Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The name Pict first appears in a panegyric written by Eumenius in 297. Although Picti is usually assumed to mean painted or tattooed it may have a Celtic origin. The Goidelic Celts called the Picts cruithne and the Brythonic Celts knew them as prydyn, whence Britain.
There are plenty of archaeological remains in the form of buildings and jewelry to indicate the society of the Picts but little in the way of writing. The society seems to have been made up of small kingdoms which occasionally clashed.
Pictland is believed to have comprised all of modern Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde except Argyll. It appears that there were two overkingdoms, one north of the Mounth with its core in Moray, the other to the south with the capital at Forteviot. Irish sources recorded that seven ancient Pictish Kingdoms existed:
- Cait — situated in modern Caithness and Sutherland
- Ce — situated in modern Mar and Buchan
- Circinn — situated in modern Angus and the Mearns
- Fib — situated in the modern Fife and Kinross (Fife is still known as the Kingdom of Fife)
- Fidach — situated in modern Moray and Ross
- Fotla — situated in modern Atholl and Gowrie
- Fortriu — situated in modern Strathearn and Menteith (also known as Fortrenn and as the Verturiones to the Romans)
However, good archaeological evidence and some written evidence suggests that a Pictish kingdom also existed in Orkney.
The conversion of Pictland was complete in the 7th century, southern Kingdoms being converted as early as the 5th or 6th centuries. Although the Britons of southern Scotland and then the Northumbrian church played a part, Saint Columba and his successors were the most influential in this work. The links they established between Pictland and Iona were strong and enduring.
The idea of Pictland being under pressure from Dalriadan invaders is now questioned. There is no sign of Dalriadan dominance in the 8th or 9th centuries. The Pictish Kings Onuist mac Uurgust (fl 729-761) and Caustantin mac Uurgust (fl 789-820) dominated Dalriada. Onuist sacked Dunadd and captured the sons of the King of Dalriada. Caustantin put his son on the throne of Dalriada and was followed as King of Pictland by his brother, son and nephew until the Pictish defeat by Viking invaders in 839.
Much of northern Pictland - Caithness, Sutherland, the Western Isles, Ross - was conquered by Norse invaders. In the south wars with the Vikings continued until the reign of Constantine mac Aeda, grandson of Kenneth mac Alpin. Constantine was the first King of Alba.
The Picts spoke a language, Pictish, of which little is known (in particular whether, or by how much, it differed from other Brythonic languages).
It remains uncertain whether or not we should classify the Picts as Celts although most available placename evidence tends to support the hypothesis that they were speakers of a Brythonic language. Historic Pictish settlements in Scotland can often be deduced from place names. Those prefixed with "Aber-", "Lhan-", "Pit-" or "Fin-" indicate the region was inhabited by Picts in the past (eg: Aberdeen, Lhanbryde, Pitmedden, Pittodrie, Findochty, etc). Also supporting this hypothesis is the Gaelic tradition that the Picts were identical with or descended from the Brythonic group which the Gaels called, and still call, the Cruithne. A likely cognate of Cruithne is the Welsh Prydain, in which we can see the standard /k/ to /p/ Goidelic to Brythonic sound correspondence (both sounds are from /kw/). From the Brythonic Celtic Prydain (or rather from its older form Pretani) comes the English word Britain, via Latin.
However other hypotheses exist. For instance Federico Krutwig tried to draw a connection among Picts and Basques based on language similarities. According to this theory, the languages of the Picts and the Basques would be remnants of the Preindoeuropean population of Europe. However lack of data about the Pictish language makes it difficult to confirm his hypothesis.
Legends about the Picts also include mention of possible Scythian origins - another pre-literate people. Again, lack of information about the Pictish language makes it difficult evaluate these legends.
Vitrum: Woad, or Copper?
Vitrum is generally meant to be woad. The phrase “vitro inficiunt” could very well have meant “dye themselves with glazes” or “infect themselves with glass”. This could have been a description of a scarification ritual which left dark blue scars, or a direct reference to tattooing. These 1st century southern practices (of the Brittani, a tribe south of the Thames) have been placed upon the northern peoples in an attempt to explain the name Picti which came into use only in the 3rd century. The comments on the tribes from the areas of the actual Picts from this section of The Gallic Wars are that they have “designs carved into their faces by iron”. If woad was used, then it was probably tattooed under the skin. It is more likely that the Celts used copper for blue tattoos, they had plenty of it, and soot ash cardon for black. Unfortunately, we need more bog bodies to prove this point!
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