The Picts: A Celtic Civilization That Resisted the Romans

The Picts were a civilization in ancient Scotland, notorious for their fierce resistance when the Romans arrived and decided to invade them. They’re famous for their body paint during battle.

They turned out to be excellent Hollywood material since the people and their body paint have been reproduced in many famous movies. Perhaps most famously in the movie Braveheart. But who exactly were the inspirational characters behind these stories? And how did they live?

Who Were the Picts?

A hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman

The Picts were the inhabitants of Northern Britain (modern-day Scotland) between the end of the classical period and the start of the middle ages. On a very general level, two things distinguish Pictish society from the many other societies in that time frame. One was that they managed to overcome the seemingly endless expansion of the Romans, the other was their fascinating body art.

To this day, historians debate at what point the Picts began to be referred to as one unique and distinctive culture. Historical documents talking about the emergence of the Picts come exclusively from Roman writers, and these documents are pretty sporadic at times.

Later on, however, archeologists found a wide range of Pictish symbol stones and written sources that help to paint an image of the later lifestyle of the Picts. Based on the sources available, it is generally agreed that the Picts ruled over Scotland for about 600 years, between 297 and 858 AD.

Why Were the Picts Called Picts?

The word ‘pict’ is derived from the Latin word pictus, which means ‘painted’. Since they were famous for their body paint, choosing this name would make sense. However, there seems to be little reason to believe that the Romans only knew one type of tattooed people. They were actually familiar with many such ancient tribes, so there is a bit more to it.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: The Complete List from Aboriginals to Incans

Military histories from the early medieval period recorded that the word pictus is also used to refer to a camouflaged boat that’s used for exploration of new lands. While the Picts probably did use boats to get around, the Romans didn’t use the word to refer to tribes that would randomly drop into Roman territory and attack them overseas.

Rather, they used it in sentences like ‘savage tribes of Scotti and Picti’. So that would be more in a sense to refer to a group that’s ‘out there’. So it’s a bit unclear why and how exactly the tribal people came to be referred to as the Picts of Scotland. It’s probably both a reference to their decorated bodies as well as a simple coincidence.

Pict who lived in northeastern Scotland

That’s Not My Name

The fact that the name is derived from a Latin term makes sense for the simple fact that most of our knowledge of the Picts comes from Roman sources.

It should be stressed, however, that the name is just a name that was given to them. By no means it was the name that the group used to refer to themselves. Unfortunately, it is unknown if they had a name for themselves.

Body Art of the Picts

One of the reasons that the Picts are an extraordinary group in history has to do with Pictish art. That’s both their body art and the standing stones that they used for artistic and logistic purposes.

What Did the Picts Look Like?

According to a Roman historian, ‘All the Picts dye their bodies with Woad, which produces a blue color and gives them a wild appearance in battle’. Sometimes the warriors were covered in paint from top to bottom, meaning that their appearance on the battlefield was truly terrifying.

The woad that the ancient Picts used to dye themselves was an extract from a plant and basically a safe, biodegradable natural ink. Well, maybe not entirely safe. It was safe to use for preserving wood, for example, or for painting a canvas.

Putting it on your body is a whole different thing. The ink would literally burn itself into the upper layer of the skin. While it might heal quickly, excessive amounts will give the user a ton of scar tissue.

Also, it is debated how long the paint would actually stick to the body. If they had to reapply it continuously, it is safe to assume that the woad would leave a fair bit of scar tissue.

So the physical characteristics of the painted people were somewhat defined by the scar tissue as a result of using the woad. Other than that, it goes without saying that a Pict warrior would be quite muscular. But, that’s not any different from any other warrior. So in terms of general physique, the Picts weren’t any different than other ancient Brits.

A ‘Pict warrior’ with painted body by John White

Resistance and More

Another thing that the Picts were famous for was their resistance to Roman invasion. However, while the very general distinction of the Picts based on body art and resistance offers a glimpse into their lifestyle, these two characteristics are not representative of all the fascinating aspects of Pictish history.

The ‘Picts’ is just a collective name for many different groups that used to live all over Scotland. At one point they did join forces, but it undervalues the real diversity of the group.

Still, over time they would really be a distinctive culture with its own rituals and customs.

The Picts started out as different tribal groups that were organized into loose confederations. Some of these could be considered Pictish kingdoms, while others were designed more egalitarian.

At one point, however, these smaller tribes turned into two politically and militarily powerful kingdoms, which would make up Pictland and reign over Scotland for quite some time. Before we could properly dive into the characteristics of the Picts and their two political kingdoms, it is important to understand how the Pictish period of Scottish history came into being.

The Romans in Scotland 

The coming together of many different groups in early historic Scotland has everything to do with the threat of Roman occupation. Or at least, that’s what it seems like.

As indicated earlier, almost all sources that touch on the Picts and their struggle for the land come from the Romans.

Unfortunately, it’s all we have when it comes to the emergence of the Picts. Just keep in mind that there is probably more to the story, which hopefully will become available with new archeological, anthropological, or historical discoveries.

Roman soldiers on a marble relief

Scattered Tribes in Scotland

In the first two centuries AD, the land in Northern Scotland was populated by several different cultural groups, including the Venicones, Taezali, and the Caledonii. The central highlands were inhabited by the latter. Many identify the Caledonii groups as one of the societies that were the cornerstones of early Celtic culture.

While first only located in Northern Scotland, the Caledonii eventually started to spread to parts of Southern Scotland. After some time, they were so scattered that new differences between the Caledonii would emerge. Different building styles, different cultural traits, and different political lives, everything started to distinguish them from each other.

The Southern groups were increasingly more distinct from the Northern groups. This included different perceptions about the Romans, who were knocking on the proverbial door.

The groups that were located more to the south, living in a region called Orkney, actually made moves to get protection from the Roman Empire, afraid they would be invaded otherwise. In 43 AD they officially asked for protection from the Roman army. However, that didn’t mean that they were actually part of the empire: they just had their protection.

READ MORE: The Complete Roman Empire Timeline: Dates of Battles, Emperors, and Events

Rome Invades

If you know a bit about the Romans, you might know their expansion drift was close to insatiable. So even though the Orkneys were protected by the Romans, Roman governor Julius Agricola decided to invade the whole place anyway in 80 AD and subject the Caledonii in the South of Scotland to Roman rule.

Or, that was the plan. While the battle was won, governor Julius Agricola couldn’t capitalize on his victory. He sure tried, which is exemplified in the many Roman forts that he built in the territory. The forts functioned as points for strategic attacks to contain the ancient Scots.

Still, the combination of the Scottish wilderness, landscape, and weather made it extremely difficult to sustain Roman legions in the region. Supply lines failed, and they couldn’t really count on the help of the native inhabitants. After all, they sort of betrayed them by invading.

After some consideration, Agricola decided to retreat to a place in the south of Britain, leaving many of the Roman outposts unguarded and dismantled by the tribes. What would follow was a series of guerilla wars with Caledonian tribes.

Roman soldiers

Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine Wall

These wars were mostly and convincingly won by the tribal people. In response, Emperor Hadrian built a wall to stop the tribal groups from moving south into the territory of the Romans. Remains of Hadrian’s wall still stand to this day.

However, even before the wall of Hadrian was finished, a new emperor by the name of Antoninus Pius decided to venture more North into the area. Surprisingly, he had more success than his predecessor. He still used the same tactics to keep the Calodean tribes out, however: he built the Antonine wall.

The Antonine wall might’ve helped a bit to keep the tribal groups out, but after the death of the emperor, the Pictish guerilla warriors easily surpassed the wall and once again conquered more territories South of the wall.

A section of Hadrian’s Wall

Blood Thirst of Emperor Severus

The raids and wars continued for about 150 years until emperor Septimus Severus decided to end it once and for all. He simply had enough and thought that none of his predecessors ever really tried to conquer the inhabitants of Northern Scotland.

READ MORE: Roman Emperors in Order: The Complete List from Caesar to the Fall of Rome

This would be around the start of the third century. At this point, the tribes who were fighting the Romans had amalgamated into two major tribes: the Caledonii and the Maeatae. It is quite possible that the smaller tribes became concentrated into bigger societies for the simple fact that there is a force in numbers.

The emergence of two different groups seemingly worried Emperor Severus, who decided to put an end to the Roman struggle with Scotland. His tactic was straightforward: kill everything. Destroy the landscape, hang native chiefs, burn crops, kill livestock, and continue killing basically every other thing that remained alive afterward.

Even Roman historians identified the policy of Severus as a straight-up ethnic cleansing and a successful one at that. Unfortunately for the Romans, Severus became ill, after which the Maeatae were able to put more pressure on the Romans. This would be the official demise of the Romans in Scotland.

After his death and the succession of his son Caracalla, the Romans eventually had to give up and settled for peace.

Emperor Septimus Severus

The Rise of the Picts

There is a small gap in the story of the Picts. Unfortunately, this is basically straight after the peace agreement, meaning that the actual emergence of the early Picts is still debatable. After all, at this point, they were two main cultures, but not yet referred to as Picts.

It’s certain that there is a difference between the people before the peace agreement and about a hundred years after. Why? Because the Romans started naming them differently. If they would be exactly the same, it wouldn’t really make sense to create a whole new name and confuse the communication back to Rome.

After the peace agreement, the interaction between the people of early medieval Scotland and the Romans came to a hold. Still, the next instance that the two would interact again, the Romans were dealing with a new Pictish culture.

The period of radio silence took about 100 years, and many different explanations can be found with regard to how different groups obtained their overarching name. The origin myth of the Picts themselves provides a story that many believe to be the explanation for the emergence of a Pictish population.

READ MORE: Celtic Mythology: Myths, Legends, Deities, Heroes, and Culture

Where Were the Picts Originally From?

According to the origin myth, the Picts arrived from Scythia, a steppe area and nomadic culture that was located in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. However, analytical archeological studies indicate that the Picts were native to the land of Scotland for a long time.


The Creation Myth

According to the creation myth, some of the Scythian people ventured into the coast of Northern Ireland and were eventually redirected by local Scoti leaders to Northern Britain.

The myth continues to explain that one of their founding leaders, the first Pictish king Cruithne, would go on and establish the first Pictish nation. All the seven provinces were named after his sons.

While myths are always entertaining, and while there might be an ounce of truth in them, most historians recognize this story as a myth with a different purpose than just explaining the origin of the Pictish people. Likely, it had something to do with a later king that claimed total power over the lands.

Archeological Evidence

The archeological evidence for the arrival of the Picts in Scotland is a bit different than the previous story. Archeologists analyzed ancient artifacts from different settlement sites and concluded that the Picts were actually just a mixture of groups of Celtic origin.

More particularly, the Pictish language doesn’t belong to any of the three language groups that are originally distinguished: British, Gallic, and Old Irish. The Pictish language is somewhere in between the Gaelic language and Old Irish. But again, not really belonging to any of the two, which reaffirms their true distinction from any other groups native to Britain.

Are Picts and Scots the Same?

Picts were not just Scots. Actually, Scotts only came into modern-day Scotland after the Picts and Britons already inhabited the area. However, a mix of different Celtic and Germanic groups that included the Picts would later be referred to as Scotts.

So although the Picts became to be referred to as ‘Scotts’, the original Scotts migrated from a totally different region centuries after the Picts entered the lands that we now know as Scotland.

On the one hand, the Picts were the predecessors to the Scots. But, then again, so were many other groups that lived in pre-medieval Britain. If we nowadays refer to ‘Scotts’ in their native term, we refer to a group with a pedigree of Picts, Britton, Gaels, and Anglo-Saxon individuals.

Pictish Stones

While Roman journals are some of the most straightforward sources on the Picts, there was another source that was highly valuable. Pictish stones tell quite a bit about how the Picts lived and are generally the only source that was left behind by the society itself. However, they would only emerge after four centuries of their known existence.

Pictish stones are full of Pictish symbols and have been found all over the Pictish territory. Their locations are mostly concentrated in the North East of the country and the Pictish heartland, which is in the lowland areas. Nowadays, most stones have been moved to museums.

The Picts didn’t always make use of the stones, however. The form of Picts art emerged around the sixth century AD and is in some cases linked to the rise of Christianity. However, the earliest stones date back to times before the Picts were able to interact with other Christians. So it should rather be seen as a proper Pictish custom.

Aberlemno Serpent Stone

Class of Stones

The earliest stones have Pictish symbols that represent various types of animals, including wolves, eagles, and sometimes mythical beasts. Everyday items were also depicted on the stones, potentially to represent the class status of a Pictish person. After, however, Christian symbols would also be depicted.

There are generally three classes distinguished when it comes to the stones. They are mostly distinguished based on their age, but the depictions also play a role.

The first class of Pictish symbol stones date back to the early sixth century and are deprived of any Christian imagery. The stones that fall under class one include pieces dated back to the seventh century or eighth century.

The second class of stones is dated to the eighth century and ninth century. The real difference is the depictions of visible crosses alongside everyday items.

The third class of stones is generally the youngest of the three, which emerged after the official adoption of Christianity. All the Pictish marks were removed and the stones started to be used as grave markers and shrines, including names and surnames of the deceased.

The Function of the Stones

The real function of the stones is somewhat debated. It could be to honor a certain person, but it might also be a form of storytelling, just as was the case with the ancient Egyptians and Aztecs. In any case, it seems to be related to some form of spirituality.

READ MORE: Aztec Religion

The earliest stones also included depictions of the sun, the moon, and the stars. These are obviously important celestial bodies, but also important characteristics of nature religions.

Because the stones later became decorated with Christian crosses, it is very well possible that the items before the depictions of the crosses are also linked to their idea of religion. In that sense, their spirituality would revolve around the continuous development of nature.

The depiction of many different animals, too, confirms this idea. In fact, some researchers even believe that the depictions of fish on the stones tell a story about the importance of fish for ancient society, to the extent that fish would be seen as a holy animal.

A detail from another Pictish stone

READ MORE: 16 Celtic Gods and Goddesses: Ancient Celtic Pantheon

Pictish Kings and Kingdoms

After a lackluster form of Roman occupation, the land of the Picts consisted of many little Pictish kingdoms. Examples of Pictish rulers in this time period were found in the Pictish kingdom of Fotla, Fib, or Circing.

The aforementioned kings were all located in Eastern Scotland and are just three of the seven regions that were distinguished in Pictland. The kingdom of Cé formed in the South, while in the North and the British Isles other Pictish kings would emerge, like king Cat.

Over time, however, two Pictish realms would conglomerate, both with their proper kings. Generally, from the sixth century onwards a division between the Northern and Southern Picts is made. The region of Cé managed to stay somewhat neutral and not belong to any of the two kingdoms that were surrounding it.

However, it wasn’t a proper kingdom in itself anymore either. It was just the region that covered the Grampian mountains, with many people still living there. So in that sense, the region of Cé could be interpreted as a buffer zone between the Picts in the North and the Picts in the South.

Because the differences between the North and the South were so big, many do believe that the Northern Picts and the Southern Picts would’ve become their own proper countries if it wasn’t for the Cé region. Others claim that the differences between the North and South are often exaggerated.

The Role of Kings in Pictland

As you might’ve noticed, there are generally two-time frames when it comes to the rule of the Picts. On the one hand, we have the time when the Pictish society was still struggling with the looming Roman Empire, on the other the time of the middle ages after the fall of the Romans (in 476 AD).

READ MORE: The Fall of Rome: When, Why and How Did Rome Fall?

The role of the Pictish kings also changed under the influence of these developments. Earlier kings were successful war leaders, fighting against the Romans to maintain their sense of legitimacy. After the fall of the Romans, however, the war culture was less and less a thing. So the claim to legitimacy had to come from somewhere else.

Pictish kingship became less personalized and more institutionalized as a result. This development is closely linked to the fact that the Picts became increasingly more Christian. It is widely understood that Christianity is highly bureaucratic, with many consequences for our modern-day society.

This, too, was the case for the Picts: they became increasingly interested in hierarchical forms of society. The position of the king didn’t really need a warrior-like attitude anymore. Nor did he have to show his ability to care for his people. He simply was next in a line of blood lineage.

The Picts: A Celtic Civilization That Resisted the Romans 2
Saint Columba converting King Brude of the Picts to Christianity
William Hole

The Disappearance of the Picts

The Picts disappeared just as mysteriously as they had entered the scene. Some relate their disappearance to a series of Viking invasions.

In the tenth century, the inhabitants of Scotland had to deal with a range of events. On the one hand, these were the violent invasions by the Vikings. On the other, many different groups began to live in the areas which the Picts officially occupied.

It might well be that the inhabitants of Scotland decided to join forces at one point against either Vikings or other threats. In that sense, the ancient Picts vanished in the same way as they were created: power in numbers against a common enemy.

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