Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word

Is it? That’s the question. I’ve been bothered by this question for a long time, as you know if you’ve been reading a while. We talk of the Picts as a people but much suggests that they were many peoples. That’s hardly surprising, given the way that kingdoms in England and Ireland were forming at the same time, but I’m never sure that it gets into the historiography enough, or that we make the material culture a big enough part of the differentiation. And since I got into this job I’ve been meaning to use it to make me write something—I have in fact written a first draft, if a piece of writing you do to direct the research rather than one that you in the light of it counts as a draft rather than a policy document—trying to make those concerns into a coherent argument.

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

Distribution map of brochs, forts and souterrains in Scotland, from Martin Carver's Surviving in Symbols: a visit to the Pictish nation (1995), p. 12

This keeps getting harder. Firstly, as I delay, people like Nick Evans, James Fraser and Alex Woolf close down the angles, so that my point gets smaller and smaller (and more like the few bits of my first Picts paper I still stand by, which means there’s little point in saying them again). Secondly, people like Alex Woolf—in fact, exactly like Alex Woolf, with whom I had the good fortune to discuss this at Leeds and then again here just a few days ago when he presented here, both of which I will record eventually—keep coming up with things that just make me think I’m wrong, or at least that I have to think some more. It may turn out that I actually don’t have anything useful to say. And then thirdly, there’s the actual evidence, brought freshly before me by teaching as well as research. A lot of the distribution maps that were crucial in the original ‘Pictland should be plural’ post of 2008 just don’t make the case I originally thought they should. Partly this is because a lot of the symptoms of cultural production are clustered where there’s agriculturally-useful lowland, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. But also it’s because more stuff keeps turning up, and that was originally the point of this post when I began it as a stub in July. The thing is that as with most of my links posts, by the time I finally write it up there’s about twice as much as I’d originally expected, but with Pictish archaeology you’d not expect that so much. Even so:


1. On the Beast, you can find sage musings and collected references in Craig Cessford, “Pictish Art and the Sea” in The Heroic Age Vol. 8 (2005), http://www.heroicage.org/issues/8/cessford.html, last modified 27 July 2005 as of 10 November 2011, §§9-16, though I personally hold out for it being the Loch Ness monster as any right-thinking person would, what with the impeccable contemporary literary evidence for Nessie in the period

2. J. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 1 (Edinburgh 2009), pp. 94-111.

3. Mind you, if that there wall is part of a curved structure it must have been HUGE. There’s no more curvature visible in that picture to me than I might expect as a lens artefact. I can see why it’s the broch that’s getting all the attention.

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36 responses to “Picts in many places, if ‘Picts’ is the word

  1. Loch Ness Monster my foot. The Beast is obviously a coati.

  2. That’s the one. Not a bad depiction if the artist had never actually seen one.

  3. highlyeccentric

    This is a comment of no substance for the purpose of noting that I read, and found it interesting.

  4. Nicole Alexander

    Jonathan, I found your blog post very intriguing. Can you recommend any good, commonly available sources on the Picts? I’m specifically interested in the people of the Gododdin in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. They will figure heavily in my next novel and I’m having a hard time finding sources that say more than “well, we don’t really know much about the Picts.”

    • Well, the Gododdin are even worse to follow up than the Picts! But there the best current guide (indeed the only) would be Tim Clarkson’s The Men of the North (his publisher’s site‘s down, so that link goes to a review by fellow-blogger Michelle of Heavenfield). Tim’s also done a book called The Picts (Stroud: Tempus 2008, 2nd edn. 2010), which disgracefully I own but haven’t yet read. There is a bit more competition here, anyway, and I would recommend from what I have read Lloyd Laing & Jenny Laing, The Picts and the Scots (Dover: Sutton 1993) and Leslie Alcock’s Kings & Warriors, Craftsmen & Priests in Northern Britain AD 500-800 (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2003). The latter two are more material-culture oriented, both by archaeologists, and Alcock refuses to attempt a narrative at all; if a narrative rather than a ‘feel’ is what you need, then Tim may be more help though as I say I can’t speak with experience about that book yet. There is also James Fraser’s From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (Edinburgh: EUP 2009), which does do more of a narrative but is hard going for the novice to the field… Both he and Alcock, however, include Britons, Picts and Angles altogether as one history of many peoples, which may be useful to you looking at the Gododdin. Anyway, that’s probably enough. If you actually mean sources, however, rather than writing about the sources, chime in again and I’ll come up with some recommendations there too.

      • Nicole Alexander

        Thank you so much! I’ll be sure to include you in my acknowledgements for this book as someone who has helped me. I’m going to go look those books up now. I read the Laing & Laing book years ago from the library, but I think I need a refresher and my own copy now that I have a specific plotline in mind. Right now I’m just interested in writing about the sources, but if you feel like commenting on the sources themselves, I’m always open to suggestions. Again, thank you!

        • Well, sources: much of the Irish written material can be found in its critical editions on the website of the Corpus of ELectronic Texts at the University of Cork; that will get you the Irish Annals and so forth in their various incarnations, as well as a text of the Life of St Columba, and Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews has a whole bunch of Dark Age British full-text resources on his site that include the Annales Cambriae, the Historia Brittonum and the Pictish king-lists and Harleian genealogies. So you can get at a vast bulk of the material in good editions without leaving the computer, although I would recommend the Penguin Classics version of the Life of St Columba anyway because Richard Sharpe’s commentary is really really useful. For the archaeology, though, you’d best be guided by Alcock, I would suggest.

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  6. It constantly amazes me that after umpty years of digging stuff up, we keep finding great examples. Excellent Pictish beast :)

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  8. Hello Johnathan,if I was to engage you in a conversation about “red indians of America” you would,no doubt,being a student seeking the truth of things,correct me by using the term native Americans.
    So I am amazed to find even so called experts refering to” picts”.The word was meant by the Romans as a descriptive word for the forces they were confronted by.
    I have no regard also for Roman written accounts concerning the north british tribes so I hope in your enquiries you can break with the “experts” and seek out all new evidence.
    The creature in the stone carving is a stylised sea creature part porpoise part seal.regards.

    • I even have trouble with the term `native Americans’, since it implies the same kind of indigeneity as some people in Scotland claim for the Picts, the very first humans on location. However, the fact that the Irish also picked up the word Pict as Pecht and that there are these place-names in ‘Pet-’ and ‘Pit-’ has led some historians to hypothesize that the word ‘Pict’ was not a Roman coining per se but a Latinization of a native term. I’m not sure I buy that myself but to me the deciding fact is that by the seventh and eighth centuries it was what the groups, or at least the groups’ rulers, called themselves, or seem to have done. I think that makes it OK to use whatever its origins, if the people I’m writing about used it of themselves, don’t you?

  9. Yes: it’s clear that (as James Fraser said at Leeds), the Picts referred to themselves as Picts by the 7th/8th century, for whatever reason. The place-names could as easily belong then as earlier, I suspect. For the Roman period (assuming, although we don’t know one way or the other, that the picti did not refer to themselves by that name) I don’t know what other term you could use. Just an italicised ‘picti’ (without capital), in the same way as I refer to trans Rhenan barbarians as ‘Germani’? Pritani perhaps? If you are looking for names, I don’t know what other evidence there might be.

  10. Marshall Lock

    “at least the group,s rulers,called themselves,or SEEM TO HAVE DONE.”
    Sorry,bit “wooly” that one,and it stems directely from Roman not Irish.Probably they reacted much like the Welsh to others use of that term.Thanks anyway I will keep searching for something more apt.

    • It’s woolly because it’s accurate. The fact that all Irish and Anglo-Saxon texts that mention a people in what is now Highland Scotland call them either Picti or a vernacular version of that term (or, admittedly, Cruithni, but then that is just as Latin a term at base), and note their rulers as rex pictorum at their deaths, coupled with the fact that that was also the title used of Kenneth mac Alpin and several of his descendants, not just in the same sort of sources but lists of kings actually compiled in Scotland, is about as good as evidence can get given the absence of any written material at all from inside Pictland before that. It’s not conclusive but you almost certainly won’t find anything better; people have been looking for a long time If you were interested in reading something about this I’d recommend starting with Marjorie Anderson’s “Picts – the name of the people” in A. Small (ed.), The Picts: a new look at old problems (Edinburgh 1987), pp. 7-14. At the moment I’m at something of a loss to know how, if you pay no regard to the Latin sources for the North British peoples, you can have an opinion about what they meant by the term. Do feel free to tell us your sources too!

  11. Marshall Lock

    In answer to your query of my disregard of Latin sources..it is because I am interested in my own ancestors from their understanding of themselves, not some rag bag fragments of propaganda for Roman consumption.
    I became interested in this subject when I bought 4vols History of the Highlands James Browne 1850,some years ago,his Preliminary Dissertation I thought very interesting.
    I am now attempting to read From Caledonia etc by James E. Fraser 2009.but as you know it,s a hard read..”.nuf sed”.
    I use the term picts because I have to ,dont I? But I ,naively perhaps,expected historians to have found out more in the 161 years from James Browns ponderings in his ,to my mind,masterful work.
    I live in Orkney and as such I am reminded every waking hour of the fantastic legacy our ancestors gave us not least because we have a small lively history group.In talking one evening about how the Scottish nation had been abused in the past (Romans,English haha) a question was raised that no one could ,with confidence answer,Who were our ancestors? before the outside world invaded us ,so foolishly I offered to “go on the net” and find out more.
    I don,t seek to be insulting to historians in general but I could be of many who continue in ignoring parts of history they find difficult,and instead of silent diligent further research, perpetuate myths,unthruths and personal elevation among their peers.
    I feel historians are not taking advantage of this amazing swell of interest in “where do I come from”…especially in the Scottish nation with all the concerns about independence……thanks for your time regards Marshall Lock

    • Aha, fair enough. I am usually pessimistic about the chances of tracking ancestry back much further than the start of parish registers, which leaves a good few centuries to cover to get back to this period! The main reason we haven’t found out more is, of course, the very poor survival of evidence; we are all essentially trying to agree on what the jigsaw looked like with only a quarter of its pieces available.

      Have you encountered the Pictish Arts Society? It’s a long time since I had much to do with them, but when I did they certainly had some people involved who had very much the kind of interest you express above in this period. They are as you can see not great at keeping a website updated but as far as I know still functioning.

      As for Fraser’s book, well yes, I have some thoughts about that which may well make a future post here, though not in the next month or so at least, given how behind I am and various other things.

  12. Neil McCaughan

    Hi Jonathan

    isn’t the difficulty resolved if one treats ‘nation’ or ‘people’ not as a state of being, but as a process? At any point in time some social groups are more or less picticised, anglicised, or eventually scoticised (sorry for those clunky expressions). There’s no reason that ‘picts’ should be required to be seated in Scotland from time immemorial, homogeneous and unchanging. Every other people has a dynamic interaction with their predecessors, neighbours and successors (and narrative arc, even if we are ignorant of it) : so did the Picts. They may not have actually called themselves Picts in antiquity, or later, but early mediaeval writers frequently resorted to ancient writers for ethnic terms, and the usage was time-hallowed. Nor are such usages necessarily derogatory : it’s a very long time since the inhabitants of the lands east of the Rhine called themselves “Germans”, but I never met one offended by the word.

    • That gets us around the name, but the question is more of whether there’s anything the name can be applied to that merits description in terms of political, cultural or ideological unity. By the eighth century people can talk about ‘the Picts’ and mean something. So, even if the name’s just a label, the problem of what it describes doesn’t go away!

      • Allan McKinley

        I’d suggest there is a reification of labels here, in that at least some commentators believe that an abstract concept such as Picts will be automatically attached to certain physical items or people. Yet Pict, regardless of whether it was used by those we conventionally label as such, was simply a concept chosen by a number of authors to describe a person or persons who seem to have been normally located in northern Britain. There is no necessary collorary to this that these authors conceived of Picts in the same way as each other or anyone else.

        That the label was applied geographically is perhaps fair, but in this case it can simply be contrasted to the other three predominant labels within Britain – Angles, Saxons (Bede’s merging of the two is, following Brooks, the exception) and Britons (in terms of practical communication Dal Riada was Ireland so the Irish/Scots can be excluded). Each group occupied a separate coast – the Britons looking west to Ireland, the Saxons south and east to the imperial bit of Europe (be it Roman or Frankish), the Angles east to the non-imperial bits of the continent and the Picts effectively staring into the void of the northern seas (I know they face Scandinavia, but no-one, however mad, has suggested direct voyages from the east coast of Scotland were possible). Interestingly the changes around 800 when the Picts came into direct contact with non-imperial Europe whilst imperial Europe expanded right up the North Sea coast seem to have coincided with changes: the Angles and Saxons became undistinguished whilst the label Picts starts to be used less and alternatives enter use.

        Beyond a word which may indicate a particular geographical-cultural location in the author’s perception (and I would not be particularly wed to that view even), use of Pict is simply a label chosen by authors. It may be artificially imposed or reflect common usage, but it was (and is) a deliberate choice.

        That said, I wouldn’t fancy trying early medieval Scottish history without use of the label.

        • Well, yes, I would have to agree (especially given the above back-and-forth) that it’s a label first and foremost, and my general feeling is akin to Leslie Alcock’s that `Pict’ in its contemporary usage meant anyone who comes when the King of Picts calls and nothing more. Still, when you say:

          Pict, regardless of whether it was used by those we conventionally label as such, was simply a concept chosen by a number of authors to describe a person or persons who seem to have been normally located in northern Britain. There is no necessary collorary to this that these authors conceived of Picts in the same way as each other or anyone else.

          it does give me pause. If these authors used the word, it was because they thought other people would understand it. I grant you that Bede’s use of Angli is at least partly meant to take that understanding and change it, and he may have had something similar going on with Picti for all we know – is it that he did actually know that Wearmouth-Jarrow’s supplicant king was only one contendor who only ruled the south-east but asserted a single nation anyway so that more importance would fall to that king and Abbot Ceolfrið in bringing the North to the Roman Easter? or was he just not welll-informed about Pictland? There’s a good early paper by Fraser about this – but there’s still got to be a recipient understanding. Otherwise he’d just be calling them Scythians still, most likely, wouldn’t he? I guess that the contemporary political formation in all its likely artficiality is what guided him here but the word choice was still presumably meant to communicate.

          • Allan McKinley

            Others would have to understand a word an author used (a fair point I managed to omit), but whether this was more than something like a reference to a cultural/geographic sphere of the type mentioned above is a different matter. Certainly there is no way of telling whether an author’s own classification of a word reflected anyone else’s, on the rare occasion we have any context. And our best provider of context, Bede was clearly deliberately programmatic and sets out his own (in my guess unique at the time) understanding of what these labels mean.

            All an authorial attribution of a label (now there’s a pseudo-intellectual way to say writing down a name) could do was reference to readers their existing knowledge of that label which might not be that of the author, unless, as with Bede (and no other early British author whom I can think of) the author sort to take control of the label and change its meaning.

            In a world of the Tribal Hidage and cenela (sorry – no accents), and possibly of Widsith, it might even be questioned if a group label even needed to be known, so long as it was recognised as a label. An interesting question would be what substantive difference would there be to our sources if rather than Pict (or Cruithne) some of them used Leonas (Widsith) or Nithwara (rationalised, probably wrongly, from the anonymous Vita Cuthberti). As with the Late-Roman Attacotti we might not be able to place these peoples ourselves, but we would have to assume that authors knew what they were doing. We’d be equally unsure about what the audience understood though, which is the key point: we think we can locate and understand Picts (maybe less now than a few years ago…) but maybe we are being fooled by multiple uses of a common label and our sources are really not talking about the same thing…

            Not sure I would want to push this argument (it makes my own work tricky if all the labels become postmodern constructs rather than reference points) but it perhaps explains some of our problems.

            • Oh, well, you know that I’m sure that Picts means several different groups and that they themselves might not have realised they could be so called or welcomed it (especially if Leslie Alcock’s hunch that it mainly meant owing military service were to be true…), that’s after all the point of the post to a extent. And I do think the label is misleading, but that’s not least because it’s being used by outsiders who largely saw the Picts as an army. So I mean, there’s an obvious analogy there: the British army in Africa in World War II. The Germans were probably not the only ones who habitually called them `English’, yet there were Scottish Highlanders and Indian auxiliaries to the fore in many an engagement… English, however, or rather British, for the immediate purposes of the observer. While our authors may indeed have been less related to common usage than we’d like (assuming such a thing could be specified), knowing their immediate purposes would probably help a lot! I suspect that for Bede, Picts are just as English were, an ecclesiastical unity, about whom he just didn’t know enough to say more. Maybe the author of the Vita Cuthberti did though! James Fraser thinks the Niduarii were a real thing, and if I recall, in fact, that they may have been an Anglo-British group led by those patricii who occasionally turn up leading armies against the Picts… I’m away from the book right now so I hope that’s right, but he has some suggestion for them, I’m sure.

              • Mark Handley

                If only to avoid upsetting all those Kiwis again, you could include New Zealanders amongst the “English” troops in North Africa, as well as the Poles and Czechs who took over from the Australians (who themselves may have included people from Papua and the Torres Strait Islands, and (oddly) many a person who saw themselves as “British”) in defending Tobruk.

                Meanwhile the “Italian” army in North Africa no doubt included Albanians and Libyans and perhaps even a few Abyssinians – not to mention many an Italian who saw themselves as Sicilian.

                To steal a phrase from the West Wing – “Identity … boy I don’t know”.

                Mark H.

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