The question ‘Where did the Picts come from?’ isn’t an easy one to answer. Were they descendants of the original inhabitants of Scotland, the people who had been here since the Ice Age ended, as some D.N.A. research seems to show? (q.v. appendix III). The ancient Foundation Legends, however, seem quite definite in their opinion that the Picts and the Scots had come from somewhere in the East. Readers may be interested in the following piece of information that can be found in the book, “Kingdom of the Ark”, by Lorraine Evans. In her work, published in 2000, Ms. Evans, an Egyptologist, pursues and cultivates her persuasive view that ancient Egyptians came to settle in Britain, and in particular Scotland and Ireland, around 1350 B.C. The passage, given on page 249 of her book, is worth quoting in full.
“We are now left with one final enigma. Very high frequencies of O blood, similar to those found in much of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, are rarely encountered. Apart from a few islands in the Aegean Sea and pockets in the western Caucasus, Irwin Morgan-Watkins (Welsh geneticist and author of ‘ABO Blood Group Distribution in Wales in Relation to Human Settlement’.) discovered that the only other region of the world which produced similar gene frequency results to those of Britain was North Africa, particularly the so-called Hamatic tribes, which, as we have seen, are the accepted descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Along the Atlantic seaboard the only other correlation with Britain was to be found upon the peculiarly named ‘Island of Ra’, just off the North African coast.”
It would nice to see some specific research being done on the question of Pictish genetics. The results may surprise us all.
The other question often asked is, ‘Where did the Picts go to?’ This, thankfully, is slightly less problematic.
The commonly held belief is that when Kenneth Mac Alpin, King of Scots took over the governance of the Picts, the Scots migrated eastwards from Dalriada to colonise the whole of Pictland. The Picts, according to this perceived wisdom, somehow disappeared into thin air, allowing the Scots to move in and settle down.
Of course, this is quite impossible. The population of Pictland was much larger than that of Dalriada, and there is no way that the Scots could have taken over the whole country without enormous bloodshed, which clearly did not occur. So what actually happened? For an explanation, we must return to King Kenneth.
As we have seen from the King Lists, Mac Alpin was not the first king to rule over both Picts and Scots. It had happened before, during the reigns of Oengus son of Uurguist (No.58) and Constantin son of Wrguist (No.69). Constantin had even been recognised by the Scots of Dalriada as their ‘Ard-Righ’, or High King, in 809 A.D.
Surprising as it may seem, Kenneth Mac Alpin was not described by the Irish scribes as ‘Rex Scotorum’, King of Scots, but as ‘Rex Pictorum’, King of the Picts. It was the same with the next three kings who followed him. Donald Mac Alpin (859 – 863 A.D.), who was Kenneth’s brother, and Kenneth’s two sons Constantin (863 – 877 A.D.) and Aed (877- 878 A.D.) were all described in the annals as Rex Pictorum, never Rex Scotorum. Then something happened to bring about change. During the joint reign of Eochaid and Giric (878 – 889 A.D.), they, and all subsequent kings crowned at Scone began to be called ‘Ri-Albain’, King of Alba. But that still is not the same as being called King of Scots. What was going on?
The answer is that up until the close of the 9th century, the language used by the scribes in their annals was predominantly Latin, but when the clerics started writing in their own language, Gaelic, they began to employ the name which was used in common by all the Celtic peoples to designate the land of the Picts; Alba. The description Rex Pictorum simply became redundant, to be replaced by Ri-Albain. Yet if the new kings of the Picts were happy enough to be known as Rex Pictorum or Ri-Albain, how did Alba become Scotland, and how did they become Kings of Scots?
What seems to have happened is that from the 11th century, writers in England and Scotland who did not speak Gaelic began to use the Latin term ‘Scotia’ (for the Scotti of Dalriada) to describe the whole country for reasons which are quite unclear.
Historically, the people who lived in the West of Pictland, or Alba, were called the Scotti; supposedly after Irish colonists going under that name settled in what was to become Dalriada sometime in the 5th century. However, recent archaeological research shows that this suggestion may be quite wrong, and that the Scotti were actually the indigenous inhabitants of Western Scotland; they simply shared a common culture with the people of Northern Ireland in a similar way to the situation regarding the Welsh and the Strathclyde Britons. Be that as it may, the term Scot or Scotia just seems to have crept into common usage by English speaking chroniclers.
This practice did not escape the notice of contemporary critics, however, as one (anonymous) scribe, writing in Latin in 1165 A.D. complained,
“That country which is now wrongly called Scotia (Que nunc corrupte vocatur Scotia) was long ago called Alba”
Pictish was in retreat. We cannot be sure why, but it is not an unknown phenomenon that when a people start to lose pride and faith in themselves, the first thing to go is usually their indigenous language. Gaelic had become the language of court and government in Alba after Kenneth Mac Alpin ascended the throne, and English was fast making sweeping inroads through the Lothians and Borders. Consequently the Pictish language, along with its own unique sense of identity, began to die out and with it went Pictish history, culture and customs.
It is difficult to say exactly when this happened and opinions vary widely among historians. However, consider this report from Picard (a town in France) chronicler Guibert de Nogent, writing in 1100 A.D. about the colourful strangers encountered in France on their way to the Crusades.
“You might have seen groups of Scots, ferocious among themselves but elsewhere unwarlike, with bare legs, shaggy cloaks, a purse hanging from their shoulders, rolling down from their marshy borders……Their speech was then unknown, so that, having no voice, they crossed one finger over another in the sign of the cross; thus showing us that they had set out for the cause of the faith”.
“Their speech was then unknown...” Was Guibert talking about Gaelic or was it Pictish? Gaelic was certainly known on the Continent, as Irish annals record frequent pilgrimages by Celtic church missionaries to places like Rome and Santiago de Compostella in Spain. In matters less spiritual we also know, for example, from the Annals of Inisfallen, (compiled 1215 A.D. and written in a blend of Latin and Irish Gaelic), that in the year 1105 A.D.
“A camel, which is an animal of wonderful size, was presented by the King of Alban (Scotland’s King Edgar) to Murchertach O’ Brian”. (a king of Ireland).
Scotland, as we can see, obviously traded far and wide. Consider this also. The Latin Chronicles of Marianus Scotus (1028-1081 A.D.) make the following informative comment about Mac Beth, the Gaelic speaking King of Scots, whilst he was on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1050 A.D.
“Rex Scottiae Mac Bethad Romae argentum pauperibus seminando distribuit”
“MacBeth the King of Scots in Rome scattered money like seed among the poor”.
Quite apart from the fact that Marianus’ observation salvages something from the wholly undeserved bad reputation that poor old Mac Beth has suffered since Shakespeare wrote his calumny of a play 400 years ago, it also shows us that the Scots did not live in isolation, that Gaelic speakers were not particularly remarkable in themselves, and that they were probably quite familiar in Europe. It is impossible to be sure of course, but it is this author’s opinion that the Scottish gentlemen observed by Guibert de Nogent, with their “bare legs and shaggy cloaks,” in 1100A.D., were the last remnants of the Pictish speakers of Alba.
The Pictish people did not die out; they were still there, living and breathing. They just started speaking another language and calling themselves by another name, and that name was Scots. Gaelic speakers still used the name Alba, and continue to do so right up to the present day, but before too long the language of court and government would be English, (with a brief spell of French) and Alba would become Scotland.
The Picts may not have realised initially what was happening of course, for people are generally too tied up in day-to-day affairs to bother with things like keeping a culture alive. Some would certainly have been concerned about their loss of identity, for some always are, but their voices of protest would have been lost to the wind until gradually, little by little, the Pictish language and culture would decline until the day came when there was only one person left alive who could speak the ancient tongue. One wonders how that person felt. Very sad, we must imagine. A Scottish Gaelic phrase rather neatly sums up the whole argument about whether language is an important feature in the question of national identity. It says, simply,
‘Tir gun Chanain, Tir gun Anam’.
‘A Land without a Language is a Land without a Soul’.
The final chapter in the story of the Picts came in the year 1165 when, at the coronation of King William I, ‘The Lion’, the Royal Standard of Scotland which up until then had been a black wild boar emblazoned on a white background (some say a silver boar on a blue background, or field), was dropped in favour of the Lion Rampant, red on a yellow or gold field.
The Pictish Wild Boar, like the Pictish people themselves, had become a distant memory; something akin to a half remembered dream. Soon only their beautifully carved stones would be all that remained to bear testimony to their existence and heroic past. How regrettable it is that there are Scots today who have no idea that a great many of them will have the blood of the Picts pumping through their veins, carrying with it two thousand years of history and high deeds and almost all of it forgotten.