtic and the Roman traditions. King Oswui of Northumbria had spent his youth exiled in Dalriada, so he was accustomed to the Celtic traditions from the Columban church in Iona which were upheld in most northern territories such as Dalriada and Pictavia, Lindisfarne, and most of Northumbria which had been brought south by his brother Oswald. Whereas the southern Saxons upheld the Roman tradition under the Archbishop of Canterbury. The celtic traditions still acknowledged the authority of the Pope in Rome, but retained some outdated customs which included calculating the date of Easter. After fervent bickering, King Oswui placed his support behind the Roman traditions. This ended the foothold of the Celtic church in Northumbria and many of the clergy returned to Iona in despair.
The end of the 7th century saw Pictish king Brude son of Beli succeeding to the throne during a time of oppression from Northumbria. Brude set about subjugating and strengthening his kingdom in preparation as it was only a matter of time before the power-hungry Northumbrian king Ecgfrith, son of Oswui, marched north. Brude and Ecgfrith met head on in 685 at the battle of Dunnichen, in which Brude scored an overwhelming victory as Ecgfrith and his bodyguard were slain. The tale of Brudes victory can be seen carved in stone on the Aberlemno cross slab. This victory changed the fortunes of Pictavia and its neighbours. Northumbria was left diminished, and Brude continued to strengthen his position as overking of the north, capitalising on his victories to create a formidable kingdom.
The battle of Dunnichen, Aberlemno cross slab
We move into the 8th century with Nechtan king of Pictavia adopting the Roman tradition across his kingdom, bridging peace between Pictavia and Northumbria. This is around the time we see more of the elaborate carved Pictish stones appearing with crosses one side and symbols on the other, possibly with help from Northumbrian stone carvers sent north. The Meigle/Aberlemno collection is a great example of this as it points to a stone carving school/tradition. These new changes didn’t go down well with all in Nechtans court, some of the veterans had been fighting in battles against Northumbria for decades and didn’t like giving up their Celtic traditions. Pictavia was plunged into chaos as lesser kings fought to dethrone Nechtan and fight amongst themselves for the crown. After years of conflict Óengus son of Fergus emerged victorious.
During the time of Óengus son of Fergus, Dalriada was wracked with internal conflict as the lairds of Kintyre and Lord fought for the overkingship of Argyll. Pictavia was dragged into this conflict when Óengus’s son Brude was taken captive from his monastery on Tory Island by the Scot Dungal son of Selbach, perhaps hoping to ransom the prince back to Óengus. Instead, the king of Pictavia went full boss and mounted an invasion of Argyll, sacking several fortresses including the famous Dunadd, and ritually drowning high ranking enemies. Dalriada now recognised the authority of Óengus over their land, paying tribute to the mighty warlord. One of his later campaigns was named ‘the smiting of Dalriada’.
Scots fortress Dunadd
Óengus also campaigned south into lothian, but rather than continue hostilities with Northumbria instead made peace to form a joint venture against Alt Clut of Strathclyde. In 750, Óengus’s brother Talorcan led an army against the Briton king Teudubr, but was killed in the battle, which must have been important as it was noted in the Irish and Welsh annals and the anglo-saxon chronicles. Óengus attacked Alt Clut again in 756 in a joint attack with Eadberht of Northumbria who approached from the south. The Britons fortress at Dumbarton was besieged and their king Dyfmwal, the son of Teudubr was forced to make peace. This was the last major campaign that Óengus made. He died in 761 after reigning for over thirty years, as overking of Pictavia and Dalriada.
The last decade of the 8th century sees a new foe on the horizon. The first Viking raids in Britain were against the Northumbrian monastery at Lindisfarne in 793. And a couple of years later the monastery on Iona was raided several times with a brutal massacre in 806. With Viking raids against the coast of Dal Riada creating chaos, Pictish king Constantine was able to set his son Domnall as overking of the scots, perhaps he was providing extra manpower for defence against Viking raids.
In 839 The Scots and Picts united an army to repel the Viking raiders, but were defeated and both kings, Eoganan of Pictavia and Aed of Dal Riada were slain. This catastrophic defeat led to power struggles within the kingdoms, and thus arose Cináed mac Ailpin who had succeeded Aed as king of Dal Riada. Cináeds origins are steeped in mystery so we can't say for certain whether he was a Scot or a Pict, but his authority was recognised by both in a kingdom that needed a new monarch.
Cináed mac Ailpins death in 858 was noted in the Irish annals which described him as Rex Pictorum ‘king of the Picts’. At some point in his reign, he was able to unify the Scots and Picts under one monarch. A 12th century welsh source explains this by Cináed marching east and conquering Pictland, but later historians have refuted this. Instead it is interpreted that Cináed put himself forward as a legitimate candidate for the Pictish throne. With the previous half century bearing strong ties between Pictland and Dal Riada, It is possible he was of Pictish descent through his mother's side, and was thus accepted by both kingdoms.
For centuries Pictavia had already been influenced by the Gaelic church, and for decades the bond between Pictavia and Dal Riada beset by Viking raiders had seen more crossover in language and culture presumably as many Scots may have fled into Pictavia. During Cináeds reign, he set about consolidating his forged kingdom from invading Norse and Danes, Britons from Alt Clut, and the Northumbrians to the south. This also included transferring relics from Columbas tomb on Iona to the church at Dunkeld bringing the spiritual head of Christianity closer to home. Cináed mac Ailpin is the king known for paving the foundations for the kingdom of Scotland. It was actually after his reign that the kingdom became known as Alba and that kings were no longer referred to as Rex Pictorum but Ri Alban ‘King of Alba’.
Pictish stronghold by Peter Dennis
After Cináeds reign Northern Britain was plagued by Norse and Danish warbands for years. Alt Clut suffered the most and eventually shifted its power north to Govan and is thereafter referred to as the kingdom of Strathclyde. Some impressive remnants of this kingdom can be seen in the carved stones and sarcophagus in Govan Kirk. The continued onslaught to the northern kingdoms forced the Picts to rescue the sacred Columban relics at Dunkeld by sending them to Ireland for protection, possibly at Kells. The kingdom is restored in the beginning of the 10th century as King Constantine II defeats the Norsemen in 904 in Strathearn which seems to either be a decisive victory, or merely the last of worthy mention. This is the last mention of Picts, as the kingdom becomes Alba, and eventually evolves to become part of ‘Scotia’ or Scotland during the 11th century. Thus, we come to the end of what we identify as the Picts.
Contrary to belief, the Picts did not disappear. They were not defeated by the Romans in the Iron Age, nor were they laid low by the Saxons, the Irish, or the Norse in the early medieval period. Through a serious of political struggles and crossover in culture from a shared religion, they merged with the Scots to become the Scottish nation of Alba. The language changed, and thus their definition. But the people remained the same. The majority of subjects were Picts, with the elite positions mostly filled with Scots. Their language did however disappear, due to Christianisation which originated in the west with Gaelic speaking clergy which spread east across Pictavia becoming the dominant language of the elite. The descendants of these Picts became Scots in name and after several generations their Pictish ancestry was forgotten as the church helped write over it.
And so that is a brief look at the Picts and the kingdom of Pictavia. I wanted to write about this, to point out how important this timeline is in defining what we mean when we are discussing the Picts. I see the Pictish period as split into three distinct phases, each very different. We have the early phase of Iron Age tribes, forged into the Picti by the Romans. This culture then developed into its own polity, a relatively united nation with a king and an aristocracy, but still a pagan one. The last phase is that Pictish kingdom converting to Christianity, and with the benefits that come with that becoming stronger and more defined.
From almost a millennia of constant change evolved a powerful culture with a story to tell, but no voices left to speak it. So we look to the carved stones, to the notes and mentions of them here and there, and to the few artefacts we have to tell us who they were, now that we know more about when they lived.
Join me next time when I’ll be writing about Pictish clothing and appearance, and hopefully dispelling a few myths!