Picts

The Aberlemno Serpent Stone, Class I Pictish stone with Pictish symbols, showing (top to bottom) the serpent, the double disc and Z-rod and the mirror and comb
19th century copy of silver plaque from the Norrie's Law hoard, Fife, with double disc and Z-rod symbol

The Picts were a confederation of Celtic language speaking peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late British Iron Age and Early Medieval periods. Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from early medieval texts and Pictish stones. Their Latin name, Picti, appears in written records from Late Antiquity to the 10th century. They lived to the north of the rivers Forth and Clyde. Early medieval sources report the existence of a distinct Pictish language, which today is believed to have been an Insular Celtic language, closely related to the Brittonic spoken by the Britons who lived to the south.

Picts are assumed to have been the descendants of the Caledonii and other Iron Age tribes that were mentioned by Roman historians or on the world map of Ptolemy. Pictland, also called Pictavia by some sources, achieved a large degree of political unity in the late 7th and early 8th centuries through the expanding kingdom of Fortriu, the Iron Age Verturiones. By 900, the resulting Pictish over-kingdom had merged with the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata to form the Kingdom of Alba (Scotland); and by the 13th century Alba had expanded to include the formerly Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde, Northumbrian Lothian, Galloway and the Western Isles.

Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, having "wide connections and parallels" with neighbouring groups.[1] Archaeology gives some impression of the society of the Picts. While very little in the way of Pictish writing has survived, Pictish history since the late 6th century is known from a variety of sources, including Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, saints' lives such as that of Columba by Adomnán, and various Irish annals.

Etymology

The term Pict is thought to have originated as a generic exonym used by the Romans in relation to people living north of the ForthClyde isthmus.[2] The Latin word Picti first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean "painted or tattooed people"[3] (from Latin pingere "to paint";[4] pictus, "painted", cf. Greek "πυκτίς" pyktis, "picture"[5]).

Pict is Pettr in Old Norse, Peohta in Old English,[a] Pecht in Scots and Peithwyr ("pict-men") in Welsh. Some think these words suggest an original Pictish root, instead of a Latin coinage.[6][7] In writings from Ireland, the name Cruthin, Cruthini, Cruthni, Cruithni or Cruithini (Modern Irish: Cruithne) was used to refer both to the Picts and to another group of people who lived alongside the Ulaid in eastern Ulster.[8] It is generally accepted that this is derived from *Qritani, which is the Goidelic/Q-Celtic version of the Britonnic/P-Celtic *Pritani.[9] From this came Britanni, the Roman name for those now called the Britons.[10]

What the Picts called themselves is unknown. It has been proposed that they called themselves Albidosi, a name found in the Chronicle of the Kings of Alba during the reign of Máel Coluim mac Domnaill, but this idea has been disputed.[11] A unified "Pictish" identity may have consolidated with the Verturian hegemony established following the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685 AD.[12]