The Pictish Nation


With his deep interest in archaeology , Edward Carson orientated towards the “Pictish” origins of the British people, while, as an Ulster Scot,  James Craig wrote about Dalriada…As a boy my father bought for me The Pictish Nation, its people and its Church by Archibald B. Scott published in September 1918 by T. N. Foulis of Edinburgh and London, Boston, Australasia, Cape Colony and Toronto.  It was printed in Scotland by R & R Clarke Limited of Edinburgh.  The author dedicated his book to his father and mother and to the memory of his youngest brother who died, in 1916, of wounds inflicted in action and sleeps in France with other comrades of the 1st Cameron Highlanders. This wonderful book was my introduction to the Picts. We do not now use the term “Irish Picts”, since that term is reserved for Northern Britain. Rather both peoples were Pretani or in Gaelic “Cruthin”. And although they originally spoke a non Celtic tongue, as is attested by the name Islay, they came to speak a language akin to Brittonic, now called Pretanic, prior to Gaelic, Scots and then English.

Rev Scott had not spent the years of his ministry in the heart of ancient Pictland in vain.  He produced a careful and minute study of the annals of the Pictish nation and church and gave us a picture of what the Picts achieved that was much valued by all who were interested in early church history.  The ancient and accepted authorities were examined with great skill and much fresh light was thrown upon the history of this branch of the British church.  But most interesting was the chapter dealing with the conflict between Picts and Vikings and the exposure of Teutonic methods in the eighth century.    It shows how permanent are the characteristics of a people.  Not for many years had such a notable bit of original historical work come from a Scottish manse.

In Chapter 4, The Literature of the Picts, Rev Scott wrote: “No scrap of Pictish literature ever existed”  Such was the ill-founded decision of an accepted Scottish historian. Yet in the Irish Nennius reference is made to the Books of the Picts. “As it is written in the Books of the Cruitneach”  It was an audacious deliverance to make to a generation which had seen the literary treasures of Europe greatly enriched by the manuscripts from the libraries of the famous Celtic monasteries founded, one at  Bobbio by S.Columbanus, the other at St Gall in Switzerland by S.Gall.  Both founders were Pictish scholars educated by S. Comgall the Great at Bangor in Ulster, the chief centre of learning among the Irish Picts. 

The Rev Scott goes on to say that S. Gall was born about 545 AD in the ancient territories of the northern Irish Picts, in the north of modern Leinster and more specifically in the north of Louth on the modern Ulster Border.  Louth of course is in modern Leinster but in ancient Ulster.  He says that in an old manuscript from the St Gall library his father’s name was given as Kethernac MacUnnchun.  His own name meant “Stranger”.  Kethern was the name of one of the early Pictish heroes and Dr Reeves  states that he was the race of Ir, progenitor of one branch of the “Irish Picts”.  Ir was the sovereign of Ireland. Although we are now told not to use the term “Irish Pict”, though Cardinal O’Fiaich himself used it, I am happy to use the term Cruthin (Pretani) for both the inhabitants of Ulster and of North Britain.

As far as the nickname Gall or stranger is concerned it probably derives from the old continental Celtic tribe the Volcae a name which as Wolch and later Wälsch meant “stranger” or “foreigner” to their German neighbours, whose Anglo-Saxon descendants applied the derivative Wealas to the Britons in general.  Those in Strathclyde were once called Straecled Wealas and Ptolemy’s Cornovii had migrated to south-west Britain, where they were known as Corn WealasWalh can be found in Old High German walhisk  meaning “Roman”, in Old English wilisc meaning “Romano-British” and in Old Norse as valskr  meaning “French”. Thus the term was used by the ancient Germanic peoples to describe inhabitants of the former Roman Empire who were largely romanised and spoke Celtic and later Latin languages. resulting in Welsche in Eary New High German and Modern German as the exonym for all Romanic speakers. In Ireland we have the personal names Welsh, Walsh and Wallace…

 And of course the Volcae Tectosages  became the “foolish Galatians” of the New Testament.


“A HISTORY of the Nation and Church of the Picts” is centuries overdue. Others have contemplated the task; but they shrank from it almost as soon as they began to enter the maze of deliberately corrupted versions of ancient manuscripts, of spurious memoranda introduced into ancient documents, of alleged donations to Gaidheals or Scots of what had been Pictish property, and of fabulous claims to great antiquity made for pretended missions of the Church of Rome to the Britons, the Picts, and the Scots. To these the late Dr. Wm. F. Skene referred when he stated, in spite of his regard for the Scotic ecclesiastics, that ‘ the fictitious antiquity’ given by Roman ecclesiastics to the settlement of the Scots is accompanied by ‘a supposed introduction of Christianity, by Roman agents, equally devoid of historic foundation.’

Several mediaeval fabricators of early history are now known and have been exposed. The late Bishop Forbes timidly drew attention to the fabulists employed by the prelates of Armagh, York, and Glasgow, in the interests of their Sees and the claims of their Churches to antiquity and primacy. These fabulists were sometimes more honest under one employer than under another. When Joceline wrote up the Life of S. Patrick for Armagh, he was much less scrupulous than when he elaborated the ancient Life of S. Kentigern; because in the latter instance he retained much that is valuable from the original which was before him.

Consequently, in writing an Introduction to the History of the Nation and Church of the Picts, the research and patience have at times been exacting. It has not only been necessary, where possible, to get back to ungarbled original sources, or fragments of sources; but, where these have perished, to collect and to compare versions drawn up from motives not often historical, and then by critical examination, and elimination of what might turn out to be mutually destructive, or unconfirmed, to get close up to what had been before the author of the version.

Although, for example, there is more than one version of the original Pictish Chronicle-, it is not difficult for an equipped and experienced student to isolate what now remains of the original, or at least of the oldest versions, and even to tell the dialects of Celtic in which the latter were written. The mediaeval hands that wrote introduction or added information to this Chronicle have not always revealed their actual identity like the York copyist of the most valuable of the manuscripts, Robert de Popilton; but it is nearly always possible to tell where they wrote, with what motive they wrote, and to identify the source or sources of their additions, when they had any.

In connection with the critical examination and comparison of documents, and the identification of places, referred to under their ancient names, the author is indebted to many correspondents and librarians both at home and abroad. The history of the Pictish Nation and Church does not provide a mere pastime for antiquaries. It has a modern interest and value, especially to a world which in these past years has been compelled to contrast the spirit of the Teutons with the soul of the Celtic eoples, and to ask the explanation of the moral gulf between. Men have learned in these latter days that Culture and Civilization devoted to materialistic ideals, though wearing Christianity hypocritically as a mask, may suddenly plunge back into primaeval savagery. The appreciation of the Celtic soul is more likely to grow than to wane, because it has a natural affinity for the spiritual and moral ideals of decent men and women.

The Picts cherished Culture and Civilization as means to attain moral ideals. They believed in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men, and strove that personal and communal righteousness should be recognized as necessities of life and progress. The memories of the heroic Pictish Christian leaders proclaim to the modern Church that it is false to Christ, if it does not take pains to secure that His Spirit pervades human life and governs human action. Put another way, neither sincerity of assent to theological dogmas nor abject submission to alleged apostolic traditions cantake the place of individual conformity to the moral standard of life set up by Jesus Christ in Himself as the abiding rule for all mankind. A study of the Pictish Church cannot but have a rousing effect on the modern Church with its materialistic ideals of success; calling it back from the idolatry of Mammon, and from theological to ethical and evangelical standards.

At the time when the Picts ceased to continue as an undiluted people, independent, organized, under their own native sovereigns, they were no effete and decadent nation. They were the same indomitable soldiers that their fathers had been when freedom, home, and country were assailed. They knew that their ancestors had thwarted and baffled the legions of Imperial Rome, and had swept them behind the Wall of Antonine which remained a standing monument to their triumph. They remembered ‘ Dun-Nechtain,’ and how their fathers had smashed the last great army which the first Teutons sent into Pictland that they might complete the conquest of Britain, and how they had left but a handful of fugitives to reach the safe side of the same Wall of Antonine. That liberty and the maintenance of their own nation were still Pictish ideals in the eighth century is seen in the way that the Pictish people arose to throw back into the sea the second Teuton inrush, known as the Viking invasions. If they failed, it was through no cowardice.”

Reverend Scott’s book in full is available to download on

Comments are closed.