The earliest record we have of the word "Pict" describing a group of people
in Britain comes from a poem by Eumenius dated A.D. 297, which mentions the
"Picti" along with the "Hiberni" as enemies of the "Britanni".
Although this sets up a contrast between Picts and Britons, it implies
nothing more than a Romanized/non-Romanized distinction. The word "picti" is
most often understood as a plural of the Latin participle "pictum" from the
verb "pingo" "to paint; to dye or color; to decorate". This is usually
interpreted in the light of Julius Caesar's comment "All the 'Britanni'
paint themselves with woad which produces a bluish coloring.' Other, later,
classical writers repeat this claim, often narrowing the application to
inhabitants of the northern part of Britain and making reference to
"puncturing" rather than "painting". The popular interpretation that
developed might best be summed up by the early 7th century description by
Isidore of Seville who says that the Picts take their name "from the fact
that their bodies bear designs pricked into their skins by needles".
But in interpreting these comments, it must be understood that the classical
"anthropological" tradition involved a great deal of repeating and
interpreting the claims of earlier writers, and extremely little direct
observation and eye-witness report. An example of the pseudo-history
repeated by Bede claims a Scythian origin for the Picts, but this seems no
more than an attempt to connect them with another people described in
classical writings as "Picti". Other pseudo-histories carefully list
wanderings and emigrations of "the Picts" that would connect them with every
place or ethnic name resembling "pict" (such as the Pictones of Gaul, whose
name became modern Poictou) and every mention of skin-painting or tattooing.
A great deal of the material repeated by Isidore and Bede and similar
writers is demonstrably false. Other parts can be corroborated by
archaeological methods. But any use of this sort of material must involve
several large grains of salt. Of all the early writers that mention
"painting", only Caesar seems to have been an eye-witness, and his
observations would have been concerned with the inhabitants of southern
Britain, the Celtic peoples that he explicitly calls "Britanni".
Writers from the 3rd century on (and especially from the mid-4th century on)
make reference to Picts as a people living in the north of Britain as
contrasted with other identifiable ethnic groups such as Hiberni, Scotti,
Saxones, Britanni. An early 4th century reference notes "the Caledones and
other Picts" (although it is technically possible to interpret the Latin as
"the Caledones, the Picts, and others"); Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century)
describes the Picts as divided into two groups, the "Dicalydones" and
"Verturiones". Bede, writing in the 8th century, describes four peoples as
living in Britain, the Britons, Picts, Scots, and Angles. (Wainwright
pp.2-3) So whatever the name may originally have meant (and there are some
theories that it is a Latinization of some native name), there was an
identifiable ethnic group in the north to whom this name was regularly
applied. The earliest chronicles of "Scotland" (used in the loose sense of
"the north of Britain") also make reference to an identifiable ethnic group
called "Picts" and give several lists of "kings of the Picts".
Another sense in which we can understand "Pictish" is from the place names.
From the earliest Roman records of pesonal and place names in Britain, it is
clear that the vast majority of those names (and thus, presumably, the
language of the vast majority of the inhabitants) are Celtic, although of
several strata of migrations. However, in the north, there is fragmentary
evidence of names that do not appear to be of Celtic origin. Some of the
personal names appearing in the lists of "kings of the Picts" also appear to
be non-Celtic, although many are clearly of Celtic origin. Additionally,
there are Ogham inscriptions from the north that include names and name
formulas that are consistant with those in the Pictish king-lists, but that
are otherwise indecipherable. (By "indecipherable" I mean primarily that the
letters, interpreted according to the usual Ogham correspondences, form
words that are not understandable as any known language, although there are
also problems with deciphering the letters themselves due to damage and
From all of this, it is at least convenient, if not necessarily completely
correct, to lump all the "non-Celtic" evidence from the north of Britain
under the label "Pictish". In the case of the earliest place-names, it is
perfectly possible that there are also remnants of unrelated non-Celtic,
non- "Pictish" languages that left no other trace or comment in the record.
For the sake of accuracy, this should be acknowledged, but from a practical
viewpoint, there is no reason not to lump all the non-Celtic material into
Of the non-Celtic element in Pictish, the best conclusion is that it is a
remnant of one of the languages prevalent in Europe before the spread of the
Indo-European language family. Basque is the only remnant of this type
surviving today, although there are early records of others, such as
Etruscan, that did not survive. (Other modern non-Indo- European languages
such as the Finno-Ugric group arrived later than the Indo-European spread.)
For this reason, some writers relate Pictish to Basque directly.
There is also speculation that the
Welsh culture and Welsh language have a great deal of similarities to the
Basque and Pictish cultures and languages. This has lead many to believe
that the Welsh Mystery Religion of Witchcraft owes a great deal to the Picts
and The Basques.
Here is a Pict reading list which contains
important books on the Picts and Pictish topics. These are the best
introductory texts available:
HISTORY AND CULTURE
The Picts emerged as a distinct
group about 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, most of the knowledge about their
culture comes from written descriptions, archeological finds and speculation
derived from folklore, legends and dubious history.
Anderson, A.O., Early Sources of
Scottish History: AD 1200-1206., Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
Anderson, M.O., Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland.
Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. 1973.
Birley, A. R. Life in Roman Britain, London,
Burn, A.R. The Romans in Britain: an Anthology of Inscriptions.
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.
Burt, J.R.F. A Pictish Bibliography. Forfar:
Pinkfoot Press. 1997.
Chadwick, H.M. Early Scotland. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1949.
Close-Brooks, Joanna. Pictish and Other Burials.
Pictish Studies Ed. J.C.P. Friell and W.G. Watson. BAR Series 125. 1984.
Close-Brooks, Joanna. Pictish Stones in Dunrobin Castle Museum
. Derby: Pilgrim Press. 1989.
Crawford, Barbara. Earl & Mormaer: Norse-Pictish relationships
in Northern Scotland. Rosemarkie: Groam House. 1995.
Cruikshank, Graham. The Battle of Dunnichen.
Pinkfoot Press. 1991.
Cummins, W.A.; The Age of the Picts,
1995. This is a good introductory book containing general information.
It includes a Pictish Chronology, The United Kingdom of the Picts, The
Female Royal Line and answers two important questions. What were the
Picts? and Who were the Scots? It explains why Scotland could
have been called Pictland
Curle, C.L. Pictish and Norse finds from the Brough of Birsay
Foster, Sally. Picts, Gaels and Scots. London:
Historic Scotland/B.T. Batsford. 1996.
Gilbert, Inga. The Symbolism of the Pictish Stones in Scotland.
Henderson, Isabel. The Picts. London: Thames and
Henderson, Isabel. The Art & Function of Rosemarkie's Pictish
Rosemarkie: Groan House. 1989, 1991.
Henry, David (editor). The Worm, the Germ and the Thorn: Pictish
and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson. Forfar:
Pinkfoot Press. 1997.
Jackson, Anthony. The Pictish Trail. Orkney:
Orkney Press, 1989.
Jackson, Anthony. The Symbol Stones of Scotland.
Orkney: Orkney Press, 1989.
Laing, Lloyd & Jenny. The Picts and Scots. Dover,
NH: Alan Sutton. 1993.
Mack, Allistair. Field Guide to the Pictish Symbol Stones.
Forfar: Pinkfoot Press. 1997.
Nicoll, Eric(editor). Pictish Panorama. Forfar: Pinkfoot Press.
Peterson, Edward. The Message of Scotland's Symbol Stones.
Aberuthven: PCD Ruthven Books, 1996.
Pictish Arts Society. Proceedings of the Pictish Arts Society
Conferences. Edinburgh. 1992, 1993-4.
Ralston, Ian & Inglis, Jim. Foul Hordes: The Picts in the North
East. Univ. of Aberdeen. 1984.
Ritchie, Anna. Picts. Edinburgh: HMSO, 1989.
Ritchie, Anna. Perceptions of the Picts: from
Eumenius to John Buchan. Rosemarkie: Groam House. 1994
Southesk, Earl of. Origins of Pictish Symbolism.
Skene, William F. Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the
Scots, and other Early Memorials of Scottish History.
Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House, 1867.
Small, Alan, ed. The Picts: A New Look at an Old Problem.
Smyth, Alfred. Warlords and Holy Men. Edinburgh:
University Press. 1984, 1989.
Stevenson, John. Pictish Symbol Stones (Discovering Historic
Sutherland, Elizabeth. Pictish Guide. Scotland:
Dufour Editions. 1995
Wainwright, F. T. ed. The Problem of the Picts.
Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1955.
PICTISH ONLINE RESOURCES
There are several
sites related to Pictish traditions with more coming online all the time.
Some sites maintain excellent links to the best Pictish web pages.
Heather Ale, a
history of the Pictish brew
The Pictish Trail, Easter Ross,
a short article with photos
Rowan's Woad Page,
the history, cultivation, and use of woad
Woad, a 1921
English Boy Scout lyric on the herb of the Picts
The Ancient Names of Scotland
Easter Ross, the
history of the area in the Dark Ages, from Glenmorangie Scotch Wiskey
The History of Dalriada,
the Irish settlement of Scotland
MacAlpin's Treason: The End of the Picts,
a retelling of the story of the massacre of the Picts
Pictish History, The Cruithne
The Pictish Kings,
legend and history
The Pictish Nation,
a home page for Pictish history
The Picts, a
Pictish home page
The Picts, a
Scotland's Early History
"What the Hell is a Pict?",
an article by Darrin Kerrigan