The Mystery of the Picts

Howie Firth 2022 - as published in the 2022 Moray Field Club Bulletin

Few people can agree about the Picts. It’s not surprising, since the evidence is fragmented and confusing. The first mention is Roman in 297, referring to problems being caused in Scotland by Picti, Latin for ‘painted people’.

Others used the name in subsequent centuries. Then in 843, the king of the Scots became king of the Picts; and the Picts vanish from history. They left behind artwork, swirling animals and elegant geometrical shapes on silver and stone – and a mystery.

Where did they come from? The History of the Britons put together around the 9th century by the Welsh monk Nennius is particularly valuable as he doesn’t seem to have tried to interpret or rework the stories he gathered. He says he just ‘made a heap’ of everything – so it’s possible it contains pieces of original material.

He describes the arrival of the Picts. ‘Picts came and occupied the islands called Orkney, and later from the islands they wasted many lands, and occupied those in the northern part of Britain, and they still live there today,’ he says.

Other sources also say they came by sea; the English historian Bede says they came ‘in a few longships’, with no women. Storms drove them around the coast and they eventually landed in the north of Ireland. ‘Here they found the nation of the Scots, from whom they asked permission to settle, but their request was refused.’ The Scots, however, spoke of another island to the east – Britain – and said they’d help tackle any resistance there. ‘So the Picts crossed into Britain, and began to settle in the north of the island, since the Britons were in possession of the south.’

We know the Scots started their own journeys to Scotland around 500, establishing in Argyll the kingdom of Dalriada.

Bede also speaks of the Picts’ original homeland. They came, he says, from the east – from Scythia. This is certainly far away: the ancient territory of the Scythians extended from the grasslands of eastern Europe to the steppes of Central Asia.

This may sound strange, but Bede is regarded as the father of English history and Anglo-Saxon England’s greatest scholar – and he had first-hand knowledge of the Picts. In his time the Northumbrians persuaded the Pictish king Nechtan to prefer the Roman church to the Celtic church of Iona. Bede’s monastery of Jarrow was the joint base for the mission, directed by his teacher and friend, Abbot Ceolfrid. Bede would have expected copies of his writings to reach the Picts themselves; any errors would have damaged Northumbria’s intellectual authority. So if he tells us they said they came from Scythia, we should respect him.

People who have lived long in a territory usually emphasise this in their traditions. Conversely, migrant people in a strange land will strongly preserve the story of their distant identity. So if the Picts chose to speak of themselves as being aliens and incomers, we have to take them seriously. And that gives the challenge of finding a way for Scythians to come to Scotland.

The Picts have left several hundred sculptured stones, scattered over eastern Scotland. The older ones, with symbols cut into the surface, are called Class I. More elaborate stones, with symbols in relief plus Celtic ornamentation, are categorised as Class II. Later stones, with figures of men and beasts but no symbols, form Class III.

The symbol stones add a new layer to the mystery. They’re mainly in the east or north, on the coast or inland from the sea. They’re identified as Pictish because of their location – in historical Pictish territory – and also from the distinctive art style. Indeed the Class I stones could almost have come from the same pattern book, and it’s possible they were erected around the same time.

There’s something strange about the stones. The Class II and III stones have numerous images of horses – and not ordinary horses. The archaeologist Cecil Curle noted the high-stepping gait and their heads carried high – something requiring careful schooling. The veterinary surgeon Robert Beck, who spent part of his working life on Tiree, took this further and developed a great interest in the native Eriskay ponies. He measured exact sizes of the horses on the stones, and concluded there were two types. One was very similar to the native Eriskay pony. The other was ‘a taller and more specialised riding horse’.

Robert Beck analysed the motions of the Pictish horses, showing them far from ordinary. He noted movements only found in skilled schools of equitation – walks, trots, canters. A further action involved lifting both forefeet in the air – probably for cavalry horses, he suggested, rising up and joining battle with their hooves.

But why should the Picts be superbly trained horsemen, when much of the heartland of their symbol stones is near the sea? In Moray or Caithness, Orkney or Fife, we’d expect skills of the sea and images of ships; but instead we have horsemen.

If, however, they came from Scythia, possibilities open. The Scythians were great horsemen – the world’s best. Their horses could kneel in the heat of battle to let a heavily armed rider mount. From horseback the Scythians could use bow and arrows with deadly accuracy, and other weapons. Their horses were regarded as the finest, and in great demand. So a Scythian origin is certainly consistent with the horsemanship depicted on Pictish stones.

But how could Scythian horsemen cross Europe to Ireland or Scotland? We need to note dates. Before the 297 mention of the Picti the Romans spoke of individual tribes. By 197 they categorised them into two big groups – the Caledones and the Maeatae. The Caledones seem to be around the Highlands and Moray, with the Maeatae in central Scotland – in Angus, the Mearns, and the Earn and Tay river valleys.

From 360 references become more frequent, including accounts of the Picti joining forces with the Scotti and the Saxones to attack Roman Britain.

So to seek the origin of the Picts, we must go back to some time before 297, which was a long period of peace, and we need to look more closely at Roman relationships with the various peoples of Scotland.

One insight comes from J.R.C. Hamilton’s overview of Iron Age broch towers in Scotland. Brochs are mainly in the north and west: east and south it’s hillforts. But strangely in central and southern Scotland there are a dozen or so brochs – hundreds of miles from their core territory. Hamilton noted they’re all at key strategic points, guarding roads or river crossings, with valuable Roman products among excavation finds. So, he concluded, the brochs of southern Scotland must have been bases of Roman auxiliaries recruited from the north to stiffen defences in a border zone.

A second insight came in Moray from the much-missed historian Ian Keillar, who highlighted sea power in Julius Agricola’s campaigns against the northern tribes in the years 80-83. The Roman historian Tacitus tells how Agricola sent his formidable fleet ahead to reconnoitre enemy harbours and plunder and spread uncertainty and terror. ‘The war was pushed forward simultaneously by land and sea.’

This means, argued Ian Keillar, that the Romans would have concentrated their activity on the coastal areas of Scotland rather than deep inland. So the true boundary of Roman power may not be a north-south one, across Hadrian’s Wall or the Antonine Wall, even though these may have mark trading boundaries. The real division of control may be between the coast of Scotland and the mountainous interior.

To deploy the Roman fleet from one side of Scotland to the other requires going through the Pentland Firth, waiting if needed for the right tide and weather, which means having a reliable source of shelter. So the Romans have to be on good terms with the broch chiefs; and we find references to Roman contact with Orkney.

Bede says that when the Roman emperor Claudius invaded Britain he ‘annexed to the Empire the Isles of Orkney which lie in the ocean beyond Britain’. Claudius was only a short time in Britain and his invasion was in the south, but the core of the story may be genuine – a friendly association between the Romans and Orkney’s rulers.

Archaeological evidence for Orcadian contact with the Roman world includes Roman coins at the Broch of Lingro (now disappeared), and two amphora sherds at the Broch of Gurness.

So we’ve four strands. First, there’s the earliest mention of the Picts, in a Roman source from 297. Second, the Picts themselves say they came from Scythia, and they seem to be superbly skilled cavalry of Scythian quality. Third, Nennius says they first ‘came and occupied the island called Orkney’. And fourth, there are hints of a long-lasting and strategically logical Roman relationship with Orkney.

There’s a way to bring the strands together. Suppose the Picts were cavalry from Scythia, recruited as auxiliaries by the Romans, taken by sea to Orkney, and from there despatched in units to northern and eastern Scotland. There’s historical support for the Romans recruiting cavalry from the eastern steppes and taking them to Britain.

From about 200 BC onwards the Scythians were pressed from the east by another group of nomadic horsemen who eventually took over the lands around the Black Sea – the Sarmatians, with long swords and flexible armour. Their culture was otherwise similar, and maybe their takeover was more a forced merger, with Sarmatian chieftains and their followers assuming the leadership of Scythian tribes.

The Sarmatians were at times recruited by the Romans as auxiliaries. They fought for the emperor Trajan against the Dacians. Then in 175 the emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated a Sarmatian invasion force and demanded cavalry as tribute. And so a huge force of Sarmatians was deployed to Hadrian’s Wall – 5,500 horsemen. By comparison, the total garrison on the Wall at that time would have been about 12,000. The new force was the size of a Roman legion, and greater than the number of cavalry deployed by Julius Caesar in his original invasion of Britain.

The Sarmatians do not entirely fit the image of the Picts. For one thing, they wielded long swords, while the Picts on the sculptured stones have short swords. Also, we can track some of the Sarmatians from their initial deployment on Hadrian’s Wall – for example one unit went south to Ribchester in Lancashire – and there’s no hint of a move to Scotland. But if we follow events in Roman Britain a little further, we may find a situation for possible cavalry deployment into Scotland.

In 196 the governor of Britain, Clodinus Albinus, declared himself emperor and took much of the army out of Britain to pursue his claim. He was defeated and killed, and the next year a weakened Roman Britain was invaded by the northern tribes. It took the Romans ten years to rebuild; then a further invasion from the north came in 207.

This time it was serious enough to bring the emperor Severus, in his sixties and crippled with illness – but tough as iron. He decided the problem of the northerners had to be solved once and for all; and he fought his way through their lands through two long years of campaigning, despite heavy losses.

The archaeologist T.C. Lethbridge argued that this was the stage when the Picts were brought in. He noted that after this time things are quiet for almost a century, and the Maeatae seem to vanish from the scene. Lethbridge suggested that Severus inflicted massive casualties on the Maeatae lands and settled new groups of people in among them – the Picts.

Moving peoples from one frontier to another was a standard Roman tactic, and cavalry would have been particularly effective on the flatter lands of coastal Scotland. By now the Sarmatians would have been more than thirty years in Britain, continuing to breed their horses and train their sons; their identity depended on retaining their traditions, since they were never likely to be taken on the long journey home.

Certainly the arrival of the Picts has an organised appearance. Characteristic of the Pictish territory is a pattern of pit- names – Pittenweem in Fife, Pitmeddan in Aberdeenshire, Pitgaveny in Moray. The geographical distribution of these names has two unusual features. First, they’re found in coastal areas and river valleys, regions we’d expect as main settlement areas. Yet they’re not right on the seaboard or on the riversides, but set a little way back. Two geographers, G. Whittington and J.A. Soulsby, made a study of the pit- names of Fife and Angus, and noticed this pattern. The land where we find the pit- names is reasonable ground – but it’s above fifty feet in altitude and can go up to 650 feet. So, they’re on cultivable land but not areas of primary settlement. This higher ground would be the natural place for settling new people, giving them land to feed themselves but without disturbing existing patterns of land use and food supply.

Secondly, although pit- names are common all the way down the east coast, there are only a few in south-east Sutherland, and none in north Sutherland, Caithness or the Northern Isles. That seems strange, when we know that eventually all this area came under Pictish rule. For some reason, there was no need to establish pit- names and accompanying Pictish settlement in these regions. But if we remember this is broch territory – and by our argument on good terms with Rome – then there is no mystery. The broch rules would be allies, helping to ship the Picts to where they were needed, hence few Picts in permanent residence, and few pit- names.

Meanwhile, Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museums of Scotland has noticed an unusual pattern in the distribution of Roman finds around Scotland. From the dates of the two hoards of Roman coins he discovered at Birnie, he identified them as payments made by the Romans to native chiefs at the time of the disruption of 197, to seek to retain their support. Dr Hunter noticed that up until around 250, Roman finds are fairly evenly distributed around Scotland. After 250, however, there’s a difference, with almost no Roman items on the east coast, from Aberdeenshire down to the Forth. He concludes that there’s a shift in Roman attitudes to this region.

Our picture fits this. Part of the east is Maeatae territory. If its inhabitants were involved against the Romans around 207, the army of Severus would punish them, and settle the new auxiliaries on their territory at various pit- places. Peace would be maintained not with payments as elsewhere but with a firm military hand – hence the gradual decline in Roman finds.

And how might the people of eastern Scotland have joined the attacks on Rome in 197 while the broch people didn’t? Because the people on the east had longstanding links with the continent of Europe; old sea routes joined them to the lands of the Saxons and the Jutes. Indeed, there’s quite a contrast between Orkney – seemingly far from the Roman world – and the east coast of Scotland, so much closer geographically. For the later period after 250, there are more Roman finds in Orkney and the broch territory generally than there are down the whole east coast.

We’ve now an explanation for Nennius’s statement about the Picts coming from Orkney and ‘occupying many lands’. Orkney would be the place of transhipment, where companies of Picts with their horses were gathered together, trained in Roman ways, and shipped to their new homes, the pit- name places.

Peace followed for nearly a century; Caledonii and Maeatae power was broken and, as Lethbridge observed, ‘when next we hear of trouble in the north, the enemies of Rome are the Picts’. Cavalry units from Scythia, settled amongst existing communities, would from early days have been powerbrokers, then rulers in their own right. Thus over the century following the battering from Severus, the eastern territories of Scotland would have built up their strength again – as part of a new kingdom, that of the Picts. And indeed this is when the first mentions of Pictish kings appear. If the Pictish settlement was indeed around the year 200, then there would have been almost a century of peace with Rome – a long time in an era when Roman troops would rise from time to time to overthrow emperors.

And finally, the name ‘Pict’: a source of much debate. Was the Latin word Picti – ‘painted’ – their actual name or a description? The Scythians practiced tattooing, so they’d certainly fit the description of ‘the painted people’. The Roman usage might be a military one, almost army slang, simply distinguishing between uniformed servicemen and the ones with rank marked by native insignia – ‘the painted ones’.

Howie Firth

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