Pictish History


One of the key questions asked about the Picts is; were they Celtic? This question has taxed scholars for well over a century, and generated heated debate regarding their cultural or ethnic origins and affiliations. Certainly within academic circles, it is generally accepted that the Picts spoke a Celtic language (or languages), however this basic question is still posed on forums, articles and blogs on the internet, and occasionally in more populist books available on the Picts.

The principle reason for this failure to convince some Pictish enthusiasts outside of academia of the Pict’s Celtic credentials, lies in the paucity of evidence of ‘Celticness’, and the persistence of the romantic view of the Picts as being almost a race apart. Evidence of a Celtic heritage comprises principally of placename evidence and some tribal and personal names from contemporary sources and also from studies of Pictish art. Placename evidence includes the appearance of Celtic (an Indo-European language group) elements such as ‘Aber’, meaning a confluence or mouth of a river, which is directly related to a known Celtic language – in this case Welsh. The classic Pictish prefix ‘Pit’, found today all over the former Pictland, in farm and village names such as Pittenweem, Pitlochry and Pitsligo, may also reflect a Celtic word meaning ‘a piece of’ (land). Tribal names are known from Roman sources (notably Ptolemy of Alexander’s map) and a proportion have been shown to be Celtic. Some of these names however are considerably more exotic but it must be remembered that these names may have been filtered through several languages, including perhaps, Pictish, Greek and Latin, and may have been garbled in the process. Pictish art, while containing elements unique to the Picts, is immediately recognisable as Celtic, however it is possible that this is as a result of influence from neighbouring Celtic peoples.

The evidence would therefore seem to point to ‘Celticness’ being present in Pictland but is not overwhelmingly convincing. This of course has led to theories regarding a non-Celtic Indo-European origin or even a non-Indo-European origin for the Picts, with a thin veneer of Celtic culture laid on top by invaders or strong outside cultural influences. However, if the evidence for ‘Celticness’ is meagre, the evidence for the other options is considerably less. We have already mentioned Ptolemy’s map and some apparent non-Indo-European elements. These elements could be garbled, but it is also possible that that they reflect, reasonably accurately, real placenames from Pictland in the first few centuries of the first millennium. This may also be the case of tribal names recorded by Ptolemy (or Roman sailors reporting back to Ptolemy). However this should not be regarded as proof of the existence of non-Indo-European in Pictland at the time the map was made, as ancient placenames can be conserved through several linguistic and cultural changes. For example, the placename ‘London’, has a Celtic origin but modern Londoners clearly don’t speak ancient Welsh. Similarly, tribes may have had non-Celtic elements in their names, but it is possible these reflect ancient placenames – in the same way as calling someone a ‘Londoner’ doesn’t imply either Celtic ethnicity, language or culture. A further source for non-Celtic origin theories is the handful of Pictish inscriptions that have survived. These inscriptions are almost all written in ogham (and ancient Irish script) but are basically unintelligible. This has led to not very convincing attempts to interpret these, for example, as Finnish, Basque and Nordic. There would appear however to be, rather more convincingly, some Celtic elements evident.

In trying to determine the ‘Celticness’ of the Picts, there is a striking piece of the jigsaw missing; not a single sentence of Pictish has survived. There are no clear cut decipherable inscriptions, no written Pictish in ancient manuscripts and no Pictish language recorded by their contemporaries. It is principally, this startling missing evidence that continues to fascinate enthusiasts, and fuels more exotic theories on their ethnic and cultural origins.

  1. Are the ogham inscriptions then not considered “a single sentence of Pictish”?

    What is the explanation for the unintelligibility of the ogham inscriptions when the Pictish language is views as Celtic?

    Is it some sort of Rosetta Stone difficulty, in which linguists and archaeologists need to “break the code” of the ogham (seeing how it relates to Pictish) in order to consider it Pictish writing?

    • Hi Christie, I suppose one difficulty with the Pictish Ogham writing is that although they are definitely not in Irish, we can’t be sure they are written in Pictish. I think they probably are, as they seem to contain Celtic elements, eg Meqq (Mac?) and Pictish names such as Nehhton (Nechtan). However, there are still those who put forward the idea that these are much later than the Pictish period and are Scandinavian see http://shetlopedia.com/Bressay_Stone

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  3. It seems like you truly fully understand a great deal about this specific topic and this shows
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  4. If you translate the Pictish Oghams, and structure the transliterations using Egyptian phonetic structure you will arrive at the very answers you look for….either that or its sanskrit! 🙂 do enjoy , those minds that can handle it :0 Naddrfhed!

  5. The problem you have is that the the Celtic word is derived from Roman sources and has many possible definitions. The best being Keltioc which meant foreigner. It was antiquarians from the 18th and 19th century that wrongly supposed that all the tribes of Gaul and Britain were of the same culture. This now is shown to be untrue and the very term Celtic has problems. As for the Picts, DNA and archeological evidence has shown the Bedes version of the inhabitants called the Picts is mistaken.

    There was no mass movement from Sythia (what is now modern Scandinavia) by people settling in the East coast of Scotland who later became the Picts. The Picts are the indigenous people that were formerly know by other tribal names such as the Venicones, Calendones of Ptolemy’s maps. We can not be sure if these names given by Ptolemy are accurate. Bedes version of event about the Picts was not written until much later and has no modern archeological evidence. We know that Bede writings do not stand up to scrutiny on many other issues so there is no reason to believe his version about where the Picts came from.

  6. There is ample evidence of the “Celtic” nature of Iron Age culture in the later Pictish heartland…. Art and Fortification are just two examples of cultural traits widely shared amongst all northern peoples… Brochs far from being non “Celtic” are merely design improvements to the Celto Iberian Castros, also seen in localised form in Western Ireland, there are too many easily available books that deal specifically with the non exotic-ness of Pictish culture for it to still be a controversy

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