The Picts – are you one of the 10%?
Today we are going to take a look at some early Scottish history – very early! The Picts, from the Latin word for “painted”, presumed to be in reference to their body art such as tattoos, were an indigenous tribal race living in Scotland during the late Iron Age and Early Celtic Medieval periods. They are generally viewed as a mysterious and enigmatic group who have left very little other than their beautiful stone carvings behind for us to interpret. Researchers have never been able to decipher the limited amount of Pictish written language discovered, though it can be presumed they did speak and write Latin as well, due to their involvement with the early Christian church, but their own name for themselves remains unknown. Historical records describing the Picts have always been shown through another races perspective, and despite recent discoveries implying that up to 10% of all Scottish born men are directly descended from the Picts much remains unknown about them – although more is now coming to light about their art, culture and religion.
As noted above, the Picts are best known for their intricate stone carvings. Around 250 of these have been discovered around Scotland, many of them still in their original sites, mainly in East Central Scotland, where they can visited by the public. These stones show a distinctive form related to the La Téne style of artwork, with curving lines and recurring motifs such as the Pictish Beast or geometric patterns such as the double disc, or crescent and V-rod, which have not only been found on works of high art, but also on domestic items such as jewellery and bowls. Although the full meaning behind these is not fully understood, it is evident from the sheer numbers of repeated motifs that these symbols held a great deal of meaning for the Picts. Archaeologists also infer that these may also have been used on clothing and in tattoo designs. It has been conjectured that these symbols may have functioned as a type of written language separate from ‘ogham’, the runic style alphabet which was commonly used. These artistic carvings may actually represent inscribed words, such as the names of either the people who created the items, or the upper classes to whom they were dedicated.
Many of the artistic endeavours undertaken by the Picts have relevance to early Christianity in Scotland, many Christian crosses were carved with Pictish designs and scenes, one particularly detailed example is the bas-relief style cross at Meigle, Angus showing stylised animals and dating from the 9th century. Prior to conversion to Christianity however, the Picts followed a type of Celtic paganism common to many similar groups in Ireland, Wales and France at that time. The religion was characterised by a devotion to a large pantheon of gods and goddesses, as well as animistic beliefs, which is to say a belief that inanimate items such as rocks and trees are possessed of spirits and capable of being communicated with. Ancient standing stones were sometimes inscribed with Pictish art, in the same way they would later decorate Christian crosses, implying a shared reverence for some of the same sites as earlier settlements, and “axe” wielding figures on other stones have been interpreted as depictions of priests or other important religious figures. Burial rites are often examined in an attempt to understand a society; however with the Picts these are once again mysterious. Some burial sites have been located, but burial does not seem to have been a common practice, and use of items such as coffins is practically unknown before Christian conversion, and links between the placement of symbol stones and burial sites has also been elusive.
Likewise have their home settlements been difficult to identify, due in large part to the propensity for using materials such as wood and turf in Southern settlements. However, several Pictish strongholds and forts have been found, and these remains have provided a lot of information about the people who used them. Inter-family relationships were important politically among the upper classes and as a result marriage was highly valued in Pictish society. A further explanation of the symbols on stones possibly referring to the elite class members is that they may work as a family signifier, like coats of arms, and combinations of symbols could indicate important marriages among these families. The Picts were mostly a farming tribe, with depictions of cattle, sheep and other domestic animals common, and it is known that they cultivated grains and other plants for sustenance also, some particularly lovely stone engravings show hunting and fishing scenes and wild game would also have been important to tribal Picts. Although fish are shown, boats were rarely engraved – in fact only one depiction still exists of a Pictish carving of a boat! From this archaeologists inferred that sea-faring life was not very important to the Picts, but strangely it is confirmed that the Picts were in fact very adept at sailing, even building a reputation as pirates, or at other times sea-going merchants!
As can be seen, for every question answered about the Picts several more new questions crop up – and many questions will probably never be answered! In any case, what little we do know about these highly creative, industrious and successful early Scots is fascinating to say the least! The fact that through the veins of one in ten Scottish men today flows the blood of these contradictory Celts, yet we still understand so little about them and their lives is itself frustratingly captivating! So, what do our readers think? Does anyone have some more interesting historical tidbits we may have missed? Or perhaps you have found out that you are one of the “ten per cent”? As always, we look forward to your comments!