They may be the most interesting people you’ve never heard about. In the original outline for Draegnstoen, they were not a part of the story, but as the book developed, I knew they could not be left out. The sequel to Draegnstoen, Highland King, is truly a story of the Picts.
They were probably the first inhabitants of Scotland, arriving sometime during the Iron Age. Though theories abound, we have no idea where they came from. Their language is like no other, almost completely unrelated to any other Indo-European languages. We only have just over 100 words of their tongue, mostly proper names and place names like Aberdeen, and Lhanbryde.
The Romans called them “Picti”, meaning “painted”, in reference to the tattoos that covered their bodies. This unknown northern people, now extinct, were the reason Rome could not conquer all of Britain. Rome attacked their lands in northern Britain, time and time again, killing thousands of the Picts, but they would not submit. Finally, yielding to the tenacity of the Picts, the Romans, in 122 AD. began to build Hadrian’s Wall, east to west across northern Britain. It fortified their northern boundary. An empire that was always expanding stopped here and could not advance. The wall was a monument to Roman failure, one that has stood for almost 2000 years. Rome also built Antonine’s wall, further north, but could never hold it. The Picts would not accept that further incursion into their territory.
But who were the Picts? Like the Scots that followed them, some sources suggest they had a matrilinear succession to their kingship, a complicated path to the throne that passed from uncle to nephew and actually encouraged the regicide it was designed to prevent. Theirs was a bloody line of succession.
They did not use the name “Picts”. They may have called themselves “Cruithni”, and much of their early history is lost in myth. It is popularly believed that there were seven ancient Pictish kingdoms that gradually consolidated. The Pictish Chronicle is an early document that attempts to document their history and their kings, but it is confusing and often contradictory. They left us many curious engraved stones scattered about the land, some marked with Christian symbols, earlier ones marked with serpents and fantastical creatures. The picture of the stone circle at the top of this page is another of the monuments they left us.
The Picts went into battle naked, their bodies painted blue with woad. Remember “Braveheart” and the Scotsmen with blue paint on their faces? This tradition was handed down from their Pictish ancestors, even then extinct for almost 400 years.
We know that as of about 800 AD they were still a distinct people, although at that point on the brink of being assimilated by the Scots. Kenneth McAlpin (d. 858 AD) was titled “King of the Scots and the Picts” and some theories suggest that his mother’s family was Pictish nobility.
As I have researched Pictish history, I realized how little of their story has been told and how little is truly known, often filled with qualifiers like “theory”, “suggest”, and “perhaps.” There are too many pieces missing to “know” all we may want to learn about this people.
Theirs is a tale rich in legend, and the magic of the fog shrouded mountains, the rainy, wet highlands and cold Scottish lochs. It was an ancient kingdom torn asunder, north to south, attacked by an invading people from the west. They were a people with the boldness to claim their divine right of kingship even from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament.
Who were the Picts? The history books say little. Listen to your imagination. It will tell you the rest of the story.