The Picts

Successors of the Caledonii (Caledonians), the last people in Britain left unconquered by the Romans, almost everything about the Picts remains a mystery. No wonder, then, that such a fascination exists for this group of peoples who existed in the east and north of Scotland, north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, from the end of Roman-occupation to the 10th century CE.

We do not know what the Pictish language sounded like, though we know it was an insular-Celtic language (unique to them, though probably closely related to the Brythonic of the Britons). We do not know whether they tattooed themselves, though several sources refer to the swirling blue ink of their body art. We do not know the exact significance of the myriad curling, artistic symbols which, like a proto-writing system, held the details of their customs and history, but we can still see for ourselves the megalithic stones and materials which the Picts left behind. (The Aberlemno Sculptured Stones in Aberlemno, Angus being perhaps the finest examples of extant Pictish symbol stones.) Neither do we know exactly what happened to the Picts. All we can confidently say is that sometime around the late-10th and early-11th centuries, outsiders began referring to the Kingdom of the Picts as the Kingdom of Alba. Whether this was a newly-established kingdom, or just a closer approximation of the name the Picts applied to themselves (for it certainly wasn’t ‘Picts’, a term from the Latin ‘picti’ meaning ‘painted or tattooed people’) we do not know. Either way, a process of integration with the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the Kingdom of Dál Riata in the west of Scotland had begun some centuries earlier, and so, by a certain point – probably during the 11th century – all the inhabitants of northern Alba had become fully Gaelicised Scots, and Pictish identity was forgotten, lost to the mists of time.

According to Roman sources, among others, Picts had begun to raid south of Hadrian’s Wall in the decades leading up to the ‘Great Conspiracy’ (the event which effectively led to the retreat of the Roman Empire from Britain), and in its aftermath they moved as countless bands of raiders, throughout the Border country. It seems likely, then, that the Picts would have had some influence on the Iron Age inhabitants of the Borders at that time, perhaps able to communicate with them, given the presumed similarities between their language and the Brythonic spoken by Borderers.

Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence to support the connections that were once believed to exist between the Picts and the Borthwick Mains stone, the Catrail, and the Mote. The closest Hawick gets to a definitive connection regards the Northumbrian King Ecgfrith (whose lands incorporated the newly-founded settlement of Hawick and its surrounds), who was defeated and killed at the famous Battle of Dun Nechtain on 20th May 685CE. Believed to have taken place either near Dunnichen in Angus, or at the more northerly location of Dunachton, near Loch Insh, the battle ended in a decisive Pictish victory, permanently securing the Picts independence from the Kingdom of Northumbria. In its aftermath, the Picts retook their lands from the Kingdoms of Dál Riata and Northumbria. The impact this would have had on Hawick and the Borders is not known, but given that they were under the rule of the Northumbrians, it surely cannot have been fortuitous. If anything, we may presume a greater presence of Pictish influence in the Borders, following the victory at Dun Nechtain.