• Tastes Of History

The Fallacy of Picts and Scots

Updated: Jan 5

On July 8th, 2020 Dr. Mike Bishop (@perlineamvalli) tweeted; “There were no Picts when Hadrian's Wall was built. There were Caledones split into a number of tribes but the Roman slang term Picti did not become current until later. The term Picts' Wall first occurs (possibly) on an 11th-century map and [before that in the] 8th-century Nennius mentions the wall and Picts.” This was in response to yet another instance of conflating the terms "Pict" and "Scot" for anyone living in what is now Scotland and equating them with the tribes who successfully defeated Roman incursions. The problem is another example of how populist history is not as neat and tidy as most might like. For historians and students of history everything is context driven, and depends on at which point in time is the focus.

Romans in Scotland It is true that the Romans did not succeed in taking total control over what is now Scotland and yet they did make large inroads into Caledonian territory. The Roman Gask Project[1], for example, has revealed the earliest Roman land frontier in Britain was built in the AD 70s or 80’s, 40 years before Hadrian’s Wall and 60 years before the Antonine Wall. As the project's website points out: "Since German archaeologists have now re-dated the start of their frontier (which was once thought also to belong to the AD 80’s) to the Trajanic period 15-20 years later, it now seems that the Gask system is the first Roman land frontier anywhere." The Roman Gask system is a line of forts, watch towers and small Roman forts known as fortlets, strung out along the Roman road into northern Scotland. As currently known, it begins at Glenbank, just to the north of Dunblane and ends at Bertha, just upstream of Perth on the Tay, although it might eventually prove to extend further. For much of its length, it runs along the prominent Gask Ridge on the northern side of Stathearn in Perthshire, hence its name. The line is a Roman frontier, a direct ancestor of Hadrian’s Wall, albeit without the running barrier, but it is some forty years older, dating to the AD 80’s as opposed to the AD 120’s. It demonstrates quite clearly that the Romans had a presence in Caledonia beyond the Empire's supposed frontier[2].

Even though "Scots" and "Scotland" proper would not emerge as unified ideas until many centuries later, as we shall see, the Roman Empire influenced every part of Scotland during the period of Roman rule in Britannia. At the end of Roman rule, after AD 410, the various Iron Age tribes native to the area had united as, or fallen under the control of, the Picts. Around the same time, the Scoti (Gaelic Irish raiders)[3], who would give Scotland its Anglicised name, had begun to settle along the west coast. All three groups may have been involved in the Great Conspiracy[4] that overran Britannia in AD 367. It is during this period that saw the the earliest historical accounts of the natives, and their popular names, emerge.

The Picti The intermittent Roman presence in Scotland coincided with the emergence of the Picts, a confederation of tribes who lived north of the rivers Forth and Clyde from the around 3rd-/4th-century until the 10th-century AD. It is often assumed that the Picts were the descendants of the tribes the Romans called Caledonii. The evidence for this connection is circumstantial at best, and the name by which the Picts called themselves is unknown.

What’s in a Name? The meaning of the term “Pict” is not universally agreed. Evidence for the name derives from the Latin word Picti that first occurs in a panegyric written by Eumenius in AD 297 and is taken to mean "painted or tattooed people" (from Latin pingere "to paint"; pictus, "painted", cf. Greek "πυκτίς" - pyktis, "picture"). There is no contemporary evidence, however, to support the assertion that peoples living in the far North of Britannia, or indeed further South, painted their bodies at all. As Foster (1996) notes: "Much ink has been spilt over what the ancient writers meant by Picts, but it seems to be a generic term for people living north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus who raided the Roman Empire." There is even less evidence for their preferred body paint. In populist history this is always stated to be Woad, but this is unlikely as you can discover here.

Wikipedia, “Picts”, retrieved July 10th, 2020:

Where they lived and what their culture was like can be inferred from early medieval texts and Pictish stones.

Pictish is the extinct language spoken by the Picts, the people of eastern and northern Scotland from the late Iron Age to the Early Middle Ages. Virtually no direct attestations of Pictish remain, short of a limited number of geographical and personal names found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area controlled by the kingdoms of the Picts. Such evidence, however, points to the language being related to the Brittonic language spoken prior to Anglo-Saxon settlement in what is now southern Scotland, England, and Wales.

Pictish was replaced by - or subsumed into - Gaelic in the latter centuries of the Pictish period. In the late 9th-century outsiders began to refer to the region as the kingdom of Alba rather than the kingdom of the Picts. At a certain point, probably during the 11th-century, all inhabitants of Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots and the Pictish language, and Pictish identity, eventually disappeared and was forgotten.

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 the year 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.

After the invasion of north western Britain by Gaelic-speaking Celts from Ireland from the 6th century AD onwards, part of the Pictish territory was eventually absorbed into the Gaelic kingdoms of Dál Riata and Alba, which became Scotland.

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.

A Pictish confederation was formed in Late Antiquity from a number of tribes—how and why is not known. Some scholars have speculated that it was partly in response to the growth of the Roman Empire.[13] The Pictish Chronicle, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the early historiographers such as Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Holinshed, etc. all present the Picts as conquerors of Alba from Scythia. However, no credence is now given to that view.[14]

Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii.[15] These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones.[16] But they may have heard these other names only second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.[17]

Pictish recorded history begins in the Early Middle Ages. At that time, the Gaels of Dál Riata controlled what is now Argyll, as part of a kingdom straddling the sea between Britain and Ireland. The Angles of Bernicia, which merged with Deira to form Northumbria, overwhelmed the adjacent British kingdoms, and for much of the 7th century Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom in Britain.[18] The Picts were probably tributary to Northumbria until the reign of Bridei mac Beli, when, in 685, the Anglians suffered a defeat at the Battle of Dun Nechtain that halted their northward expansion. The Northumbrians continued to dominate southern Scotland for the remainder of the Pictish period.

But what about Woad? “All the Britons dye their bodies with Woad, which produces a blue colour and gives them a wild appearance in battle,” so reports Gaius Julius Caesar. Except, in his Commentaries, Caesar penned the phrase: “Omnes vero se Britanni vitro inficiunt, quod caeruleum efficit colorem,” which roughly translates as” All the British dye themselves with glass, which produces a blue colour.” The word “vitro” is derived from the Latin word “vitrum” meaning a type of blue-green glass favoured by the Romans. It is only much later that scholars began to equate “vitrum” with Woad (Isatis tinctoria), an indigenous plant that produces an indigo/blue dye from its leaves. Sadly, many modern lexicons now assert this as fact such that “vitrum” is given a subsidiary meaning relating to Woad that is both incorrect and misleading.


1. A long-term programme to study the Roman Frontier works on and around the Gask Ridge in Perthshire, Scotland.

2. To place the frontier system in context, Eboracum (today's York) was only founded in AD 71 when Legio IX Hispana (the Ninth Legion) constructed a military fortress (castra) on flat ground above the River Ouse near its junction with the River Foss.

3. Scoti or Scotti is a Latin name for the Gaels first attested in the late 3rd-century AD. At first referring to all Gaels, whether in Ireland or Britain, it later came to refer only to those living in northern Britain. The kingdom to which their culture spread became known as Scotia or Scotland, and eventually all its inhabitants came to be known as Scots. So that means the Scots are in fact Irish - not so straight forward as one might think.

4. A year-long state of war and disorder that occurred in Britannia near the end of the Roman rule of the island.

5. Generally thought to be from the end of the Roman Empire's Crisis of the 3rd-Century (AD 235–284) to about the 6th-century AD.

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