Middle Ages

The Mysterious Pict Tribes of Central and Northern Scotland

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"The Mysterious Pict Tribes of Central and Northern Scotland"
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The Picts [also known as Pects] were a group of loosely held together tribes that lived in what came to be known as central and northern Scotland, from Roman times until the 10th century they lived to the north of the Forth and Clyde rivers. The name by which the Picts called themselves is unknown but is taken to mean "painted or tattooed people"

Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts although very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history, from the late 6th century onwards, is known from a variety of sources, including saints' lives, such as that of Columba, and various Irish annals. Although the popular impression of the Picts may be one of an obscure, mysterious people, this is far from being the case.

Archaeological records provide evidence of the culture of the Picts. It tells of a society not readily distinguishable from its similar Gaelic and British neighbours, nor very different from the Anglo-Saxons to the south.
As with most peoples in Northern Europe, the Picts were farmers living in small communities. Cattle and horses were an obvious sign of wealth and prestige, sheep and pigs were kept in large numbers. Carvings show hunting with dogs, and also, unlike in Ireland, with falcons. Cereal crops included wheat, barley, oats and rye. Vegetables included kale, cabbage, onions and leeks, peas and beans, turnips and carrots, and some types no longer common, such as skirret. Plants such as wild garlic, nettles and watercress may have been gathered in the wild.

Hides and leather were readily available but wool was the main source of fibre for clothing, and flax which could be woven into linen was also common, although it is not clear if it was grown for fibre, for linseed oil, or as a foodstuff. Fish, shellfish, seals and whales were exploited along coasts and rivers. The importance of domesticated animals indicates that meat and milk products were a major part of the diet of ordinary people. The settlements appear not to have been very large or dense as no towns are known in Scotland until the 12th century

The technology of everyday life is not well recorded, though recently evidence has been found of watermills in Pictish settlements. Kilns were used for drying kernels of wheat or barley, something not otherwise easy in the changeable climate.

The early Picts are associated with piracy and raiding along the coasts of Roman Britain. Even in the Late Middle Ages, the line between traders and pirates was unclear, so that Pictish pirates were probably merchants on other occasions. It is generally assumed that trade collapsed with the Roman Empire, but this is to overstate the case. There is only limited evidence of long-distance trade but tableware and storage vessels from Gaul, probably transported up the Irish Sea, have been found. While long-distance travel was unusual in Pictish times, it was far from unknown as stories of missionaries, travelling clerics and exiles show.

The Picts are often said to have tattooed themselves, but evidence for this is limited. Depictions of Pictish nobles, hunters and warriors, male and female, without obvious tattoos, are found on monumental stones. These stones include inscriptions in Latin and Ogham script, not all of which have been deciphered. The well known Pictish symbols found on stones, and elsewhere, are obscure in meaning... Pictish art can be classed as Celtic, Irish poets portrayed their Pictish counterparts as very much like themselves.

Early Pictish religion is presumed to have been similar to the surrounding Celtic faiths. The date at which the Pictish elite converted to Christianity is uncertain. The venerable Bede wrote that Saint Ninian had converted the southern Picts but the Picts were not solely influenced by Iona and Ireland, they also had ties to churches in Northumbria.

The Viking Age brought great changes in Britain, Ireland and Scotland. The kingdom of Dl Riata was destroyed, Ketil Flatnose is said to have founded the Kingdom of the Isles in the 9th century. Northumbria succumbed to the Vikings, who founded the Kingdom of York. The king and many more, were killed in a major battle against the Vikings in 839 The rise of Kenneth MacAlpin in the 840s, in the aftermath of this disaster, brought to power the family who would preside over the last days of the Pictish kingdom and found the new kingdom of Alba, although Kenneth himself was never other than king of the Picts. The changes may not have been noticeable at first; we do not know the Pictish name for their land, it may not have been a change at all. The Picts, along with their language, did not disappear suddenly it was a slow process of absorption into the Gaelic culture, which may have begun generations earlier, with the final absorption probably during the 11th century, and so the Picts were soon forgotten but later they would reappear in myth and legend

The Picts are often said to have practiced matrilineal succession on the basis of Irish legends and a statement in Bede's history. In fact, Bede merely says that the Picts used matrilineal succession in exceptional cases.

The Pictish language has not survived. Evidence is limited to place names and to the names of people found on monuments and the contemporary records. The evidence of place-names and personal names argue strongly that the Picts spoke Insular Celtic languages related to the more southerly languages a number of inscriptions have been argued to be non-Celtic, and on this basis, it has been suggested that non-Celtic languages were also in use.

The absence of surviving written material in Pictish does not mean a pre-literate society. The church certainly required literacy, and could not function without copyists to produce liturgical documents. Pictish iconography shows books being read, and carried, and gives every reason to suppose that such images are of real life. Literacy was not widespread, but among the senior clergy, and in monasteries, it would have been common.

Place-names often allow us to deduce the existence of historic Pictish settlements in Scotland. Those prefixed with "Aber-", "Lhan-", or "Pit-" indicate area inhabited by Picts in the past (for example: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, Pittodrie etc). Some of these, such as "Pit-" (portion, share), were formed after Pictish times, and may refer to previous "shires" or "thanages".

More about this author: Sue Bluze

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