Pictish Warfare

Warfare was a major and regular component of early historic life. Heroic literature, such as the Gododdin, paints a picture of an aggressive society in which petty kings and their personal warrior retinues were ‘nurtured on wine and mead’ and fought to obtain personal glory and material wealth. Contemporary poetry acted to reinforce heroic concepts of behaviour. Many of their campaigns, which followed a ritualistic formula, may simply have been to plunder or exact tribute, rather than being in pursuance or defence of territorial ambitions. Acquisition of slaves may have been an additional motive. Slave-trading was common in the Roman period, if not before: Patrick (later a saint) is the best-known victim, kidnapped from western Britain and taken to Ireland. Northern British kings also enslaved some of those they conquered. There was a Dál Riata slave-girl at the Pictish court of Bridei son of Mailcon when Columba visited it. Regardless of the purpose, fighting generally took place between leaders of different territories, such as kindreds of Dál Riata, or between the different peoples of north Britain. Gildas, admittedly a biased observer, described both the Picts and Dál Riata in the 6th century as ‘wandering thieves who had no taste for war’ and ‘in perfect accord in their greed for bloodshed’. But from the annals we can begin to piece together a different picture in which kings sought to both extend and formalise the extent of their territories. Aedán mac Gabráin is a classic example of a warlord. Overlord of Dál Riata from 574, by land and sea he successfully campaigned against Pictland for many years (as far north as Orkney) and against the Angles, until in 603 he was defeated at Degsastan, somewhere in Northumbria. Clearly sea-routes, waterways and Roman roads were commonly employed to transport large forces over considerable distances. At the height of their powers the Pictish authorities must have been able to call on significant nautical abilities to retain their authority, but these proved to be no match for the superior nautical technology of the Vikings (Lamb 1993).

The inheritance of kingdoms was usually hotly contested by rival kin groups, which, due to intermarriage, might also include eligible foreigners. Power centres had a defensive capacity and were targeted for siege, capture and burning, and the terse accounts of these events – for example, ‘683 Siege of Dundurn’ – may be scribal shorthand for shifts in the distribution of authority and peoples associated with these power centres. Certainly, it is hard to imagine that monks would have recorded anything less significant, unless it was simply to catalogue the iniquities of their secular contemporaries for their own, sanctimonious, purposes. However, most combat is likely to have taken place away from the power centres, where the space was available for set-piece battles, whether at sea or on land, both of which are documented.

Pictish currach

Battles at sea

The Romans described both the feared Picts and Dál Riata as sea-raiders, and the latter clearly continued to use the seaways for communication, trade and attack. Vegetius, a 4th-century Roman writer, describes camouflaged scout-boats – with sails, ropes and 20 rowers – which have sometimes been attributed to the Picts, although the evidence is slender. The earliest specific reference to a sea-battle in the British Isles refers to a battle between the Cenél Loairn and Cenél nGabráin in 719. Yet as early as the 580s Aedán mac Gabráin was already campaigning in Orkney and the Isle of Man. Both the Picts and Dál Riata could clearly muster large fleets: 150 Pictish ships were wrecked in 729 and Burghead is a strong contender for a naval base. Seafaring was therefore both a normal and an essential component of life, as testified by Adomnán’s reference to at least 55 separate journeys in his account of Columba’s life. We are also frequently reminded of the perils of the sea: ‘Failbe … the successor of Maelrubai of Applecross, was drowned in the deep sea with his sailors, twenty-two in number’. The Dál Riata would also have been familiar with merchant ships from southern Britain, Gaul, and perhaps the Mediterranean, which were bringing imported goods to their shores. The use of and familiarity with boats can be easily under-estimated because no ships survive. Yet the few documentary sources, in tandem with wider evidence for the long-distance contacts that people clearly had at this time, suggests that travel over considerable distances, and presumably in well-constructed ships, was fairly commonplace.

On the basis of Adomnán’s descriptions, some of the Dál Riata ships could be large (carrying more than 20 people) and, while all used oars, the largest could also be fitted with a mast and sail. As to the construction of the boats, the monks of Iona acquired pine and oak for a longa navis, (‘long ship’). We do not know if any boats were made exclusively of timber, but this seems likely to have been the case. Skin-covered currachs, a form of construction that by then already had a pedigree in Ireland of about 4,000 years, were undoubtedly common.

Far less is known about Pictish boats (Crumlin-Pederson 2010). For travel in inland waters, the occasional early historic log-boat has been recognised. In contemporary Ireland there is evidence for the heightening of such dug-outs by the addition of timber strakes. Otherwise, boats may have been skin-covered, although the double-ended, mastless rowing-boat carved on the St Orland’s cross-slab (89) appears to be clinker-built – with overlapping planks – and the boat carved on the cave wall at Jonathan’s Cave, East Wemyss, also looks to be wooden. Competent sketches of boats, including masted examples, are also found on various stones from Jarlshof, Shetland, possibly also Burness, Orkney (Johnstone 1988; O’Meadhra 1993; Ritchie 1997).

Battles on land

When it comes to the nature of fighting on land, we know almost as little. There are no detailed accounts to match that provided by Tacitus of Agricola’s victory over the Britons at Mons Graupius in 83. Here the allied forces of the British tribes included chariots and foot-soldiers (who fought with huge swords for slashing and carried small shields). The Gododdin gives little away about early historic battle tactics or weapon-handling and few weapons themselves survive (unlike in neighbouring Bernicia, where pagan warriors were buried with them). Fraser (2002) has vividly reconstructed within the limits of available evidence the finer details of the Battle of Dunnichen, in a historical, political and physical sense. Few weapons survive, although there is a notable collection from Dunadd and manufacturing evidence for knobbed spearbutts is now assigned to the mid 1st millennium (Heald 2001). The sculpted stones provide greater detail, with their depictions of spears, axes, decorated shields (both square and round) and swords. Crossbows, as shown on a number of sculptures, were probably only used in hunting. The St Ninian’s Isle chapes and sword pommel and the evidence from Norrie’s Law for silver-mounted ceremonial weapons demonstrate just how richly embellished such objects might be. The association of kings with such high-status objects is reinforced by the imagery of kings on the St Andrews Sarcophagus, the imposing mounted warrior on Constantine’s Cross with his possible sceptre, and on the Forteviot arch, where Joanna Close-Brooks suggests that the main figure may be holding a sword across his knees. The last reference to the use of chariots was in the early 3rd century, but carefully bred horses are likely to have been an essential component of warfare: for transport to and from battle, for the military posturing that undoubtedly preceded action, and for battle itself. The majority of soldiers probably fought on foot, with battle on horseback limited to kings and nobles, as illustrated in the cartoon-like battle scene on the back of the Aberlemno 2 cross-slab, in which one warring side apparently chases another, they meet, and one leader on horseback kills the other: glory for the Picts, whoever their enemy (Henderson and Henderson 2004).

The aim of much of this aggression was first to acquire a given area and then to assert authority, perhaps extending it to neighbouring territories. In pursuit of this ambition, highly mobile armies and fleets covered considerable distances. The loyalty and/or submission of the pacified local leaders was paramount, by their deaths if need be. If not on the battlefield, this might take the form of drowning, a ritual practice first attested in Gaul. The Pictish kings are recorded drowning enemy leaders in 734 and 739. Decapitation may also have been practised, as depicted on Sueno’s Stone (Moray).

To ensure that these redefined political relationships were maintained and upheld by the regular submission of tribute, high-status hostages were often taken by the victors and presumably detained at power centres. It was also traditional for kings to marry the sisters and daughters of other kings and to transfer the upbringing of their children to foster parents in different lineages, the intention being that concerns about the safety of their children would deter aggression, although this ploy did not always succeed.

One of the key points to note is how such shifts in authority revolved around the personal ambitions of key individuals – the kings and territorial lords – and how unstable and short-lived any political liaisons might actually be. No matter how a king died – whether violently or in his bed – there was always enormous competition among rivals to be his successor.


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