The Picts: Art and History
A while back I had the fortune to travel around Scotland with some good friends, and tick a few more sites and projects of the bucket list.
Scotland is by far the Celtic nation with the strongest visual identity. Tartan, men in skirts, bagpipes, long swords, blue face paint (thank you Braveheart), and last but not least.. the thistle. Here we’re going to discuss some of the origins of the Scots and the fascinating and mysterious people, the Picts.
This will be a quick summary of Pictish history and artistic culture, and then I’ll bring some lesser known details to the field to spice it up a bit.
Scotland was famously one of the few countries that held off the seemingly unstoppable expansion of Rome. Once the Romans got up North of mainland Britain they couldn’t seem to punch through the lands now known as Scotland, or at least hold it. A mix of constant bad weather (and to the Romans a storm of midges), overstretched supply lines and formidable warriors reinforced by a retreating indigenous population meant the Roman war machine was halted in subduing the north of Britannia, as well as having to constantly divert military attention to other parts of the empire. Despite some initial victories including the battle of Mons Graupius (possibly at Bennachie by Inverurie, Aberdeenshire), eventually, the Romans famously lost the entire 9th legion before being forced to withdraw from the frontier forts of the Antonine wall and Hadrian’s wall now situated in the North of England. Built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the wall acted as a plug to stop the flow of money, political power and war efforts from disgracing Rome further.
Overall, the threat posed by Rome may have been the first step in the formation of the nation of Scotland as for the first time, the tribes of the north had united against a common enemy under one leader, Calgacus. These tribes became known to the Romans as the Picts.
Popular myth suggests the Picts got their name from their tattoos, being a tattooist myself in the field of ancient art I could show bias in getting behind this, but I’m more interested in the truth. The Romans coined their name as Pictii (the painted ones), as they were the ones writing, so this is what we call them. Although it’s probably not what they called themselves, at least at first. The Romans had also been in contact with extremely heavily tattooed people for centuries, so why name a people after their body art/paint now? Their name could also come from their seafaring vessels. All coastal Celtic tribes where master seafarers, and we still harbour some of their ancient superstitions to this day. No woman on ships? That’s because the celts personified their ships as women...and women get jealous of other women. The ship might try throw her off, and the rest of the guys in the process! Or so the myth goes ;)
The North Sea would have been a rough affair for the Romans, so maybe they named them after their ability to ride the formidable and unpredictable waves. Or maybe it really was tattoos and body paint! From what I’ve read though I do personally think some of the Picts has tattoos, and probably body paint on top of that too to act as an insect repellent, and possibly an extremely mild antibacterial against wounds in conflict.
What we know of Pictish society comes from a variety of sources, often bias, spanning centuries. The native tribes indigenous to Scotland at the time of the Romans arrival were small individual cultures each with their own identity, but generalised by Roman sources. The Roman Dio Cassius described the Pictish tribes as “democratic for the most part” which could mean that some decisions, including who would be the ruler, were made collectively. However, he does also describe them as dwelling “in tents, naked and unshod” and that they “possess their women in common” which could be true or could be from the superiority complex of Rome, which viewed all other cultures as “savages”.
Over several centuries of Roman oppression, the various tribes of Scotland slowly banded together (most likely from attrition and tribal infighting) into one large polity that seems to have retained the name Picts. The Picts grew strong over time as much of Britannia grew weak with Saxon migration. The centuries of oppression had hardened the Picts into a strong Polity to rival any other in the British Isles.
When Magnus Maximus took the armies of the Romano Celts off to conquer Rome itself, the Picts descended down on the undefended land. Geoffrey of Monmouth said that it was an aristocratic named Vortigern that invited some three ships of Saxons to help against the Pictish invaders, but history tells us the Southern coast of Britain had been called the Saxon coast and been building defences for some time, so who knows how true this is. Either way, as soon as the Saxons got a foothold in the south, Britain would never be the same again.
With Britain free of Rome, the Iron age tribe culture slowly gave way to the cultured Pictish polity of the Early Medieval Period and their art and culture flourished. The Picts held out against the Saxons as they had the Romans before, as well Dalriada and Ireland to the West, and Norse raiders to the North, eventually later succumbing to the Norman invaders, and were destined to unwillingly be tied into the United Britain, along with Wales and Northern Ireland… but the history of Scotland is another story.
Before I finish on this brief introduction of the Picts, I want to add that the interaction between the Picts and Saxons (Northumbrians and so on) was more heavily documented than their dealings with the Romans. We know from archeological evidence the Romans financially backed the early tribes in Scotland for periods of time, before ripping away their support and placing it in the hands of their neighbours. This action potentially resulted in destabilising the areas and causing political conflict between tribes in an attempt to keep the tribes weak and pose less of a threat at the very least. That they were able to overcome these odds and survive is a testament to their endurance.
During the early medieval period of Pictland, the Pictish king list shows evidence of Northumbrians as the fathers of some of the kings, thus giving the impression of Pictish women of royalty bearing sons from neighbouring kings of Northumbria, forming political and family alliances, and it’s a possibility that the blood of kings was passed and the ruling class was decided through the matriarchal decent as opposed to the patriarchal blood line. But history is a foggy affair, so we will never truly know.
What we know about Pictish art is heavily influenced by the stone carvings they left behind, although there are a few examples of metalwork that display the same design and artistic language that have been found from the same periods.
The designs are classified in three categories by archaeologists. Class one, two and three. One being the earliest and three the latest. It‘s believed that Christianity was not so prevalent in class I, and some suggest that the Picts made a language through their art that to this day has not been deciphered. It is possible that the shapes represent letters or sounds and they are at least names or individuals, families or tribes, however, it is no longer generally thought that the stones are a record of tribes/marriages. Ogham, the runic alphabet that came from Ireland, did spread to Pictland and is found across many stones proving literacy beyond mere symbols.
Some of the stones have tools next to them, possibly indicating commerce and trade of individual craftsmen or workshops.
The stones have been classified for study dependent on their age and the content of the carving.
Early Stone Types
It is thought that the "Class 1" stones were the earliest examples of Pictish art and these stones are characterised by solely Pictish symbols, often in pairs. These stones are generally unworked and the stones themselves are often Neolithic standing stones which have been "reused". Although that might seem strange, the idea of "updating" a previous religious site or festival has many examples across history. As Christianity swept over the British isles, one of the easiest ways for preachers to convert communities was to take existing sites of worship and build a church on it. This is why you will often find Yew trees within the bounds of a churchyard.
Example of a Class II stone. The Aberlemno Serpent stone
Class 2 & 3 Stones
These stones are defined by their increase in Christian symbology or ideas and are thought to have been created later than the class 1 stones.
The designs carved into these stones are more ornate and detailed than their predecessors and can also be defined by the shaping of the actual stone itself. Whilst the class 1 stones were simply carved onto a rock, class 2 and 3 stones were shaped before any carving took place and are carved in relief rather than just pecked. The stones themselves show the conversion of the Pictish nation to Christianity over the ages as class 2 stones are a mixture of Pictish symbols and Christian iconography whilst class 3 stones show solely Christian imagery and rock is often hewed into the shape of a cross.
Photo by Pictavia Leather
With the Christianisation of the Picts, their art took on a more Irish Celtic influence. Spirals and knotwork bloomed, as did the pictorial storytelling in their stonework. A part of this was the need to impress the local population with the splendour of the new faith. This hints at an illiterate population too, as opposed to the earlier examples.
But for us in the present, it allows us a clear view into the culture and propaganda expressed by the elite class of the times.
Rich hunting and battle scenes featuring men on horseback in armour, carved on large time consuming picture stones. We see a mixture of unique Pictish identifiers such as square or notched shields, very long tunics, and often barefoot with only noble riders having footwear.
Remastered battle scene carving from the Aberlemno Cross. The scene is thought to read from top to bottom. Top left, the Picts route the enemy (possibly Northumbrian's), middle section they force a pitched battle, below they defeat them and they are left to feed the crows. Interestingly the helmets worn by the riders on the right match in style the Coppergate helmet found in York. This would match up to the Northumbrian elites armour of the period.
Pictish Symbols: Crescents & Rods
The majority of the 40 Pictish symbols appear in pairs on the carvings and these symbols tend to be divided into groups for study. Many of the symbols are representative of every day objects (such as the hammer and anvil) or of animals (including wolf, snake and boar) however, others appear take a more abstract form, although it is entirely possible that we simply don't know the meaning of the symbol. The most famous of these abstract creatures is know as the Pictish beast.
Leather Wallets from Pictavia inspired by the “Pictish beast”, a strange creature highly present in the carvings
Among the most common of these is the Crescent & V-Rod. This symbol was again repeated many times over on the stones. The masons that carved these seem to have gone through great pains to make each of the designs individual, but for what purpose we do not know.
On a first glance, it appears harder to place and a variety of theories have been developed about their meaning. Some believe that the V-Rod is simply showing a broken or bent arrow and the Crescent represents the sun/moon and is a symbol of death. However, others have suggested that it represents some kind of seasonal sundial which was used to determine when to plant crops. As the V-Rod symbols are so uniform (including in its angles) and given the harsh climate in the North of Scotland, it is entirely plausible to suggest that something so important was not left to chance. This theory has been explored in great detail by Jason Bellchamber and you can read his full argument here.
Unfortunately, without written records, we will never definitively know and it is also just as possible that crops were sewn based on when the snow on the ground cleared up in spring.
Along with the religious changeover in Pictland, a tribe from Dál Riata in Northern Ireland known as the Scotti had begun to settle in the West of the country which now bears their name; Scotland.
Although also considered as Celtic to us, they were as unwelcome to the Picts as the Saxons who were also pushing northwards from the lands now known as England. Whilst the Scotti and the Picts often cooperated when they had a common enemy such as the Northumbrians, they would also fight each other.
Despite this, eventually the two tribes united their cultural and political differences and focused on the Germanic invaders... but this took a long time to do. Intermarrying and political bonds would have taken generations to forge these two cultures together, especially as the Picts also seem to have viewed the birth right of males to rule as being passed down through mothers rather than fathers. This was a unique cultural view that probably aided the Picts in their inter cultural bonds but will have been totally alien to other Celtic cultures.
Eventually, the two tribes were united under Kenneth Macalpin who is often credited as being the first king of Scotland.
Picts & Tattoos
There are a few different sources of reference suggesting the Picts had tattoos other than their Roman name. None of these are archeological, although there are many drawings and carvings of figures covered in swirling patterns throughout early Pictish art.
Early textual references point to them performing more of a scarification technique possibly involving cutting the skin and then using a green plant sap to agitate the skin. Other sources suggest tattooing images on the skin that invoke blessings. Some that have rules attached to them, like they must be visible to their enemies to strike fear and make the wearer invincible.
Unfortunately, as with most aspects of Pictish life, we cannot know for certain as there is so little evidence. However, given that from the Roman sources their legacy is of brave warriors covered in designs, it seems logical to suspect that tattoos (or at least lots of body paint) were commonplace. In discussing the Caledonian war, Tacitus himself refers to "every man bearing the decorations he has earned" which would suggest to me that it would have to be something more permanent than paint.
Image above drawn by John White 1585-1593), image below a super serious take on the same drawing by Sean Parry 2020.
The first image was an imaginative take on a roman description of a Pictish warrior. Shaven body hear, except the upper lip and head hear (I have this dude a beard as there are wary Pictish stone carvings of naked warriors with full beards), intricate body patterns and blue woad to make them appear more fierce in battle. I also changed the weapons to mirror those present on the stone depictions. His neck chain also is inspired by an archeological find from 400-800 BC. the Romans also wrote that they wore them, along with an iron chain belt. The archeology doesn’t match the Romans description of the early Picts at all, so take it all with as much of a pinch of salt as my re mastering of John Whites’ drawing.
l want to state that we’ve missed out on so, so much of this fascinating subject, so I urge you to look deeper into this period of history. The “Picts” were around for nearly 1000 years and changed drastically through that time from late antiquity through the Iron Age into the strong early medieval polity that covered the landscape in carved stones. Like most Celtic ethnicities, there is so much we don’t know about them, but the few bits they left behind captivate the imagination like none other.
Last but not least, I want talk about Scotland’s connection to the thistle. It’s said that a group of invading Norsemen were gathering under the cover of darkness to surprise the sleeping Scottish clansmen near the town of Largs in 1263. To move more quietly, the invaders had removed their shoes (as you do when walking through heather and grasslands...). One of the Norsemen accidentally stood on a thistle and cried out in pain! The defending warriors awoke and rallied to battle defending their homelands. How much of this tale is true I will leave with you... but the Scots won the battle of Largs and the thistle is still the national emblem today.