A combination of enigmatic carved stones and a written language (ogham script) that long defied interpretation has ensured the mysterious aura of the Picts. They were first named "Picti" in a Roman panegyric written by Eumenius in a.d. 297, but in terms of their distinctive material culture, the evidence is clearest from the sixth to the ninth centuries. The twelfth-century source Historia Norvegia describes the Picts as pygmies who lived underground. The area of Pictish settlement is defined by the distribution of placenames including for example the element "pit" (as in Pitlochry, Pittenweem), as well as by the widespread distribution of the Picts' distinctive symbol stones. The Picts are most strongly associated with the eastern parts of Scotland, such as the regions of Fife and Angus in the south, as well as the northern areas of Scotland including the Sutherland and Caithness regions, and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland. The Roman term may well have been taken from the Picts' name for themselves, the Painted Ones, perhaps due to their distinctive tattoos, but the term is a general one, encompassing the confederacy of tribes in the north and east of Scotland (e.g., the Caledones and Vacomagii).
Writing in 1955, Frederick T. Wainwright described in The Problem of the Picts, the lack of evidence concerning settlements and graves that seemed to compound issues of place-names, mysterious symbol stones, and the simple—but seemingly impenetrable—incised line script called "ogham." In Wainwright's era, there were indeed more questions than answers about the Picts. The picture changed beyond recognition, however, with several excavations in the 1970s identifying not only distinctive dwellings but also unique burial sites. In the early 1970s, excavation of a multiphase site at Buckquoy, Birsay, in Orkney revealed the first identified Pictish dwellings, beginning as a simple three-cell stone building and being replaced at a subsequent phase of Pictish activity by more complex multicellular structures of a more anthropomorphic form (suggestive of a human form with a smaller head than body, or of a figure eight in which the upper circle is smaller than the lower). A few years later excavation added to this group a simple figure-eight structure. All these buildings were located on the mainland at Birsay in the northwest corner of mainland Orkney and opposite the major Pictish and Norse center of the Brough of Birsay. The Brough, a small tidal island, had been investigated from the 1930s onward and provided details of extensive metalworking activity in the Pictish period; it produced brooches comparable to those found in the largest and most significant Pictish silver hoard in Scotland—St. Ninian's Isle, Shetland, in 1958. One of the most famous icons of Pictish art was unearthed on the Brough of Birsay during excavations in the 1930s: a shattered grave marker with three warriors and Pictish symbols enigmatically presented on one face.
The identification of trefoil-shaped cellular dwellings (possessing three main cells or rooms off a central larger area with a hearth) as Pictish ensured a reexamination of earlier excavations; many Iron Age broch towers (defensive structures) that had extramural settlement of cellular form (cellular structures built around the tower that post-dated the building and occupation of the tower), such as the broch of Gurness in Orkney, later excavations at the Howe in Orkney, or recent excavations at Scatness in Shetland clearly demonstrate structural sequence and have greatly increased the Pictish corpus. Excavations at Pitcarmick in Perthshire also have been significant because they revealed a rectangular Pictish structure, indicating that not all Pictish buildings are celluar in form. Defended hilltops and promontories were occupied by the Picts as well, and sites such as Craig Phadraig near Inverness, Dundurn in Perthshire, and Burghead on the south side of the Moray Firth, all in mainland Scotland, indicate a need for protection from enemies, both Pictish as well as other neighbors.
Mainland Birsay in Orkney also has evidence of the distinctive burial tradition used by the Picts, which had not commonly been identified before work in the late 1970s at Birsay and Sandwick in Shetland in the north and at Garbeg and Lundin Links among others on the Scottish mainland. The body was laid in a simple cist, or stone box, often made of a number of flat stones, without grave goods. The cist was covered over completely by sand or earth and then a cairn, or mound of stones, was built on top of that, delimited by a squared or rounded curb or sometimes a ditch. In rare instances there is evidence for the presence of a symbol stone on top of the grave (for example at Watenan in Caithness); perhaps more commonly the grave was topped by a cairn made of small white quartz pebbles. Old excavations failed to find the burial beneath the layer of sterile soil or sand beneath the cairn, as in the case of Ackergill in Caithness, excavated in the 1920s.
symbol stones, ogham script, and portable objects
The iconic emblem of the Picts is the symbol stone. There are three main types of stone monument: Class 1 is the earliest (dating to about a.d. 400–700) and identifed as minimally shaped with incised symbols of naturalistic form—for instance, animals or crescents and V-rods (two rods set at right angles to each other). Class 2 (dating to about a.d. 700–800s) combines careful shaping of the stone with elaborate and naturalistic elements including human figures and animals, as well as elaborate cross motifs related to the Christian missions to Pictland in c. a.d. 710 of Nechtan (in his attempts to change the Pictish church from Columban to Roman observance). Class 3 (dating to about a.d. 750 onward) is identified by Christian carvings including elaborate crosses and by a complete absence of symbols.
These stones have been studied extensively by many scholars, but there has been no resolution as to their specific function, although tribal boundary stones or naming stones are among the more plausible of suggestions. However, the distinctive symbols associated with the stones, clearly of Pictish origin, can also be found on smaller items of a more portable nature; examples include symbols incised on the terminal of large silver chains such as those found at Gaulcross or Whitecleugh or those engraved on a silver plaque (or earring) from Norrie's Law, all in mainland Scotland.
Other categories of artifact that have been distinguished as specifically Pictish include short composite bone combs, hipped pins (with a slight swelling at mid-point of the shank that prevented slippage during wear) of bone and copper alloy, penannular brooches as found at St. Ninian's Isle, and simple painted pebbles. A stone spindle whorl, excavated from Buckquoy in 2003, bears an ogham inscription—one of thirty-six such inscriptions identified in Pictland. The ogham script used by the Picts is believed to have originated in Ireland during the first centuries a.d. and is based on single or small groups of strokes that cross a single straight line. Ongoing research seems to suggest that the script originated from a Celtic language.
Ballin-Smith, Beverly, ed. Howe: Four Millennia of OrkneyPrehistory. Monograph Series, no. 9. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1994.
Carver, Martin. Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the PictishNation. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1999. (An excellent up-to-date summary.)
Dockrill, Steve, Val Turner, and Julie M. Bond. "Old Scatness/Jarlshof Environs Project." In Discovery and Excavation in Scotland 2002. Edited by Robin Turner, pp. 105–107. Edinburgh: Council for Scottish Archaeology, 2003.
Forsyth, Katherine. "Language in Pictland, Spoken and Written." In A Pictish Panorama. Edited by Eric Nicoll. Forfar, Angus, U.K.: Pinkfoot Press, 1995.
Foster, Sally. Picts, Gaels, and Scots. London: B. T. Batsford/Historic Scotland, 1996. (A excellent scholarly summary.)
Friell, Gerry, and Graham Watson, eds. Pictish Studies: Settlement, Burial, and Art in Dark Age Northern Britain. British Archaeological Reports, no. 125. Oxford: Tempvs Reparatvm, 1984.
Hedges, John W. Bu, Gurness, and the Brochs of Orkney. Part 2, Gurness. British Archaeological Reports British Series, no. 164. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1987.
Morris, Christopher D. The Birsay Bay Project. Vol. 1, Brough Road Excavations 1976–1982. Department of Archaeology Monograph Series, no. 1. Durham, U.K.: University of Durham, 1989.
Ritchie, Anna. "Orkney in the Pictish Kingdom." In ThePrehistory of Orkneyb.c. 4000–1000a.d. Edited by Colin Renfrew, pp. 183–204. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985. (A full survey of evidence available to 1985.)
——. "Excavation of Pictish and Viking Age Farmsteads at Buckquoy, Orkney." Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 108 (1976–1977): 174–227.
Small, Alan, Charles Thomas, and David M.Wilson. St Ninian's Isle and Its Treasure. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Wainwright, Frederick T., ed. The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Nelson, 1955.
Colleen E. Batey
It is difficult to determine whether they had a substantive ethnic identity or if ‘Picti’ was merely a convenient label given by classical writers to all tribal peoples in Scotland in the later Roman period. A Roman poet observes in ad 310 that the Emperor Constantius chose not to acquire the woods and marshes of the ‘Caledones and other Picti’. The Caledonians were certainly one major tribe north of the Forth–Clyde frontier, whereas it would seem that ‘Picti’ were a whole group of tribes, possibly a new federation.
An important historical attestation of the Picts is provided by Ammianus Marcellinus, who records attacks on Roman Britain by Picts, Scots, Irish, and Saxons culminating in the ‘Picts' War’ of ad 367–8. Count Theodosius was sent to recover the situation and he restored the province after a major campaign. St Patrick refers to the Picts of the 5th cent. as ‘most shameful, wicked and apostate’ after they bought some of his Christian converts from slave dealers. Gildas refers to ‘marauding Picts’, savages with more hair on their faces than clothes on their bodies, who came by sea from the north and raided post-Roman Britain. In the 8th cent. Bede believed that at the time of St Columba's mission the Picts were divided into northern and southern groups, the latter having been converted to Christianity by St Ninian. According to legend, the last king of the Picts was killed at the instigation of Kenneth MacAlpin c. ad 842.
Archaeologically, the Picts are possibly represented by a number of carved standing ‘Pictish symbol stones’ found throughout Scotland. These probably date from the 6th–10th cents. ad and are incised with a wide corpus of symbols inspired by Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian iconography.
Picts, ancient inhabitants of central and N Scotland, of uncertain origin. First mentioned (AD 297) by the Roman writer Eumenius as northern invaders of Roman Britain, they were probably descendants of late Bronze Age and early Iron Age invaders of Britain. Their language is thought to have been a superimposition of Celtic on a pre-Celtic and non-Indo-European language, but there is no undisputed interpretation of it or their culture. By the early 7th cent. there was a unified Pictish kingdom north of a line from the Clyde to the Forth rivers. It apparently had a matrilinear system of succession and had probably adopted Celtic Christianity. To the south of the Picts, Scottish invaders from Ireland had established the kingdom of Dalriada in the 5th cent. Between 843 and 850 Kenneth I, king of Dalriada, established himself also as king of the Picts, although how and why is not clear. The kingdom of Alba thus formed became the kingdom of Scotland.
See W. C. Dickinson, Scotland from the Earliest Times to 1603 (rev. ed. 1965); I. Henderson, Picts (1967); A. B. Scott, The Pictish Nation (1977).