Britons and Picts


Though united by a common language, the Britons `between the Walls’ were politically divided. Straddling the modern Border, the Gododdin, descendants of Ptolemy’s Uotadini, controlled a great swathe of the eastern coastal plain. The Rock of Dumbarton (`fortress of the Britons’) was the focus of another kingdom encompassing the Clyde Valley. At times the reach of the Dumbarton kings may have included Ayrshire or even Galloway, but the extent and allegiance of the other British polities is far from clear. There are hints of unnamed kingdoms based in the upper Tweed basin, in western Dumfriesshire, perhaps, and round the mouth of the Solway and up the Eden Valley in Cumbria. With only dialectal variation, language and culture linked the people of these competing post-Roman Christian kingdoms to Britons in northern and western England, in Wales and the south-west, then on to the coast of Armorica and as far south as the Loire (in the early period at least, there were even Britons settled in north-west Spain). But what of their non-Christian, never-Romanized neighbours to the north?

The term Picti, `painted people’, was first used by Roman writers at the end of the third century. It was picked up in succeeding centuries by Christian authors to refer in an entirely derogatory fashion to the warlike tribes of the distant north. It seems unlikely to have been used with any precision by either group and may have been a rather elastic term signifying nothing more than `free Britons’ to the former, and `pagan Britons’ to the latter. To Tacitus, the people north of the Forth were `Caledonian Britons’ and it is clear that in the Roman period they were also considered Brittonic by their neighbours. The early medieval Irish and Welsh terms for the Picts, respectively Cruithne and Prydyn, both derive ultimately from the same word: Pretanni, the root of our own `Britain’. Yet if they had, at one time, been perceived to be of common stock, by the eighth century at least, Britons and Picts were seen by those around them as two distinctly separate peoples.

Archaeological support for such a distinction is hard to find. Many aspects of material culture were common throughout northern and western Britain. Others varied from region to region, distributions of different categories of artefact cutting across one another. There seems no compelling reason to single out the Forth as a more fundamental cultural boundary than, say, the Mounth, the Spey, or the Oykell. If anything the long-reaching firths of Forth and Clyde united as much as divided and if a boundary is to be sought in prehistoric archaeology it would be at the Tay. On the basis of the surviving linguistic evidence, there seems little to distinguish the speech of those north and south of the Forth. Place-name evidence presents many difficulties and a great deal of work remains to be done, but the onomastic evidence we have suggests any difference between the languages spoken either side of the Forth-Clyde line represented no more than dialectal variation within the greater Brittonic continuum. Elements such as aber `confluence’, tre(v) `homestead’, and lanerc `glade’ appear both north and south (Aberdeen, Aberlady; Rattray, Ochiltree; Lendric, Lanark) and recorded Pictish personal names such as Drostan, Necton, Onuist, and Mailcon are drawn from a common Brittonic pool.

This picture, however, is hard to reconcile with the explicit statement by the early eighth-century Northumbrian scholar Bede that the Britons and the Picts were two peoples speaking different languages. Perhaps political and religious divisions caused Bede to see as separate languages what a linguist might class merely as different dialects (cf. the distinction between Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic). Historians today can trace in Bede’s writing a distinctly anti-British stance. He may have been at pains to recognize the distinctness of the Pictish gens, of whom he was more approving. Perhaps a key reason may be that, as Bede wrote, Picts faced Angles across the Forth. A little over a generation earlier, the Brittonic continuum had been breached by invading Germanic-speakers. With the old links severed, those on either side had begun to develop along divergent lines. These redefinitions were part of a much wider process, for it was in this period that the various peoples of Britain, both incomer and native, were forging new ethnic identities for themselves. The disparate Germanic tribes who had settled in eastern Britain were beginning for the first time to view themselves all as `English’, even though they remained politically divided. Perhaps in opposition to this, an anti-Anglo- Saxon ideology seems to have begun to bind together the different British speaking polities of the west, and across the Irish Sea a new unifying `Gaelic’ identity was being fostered among the kingdoms of the Irish. It may be that a distinctive `Pictish’ identity, encompassing all the Brittonic territory north of the Forth, was being forged at the same time for similar reasons. In the scant documentary record, we can trace the metamorphosis of the old tribal affiliations into territorial identities. The contemporary sources refer to `the men of Fife’, `the men of the Hebrides’, `the men of Orkney’, `the men of Moray’. These regional identities were strong and endured throughout the early medieval period, yet, transcending them, we see what might well have been an entirely new concept: a sense of common `Pictishness’, an identity which in some way united these people and distinguished them from their neighbours the Gaels, the Angles, and even the Britons, an identity which, following the Latin sources of the time, we label `Pictish’, but, ironically, for which the Pictish word has not survived.

Lacking surviving Pictish documents, it is hard to find indigenous expressions of this identity (we are entirely dependent on what the Picts’ Gaelic-, British-, and English-speaking neighbours wrote of them). Except, perhaps, for what might be the most distinctive aspect of Pictish culture, their unique and compelling system of symbols: formalized, stereotyped designs carved on a variety of objects, but above all on upright stone monuments. The system’s invention, perhaps as early as the sixth century, may have been part of a growing political and ethnic self-awareness. Its popularity is remarkable: it was used throughout Pictish territory as late as the ninth century and in a variety of contexts. Whatever the actual content of the messages conveyed by the symbols (and sadly this seems irrecoverable), the choice of this indigenous form of written communication, over, say the roman alphabet, may in itself have been an expression and assertion of the new `Pictish’ identity.

Katherine Forsyth as “Origins: Scotland to 1100” in the book Scotland: A History edited by Jenny Wormald.