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The Origins of the Iron Age Picts

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Who were the Picts? Well, if you were looking for an area that is full of controversy this is it! This is in no way a comprehensive picture but an outline of one or two theories of the origins of the Picts. I will however be going into more detail of the Picts and the various areas mentioned here in future articles.

There is no doubt that the whole subject of their origins is misted in Fables, Legend, Fabrication and a severe lack of historical and archaeological information. Were they Celtic, Iberian, Scandinavian etc? I think to try and make sense of it all we must first go back to go forward, to a time not long after the ice age and Scotlands hunter-gatherer Mesolithic past (8000 –4000 BC).

These Iberian hunter –gatherers moved through France and lower Britain to enter Scotland around 7000BC. Remains of their campsites are rare, Morton in Fife and another on the River Lussa being two examples. At Lussa the camp contained stone rings approximately 1.5m in diameter and may be the oldest stone structures in Scotland. The West of Scotland Islands give a further reinforcement to the movement of these Mesolithic people by the finds of large shell mounds and various tools such as fish hooks and harpoons but as I said Artefacts of the period are scarce.

A slow transition took place for these Mesolithic people and by (4000 – 2500 BC) they moved into a Neolithic farming life. Many other things must be taken into consideration at this time too like the introduction of new flint and stone tools, pottery, permanent settlements, new religious beliefs and Tombs and ‘Temples’. These structured Tombs were round barrows called Cairns in the East, like Calva Cairn while in the West and North the Chambered tomb such as Maes How in Orkney was preferred and these Tombs are probably the best supplier of artefacts of this time. There is very Little evidence of the settlements but probably the best known is that of Skara Brae in Orkney which remained virtually intact due to being covered for many centuries. Other Neolithic monuments in Scotland include henges and stone circles. Henges are widely spread across the country including two in Orkney - the Ring of Brogar and the Stones of Stenness. A henge is a banked and ditched enclosure, there is a central platform enclosed by a deep ditch, the ditch material is then thrown onto the outer edge to form a bank around the whole.

(2500 – 700 BC) sees the entrance of the Beaker People from Northern and Central Europe and the start of Scotland’s Bronze Age. The beaker people are known by this name for the cremated remains of their dead being cremated and buried in pots and interred in single graves, unlike the Neolithic people who buried their dead in groups. It is also recognised that the beaker people were the ones to introduce metalwork to Scotland. There is no record of any conflicts between the two peoples in Scotland although their lifestyles were in many ways so different and it is the bonding of these two peoples into various tribes (who for unknown reasons seemed to be forever pushed northwards). That leads to the theory that the Picts were an aboriginal race and non-Celtic. The difference in language must also be taken into consideration with this theory, as it is believed that the Picts did not speak with a Celtic tongue.

The second theory of the Picts is that their origins were Celtic. Believers in this describe the two branches as Q-Celts and P-Celts. Both origins were that of Indo-European qu being Q-Celtic and the other transforming the qu into p became P-Celtic. Examples given of this are Q-Celtic were Goedelic languages such as Irish, Scottish, Gaelic and Manx and the P-Celtic were Gaulish and Brittonic that of British, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

It is suggested that the Q-Celts reached Ireland by the 6th Century BC and the P-Celtic entered Scotland in the 4th Century BC at the start of the Bronze Age. There is no doubt that the Q-Celts entered the South of Scotland in Argyle from Ireland but there is week evidence apart from possible similarity of language and the written ‘Ogham’  (the Brandsbut Stone at Inverurie being an example) that the Picts were of Celtic origin.

My Own Thoughts!

My own thoughts are that the Picti (painted people) named by the Roman Eumenius in 297 AD for these fierce warrior tribes, ‘certainly north of the Antonine wall’ were indeed non Celtic in their origin. Apart from the movement of peoples as briefly laid out above, there is other evidence to support this theory. Again I will try to keep this brief, as I would like to cover these areas in a more detailed manor in future topics on ‘Pictish Pages’.

The first part to tackle I feel is the controversial area of language. You would think that if Picts spoke a form of Celtic, that at least some of the spoken word would be the same. This does not seem to be the case, as St Columbus biographer states, that the Irish saint needed an interpreter when he preached to the Pictish King Brudei in 565 AD on the banks of Loch Ness. The ‘Ogham’ the written language of the Picts found carved on some of the standing stones in Pictland is also shrouded in doubt, as although the markings are similar to that of the Celts, the script is not in Celtic context and is barely, if at all, decipherable.

The Irish name for the Picts was ‘Cruithne’, likewise thought to mean ‘Painted People’ and was a name also used by the Irish, to describe a group of aboriginal people in Ireland prior to the coming of the Celtic Gael. These people were at one time one of the most predominant tribe in the North of Ireland around Ulster. Munster, another part in Ireland was also predominately ‘Cruthne’ and is also the place to have similar inscription stones to that of the Pictish ‘Ogham’.

Accompanied by the uniqueness of the carved standing stones found in Pictland their art and their lineage, which was taken from the mother and not the father. Leaves no doubt in my mind that the people of Pictland were Non Celtic. There are also other areas in this synopsis which I have not covered like ‘What do the Palaeontologists have to say’ but I will cover this in future articles.  

© John A Duncan of Sketraw, KCN, FSA Scot.

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Origins of the Iron Age Picts - Scotland