Pict or Scot: Who's Who?
Updated: Aug 17
We were watching another history documentary the other day about the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 13th- and 14th-centuries. This was the period of this United Kingdom's history portrayed in Braveheart (1995), a film that, according to historian Elizabeth Ewan, "almost totally sacrifices historical accuracy for epic adventure". While sadly true, it was not the film that caused some confusion but the documentary. Here is an example why:
"The Romans were fearsome warriors. The Picts were raiders as all Scots were good raiders all the way throughout history. They would cross the border quickly, steal everything, and run back."
Perhaps we are being a bit dim, but this was not the only time during this segment involving the Romans when the Picts and Scots were mentioned in the same sentence as if these terms were interchangeable. Not only that, but the accompanying images were of Roman soldiers dressed and equipped in a 1st- or 2nd-century style guarding Hadrian's Wall. There are a few reasons why this is nonsensical. Firstly, Hadrian's Wall is not the frontier between England and Scotland. The Wall runs for about 73 miles, coast to coast, across and wholly within northern England; the actual border lies further North. More importantly, before and for a long time after Hadrian's Wall was built, the country or kingdom of Scotland simply did not exist. Lastly, the earliest documented references to the Picts are also a long time after the 1st- or 2nd-century AD, so the soldiers depicted are a complete anachronism.
By a strange coincidence, in response to a similar historical mishmash, Dr Mike Bishop (@perlineamvalli) tweeted on July 8th, 2020: “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.” As before, his tweet was in response to yet another instance of conflating the terms "Pict" and "Scot" and applying these labels arbitrarily to anyone living in what is now Scotland. Dr Bishop also tried, once more, to dismiss the fallacy that the Picts (or Scots) successfully defeated Roman incursions. Unfortunately populist historians nearly always perpetuate this myth, while loosely referring to "Picts" or "Scots" or both, in their efforts to present an ever simplified view of the past. History, however, is not as neat and tidy as we might like. For historians and students of history, therefore, everything has to be context driven, and understanding the past depends greatly on at what point in time one is focused. What follows is our attempt at sorting out who is who.
Romans in Caledonia When the Romans head into the northern reaches of the province of Britannia in the late 1st-century AD they refer to the area as Caledonia. The various Iron Age tribes living there were labelled Caledones but, just to confuse matters, Ptolemy's map of AD 150, shown right, records a tribe named the Caledonii as well. At this point in time the extent of Caledonian territory is uncertain. It is unlikely the boundaries between Roman Britannia and Caledonia were fixed until the frontier is established with the building of Hadrian's Wall. From then on, Caledonia was north of the wall and Britannia to the south.
During their brief military incursions, the Romans absorbed the Scottish Lowlands into the province of Britannia. Yet, despite making large inroads into Caledonia, it is true that the Romans did not succeed in taking total control of the territory we now recognise as Scotland. The Roman Gask Project, however, has revealed the earliest Roman land frontier in Britain was built in the AD 70s or 80’s, which is 40 years before Hadrian’s Wall was built and 60 years before the Antonine Wall. As the Roman Gask 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 an early presence in Caledonia beyond the Empire's supposed frontier.
Some Caledonian tribes were happy to deal peacefully with the Romans, but others remained hostile. Having first arrived in Britain in AD 43, 36 years later the Roman governor, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, decided to bring the north of the island under the Empire's control. In the summer of AD 84, therefore, Agricola mounted a major push north.
After many years of avoiding the pitched battle favoured by the Romans, the Caledonii were forced to do so when the Romans marched on the tribes' main granaries. The Caledonians had no choice but to fight, or starve over the next winter. Determined to challenge Roman authority once and for all, several Caledonian tribes joined forces. With an estimated 30,000 men, the Caledonii finally met an outnumbered Roman army at Mons Graupius in North East Scotland.
After a brief exchange of missiles, Agricola ordered his auxiliaries to launch a frontal attack on the enemy. Watched by the legionaries held in reserve, four cohorts of Batavians and two cohorts of Tungrian swordsmen advanced. Against the better equipped, well-trained and disciplined Romans, the Caledonians were cut down and trampled on the lower slopes of the hill. Those at the top attempted an outflanking movement, but were themselves outflanked by Roman cavalry. The Caledonians were comprehensively routed. Fleeing for the shelter of nearby woodland, they were relentlessly pursued by well-organised Roman units.
After the battle, most Caledonian tribes accepted the Roman occupation. Some tribes were bribed or given gifts to acquiesce to Roman rule. Even so, some of the more northern tribes continued to resist the Romans. For various reasons, by AD 87 the occupation was limited to the Southern Uplands and by the end of the 1st-century the northern limit of Roman expansion was a line drawn between the Tyne and Solway Firth, a line that in the early AD 120s was consolidated as Hadrian's Wall.
The Picts Until the Roman administration's collapse in the 5th-century, the relationship with the Caledonii remained one of relative peaceful co-existence interspersed with periodic military incursions and campaigns. The intermittent Roman presence in Scotland did coincide, however, with the emergence of the Picts. They are generally considered a confederation of tribes who lived north of the rivers Forth and Clyde from around the 3rd-/4th-century until the 10th-century AD. It is often assumed that the Picts were the descendants of the tribes the Romans generalised as Caledonii. The evidence for this connection is circumstantial at best, and the name by which the Picts called themselves remains unknown. Even the meaning of the term “Pict” is not universally agreed.
What evidence we have for the name comes from the Latin word Picti that first occurs in a panegyric written by the Roman orator and teacher Eumenius in AD 297. It 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 in the 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.
What Pictish culture was like can be inferred from early medieval texts and from Pictish stones, the most visible remaining evidence of the Picts thought to date from the 6th- to 9th-century AD. While Pictish society was typical of many Iron Age societies in northern Europe, their language is extinct. What survives today is a limited number of geographical and personal names found on monuments and the contemporary records in the area analogous with the kingdoms of the Picts. The linguistic evidence, such as it is, points to the Pictish being related to the Brittonic language spoken in Britain before the Anglo-Saxon settlement. It does appear that Pictish was replaced by - or subsumed into - Gaelic in the latter centuries of the Pictish period. Indeed, in the late 9th-century outsiders began to refer to the region as the Gaelic kingdom of Alba rather than the kingdom of the Picts.
The Scots If not Picts, then what about the Scots? Scoti (or Scotti) is a Latin name for the Gaelic Irish raiders who established the kingdom of Dál Riata (Dál Riada or Dalriada). This Gaelic kingdom encompassed the western seaboard of Scotland and the north-eastern corner of Ireland, on each side of the North Channel. At its height in the 6th- and 7th-centuries, Dál Riata covered what is now Argyll ("Coast of the Gaels") in Scotland and part of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. After a period of expansion, which absorbed part of Pictish territory, Dál Riata eventually became associated with the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba.
First attested in the late 3rd-century AD, Latin sources often referred to the inhabitants of Dál Riata as Scoti (Scots), a name used by Roman and Greek writers for the Irish Gaels who raided and colonized Roman Britain. Later, the term came to refer to Gaels, whether from Ireland or elsewhere. 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, does that mean the Scots are in fact Irish? Clearly not today but, as with most of history, it is not so straight forward as one might think. Regardless, 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.
Even though "Scots" and "Scotland" proper would not emerge as unified ideas until many centuries later, as we have seen the Roman Empire influenced pretty much all of Caledonia during the period of its rule in Britannia. At the end of the Roman era, post AD 410, the various Iron Age tribes native to the north of these islands had united as, or fallen under the control of, the "Picts". Around the same time, the Scoti, who would give Scotland its Anglicised name, had begun to settle along the west coast. Interestingly, all three groups may have been involved in the Great Conspiracy that overran Britannia in AD 367, but that is another story. Significantly, it is during this period that the earliest historical accounts of the natives, and their popular names, appear.
Conclusion Today the Scots proudly call their home Scotland. They are the descendants of Irish Gaels (Scoti). the enigmatic Picti, and the Iron Age peoples the Romans simply labelled Caledonii. They are also an admixture of Britons, Danes and Norwegians (Vikings), Asians, Africans, and numerous other migrants who have made the northern third of the British Isles their home. In the long history of Scotland, the Caledonians, Picts and Scots all had their specific place in time. As historians and students of history we should be mindful of using these terms indiscriminately. Referring to "Scots" when you mean "Picts", or "Picts" when you mean "Caledonii" is both inaccurate and misleading, and confusing for the general audience.
1. Ewan, E. (1995), "Braveheart", American Historical Review 100 (4), pp. 1219–21.
2. The building of Hadrian's Wall (Latin: Vallum Aelium) began in AD 122 in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.
3. A long-term programme to study the Roman Frontier works on and around the Gask Ridge in Perthshire, Scotland.
4. 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.
5. With Tacitus our only source, the site of the battle is yet to be established beyond doubt. While several marching camps have been located, no archaeological evidence has yet definitively indicated the actual field of battle. Arguments for a possible location and description of the battle itself can be found here.
6. 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.
7. Pictland had previously been described by Roman writers and geographers as the home of the Caledonii. These Romans also used other names to refer to tribes living in that area, including Verturiones, Taexali and Venicones. These they may have heard of as second- or third-hand, from speakers of Brittonic or Gaulish languages, who may have used different names for the same group or groups.
8. Foster, S.M. (1996), Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland, London, Batsford.
9. The Kingdom of Alba refers to the Kingdom of Scotland between the deaths of Donald II (Domnall mac Causantin) in AD 900 and of Alexander III in 1286, which then led indirectly to the Scottish Wars of Independence.
10. "Scotland" is ultimately derived from Scotia, a Latin term first used for Ireland (also called Hibernia by the Romans) and later for Scotland, the Scoti peoples having originated in Ireland and resettled in Scotland.
11. A year-long state of war and disorder that occurred in Britannia near the end of the Roman rule of the island.