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Pict Resources and References

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The earliest record we have of the word "Pict" describing a group of people in Britain comes from a poem by Eumenius dated A.D. 297, which mentions the "Picti" along with the "Hiberni" as enemies of the "Britanni".  Although this sets up a contrast between Picts and Britons, it implies nothing more than a Romanized/non-Romanized distinction. The word "picti" is most often understood as a plural of the Latin participle "pictum" from the verb "pingo" "to paint; to dye or color; to decorate". This is usually interpreted in the light of Julius Caesar's comment "All the 'Britanni' paint themselves with woad which produces a bluish coloring.' Other, later, classical writers repeat this claim, often narrowing the application to inhabitants of the northern part of Britain and making reference to "puncturing" rather than "painting". The popular interpretation that developed might best be summed up by the early 7th century description by Isidore of Seville who says that the Picts take their name "from the fact that their bodies bear designs pricked into their skins by needles".

But in interpreting these comments, it must be understood that the classical "anthropological" tradition involved a great deal of repeating and interpreting the claims of earlier writers, and extremely little direct observation and eye-witness report. An example of the pseudo-history repeated by Bede claims a Scythian origin for the Picts, but this seems no more than an attempt to connect them with another people described in classical writings as "Picti". Other pseudo-histories carefully list wanderings and emigrations of "the Picts" that would connect them with every place or ethnic name resembling "pict" (such as the Pictones of Gaul, whose name became modern Poictou) and every mention of skin-painting or tattooing. A great deal of the material repeated by Isidore and Bede and similar writers is demonstrably false. Other parts can be corroborated by archaeological methods. But any use of this sort of material must involve several large grains of salt. Of all the early writers that mention "painting", only Caesar seems to have been an eye-witness, and his observations would have been concerned with the inhabitants of southern Britain, the Celtic peoples that he explicitly calls "Britanni".

Writers from the 3rd century on (and especially from the mid-4th century on) make reference to Picts as a people living in the north of Britain as contrasted with other identifiable ethnic groups such as Hiberni, Scotti, Saxones, Britanni. An early 4th century reference notes "the Caledones and other Picts" (although it is technically possible to interpret the Latin as "the Caledones, the Picts, and others"); Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century) describes the Picts as divided into two groups, the "Dicalydones" and "Verturiones". Bede, writing in the 8th century, describes four peoples as living in Britain, the Britons, Picts, Scots, and Angles. (Wainwright pp.2-3) So whatever the name may originally have meant (and there are some theories that it is a Latinization of some native name), there was an identifiable ethnic group in the north to whom this name was regularly applied. The earliest chronicles of "Scotland" (used in the loose sense of "the north of Britain") also make reference to an identifiable ethnic group called "Picts" and give several lists of "kings of the Picts".

Another sense in which we can understand "Pictish" is from the place names.   From the earliest Roman records of pesonal and place names in Britain, it is clear that the vast majority of those names (and thus, presumably, the language of the vast majority of the inhabitants) are Celtic, although of several strata of migrations. However, in the north, there is fragmentary evidence of names that do not appear to be of Celtic origin. Some of the personal names appearing in the lists of "kings of the Picts" also appear to be non-Celtic, although many are clearly of Celtic origin. Additionally, there are Ogham inscriptions from the north that include names and name formulas that are consistant with those in the Pictish king-lists, but that are otherwise indecipherable. (By "indecipherable" I mean primarily that the letters, interpreted according to the usual Ogham correspondences, form words that are not understandable as any known language, although there are also problems with deciphering the letters themselves due to damage and wear.)

From all of this, it is at least convenient, if not necessarily completely correct, to lump all the "non-Celtic" evidence from the north of Britain under the label "Pictish". In the case of the earliest place-names, it is perfectly possible that there are also remnants of unrelated non-Celtic, non- "Pictish" languages that left no other trace or comment in the record. For the sake of accuracy, this should be acknowledged, but from a practical viewpoint, there is no reason not to lump all the non-Celtic material into one consideration.

Of the non-Celtic element in Pictish, the best conclusion is that it is a remnant of one of the languages prevalent in Europe before the spread of the Indo-European language family. Basque is the only remnant of this type surviving today, although there are early records of others, such as Etruscan, that did not survive. (Other modern non-Indo- European languages such as the Finno-Ugric group arrived later than the Indo-European spread.) For this reason, some writers relate Pictish to Basque directly.

There is also speculation that the Welsh culture and Welsh language have a great deal of similarities to the Basque and Pictish cultures and languages. This has lead many to believe that the Welsh Mystery Religion of Witchcraft owes a great deal to the Picts and The Basques.




Here is a Pict reading list which contains important books on the Picts and Pictish topics. These are the best introductory texts available:



The Picts emerged as a distinct group about 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, most of the knowledge about their culture comes from written descriptions, archeological finds and speculation derived from folklore, legends and dubious history.

Anderson, A.O., Early Sources of Scottish History: AD 1200-1206., Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd. 1922.

Anderson, M.O., Kings and Kingship in Early Scotland.    Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. 1973.

Birley, A. R. Life in Roman Britain,  London, 1964.

Burn, A.R. The Romans in Britain: an Anthology of Inscriptions. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.

Burt, J.R.F. A Pictish Bibliography. Forfar: Pinkfoot Press. 1997.

Chadwick, H.M. Early Scotland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

Close-Brooks, Joanna. Pictish and Other Burials. Pictish Studies Ed. J.C.P. Friell and W.G. Watson. BAR Series 125. 1984.

Close-Brooks, Joanna. Pictish Stones in Dunrobin Castle Museum . Derby: Pilgrim Press. 1989.

Crawford, Barbara. Earl & Mormaer: Norse-Pictish relationships in Northern Scotland. Rosemarkie: Groam House. 1995.

Cruikshank, Graham. The Battle of Dunnichen. Pinkfoot Press. 1991.

Cummins, W.A.; The Age of the Picts,   1995.  This is a good introductory book containing general information.  It includes a Pictish Chronology, The United Kingdom of the Picts, The Female Royal Line and answers two important questions.  What were the Picts? and Who were the Scots?   It explains why Scotland could have been called Pictland

Curle, C.L. Pictish and Norse finds from the Brough of Birsay 1934-74.

Foster, Sally. Picts, Gaels and Scots. London: Historic Scotland/B.T. Batsford. 1996.

Gilbert, Inga. The Symbolism of the Pictish Stones in Scotland. Dorchester. 1995.

Henderson, Isabel. The Picts. London: Thames and Hudson, 1967.

Henderson, Isabel. The Art & Function of Rosemarkie's Pictish Monuments. Rosemarkie: Groan House. 1989, 1991.

Henry, David (editor). The Worm, the Germ and the Thorn: Pictish and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson. Forfar: Pinkfoot Press. 1997.

Jackson, Anthony. The Pictish Trail. Orkney: Orkney Press, 1989.

Jackson, Anthony. The Symbol Stones of Scotland. Orkney: Orkney Press, 1989.

Laing, Lloyd & Jenny. The Picts and Scots. Dover, NH: Alan Sutton. 1993.

Mack, Allistair. Field Guide to the Pictish Symbol Stones. Forfar: Pinkfoot Press. 1997.

Nicoll, Eric(editor). Pictish Panorama. Forfar: Pinkfoot Press. 1997.

Peterson, Edward. The Message of Scotland's Symbol Stones. Aberuthven: PCD Ruthven Books, 1996.

Pictish Arts Society. Proceedings of the Pictish Arts Society Conferences. Edinburgh. 1992, 1993-4.

Ralston, Ian & Inglis, Jim. Foul Hordes: The Picts in the North East. Univ. of Aberdeen. 1984.

Ritchie, Anna. Picts. Edinburgh: HMSO, 1989.

Ritchie, Anna. Perceptions of the Picts: from Eumenius to John Buchan. Rosemarkie: Groam House. 1994

Southesk, Earl of. Origins of Pictish Symbolism. Edinburgh. 1893.

Skene, William F. Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and other Early Memorials of Scottish History. Edinburgh: H.M. General Register House, 1867.

Small, Alan, ed. The Picts: A New Look at an Old Problem. Dundee. 1987

Smyth, Alfred. Warlords and Holy Men. Edinburgh: University Press. 1984, 1989.

Stevenson, John. Pictish Symbol Stones (Discovering Historic Scotland Series). Scotland. 1998.

Sutherland, Elizabeth. Pictish Guide. Scotland: Dufour Editions. 1995

Wainwright, F. T. ed. The Problem of the Picts. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1955.


There are several sites related to Pictish traditions with more coming online all the time. Some sites maintain excellent links to the best Pictish web pages.pictish serpent




  • The Pictish Chronicle





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