History of Scotland Ep 4: Becoming Picts
I have been looking forward to this moment for some time – the chance to start on one of the more remarkable stories of history, the emergence and extraordinary disappearance of an entire culture and a people, the Picts.
Now given the lack of evidence, between 2nd and 9th centuries in particular, it’s potentially a confusing time. So it might be a good place for a bit of big picture stuff, just to give us all a bit of a framework. Essentially, the very broad story everyone has focussed on about ooh, the next 6 centuries or so is one of state formation and religion. That is to say – that 4 nations appear in one way of another in Scotland as the Romans disappear. The Picts in the north and west; the Gaels and the kingdom of Dalriada in the West; the Britons of Strathclyde and Cumbria in the Clyde Basin and southwest based at a place called Alt Clut; and the angles of Lothian and Northumbria. That these four mix it up for a while, they adopt Christianity according to their own idioms. We have the period of Viking invasion of course, and then traditionally, then along comes a Dalriadic man called Kenneth McAlpin, described as king of the Picts, who died in 858, and brings them all together into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Alba; though now Kenneth’s role is somewhat minimised in favour of a slightly later and conscious attempt to form the Kingdom of Alba as a break from the past. Alba will become known as Scotland in the fullness of time when everyone is good and ready. In the process, Pictland and the Picts disappear completely. Which is remarkable. That then is the path upon which we are now placing our feet. In what follows at least you have that very broad framework to hold onto – the formation of different nations, the eventual combination of those kingdoms in the 9th century.
The emergence of the Picts in this story is one associated with a deal of controversy; Scottish historians are somewhat impatient of the way in which the texts and archaeology have been looked at in the past. They have challenged and re-assessed the basic foundation story, derived from Gildas. This is the idea that the Scottish nation is constructed of peoples that came from over the sea; against the view now that actually we should be talking mainly about changes in culture rather than changes in ethnicity. Re-assessing the history of the Picts is particularly hard, because of a rather romantic mythology which has got in the way of really understanding who they were; the word enigmatic is constantly attached to them, and it can be a blind. The subtext has been that here is an exceptional culture and civilisation, with unique characteristics; and always unhelpfully, they’ve maybe had bits of nationalistic fervour growing on their history like lichen. Now, nothing wrong with a bit of nationalistic fervour – as long as it doesn’t obscure the light.
Antiquarians of the 16th century spoke of the Picts, mainly from the classical sources, and then in 18th century interest blossomed with travellers logging and cataloguing the surviving Pictish stones, which are surprisingly cool and which we’ll come to. In the 1950’s the academic community really picked up that a focus was needed and fuelled much more archaeology, but still maybe with the unhelpful enigmatic thing going on; ‘quite the darkest people of Dark Age Britain’ was a quote from a historian in the 1960’s.
So why so fascinating then? Well there is the fact that, without wanting to annoy Scottish historians they really are enigmatic, leaving tantalisingly rare glimpses of their culture which are incredibly difficult to read. At one stage therefore it was thought that the Picts, almost uniquely, traced the descent of their kings through the female line, Matriliny. Well that’s interesting. Then there was also at one stage a very popular theory that the Picts spoke a language which was non-Indo European. Now that is more than interesting that falls into the wildly exciting category. Then there is their art; this survives mainly through the stones and symbols, some Christian, some not obviously so, clustered mainly in North Eastern and Eastern Scotland. These are also extraordinary. The consensus is that the symbols are a written language, which we are unable to decode. The symbols are often very geometric, combined with symbols and representations of animals, which again are most unusual – and I have to say fascinating. There’s a famous Pictish Beast, something like a dolphin maybe, which is a great example. Anyway, I have gathered images up for you on the historyofengland.co.uk if you want to have a look.
There is the initial emergence of the Picts – here is what looked like a consolidated kingdom, Pictland, which had emerged, maybe from peoples across the sea. There was even a tradition that maybe they had come from northern Spain. Gildas here helps; the lad really did have a way with words. Listen to this:
“And when the Romans went back home there emerged from the coracles that had carried them across the sea valleys the foul hordes of Scots and Picts, like dark throngs of worms who wriggle out of narrow fissures in the rock when the sun is high and the weather grows warm.”
Now tell me you don’t feel slightly nauseous, as though you’ve just seen Alien burst out of John Hurt’s stomach? I mean that is good writing isn’t it? The general consensus appears to be that it’s rubbish history, but don’t tell me that’s not great writing. So there is the barbarism thing – here are the peoples who tore down the mighty civilisation of Rome – and of course you can characterise the Romans as the great civilisers or the great oppressors, as you see fit, according to your idiom.
And then finally you have their quite remarkable rubbing out. On their own. Seriously Cinead mac Ailpin, becomes king of the Picts. And within a generation they are gone, as though they had never been, replaced by Alba. They are a lost people – and we love lost people don’t we, we love mysteries?
So all of this, together with the lack of documentary sources, has meant a flourishing of the more weird and wonderful theories to fill in the gaps; the Picts became extraordinary exceptions, standing outside the normal development of culture in northern Britain and indeed northern Europe.
Over the last few decades, and particularly the last 20 years there has been a merciless gathering and removal of bunk by Scottish Historians. It’s interesting to be so close to this. One of the books I used is by someone called Dr Sally Foster, called ‘Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland’. She first written the book in 1996, and then updated in 2004 and then again in 2014; in the introduction she notes how much more she’d had to change than she thought, based on the work of historians James Fraser and Alex Woolf since 2009. Actually, she also reflects on why the Pict has become such an iconic figure in Scottish history:
‘We want to see the unique symbol-incised stones and non Christian, as signals of resistance to an incoming ideology in much the same way as we like to think that those pesky Picts opposed the Romans’
So we’ll explore all of this as we go. But it’s worth starting off with a few of the things that have already been debunked so that they don’t mislead us. One of these is language. The idea that the Picts spoke a non Indo-European language has been kicked firmly into the long grass. The debate is made harder of course by the fact that we don’t have a single word of decoded Pictish available to us, but the consensus now is that the Picts were Britons who spoke the Brittonic language – what we called P-Celtic last time, as opposed to the Q-Celtic of the Gaels.
Alongside this, the Gildas wriggly worm theory that the Picts came from somewhere else, including a theory that they came from Northern Spain, has also firmly had the Bunk removed; once again the name of the game is continuity. What we need to explain therefore, is how Tacitus and Ptolemy’s tribes the Maiathai and Caledonii, became the Picts.
One more thing before we move away from the historiography thing. It is worth noting that none of the above means that the Picts are any less fascinating or worthy of study. Seriously, check out the art of which there’s loads on the interweb. It’s also been recognised that the contribution of the Gaels of Dal Riata has been over emphasised in the story of the formation of Alba and Scotland over the years, to the detriment of the contribution of the Brittonic kingdoms of Strathclyde, but mainly Pictland. So none of this downplays the importance of the Picts; it just recognises the importance of ignoring the siren calls of exoticism and mysticism, and placing the Picts firmly in their proper context, of Northern Britain.
OK, back to the narrative then. We left our story with the campaigns of Severus at the start of the 3rd century; a campaign that was quite remarkably successful in establishing peace on the northern frontier of the Roman Province of Britannia. We described a world of northern British tribes which broadly speaking probably shared the characteristics of fully civil societies, or farmer republics – with the freedom from formal state structures that implies, but the tyranny of blood feud and regular violence and raiding it also implies. We described a world of varying relationships with Rome. Outer Brigantia between Hadrian’s wall and the defunked Antonnine Wall, where tribes especially the Votadini from Traprain Law were probably enthusiastic romanisers, feeding social elites and hierarchies. Inner Caledonia, where the Caledonians and Maiathai sought Roman goods and bribes but with evidently less enthusiasm and frequency. And Atlantic Scotland where survivals of Roman materials are rare.
Over the next 100 years, enormous changes would take place in the societies of northern Britain; in their structure, in the way they viewed themselves and in the way they were viewed from outside. Those changes would lead to an event which would shock the whole Roman World, expose the terminal decline of the roman system in Britain, and subject Roman Britannia to a chilling and hideous forewarning of their future – the Barbarian Conspiracy of 367.
Ptolemy had listed 10 tribes north of the Clyde Forth line in the second century. Then Cassius Dio had spoken of just two as we discussed last time:
“There are two principal races of the Britons, the Caledonians and the Maeatae, and the names of the others have been merged in these two. The Maeatae live next to the cross-wall which cuts the island in half, and the Caledonians are beyond them”
Then in 297, we get a new lot. A panegyric was written of the Roman emperor Constantius, who had come to Britain to fight north of the wall in the early 4th century. Obviously, this being a panegyric, the author was bigging up his subject, so he decided to diss Julius Caesar and the Britons he had fought; so he described the Britons thus:
A nation which was then half primitive and accustomed to fight still half naked, only with the Picts and the Irish.
This is our very first mention of the Picts. A few years later, they are back appearing in another panegyric, this time of Constantine, which contains this key phrase:
…the forests and marshes of the Caledonians and other Picts.
So by jiminy, what’s going on here? In the middle of the 2nd century we had a bunch of tribes; then 50 or 60 years later there are just two still standing the Maiathai and Caledonians, and then suddenly there are these Picts. What’s going on? Has there been a blood bath north of the wall? Or a hideous process of political consolidation or, as per Gildas, a bunch of wormy coracles who have wiped out all those other tribes?
There is a foundation tradition for the Picts which is recorded in a Gaelic poem called the Seven Children of Cruithne, which was probably written around 850 AD, Cuithne being the Gaelic name for Pict. The poem divides the Pictish nation into 7 regions, one for each of the sons. It’s a well-trodden time honoured tradition for the creation of Foundation myths – which is probably what this is; the retrospective allocation of founders by the leaders of centuries well after 297.
References to the kingdom of the Picts, Pictland, are pretty rare, but it seems from the Life of St Columba that the Maiathai are still around, in the form of a district referred to as manau, and the Maitai. And then in the 8th century, Bede talks at some length about the Picts. He’d obviously spoken to a reasonably authoritative Pictish source, and he describes a kingdom with a south and a north, separated by the highland ridge of the Grampians, the Mounth.
So in summary what we have is the appearance of a nation which is seen as one people; all the references refer to the Picts in a way that assumes they are one people. But they also assume that they are one people with subdivisions; so, the ‘Caledonians and other Picts’ for example; the divisions of Cruithne may be fiction, but they may well reflect later divisions that needed to be explained somehow in the 9th century. And yet this is not one people with a number of different divisions; by and large, it appears to be a nation with one king. So these are regions rather than kings; or less likely but possibly, sub kings.
The point about all of this, then, is that we have a kingdom of the Picts emerging, but need to be constantly aware that it is not a simple, monolithic and homogenous kingdom. It has distinct and recognisable sub divisions; and when we talk later about the society of the Picts, we will make the point that in the 4th century, it was scarcely possible for a nation in Northern Britain to maintain effective control and communication as a modern or even medieval state; we can assume a lot of local independence and local identity.
There is something else going on here too though. So, somehow the Caledonians and the Maithai have become Picts. Whoa, hang on – how did that happen? It’s another nail in the coffin of Gildas’s worms actually –the Caledonians and the Maiathai survive into later centuries, so they weren’t swept away by all these invading Picts then. But how can it be the Caledonians have suddenly become Picts, as strongly implied by the sentence ‘Caledonians and other Picts?’
The first thing to note is that the name, Picts, is probably not what the inhabitants of Northern Britain called themselves – it’s what their enemies called them, in this case the Romans. Most now seem to agree that the source of the name comes from the Latin Picti, ‘the painted ones’. There is no other evidence, actually, that the northern Britons did paint their skin or have tattoos by the time the 3rd and 4th century had rolled around. It could be that it’s just a nickname which reflects reality – i.e. it’s those blokes over the wall that pain their skin all the time. Fine.
But actually it’s more likely that it’s a term of mild abuse or contempt. Elsewhere the practice of body art had pretty much died out; it could well by this time have been seen as a little antiquated. Little did the Romans know that in a couple of Millennia, it would be back with a vengeance, so much so that international footballers would look like an exhibition at the local art gallery, but I am going to pull out of this before someone slaps a curmudgeon sticker on my forehead, or ‘warning, old and crusty, approach with caution’, we don’t want that do we. No, I was saying that body art had become out of date; and so Picti as a term was probably a mild insult.
So why did the term appear in 297? Why not before? And actually a rather trivial fact seems to hide some seismic changes which will not end well for Rome, and indeed Roman Britain.
By the late 3rd century, the system and agreements established by Severus seems to have broken down. Up to the middle of the 3rd century, the pattern we spoke of last time was pretty consistent; between the walls, Outer Brigantia, is characterised by flag waving Romanisers like the Votadini in Lothian. They might not be within Hadrian’s Wall, but they loved the Roman way of life nonetheless, and they hung out the flags when they passed, invited each other to parties, all that. Further out in Inner Caledonia, the area around the Antonine Wall, the Clyde Forth line, the contact was less, but still consistent, and still friendly – or at least still active.
But from 250 there seems to be a very significant change. This contact seems to have stopped. The Temperature dropped – Roman Caledonian relationships were distinctly frosty. It’s worth noting that the there isn’t any more violence, but none the less no one is taking anyone flowers any more. It could be that it was in Inner and Outer Caledonia that attitudes were hardening – don’t talk over the fence to that nasty Roman man sort of thing, we love freedom and independence, throw off the Roman Sandal. But this would seem strange, given that actually for decades now the system has worked very well; Roman subsidies and elite goods have oiled the wheels of Caledonian societies. Afterall, the Romans were far too busy to pose a threat to the independence of Outer Caledonia, they showed no sign of invading in the 3rd century. So why would Outer Caledonia start a war?
Nope, it’s more likely that Roman policy changed. That the availability of nice fat subsidies for the far north had dried up, and that from necessity resources needed elsewhere in the Empire could no longer be devoted to keeping the Caledonaians and Maiathai sweet. Attitudes hardened. Contempt found its way into the language – Caldeonians became Picti.
So that’s bad – after all, we’ve rather have love and kisses, exchanging precious gifts and taking each other flowers than glaring at each other over the leyandii, would we not. What made this especially dangerous, however, was that it was accompanied by changes in the social make-up of the peoples of Caledonia.
It is a change that has paralells in other European societies – Franks and Saxons for example. Within the Farmer republics we spoke of were the informal elites, like gangsters; the folks who were able to get themselves nice things, normally nice Roman things, and therefore listen to History Podcasts and stand out from the crowd. Now those informal elites were becoming much more formal, much more structured. With their nice things, their material success they were becoming capable of binding the less successful to them with structured relationships – like you know, lord and subordinate. Of course if you were going to be a boss, you needed to be able to act big as well as talk big; otherwise at some point someone somewhere is going to call you on it. So the new leaders gathered around them blokes with big muscles; warriors, whose job it was to fight. Warriors who were very different from the farmers who would one day put the plough in the shed, dig out whatever weapon they could find from behind the sofa along with a bit of lint, and head out to join Calgacus to try to face down Agricola’s legions. These were instead professionals – they didn’t farm, their new lord arranged for them to be feed and housed by using the tributes they now collected from their underlings. It’s beginning to sound much more medieval.
In the Life of St Columba the family unit was described – though given the ‘life’ was written in the 7th century about the 6th century, admittedly it’s some time after the eriod we are discussing at the moment. But the author, Admanan describes a nuclear family, the familia, with its hangers on, the familiares. And part of those familiares, were the cohors – the lord’s armed retinue. Not far behind war lords and cohors of course, would come kings.
So what, I hear you say? I mean, shame to see the end of farmer republics, they sounded nice in theory…well except for the constant violence, cattle rustling and lack of an effective equitable justice system but hey, never mind, we know lords would appear at some point, you can’t keep the bufti class down for ever. Well, what this meant for Rome was this. Just at the point that they were no longer managing their relationships with the Caledonians and Maiathai, let alone the people of Atlantic Scotland, these very people were developing a much greater capability for organised war and violence. The capability in short, to take the war to Rome.
In 305 then, the Emperor Constantius Chlorus, father of Constantine the Great, appeared in Northern Britain and launched a campaign against the Picts. The Severan system had comprehensively broken down, relationships were back to the old adversarial days of Agricola – aggressive Roman Empire versus native eager not to receive a Gladius in the guts, deeply resentful about being imposed on and with no desire to be conquered. Some of the Picts no doubt were scared at the Roman legions. Some of them equally doubtlessly, wanted revenge for the violence Constantius inflicted on them – and all they’d wanted were a few hand-outs and some nice tableware. Rome would pay a heavy price for its change of policy and for its violence.
By the 340’s, Roman Britannia’s defences were a shadow of their former glory. The flexible legionary that used to occupy Hadrian’s Wall had been replaced for the main part by much more limited garrison troops. As the empire struggled to fight off barbarian invasion, it preferred to maintain legions centrally, rushing to put out the fires by focussing superior numbers where it was needed, while garrison troops tried to hold the line until they arrived. In this more defensive strategy, the Count of the Saxon Shore, a man called Nectaridus, was responsible for the South and South East of Britannia, to defend Britannia against Continental invaders; while the Dux Britannia, a man called Fullafaudes, was responsible for the north. The strategy to a degree depended on an unsophisticated opposition, and one which the defensive garrison troops could at least hold temporarily or slow down.
The events of the mid 4th century were recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus. In 360, he recorded:
But in Britain, during Constantius’ tenth and Julian’s third year of consulship, the wild tribes of the Scots and the Picts broke their undertaking to keep peace, were causing destruction in those areas near the frontiers.
On this occasions, a man called Lupicinius seems to have re-established order, though there are few specifics.
But in 367, events of an entirely different magnitude hit the Empire. Here is our correspondent again:
During this period practically the whole Roman world heard the trumpet-call of war, as savage peoples stirred themselves and raided the frontiers nearest to them. The Alamanni were ravaging Gaul and Raetia simultaneously; the Sarmatians and Quadi were devastating Pannonia; the Pictii, Saxones, Scotti and Attacotti were bringing continual misery upon Britain; the Austoriani and other Moorish peoples were attacking Africa with more than usual violence; and predatory bands of Goths were plundering Thrace and Moesia
Ammianus went on:
… Valentinian was shocked to receive the serious news that a concerted attack by the barbarians had reduced the province of Britain to the verge of ruin. Nectaridus, the count of the coastal region, had been killed, and the general Fullofaudes surprised and cut off…
It will suffice to say that at that time the Picts (the Dicaledones and the Verturiones), together with the warlike Attacotti and the Scotii, were roving at large and causing great devastation.
This is what becomes known as the Barbarian Conspiracy. It is not possible to be absolutely clear that the waves of barbarians that crashed over the borders of the empire was a coordinated attack, but it looks awfully like it. The invasions in Britain by Picti, Scotti, Saxons and Attacotti were a result of that change in policy over a century ago, which had lead to a rising tide of violence, just as nations like the Picts were acquiring much greater ability to significantly damage the Romans.
The Count of the Saxon Shore we assume was killed by the Saxons, but Fullofaudes presumably was a victim of the Picts or Scotti. The extent of the chaos reflected the capability of professional warriors to overwhelm the Roman garrison troops, their superiority of numbers and training a thing of the past.
It took 4 years for the Roman Empire to re-establish control, with the arrival of Theodosius with the Roman legions. 4 years where Roman Britain would have been subjected to a level of chaos and violence for which they were completely unprepared and with which they were completely unable to cope. It was the beginning of the end of the Empire, and within 50 years, the Roman legions would be gone for ever.
You will have noticed three groups from northern Britain; our friends the Picti, the Scotti, and the Attacotti. No-one has ever satisfactorily described the Attacotti so sorry we’ll just have to leave them. Now the Scotti, may make you prick your ears up – ah, here we are, the start of the name of Scotland, we can stop talking about Northern Britain, which is irritating anyway. Well, no, not just yet. The Scotti referred to were the Irish, and here is another derogatory nickname – the word means Pirate. Of course in the end, Scotti will of course lend itself to become Scotland – but not for a long time yet – we’ll come back to get more thrust from the scotti at a future episode.
Back to the Picti then; you’ll notice that Ammanianus described two types of Pict – the Dicaledones and the Verturiones. The former of course seems to be a derivative of the Caledonians. The other, the Verturiones we will place in the north of Scotland, north of the Mounth, to become a leading Pictish kingdom, But we will come back to that again; for the moment we just need to register that again, only the Picts are seen as one people, they are clearly a people divided in some way. And secondly that once again their names and divisions are changing.
Just to recap then; the Picts have been named for the first time in 297, by the Romans – it’s not their name, it is given to them by their enemies. By the start of the 3rd century, and probably earlier, the Romans are indeed the enemies of the Picts, not their trading and diplomatic partners as they had been under the Severan system. The society of the peoples the Romans now called Picts had been changing, like many others, from farmer republic to petty kingdoms. By the 4th century, a combination of Roman diplomatic policy and failures, Pictish resentment and greater Pictish military capability resulted first in trouble in Inner Caldedonia as the Picts raided the Rome friendly tribes like the Votadini in Outer Brigantia, resulting in Constantius’ campaign in 305, only to be overwhelmed by the Barbarian Conspiracy in 367, which began the final destruction of the Western Empire.
There remains one more topic for this week then. The changing of names is a bit bewildering; from Ptolemy’s 10 northern tribes, to the Caledonians and Maiathai; to now the Verturiones and Dicaledones, who apparently act as part of a larger whole, seeing themselves as part of one people, the Picts. What’s with all the name changing ? what’s going on? Who are they and who am I? Where is my identify!
Of course Gildas’s answer was the wiggly worm one – that these Picts and indeed Scotti came out of the darkness from across the seas. But there is no supporting archaeological evidence for this; and names of the old tribes remain – this is no genocidal invasion. So what’s going on?
At his point I must introduce you to the word Ethnogenesis. This is a satisfyingly pretentious word which you will not find on your spell checker, which makes me feel even more smug. Of course many of you may be well ahead of me, in which case, well, sorry, I’ll try to be quick.
We’ve talked a bit earlier about the confusion of DNA evidence, and how it seems to point any number of ways. If it tells us anything, it most certainly tells us, if we didn’t already know, that ethnicity is not purely defined by where you come from and your biological make up. Human scientists define ethnicity much more broadly, as
Identification with a broader group in opposition to others on the basis of perceived cultural differentiation and/or common descent
Fair enough, so how is it then that groups begin to identify themselves and become nations?
Well, there are apparently broadly two theories. Some argue that it’s all about what you are born with; territory – I’m born in Loughborough and therefore I am Loughboroughian – religion, language, culture; I support the Leicester Tigers and therefore I am Loughboroughian. Others say no , no, it’s all much more flexible than this. It’s driven by politics and economics. I want to be Roman because they have nice tableware and I’ve always fancied becoming an Emperor, so I might live in Traprain Law, but I am going to become Roman please.
A chap called Richard Wenskus took all this and developed a theory about how it might apply to the formation of nations in the first 1000 years AD. He noted that nations we think of as coherent nations – the Franks, the Goths – actually started as a hodge podge of different tribal groups. They formed a confederation, took the battle to the evil empire, won, and settled down. As they did, they looked to a core elite group to help them build a story, and apparently authentic tradition of who they were, why they belonged together and where they came from. And before you know it, the genesis of these traditions are lost in the midst of time and accepted by everyone.
Now the theory is not without its critics, and I suspect that’s putting it mildly. But it kind of fits our situation doesn’t it? Hodge podge of tribes – check – Ptolemy and this 10 tribes of the north. A shared story – check, Cruithne and his seven sons. I’m sure there’s a drinking song like that – maybe its Abraham. Father Abraham, had 7 sons…happy days. Just like the Franks and Goths, these tribes formed a confederation and attacked their enemy in pursuit of revenge for past violence and in pursuit of riches. Check.
So as the Barbarian conspiracy led to further chaos and opportunity for the northern Tribes, at some point, no one know quite when, these tribes decided that the insulting nickname their enemies had given them, the Picti, was a perfectly reasonable one to take up. It had a clear resonance with their shared aim – to rip the Romans to shreds. They had plenty of shared heritage and a shared language already so it wasn’t difficult. They had a single king, but that was no great imposition – we have to recognise that any kind of lordship or central; authority was very light indeed. And so from an insult, sometime in the 3rd century, the idea of a Pictish nation was born. Sometime in the 4th and 5th centuries a Pictish nation became a reality.