Author Archives: iainforbespict

UPDATE: Cover Picture on Amazon!

Finally, there seems to be progress with publication. Not only is amazon showing a publication date of 28th of June but they now have the cover picture. Please have a look at :

UPDATE: Cover Picture on Amazon!

Finally, there seems to be progress with publication. Not only is amazon showing a publication date of 28th of #June but they now have the cover picture. Please have a look at :

UPDATE: New publication date!

According to Amazon the publication date will be 28th June 2012.  Although later than expected, I’m getting quite excited!

The Picts: Indo-Europeans?

Following on from my post below, this article continues to explore the notion that the Picts spoke an Indo-European language.

If we are to try to understand who the Picts were, then it is important to have some understanding of the relationships between the various European peoples, their origins, their cultures and their languages. Perhaps the most significant advance in understanding these elements is the realisation that the majority of European cultural groups share a common linguistic origin, with the vast majority of the languages of Europe being derived from perhaps just one common language (or at least a group of very similar languages). Furthermore this family of European languages extends well beyond Europe, with their geographical distribution giving rise to the family name – ‘Indo-European’. Specifically, the term ‘Indo-European’ itself was coined by linguists, and technically describes a family of related languages spoken in a great swathe from the Western fringes of Europe to Northern India. It encompasses many modern and ancient languages and can be subdivided into a number of distinct language groups familiar to us all, including for example, Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Persian, North Indian languages and Celtic. While it is not universally accepted that the Picts spoke a Indo-European language, the majority of scholars not only believe that their language was essentially Indo-European in origin, but that it was part of the Celtic language group, which today includes Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

A pertinent question to ask, given the common origin of so many of the European languages is whether this commonality of origin of ‘Indo-European’ languages extends to other aspects of culture. For example, do Celtic, Roman, Greek and Hindu mythologies have a similar pattern of common origin in the distant past? Can social structures, religious beliefs and other fundamental aspects of society found in different Indo-European cultures also be traced back in time to the same common origin? Perhaps more fundamentally, we could also ask if these now seemingly disparate cultural groups share at least some common ancestry, and hypothesise the existence of an ancestral Indo-European people, migrating from an ancestral home to all the areas where an Indo-European language is now spoken.

There are competing ideas and theories as to explain the linguistic similarities between languages that are so geographically disparate. The simplest idea, one that is reminiscent of evolutionary theory, and one that is almost universally accepted, invokes the idea of a proto-Indo-European people, inhabiting an area (depending on the author) somewhere in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor or Western Asia (the steppes of Russia, for example, being one favoured area) who then physically moved eastwards and westwards bringing their language with them. This ‘ancestral’ language, it has been suggested, probably existed before about 4500 years ago. There are even a number of clues as to where this hypothetical homeland may have been, based on an ingenious methodology known as ‘linguistic palaeontology’. This in the case of the ‘Indo-Europeans’ is based on the reconstruction of a theoretical ‘proto-Indo European’ language, where words and roots common to the different Indo-European languages have been identified. These common words can tell us a lot about the environment and social structure in which the language developed. For example, there is a common postulated root word for copper but not iron, perhaps suggesting a pre-iron age origin, a word for horse (the ancestor of the Latin word ‘equus’ and the Gaelic ‘each’), words relating to the native flora and fauna (such as ‘birch’), and a host of words relating to livestock and agriculture, and words relating to social structure and to religious practices. So for example there is a common root word which has given rise to the English word ‘father’, the Greek ‘pater’, and the Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) ‘pita’, and likewise a root word that has given rise to the Greek ‘Zeus’ , Latin ‘Deus’, and the Sanskrit ‘Dyaus’ –  all meaning ‘God’ (note the name ‘Jupiter’ is derived from Zeus and pater). We can also see the relationship of these words and the name of the female river goddess ‘Deva’ whose name gives rise to the names of rivers ‘Dee’ in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

In these examples, the relationship between words that have diverged with time from a root source is governed by a set of rules has been deduced by linguists. These ‘rules’ demonstrate how particular sounds can shift with time, and are based on the study of how basic sounds are formed by the mouth and how small changes in the conformation of the elements of the mouth, such as the tongue and lips, can lead to the morphing of one sound to another. So, for example, in the case of the English word ‘father’  and the Greek ‘pater’, the relationship between the  ‘P’ sound and ‘F’ is perfectly reasonable and understandable as the two sounds are formed in a very similar way, but with crucial changes in the position of the teeth and the lips. Likewise, the pairs ‘D’ and ‘Z’ and ‘T’ and ‘Th’ have similarities in the way they are formed in the mouth, with the tongue’s position largely determining the sound. Using these linguistic tools, it can be more easily understood how words that at first glance seem unrelated are actually revealed to have a common root.

But perhaps the most familiar words which we use every day and that may have an origin in a ‘proto-Indo-European’ language are the names which the various Indo-European languages give to numerals (particularly 1-10). From India, to Iran, and from to Italy to Ireland, the Indo-European languages all use numbers which are demonstrably related to each other, and presumably therefore descended from a numbering system based on the postulated ‘proto-Indo-European’. This is in contrast, for example in Europe, to the non-Indo-European languages such as Hungarian, Finnish or Basque whose basic numbers bear absolutely no resemblance to those of the ‘Indo-European family’, likewise other unrelated language groups. To me the similarity between geographically disparate language groups within the Indo-European family was brought home to me a number of years ago, while I was working in a health centre. I noticed a chart displaying  a phonetic version of certain Urdu words (to aid Doctors and nurses communicate with Urdu speaking patients), and what struck me immediately was the phonetic similarity between the Urdu numbers from 1 to 10 and their Gaelic counterparts, despite the many thousands of miles (and thousands of years) that separate these two languages.

It has been suggested that the spoken proto-Indo-European counting system involved may have been accompanied by forming numbers with the fingers and fists. The evidence for this comes from the fact that the modern names for different parts of the hand used in a number of disparate Indo-European languages seem to have a distant relationship to each other as well as to the spoken numbers, so for example in English; ‘five’, ‘fingers’, ‘fist’ all have the same initial sound,  a pattern echoed elsewhere.

It is envisaged that proto-Indo-Europeans migrated in a number of directions, possibly during the Neolithic period, although there is no real consensus on even roughly the time that this occurred. Perhaps they carried some technological, agricultural, or social advantage, and may have displaced culturally or even physically the native populations in areas where they chose to settle. These newly settled areas, due to geographical isolation over time, it is hypothesised, would develop their own form of Indo-European speech, with words and grammar gradually diverging from the root language, eventually developing into the language groups we see today, such as Germanic, Celtic, Latin, Indian etc. Like all good evolutionary theory we can detect similarities between these groups and trace particular words and certain grammatical constructs back through time to a common linguistic ancestor (proto-Indo-European). Just as is the case with evolutionary genetics, where some genes appear to be greatly conserved over time, while others have shown great change between species, genera and phyla, Indo-European words reveal variation in the degree of conservation. It might also be expected that if activities such as trade continued between these groups that there would be pressure on certain common words, such as those used to represent numerals not to change, whereas words that are attached to objects of little economic or social importance would be under less pressure to be conserved, words such as those attached to, for example, insects, local flowers and local topological features. With such a migration theory we should also be able to find material evidence for such a diaspora, with a parallel spread of a distinctive material culture, burial practices and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum is the notion that the language was carried and spread by a few individuals rather than by mass migration and invasion. This does not seem such a bizarre idea when you consider the spread of English throughout the world. It would seem to us ridiculous to suggest that every English speaker in India is a descendent of a British colonist, and we are well aware of how few people from Britain were able to dominate an entire subcontinent teeming with people, and exert an enormous influence on many aspects of Indian culture (and of course Indian culture also influenced the UK). While many people speak English in all sorts of corners of the globe because of the establishment of the British Empire and the imposition of the language, many millions of people are learning English in countries seemingly unconnected to the Britain because English has also become the language of commerce and self improvement (largely due to the commercial might of the USA and to a lesser extent the rest of the English speaking world). Indo-European’s could therefore have enjoyed a not dissimilar situation some 4500 years ago, dominating trade in Europe, and therefore this ancestral language could therefore have theoretically spread through trading routes, along major rivers and around coastal Europe. In trading posts across Europe, it may have become important to be able to count and negotiate in a common tongue with traders who could offer advanced technology. Travelling craftsmen would also play a part in such a scenario, bringing the common tongue further into the hinterland of Europe.

But would such an almost osmotic method of language propagation actually result in the displacement of native non-Indo-European languages? That is open to debate, as is whether or not such a benign method of language dispersal would more likely result in native non-Indo-European languages simply absorbing vocabulary, whilst retaining their grammatical structure.

Whatever method of transmission of a hypothetical proto-Indo-European language, it is clear that an ancestral language founded the modern Indo-European language family, examples of which are distributed over an enormous area of Eurasia, and indeed as a result of empire building are found on every corner of the earth, often dominating entire continents (as in North America, South America and Australia).

A combination of place name evidence and the hypothesis that the Picts differed little from the ancient Britons tends to suggest that the Picts may have spoken a Celtic language, most probably related to ancient British (the ancestor of modern Welsh). Other less convincing theories suggest that Pictish was more akin to Irish – another Celtic language, or even that Pictish was non-Indo-European.  If we accept the more mainstream view that Pictish was closer to ancient British (and therefore a so-called Brythonic Celtic language) then perhaps we should be looking more closely at the cultural development and spread of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family.

Perceptions of ‘Barbarian’ Celts and Picts


Some twenty or more years ago I became fascinated with Scottish history and in particular with a people who disappeared from Scotland’s history a thousand years ago. Little known within Scotland and even less known outside, this people, known as the Picts and generally regarded as a Celtic tribe, were frequently linked to words such as ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’. They seemed to feature little in our historical consciousness, and were all too often dismissed as some sort of barbarian ‘blip’ on the march towards ‘civilisation’. What little I knew about them had been presented by disinterested schoolteachers, who saw fit only to mention the Picts as one of the ‘barbarian’ tribes who harried the frontiers of ‘civilised’ Rome. This fascinated me, taking some pride in ‘my ancestors’ gallantry in resisting the ‘might’ of Rome. This fascination was reinforced by the story (which does not seem to be grounded in any strong evidence) that the Roman’s ninth legion had ‘disappeared’ after marching into Pictland on a mission to subdue the natives. Apart from this, the apparent focus of teacher’s historical interest lay firmly with the civilising influence of the Romans and their attainments within their Empire – ironically given that most of modern Scotland was never part of the Roman Empire.

'Daniel Stone' Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie. Photo copyright ©Iain W G Forbes 2011

My generation generally learned little of the Celts who inhabited the British Isles, and what we did learn was focussed on ‘the ancient Britons’, often with the assumption that they made up a homogenous people occupying the entire territory currently labelled ‘Great Britain’. If we were fortunate enough to hear mention of the Picts, it was never a positive experience and almost always in the context of the Roman period, where they were usually portrayed as savages attacking the civilised Romanised south. Rightly or wrongly we were left with the impression that these civilised and thoroughly Romanised Britons (although speaking a form of early Welsh) were the ancestors of the modern ‘British’, including the modern English, Welsh, Cornish and Scottish populations. Little attempt was made to place in context the relationship of these ‘ancient Britons’ with their historical, linguistic, and cultural connections to the modern day people of Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria and Southern and Northern Scotland, let alone their more tenuous cultural connection to the much of the modern English population. Even less effort was spent in exploring who the Picts were, what their culture was like or what became of them. To generations of modern Scots, the Picts therefore simply vanished from their own history, relegated to simplified footnotes in a greater British history.

In school, the period following the demise of the Roman Empire and the subsequent tumultuous events that occurred in Britain were poorly explored. Despite the fact that these events were eventually going to shape the British Isles and lead to the modern identities of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.  Little was mentioned of the fate of the Picts, the fate of the Romanised ‘ancient Britons’ that we had heard so much about, little on the enormous impact of the Anglo-Saxon invasions (which gave rise to the establishment of the roots of the modern English language and even the name of England itself) and certainly nothing on the Celtic migrations which occurred as a result of these invasions; despite the impact these events had in forging the nations of the British Isles. A disproportionate amount of time seemed to be spent covering that Dark Age favourite – the Vikings, who of course fascinated schoolchildren with the school history portrayal of their bloodthirsty tendencies, paganism and antichristian attitudes – ironically the very antithesis of the  reflective, literate Celtic monks on whom they largely preyed. Strangely, there was little said of the cultural context in which the Vikings principle target – great monastic sites in the British Isles – existed, sites such as Clonmacnois, Iona and Lindisfarne, a context that gave rise to some of the finest examples of Dark Age artistry found anywhere in Europe. This artistic achievement, including famous illuminated manuscripts such as the ‘Book of Kells’ and magnificent monumental crosses and other religious artefacts are firmly grounded in Celtic tradition, but this was fact was glossed over, as the Celts seemed to be marginalised. Perhaps the most significant ‘oversight’ in terms of downplaying the role of Celts and in particular the great Irish (and to a lesser extent Scottish and Welsh) monasteries, was their contribution to scholarship in Europe, reintroducing classical learning at the end of the Dark Ages to the ravaged continent, via their numerous continental missions.

Generations of Scottish schoolchildren (and presumably children in England and Wales as well) grew up with history stratified into neat blocks with labels such as ‘the Romans’ and ‘the Vikings’, but knew little about the people who worked the land where they now stood. This approach to the teaching of history of course isn’t unique toScotland, or indeed Britain, and I have heard other people from other countries make similar complaints.

To be fair, perhaps the failure in the past to come to grips with the history of the indigenous peoples of Scotland could have been due to the lack of information available to teachers, but this is certainly not an excuse in relation to the history of the Scots settlement and emergence of Alba (Scotland) as a nation.

It seems to me that school pupils were consciously presented with a version of history that depicted Britain as a homogenous nation, with a shared, seamless historical continuity. Invaders, such as the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans were meant to be seen as fascinating contributors to this continuum which would maintain the notion that modern Britain was an ancient ‘island nation’ and not a new nation essentially created in two steps in 1603 and 1707. In such an educational climate, it seems logical that historical events which emphasised this commonality, such as the Roman occupation influence, Viking raids, and the establishment of the feudal system would be encouraged but the very distinct story of the development of the different nations of the British Isles would be deemed less important. So, for example, in Scotland’s case, its development from Scottish, Pictish, Welsh, Viking and Anglian roots, its cultural, historical and linguistic links with Ireland (and to a lesser extent with Wales) would therefore jar with the notion of a ‘British’ nation. This vision of commonality not only served Britain well at home but served the purposes of Empire as well. In the past it helped to reinforce notions that the British were a civilising influence on ‘primitive’ peoples of the world through the modern Britain’s ‘historical’ links to the Romans and therefore classical civilisation. The emphasis on classical culture fitted well with this version of British history, as the British were simply reviving part of their own cultural heritage from the Roman period, and as ‘inheritors’ of classical civilisation, they had a moral duty to expand the empire and assimilate more ‘primitive’ societies.

Seemingly at odds with the rather neat model of British continuity, the very idea of ‘Celts’ and ‘Celtic’ seems to have jarred with past historians, and surprisingly, more recently with some archaeologists who reject the whole notion of ‘Celts’ and ‘Celticness’. This is indeed a strange state of affairs when people in large tracts of Britain, prior to the Roman invasion, during the Roman period, as well as in the Dark Ages, spoke languages that are demonstrably Celtic and of course many people in Britain today still speak a Celtic language, notably Welsh and Gaelic. These languages also contain distinctive elements that can also be found in placenames across Europe, including ancient Gaul and are even found in parts of Turkey associated with people the Greeks referred to as Celts. In the past, a conservative British historical standpoint would have no room for historical sources that reminded the various peoples of Britain that they were descended from many different peoples, peoples that the Romans (however unfairly) considered to be primitive barbarians (with the exception of the Romanised Welsh), with three of the most influential groups: the Scots, English and Irish actually originating from outside the Roman Empire.

In Scotland, this Celtic influence took the form of at least principally three historically identifiable peoples. During the Roman period, classical historians referred to the country being populated by the ‘Caledonians’. Later calling these tribes ‘Picts’ – a term supposedly referring to the pictures and designs adorning their bodies. By the dark ages, the Picts are seen as occupying all of Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, whilst Welsh or Cumbric speaking tribes occupied southern Scotland. Later on in the dark ages, a third Celtic group expanded from Ireland into the West of Scotland, these were the ‘Scots’.

If people cared to look at the ancient buildings and monuments peppering the modern Scottish landscape and the archaeological artefacts in the Museums, they would soon realise that from the evidence in front of their own eyes suggested that the Picts were not just primitive foils to the Roman Empire, but that their capabilities speak volumes of a society which was far from primitive – a society which could produce beautiful stone carvings with their own peculiar set of symbols. These symbols have fascinated and baffled that small minority of individuals over the last 100 years or so who have challenged ‘traditional’ views of the Picts.

Front cover of the forthcoming book!

Here’s a glimpse of the front cover for my book, which will be published in the new year by Amberley Publishing.

Abernethy 1 Stone

This class I stone, dating from  around the 6th or 7th centuries,  is located against the side of a Pictish round tower in the Perthshire village of Abernethy. The settlement at Abernethy is itself very old and has strong links to the Picts (sometimes described as the capital of the Southern Picts).  It was an important Pictish centre, and is strongly associated with King Nechtan, although which one is open to debate (perhaps Nechtan son of Erip). The round tower dates from somewhere between 1000 and 1200 AD and represents one of the few round towers found outside Ireland (two in Scotland and one on the Isle of Man). A picture of the tower can be found at

The Abernethy stone features is only partially intact, but the surviving incised symbols are particularly clear.  The two principal symbols are a so-called ‘tuning fork’ and a ‘crescent and v-rod’. The ‘crescent and v-rod’  is an extremely common symbol, the ‘tuning fork’ less so. The ‘tuning fork’ is a particularly enigmatic symbol and there are no convincing theory as to what it may represent. There are two smaller symbols, in my opinion subsidiary symbols, which may lend further meaning to the main pair. The most common subsidiary symbols are the ‘mirror and comb’ but in this case they comprise what are thought to be a hammer and anvil. These symbols, associated with the blacksmith, have a strong folklore amongst the Celts. Firstly they are the tools of the god Goibniu, but also perhaps symbolise the union between male and female, forging the bonds between the ‘female’ anvil and the ‘male’ hammer. Marriages ceremonies are carried out at Gretna Green in Dumfrieshire over an anvil, but it is not entirely clear what the origin of these are.

Abernethy 1 Stone, Perthshire. Photograph © Iain Forbes 2010

Meigle 1 Stone: A Pictish Camel?

Meigle 1 Stone © Iain Forbes 2011

This stone  (class II), now in Meigle Museum, Angus, was originally located to the north of Meigle Kirk and may date from the late eighth or early ninth centuries. The stone was almost certainly originally a neolithic  standing stone, and has ‘ring and cup’ marks from that period in time. On one side is a cross slab, with an ornate cross and accompanying beasts. The other side has a jumble of figures and classic Pictish symbols. The symbols include a large  fish and a serpent with z-rod,  there are also two smaller symbols – a horse head and a Pictish beast. Below these classic symbols are the subsidiary Mirror and Comb symbols that so often accompany symbol pairs. Below this are horsemen and hounds and at the bottom right a fabulous beast.  In amongst these figures are an Angel-like figure, which has been suggested may be a Persian deity and below the comb – bizarrely a kneeling camel! The presence of a camel on a stone from the East of Scotland would certainly seem to be a puzzle.  However, remembering that this is a Christian stone, monasteries, of which there were a number in Pictland, possessed libraries which could have contained books originally from other parts of Europe and beyond. It is certainly conceivable that the sculptor had access to an exotic ‘bestiary’, and certainly more likely than camels roaming the Angus countryside! Whatever the explanation, it is a reminder that the Picts were not an isolated people, but had connections to Europe and beyond.

Publishing Date Revised

Amberley Publishing have started work on the book and it is now anticipated that it will be published early next year.

The Daniel Stone (Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie)

The ‘Daniel Stone’ is a sculpture fragment found in the village of Rosemarkie, Easter Ross. It is on display at the Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie.

Despite its name, there is little evidence to suggest that the figure represented is the biblical Daniel. The animal to the left, which appears about to devour the human figure may or may not be a lion, and could also be interpreted as a wolf.  Two of the other animals on the stone, above and below the central figures, are clearly not lions. To the right is the muzzle of creature which may mirror the ‘lion’ figure. It is possible that the fragment is Christian, perhaps representing a tormented soul.  A more likely candidate for a Pictish ‘Daniel’ can be found on the Christian Pictish Meigle 1 stone, where a figure is surrounded by four lions.

The fragment is difficult to date, but would be within the likely range 8th-9th centuries.

Daniel Stone, Rosemarkie (Groam House Museum), Easter Ross. Image ©Iain Forbes 2011

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