Pictish Nation-Chapter 5


A STORY used to be current at a southern university of a student, fresh from the works of a certain historian, who declared that Pictland of Alba was a ‘ land of lakes and shallow estuaries where the people lived in crannogs.’ In Pictland certain fishing communities did live in crannogs amid the shallow waters of lakes and estuaries ; and artificial islands, planned with much engineering skill, were constructed as defendable habitations in the same areas; but the majority of the Picts had no special affection for the marshes where ague and rheumatism prevailed. The Picts, considered as a whole, were a pastoral people as is indicated by the wide range of the name Kerones, shepherds. These pastoral folk owned three precious possessions — their dog, their flocks, and their pasture. The Celtic names for these enter into the three expressions of intense love which still survive in colloquial speech. Mynghu* (S. Kentigern’s pet name), my dear one, means, literally, my dog ; m’eüdail, my kind one, means my little cattle; m’ullie, my treasure or my precious one, means my pasture.

The Picts supplemented their pastoral work by agriculture and hunting. Stone querns,the hand-mill for grinding corn still used in Eastern countries, have been recovered from hut-circles, lake-dwellings, brochs, and even from the earth-houses and caves. These querns are constructed with wonderful mechanical balance. The upper stone revolves sunwise with perfect smoothness ; but jams if revolved in the opposite direction, just as the shaped, Pictish, stone-weapons and implements, when laid on a smooth surface, can be spun sunwise successfully; but if turned contrary to the sun they wobble and refuse to revolve. Indeed, this is a test of the  genuineness of Pictish stone weapons and implements; and the most skilled modern forgers have not yet discovered the secret of this feature.

* Mochu in Gaelic. Myn is the British form of the pronoun mo, and
among the Britons and Picts gh took the place of ch, giving the form Mungo.

The Picts were enthusiastic sportsmen. On foot they hunted the deer and wild cattle with dogs and weapons. They fought the wolves in their dens. They knew the best salmon-pools in rivers; and in banks on which they watched for their prey the flint heads of their fish-spears are frequently found embedded. They were acquainted with the fishing net, and could make fish-traps of woven willow- wands which they set at the head of streamy parts of rivers. They marked the haunts of doran, the otter, whom other Celts called the ‘fish-hound.’ The number of Pictish names signifying Otters’ Bank or Otters’ Burn indicate how carefully the Picts followed the ways of this fisher ; doubtless because they knew his habit of leaving an acceptable salmon on the bank minus his favourite mouthful. In the kitchen-middens of the brochs remains of nearly all our common animals, birds, and fishes are found, together with the remains of creatures now extinct. In a grave within the area of S. Ninian’s Churchyard, Sutherland, were found, along with human bones, a flint implement and part of a palmated antler of one of the larger, extinct, deer. That the Picts were prouder of their prowess in the chase than in battle may be inferred from their carved stones which oftener show fights with beasts than with men. Their beasts of burden were the horse and the ox. For transport they used a two-wheeled cart of which a sketch has survived on one of their incised stones.

The Picts were acquainted with the working of iron and bronze. Charcoal and slag-heaps have been discovered deep in the peat at the sites of primitive iron-furnaces. Flint weapons and implements continued in use among the Picts long after they had learned to work metals. A perfectly constructed bronze swivel, which various modern artificers could imitate but badly, was found in Sutherland on the gravel, beneath the peat, beside a flint hide-scraper and a flint spearhead. The smith ranked almost as a noble among the Picts as among other Celts. His professional name is linked with many Pictish place-names. The capital of one of the principalities of Pictlandwas called ‘The Smith’s Mount.’ Dr.Carmichael’s Barra Gowan or Beregonium, capital of the Western Picts before the coining of the Dalriad Gaidheals. This worker could be called on to make any metal article from a sword or spade to a golden torque for a lady, a chief, or a poet. One of the Pictish saints had learned the smith’s craft, and one of his ‘miracles’ was the making of charcoal from reeds for the forge fire. He was brazing the plates of a Celtic handbell, and probably ‘miracle’ was the popular description of some special flux which he had discovered for uniting the metals. The remains of wood-charcoal heaps have been found in the W«»« of brochs near the excavated fire-places; although, a mile or so away, there was an outcrop of coal on the sea-beach.

The Picts were exceedingly fond of the precious metals, which they worked into torques, brooches, and other ornaments of simple but artistic designs. Amulets of pebble and serpentine, and necklaces of shale have been recovered from Pictish burial-cairns. Bronze armlets were used by men to reinforce the biceps in a thrust blow from the hand, or in a lightning sword-stroke.

The Picts knew the use of the potter’s wheel. Food-vessels as well as urns associated with the dead have been found on the sites of dwellings and in graves. The pottery is usually of a heavy type, due more to the coarse nature of the clay and inferior kilns than to want of skill on the part of the potter; because the latter frequently attempted to atone for coarse material by skilful and symmetrical ornamentation. The genuine ‘ Barvas pottery’ of comparatively recent times is primitive compared with some of the food- vessels and urns dug up on the west coast, and dating back more than a thousand years earlier. Fragments of Samian ware, found in forts and brochs, point back to Mediterranean and Gaulish traders, or to the Pictish raids into the Imperial Roman colony in Britain. Recently, while a foundation was being dug in what was formerly part of Caithness, an early Greek coin was found four feet from the surface beside encisted burials in an ancient Pictish burial-ground. If it were not for Ptolemy’s Geography and certain references of early ecclesiastical writers, we would forget that Mediterranean and Gaulish merchants visited Pictland.

Spinning, weaving, and dyeing were practised by the Picts. The carding-comb, which also may have been a dressing-comb, is theleast mysterious of the symbols carved on the stones of Pictland. Although the Pictish warriors, according to Latin and Greek authors, loved to expose the cruits or figures tattooed upon their bodies, and so fought with the minimum of clothing, knowing the benefit of laying aside every weight; they also knew how to clothe themselves comfortably, and even gaily, in time of peace. The Picts of Alba do not appear to have differed from the Picts of Ireland, who came to the battle-ground clothed, but they divested themselves of their garments before entering the fight. A king of the Gaidheals when entering a battle refused to wear a short cape although it had been given to him by S. Columba, and to this was ascribed his defeat. The Pictish clerics, although they denied themselves all luxuries,  wore woollen garments of native make. We learn of an undergarment, apparently a long shirt, reaching below the knees, and of an outer garment reaching equally far down, and having wide sleeves and a capacious hood. The colour was apparently the native shade known as ‘moorag! The Picts could also weave vegetable fibres. Part of what appeared to be a woman’s skirt made of coarse fibrous material was unearthed in Sutherland from a deep bed of dry peat which had acted as a preservative.

The Picts understood the dressing and curing of pelts. The flint flaying-knife, the flint hide-scraper, and the stone for smoothing the inside ofthe hide are common relics in Pictland. Fleece and fur furnished clothing, and hides and skins were spread out to sleep on within the huts. Slaves and furs, secured apparently by raids, are understood to have been the attractions which brought the trading ships of Marseilles to Pictland from before the time of Christ. The traders of this port sent an expedition to Pictland before the Christian era, which sailed as far as the Orkneys.There was also considerable intercourse between the Celts of northern Gaul and the Celts of Pictland, until the ‘migrations of the barbarians’ in the fifth century interrupted communications. The Britons and Picts have not been regarded as sea-going folk for the extraordinary reason that many of the nautical terms in modern Scottish Gaelic are of Scandinavian origin. As a matter of historical fact, when the ships of Caesar met the fleet of the Britons, the British ships were larger and of better build; S.Ninian’s Candida Casa in the early fifth century possessed a fleet which sailed on regular voyages; and there was sea-borne traffic between the Picts of Ireland and the Britons and the Picts of Alba. The Picts organized warlike expeditions by sea; and even the Gaidheals, in spite of the Scandinavian terms in Gaelic, were no mean sailors. The Irish Gaidheals organized a raid by sea on the island of Islay while it was still Pictish; and the Gaidheals of Scottish Dalriada in the sixth century sent their battle-fleet from Argyll in the direction of the Pictish Orkneys.

The Picts did not excel in architecture. Almost all their erections were circular. In districts like Sutherland, where the face of the land has been little changed by agriculture, the sites of Pictish villages may still be seen. Groups of hut-circles with adjacent groups of burial-cairns occupy sunny slopes on the sides of valleys, or comfortable situations on plateaux where once there were clearings in the original forest. It is evident from remains that exist that the machair, or plain-land by the sea, and the flat stretches by the rivers were also occupied by these villages, although the modern road-boards and cultivators have within recent years competed in removing the last traces of them. The Pict evidently built on the principle that here we have no continuing city. His dwelling was of the simplest. His finished hut was like a hollow cone, the apex being slightly open to draw away the smoke. This cone-like structure was made with the trunks of forest trees and thatched with branches, reeds, or heather. The heavy ends of the trunks were firmly bedded at the desired angle in a thick circular retaining wall, the remains of which are known to-day as a ‘hut circle.’ The doorway was made through this retaining wall and faced invariably towards the south. Frequently it was defended by massive stone outworks which concealed a short angular passage with one or even two guardrooms. Sometimes huts contained underground chambers with a tunnelled exit into the open beyond the circle of the hut-wall. The sides of these chambers and of the passage were built up with irregular-shaped stones; and all, roofed over with heavy flat undressed stones. Inclosures with wide entrances, as if for cattle, oblong in shape, square in a few instances, are found in or near the hut villages.

The Pictish towns and villages were situated on some naturally strong site, or close to a broch.Called also Caer (Cathair), Dün, Tor, and Caisteal. To different brochs within the single parish of Kildonnan these names are applied. From S. Ninian’s time, the first Churches were planted near these strong places, which reminds us how old the proximity of Church and Castle is. Some of the Pictish settlements were within earthen ramparts still clearly defined. A Pictish broch was constructed by raising two massive concentric walls tied together by long stones winding round the outer circumference of the inner wall and ascending gradually to the top, forming steps to the summit for the defenders or watchers. There was no opening in the outer wall except one low and narrow doorway leading, through a narrow passage easily blocked and indented with guard-chambers, into the circular area within the inner wall. The structure was roofless. Chambers on the ground level were opened out in the inner wall and entered from the interior. Windows also opened through the inner wall, letting in light from the interior to the stairways between the walls. Very often these brochs were accessible by only one narrow footway. They are believed to have been places of refuge for women and children and their defenders, in time of sudden attack. Although some brocks had wells others had none, and these could not have sustained long sieges. Weapons and implements of stone, bronze, and iron have been found in the brocks, as well as women’s ornaments, combs, bone hair-pins, and bone needles threaded by the side of the eye. Built hearths have been uncovered in the inner area; and, in one case, bones broken for the sake of marrow, were found beside two grease-stained stones that had served as hammer and anvil.

Some have thought that the Picts learned the art of broch-buildingfrom the Phoenician traders and slave-raiders who visited the coasts; because structures nearly akin in type have been found in Sardinia and North Africa. Towers resembling them in many features have been noted as part of the remarkable buildings at the Phoenician gold-workings at Zimbabwe. Whatever the origin of the brocks they agree with the Pictish preference for circular buildings. In what is now the mainland and islands of northern Scotland we see them arranged in such relation to one another that fire signals lighted on the summit of one would convey information to another, and so to every brock over an extensive area. The site of one of the best known brochs bears a Celtic name meaning Rock of the signal-fire. When the Vikings came to the locality of this broch they found it necessary to erect a fort to watch it, and, in the old Icelandic, continued the name, calling their stronghold, ‘Town of the signal-fire.’

The Churches of the Picts were at first constructed of oak-logs on stone foundations. One of the native colloquial names for them was Datrteach, the oak-house, and among the Celts this name came in time to mean prayer-house or Church. The Churches were apparently rectangular and for a long time represented an innovation upon the circular building favoured by the Picts. In storm-swept districts like the north coast of Caithness, where wood was scarce, the whole Church appears to have been of stone, roofed with logs and heather-thatch, as was the case into the early Roman Catholic period. The high Round Towers associated with rectangular Pictish Churches emphasize the Pictish partiality for circular building. They were used as watchtowers to anticipate foreign raiders ; ecclesiastical valuables and manuscripts were carried into them in time of danger. The only entrance was at a considerable height from the ground, and was reached by a ladder which was hoisted inside and thedoor locked, while the enemy continued to lurk about. The doorway could be defended with missiles from above, and the tower was proof against fire laid to it. Examples of these Pictish towers are seen at S. Cainnech’s, Kilkenny, at Abernethy, Brechin, and Deerness, the headland of the Daire, or Oak- Church.

Venerable Bede is responsible, through misinterpreting his information, for the impression that stone buildings were unknown to the Britons and Picts until S. Ninian built Candida Casa. This of course is incorrect, because wherever the Imperial Roman colonists settled, or the legions formed permanent camps, stone buildings were erected, before the date of Candida Casa. The Picts in their many successful raids were only too familiar with these buildings and with their contents. Archaeologists have shown that after the Romans departed the Picts occupied the Roman structures, although they do not appear to have imitated them, except in the construction of a few of their churches.

The Picts, like many other fighting nations who gave their enemies a bad time, were wantonly libelled by their foes. Roman historians of the minor order accepted the slanders of the mercenaries, and stated that the Picts were cannibals, and that they offered human sacrifices. They allege that their women submitted to polyandry. The Gaidheals called the Picts ‘savage’ and ‘cruel.’ The Angles spoke of them as ‘vile.’ There is not a word in the story of the dealings of the Pictish missionaries with their converts which indicates that these charges were true, or that the Picts were worse than their unscrupulous assailants. Domestic infelicities with which S. Comgall, S. Kentigern and others were called upon to deal, indicate that a woman’s unfaithfulness to her own husband was regarded as a serious breach of the tribal as well as of the moral law. The wives of kings, chiefs, and commoners are always represented as living in family with their own husbands.

Certain historians have professed to see confirmation of the charge of polyandry in the peculiar law regulating the Pictish sovereignty, by which a sovereign’s brother, or his sister’s son, or, in certain circumstances, his elder daughter’s son, was preferred before the sovereign’s son. These historians have failed to make clear that the Pictish sovereign acceded from the royal race after election and approval by the petty kings and chiefs of Pictland. The story that the Gaidheals supplied wives from time to time for the Pictish kings so that their children only might claim the throne of Pictland is a stupid fable promulgated by the Gaidheals to justify the accession of Kenneth Mac Alpin and the continuation in line of his dynasty to the Pictish sovereignty; an accession which the Picts considered illegal, because won by treachery; and a continuation which they disputed and which was only maintained by force of the Gaidhealic soldiery when the Picts had been weakened by repeated Viking

Mr. Andrew Lang regarded succession in the direct line of the father as a sign of superior civilization. It may have been so ; but it had serious practical disadvantages when a nation depended on unity and strong leadershipAlthough the system of Pictish succession offers no room for the moral reflections of some historians; its practical advantages should be noted. It bound those chiefs who used their votes in favour of the sovereign to support him on the throne, a very important result among a people organized in clans any one of which was sometimes more powerful than the clan of the successful nominee. Again, the election of a grown-up member of the ruling caste to the supreme power always saved the Picts from the rule of a minor, with a consequent regency and the intrigues and abuses connected therewith. The succession of a minor or incompetent king, apart from the will of the people, simply because he, or she, was nearest heir in direct line from a royal father was the cause of some of the greatest woes that befell Pictland after it came under the rule of the Scotic dynasties. Science, forethought, and adaptation to the needs of a nation of clans, were all in the Pictish system of succession; in spite of the fact that certain historians have been able to see only signs of moral laxity and want of moral progress.

Comments are closed.