The Iron Age people of the north and east of Scotland flourished from the fourth century A.D. to the ninth century. Originally, the Picts were tribal peoples who were organized into loose confederations, but they later created two powerful kingdoms and dominated a large part of Scotland.

Alex Woolf, a medieval historian at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, said that "picti" is a Latin term that means "painted people". The term is a reference to the Pictish custom of body painting or tattooing.

The Roman writers depicted the Picts as fearsome warriors. The Celtic people south of modern-day Scotland became Romanized after the Roman conquest of Britain in A.D. 43. Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall were built by the Romans to keep the Scots out of the south.

After the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the Picts flourished, but by the tenth century A.D., they had vanished. Recent scholarship shows a more realistic picture of the Picts than the one presented by the Romans, and it sheds light on their unique culture and society.


The origin of the Picts

Although there would have been a lot of regional differences, the Picts would have been the same as the other Britons. It is very similar to early Welsh when we look at the evidence for the Pictish language.

There have been few studies of the people from the Pictish heartland.

Prior to the current scholarly consensus, the Picts were the subject of much speculation and there was limited evidence about their existence, so they were known as the lost people of Europe. The Picts left no written records except for carved symbols that may represent a written language. Most information comes from the Romans, though later sources mention them. The latter is a list of king names written in the tenth century. The latter was written in the ninth century during the reign of Alfred the Great and is a year-by-year chronicle of events that historians claim is a mix of both history and fantasy.

The first recorded reference was written by the Roman orator Eumenius. The Celts and Hiberni were enemies of the Romans. The Roman writer Tacitus used the term "Caledonians" rather than "Pais" in his historical writings. He wrote that they were possibly of Germanic origin and described them as red-haired and large-limbed.

Sycamore Gap, Hadrian's Wall. Roy JAMES Shakespeare via Getty Images.

Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans in A.D. 122 to protect them from the Picts. This is the famous Sycamore Gap, alongside Milecastle 37 and Housesteads Roman Fort in Northumberland, England. (Image credit: Roy JAMES Shakespeare via Getty Images)

The Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote in the fourth century that the Picts were divided into two tribes. The Picts were described as warlike and causing great destruction.

The history of Britain from the Roman invasion in A.D was described in the work by St. Bede the Venerable. The Irish denied them a settlement.

The Britons had the southern parts while the Picts had the northern parts. The Scots were asked by the Picts to give them a king from the female royal line if there was a question of succession.

The History of the Kings of Britain was written by the 12th-century medieval chronicler, who claimed that the Picts came from Scythia. During the reign of Claudius, the Picts arrived in a fleet of ships commanded by their leader Rodric, according to the work of Bede. Rodric landed in the north of England and wreaked havoc. The province of Caithness was given to the Picts after they were defeated in a battle.

Pictland, a map of where Picts lived

9th Century Map Of Great Britain. TonyBaggett via Getty Images

An engraved image of a 9th century map of Great Britain showing the kingdoms of Anglo Saxon Dark Age Britain taken from a Victorian book dated 1882. (Image credit: TonyBaggett via Getty Images)

The Firth of Forth is a large North Sea inlet that sits just north of modern-day Edinburgh and was occupied by the Picts. The Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands may have been occupied by them. It's not clear how far west Pictish territory extended.

The Firth of Forth was the location ofPictland, but it did not extend all the way to the west coast. The jury is still out on whether the northern part of the west coast was occupied by the Picts.

Two major areas were the heartland of Pictish territory. The other was in the eastern midlands of modern Scotland, around the city of Perth. In the modern county of Morayshire was the other location. The kingdom of Fortriu developed here.

The kings of Fortriu extended their rule over other people in the late seventh century.

Pictish society

The early Picts were tribal peoples who lived in small, tightly knit communities with a single clan. The Roman sources suggest that the tribes probably didn't have a single king.

The farmers of the Picts sowed crops such as oats, rye, barley and wheat, and herders raised cattle, sheep and pigs. They hunted and fished and may have been involved in cattle raiding.

The Rhynie archaeological site, which dates from the fourth to the sixth centuries A.D., was a large Pictish settlement, and its study by archaeologists has shed light on the everyday lives of the people. One of the largest collections of metalwork from early medieval Britain, wine Amphorae (earthenware jars) imported from the eastern Mediterranean, and shards of glass drinking beakers from France were uncovered during excavations. The items suggest that the Picts were not like the barbarians described by the Romans, and were involved in large trade networks that spanned Europe and the Middle East.

The Picts developed a monarchy in the sixth to eighth centuries, but it was not very stable. The middle of the ninth century is when someone who is recognizably the son of a previous king becomes a king.

The large standing stones, called symbol stones, are an important legacy of the Pictish culture. These are usually carved or incised with designs that are representative of Pictish art and include pictures of animals, warriors or mythic beasts. Most of the symbol stones are from the seventh to the ninth centuries, according to Woolf.

They are found in pairs scattered across the region that we think was controlled by the Picts, north of the Forth and the eastern side of Scotland. I think we will never know unless we find a reference to them in a medieval document.

Pictish history: Rome and Christianity

Saint Ninian's Chapel in the Isle of Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway, Southern Scotland. ATGImages via Getty Images

A view of St. Ninian's chapel in the Isle of Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway, Southern Scotland. In the background you can see the Isle of Whithorn Tower. (Image credit: ATGImages via Getty Images)

The British Isles were invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 B.C. The northern part of Britain remained unconquered after the Roman emperor Claudius conquered the isles. The Roman governor and general launched an invasion of Scotland to bring it into the empire. The battle that took place in A.D. 83 against the Caledonians was fought by the son-in-law of Tacitus. The Battle of Mons Graupius resulted in a Roman victory, but the Romans failed to follow it up with more victories.

Historians claim that the Roman victory at Mons Graupius was overstated and that Agricola left after the battle. After that time, there were a few attempts to bring northern Britain into the empire, but all failed and the Romans shifted from a strategy of invasion to containment. The Antonine Wall was built in A.D. 122 in what is now northern England.

Stained glass window with Saint Columba. Alberto Agnoletto via Getty Images.

Stained glass window depicting the Christian missionary St. Columba. (Image credit: Alberto Agnoletto via Getty Images)

The conversion of the Picts to Christianity was an important development. The efforts of two missionaries, St. Ninian and St. Columba, resulted in this. St. Ninian is known for converting the southern Picts to Christianity. The monastery on the island of Iona was founded by St. Columba. The life of St. Columba was recorded in The Life of St. Adamnan.

The Romans left the British Isles in the early fifth century A.D. when Germanic tribes, such as the Visigoths and Franks, threatened Rome. The Angles, Jutes, Saxons and Frisians invaded the southern and eastern parts of England, while the Scots and Gaels invaded western Scotland.

Pictish kings versus Anglo-Saxons and Vikings

Scotland was divided into two parts after the Romans left: the Scots in the west and the Picts in the northeast. The Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which formed in the seventh century and encompassed northern England as well as parts of southern Scotland, was an important part of Scottish history. The most powerful kingdom in the British Isles for much of the seventh century was Northumbria. King Bridei III, also known as King Bridei III, a Pictish king of Fortriu, embarked on a campaign of defeating his rivals and creating a unified kingdom. He defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Dun Nechtain. According to the World History Encyclopedia, the battle broke the power of Northumbria and secured the borders of the lands of the Picts.

Bridei mac Beli died in A.D. His death ushered in an unstable period in Scottish history, as the kings of Pictland fought a series of wars against the Scots of Argyll. The wars ended in A.D. 793 when the son of a king was placed on the throne. According to the World History Encyclopedia, the first Scottish ruler to be known as Ard Righ, or "High King", was Constantin mac Fergal.

The Scots and the Picts faced another threat. Viking warriors raided Scotland more and more during the early ninth century. The Vikings began to settle after these were simply smash and grab raids. According to the World History Encyclopedia, the threat succeeded in unifying the Scots and the Picts.

Portrait of Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scotland (843-63). Royal Collection RCIN 403356.

Portrait of Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scotland (843-63) (Image credit: Royal Collection RCIN 403356)

Kenneth MacAlpin rose to power during this period. Kenneth MacAlpin succeeded in unifying the Scots and the Picts and laying the groundwork for a united Scottish nation. According to World History Encyclopedia, he extended his kingdom by more than any other monarch before him. The end of the Pictish culture in Scotland is thought to have begun with the ascension of Kenneth MacAlpin and his descendants.

The Scottish chronicles don't mention the Picts after the A.D. 870s. The people of Scotland are now referred to as the people of Scotland. The loss of the Pictish language and the increasing influence of the Irish church probably contributed to this.

The Gaelic language became the dominant language in Scotland after the disappearance of the Pictish language.

The Irish church's cultural influence likely played a role. Scots and Gaelic culture was emphasized by the Irish church rather than the Pictish culture, which may have influenced the common people to adopt Scots culture.

The Picts did not disappear. It was a gradual process. The people of the kingdoms adopted the Scots/Gaelic language and culture.

Additional resources


Towrie, S., "Who were the Picts?", Orkneyjar.

The World History Encyclopedia has a picture of Mark.

The University of Chicago has a book on Ammianus.

The Encyclopedia Britannica has editors who write about Saint Bede the Venerable.

The History of the Kings of Britain was translated by A. Thompson.

The New World Encyclopedia has an entry on "picts".

The Land of the Picts was written by K. Ravilious.

The Life of Julius Agricola was translated by A. S.......................

The World History Encyclopedia has a picture of Mark.

The account of the Battle of Mons Graupius was published in the World History Encyclopedia.

Encyclopedia Britannica has editors who wrote about St. Columba, Christian Missionary.