Pictish society



The Romans classified some fifteen tribes in the north and loosely identified the territories they occupied. They also observed that tribal chiefs had a religious as well as a royal function. Women could have such a role, as was the case with Boudicca of the Iceni. The succession of leaders was matrilineal: it mattered more who their mother was than who their father was. Since it is possible that women may indeed have more than one husband, the matter of succession could be complex. later Romantics sometimes regarded this Pictish society as democratic, but it was in fact full of social differentiations.

Queen Boudicca

Under the tribal leader there was a class who maintained chariots and fought from them. these charioteers had the status of barons, owned cattle and land in their own right, and usually they owned slaves who worked their land and served in their homes. These slaves were normally war prisoners although their status was often hereditary.There may also have been raids to obtain slaves from other tribes and vulnerable coastal communities south of the frontier.

The first Pictish throne

Between the ranks of barons and slaves were the freeholders who owned shares in the common land of each group of households. With their families, they tilled the land and shared the other tasks. Cattle were probably common property among them. In any battle they would fight on foot. Among the freeholders were numbered specialists crafts-workers like blacksmiths, weapon-makers and bards. Some bards may have enjoyed a more exalted status and the leader’s and king’s bard had special privileges.

Pictish male and female warrior

Druids formed a class apart, although in the role of the leader or king their functions were joined with the concerns of the rest of the community. Our knowledge of this society come largely from similar groups in ancient Ireland. It may well be that among the Pictish tribes, who were themselves far from a homogeneous group, there were important but unknown differences. When the Scots later established themselves, they found significantly different customs among the Picts.

Pictish stones and crosses

The Romans coined the generic name Picti for these northern barbarians. This ambiguous word may mean ‘painted people’ or may be a Latinised version of their own name for themselves. Alternatively, it may have been the name of one tribe alone. In the period of four hundred years between the invasion of the Romans and the immigration of the scots many changes must have occurred. In the early years of the Roman invasion the threat of attack and perhaps conflict among the tribes themselves had prompted a movement of population into the hitherto unpopulated northwest as well as to the islands. The islands, well populated at a much earlier date, appear to have been largely abandoned by the first century.

Pictish figurine of boar

The new settlers evolved a new and distinctive dwelling based on the model of the old round houses. It was built of stone and rose high above the ground, with an entrance door at the upper level. This was the broch, of which well-preserved examples remain in Glenelg and Orkney. Often placed close by the sea, the brochs’ structure indicates the need for defence against attack from both sea and land. The Pictish homes thus show the degree to which people adapted to changing conditions. In the evolution of Pictish society other changes may have been in the organisation rather than the basic structure of the society, with the inevitable tendency of tribal units to improve their own security by absorbing their neighbours.

Mousa broch

In doing so there was a gradual process of change in the language they developed. By the fourth century it seems likely that Celtic speech was the main language of the whole northern region. Traces have been detected of pre-Celtic language but they are insufficient to give it much identity or to establish its degree of use. It bears no apparent relationship to any Indo-European language (some scholars dispute this) and must be presumed to have been, like modern Basque, a continuing memento of some of the earliest people to occupy the terrain.

Pictish swirl alphabet

In the late third century the Maeatae once again stormed Hadrian’s Wall. The Romans were distracted by trouble on other, longer eastern frontiers. In  360 AD the Picts and their Irish allies were freely overrunning the province of Britannia and reached as far as Londinium in the south In 369 AD the Empire sent the able general Theodosius to maintain Roman presence in the area and to restore the damage to Hadrian’s Wall, but after his departure it was breached again in 383 AD, and not repaired. In 407 AD, as the Western Empire of Rome was crumbling in the face of onslaughts from Goths and Huns, the last legionaries were recalled from Britannia. The Picts responded by streaming back across abandoned Wall. The so-called Dark Ages had well and truly begun. In a sense, though, for Scotland, which had never really experienced the Pax Romana, the dark ages were just coming to an end.

Pictish village

Several hundred years of proximity to civilisation, however hostile at attitude, could not fail to have some impact on the inhabitants of Caledonia. Tribal kings were impressed, if not overawed, by the wealth and sophistication of the Empire on whose outermost fringes they dwelt. The kings began to describe themselves using the Latin word rex, or ‘ruler’, by which the Romans designated them (hence Gaelic righ), and set out their own styles and titles in somewhat crude Latin. There is evidence that even remote tribes traded with Romans and that the Hebridean wool trade began as a result of Roman demand. The tribes of the south of Caledonia, Votadini and Damnonii, made and broke a series of pacts with the invaders from Rome without becoming Romanised. But these tribes were the most open to ideas coming from the greater world, whether about Christianity or good agricultural practice.

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