The Origins of the Celtic Picts


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

At the time of the Roman invasion, Scotland was inhabited by various tribes, including the people who later became known as the Picts. They did not rule ancient Scotland. They had to share northern Britain with many other groups. Only over the course of centuries did the Picts diverge from the other tribes of northern Britain and forge a distinctive Identity.

Image of Aberlemno Pictish Serpent Stone.
The Aberlemno Pictish Serpent Stone, showing the serpent, the double-disc, the Z-rod and the mirror. (Image: Fulcanelli/Shutterstock)

The term ‘Pict’ was not in use when the Romans first arrived in Britain. In the 2nd century A.D., Ptolemy created a geographical description of the Roman empire called Cosmographia. Cosmographia or Geographia not only provided the tribal names for many areas of the empire, but it also gave information about places such as Ireland and northern Britain, which were not under Roman control.

Ptolemy placed the popular tribe Caledonii in the north, whose eponymous name ‘Caledonia’ is still used as a synonym for Scotland. He also identified Damnonii and Cornavii tribes in the north, but nobody with the name of Picts ever surfaced in his work.

Though Ptolemy didn’t get everything right, the point remains obvious: nobody in the 2nd century had ever heard of Picts.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Origin of the Word ‘Picts’

There was no mention of the word Picts until the late 3rd century. It all started when a crisis in the Roman Empire led Roman authors to write panegyrics, or praise poems, about various Roman emperors and their accomplishments. One of those texts gave us our first mention of the term ‘Picts,’ described as half-naked savages.

By the early 4th century AD., there was an entire Roman catalog of barbarian groups called the Verona List. It underlined 53 contentious nations present on the borders of the Roman empire. The title of the text read: “Gentes barbarae quae pullulaverunt sub imperatoribus,” or “The Barbarian Nations that sprang up under the Emperors.”

The text blamed the emperors for letting these barbarians flourish under their watch. The criticism might not have been fair, but the text was inadvertently right when it made the Romans themselves responsible for the creation of the Picts. For there never were any people that went around calling themselves the Picts. It’s even more of a problem than with the Celts, where at least there were some people on the continent who called themselves Celts. With the Picts, it was only the Romans who called them that. If one were to ask a person with the tattoos in the 3rd century about a Pict, he would have no idea unless he read a lot of Latin panegyrics.

Image of Stangate Roman Road
Site of the ancient Roman road known as the ‘Stangate,’ located within the Corbridge ‘Roman Site,’ Corbridge, UK. (Image: Moyn2000/Public domain)

There was also a second way through which the Romans invented the Picts, and this went beyond the terminology. The group of tribes that later became known as the Picts were essentially similar to the Britons living to the south of the Hadrian’s Wall. It was just that they were not Romanized. By the late 3rd century, when we first started to hear the term Picti, Picts, or painted ones, the two areas of Britain had completely diverged. The Britons south of the wall had adopted Roman customs and were presumably wearing more clothes and fewer tattoos, whereas the people north of the wall did not.

Learn More About The Origins of the Celtic Picts.

Were the Picts Painted Blue?

Why did the Romans call these peoples the painted ones? Did the Picts paint themselves blue, similar to Mel Gibson in Braveheart? One thing we can be certain of is that Sir William Wallace did not paint himself blue. The producers of Braveheart were well aware of how widespread the idea of the Picts painting themselves blue was. And a mere fact that William Wallace came a thousand years later, would never stop them from going with an arresting visual.

So, where did the idea about the Picts painting themselves blue originate from? Julius Caesar once noted that the Celts got blue pigment from the woad plant and that they used it to decorate their bodies. There are no surviving historic accounts of woad being used in Scotland to paint human skin. People have, nevertheless, tried testing woad and found it much better at dyeing cloth than skin. Woad was, in fact, widely used in the Middle Ages for all types of cloths, including the tapestries.

A copy of Pictish silver plaque.
A 19th-century copy of a silver plaque from the Norrie’s Law hoard, Fife, carrying double disc and Z-rod symbol. (Image: Johnbod/CC BY-SA/ Public domain)

The first-hand accounts from people who have tried testing woad on themselves found that not only does it not leave a blue tattoo, but it also burns the skin. It has also been theorized that the real use of woad was perhaps intended to heal the scars after the battle. The long and the short of it is that we don’t know if the Picts painted themselves blue; but if they did, they certainly did not look like Mel Gibson.

So then why did the Romans call them the Picts? The Romans were perhaps upset. They needed an outlier, and the Picts had always been a military threat to Roman Britain. Between A.D. 367 and 368, and at a few other times, Picts actively allied with different groups of people coming in from Ireland. The groups that may have constituted the later Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, which straddled the sea between northeastern Ireland and southwestern Scotland.

This so-called ‘barbarian conspiracy’ started off a war that lasted on and off well into the 5th century. And at one point, the Picts and their allies had even established a temporary control of the Roman province of Britain. A sophisticated, strategic effort that would have required extensive knowledge of Roman defenses. So much for the Picts as naked savages.

Furthermore, the revolt proved that the Britons were quite willing to be overrun by their northern compatriots. Britain was always a problematic province and the Picts were very much part of the landscape.

And yet, Roman Britain survived as a Christianized province well into the 5th century.

Common Questions About The Origin Of Picts

Q: Are the Picts Celtic?

Picts were a tribal confederation of Celtic peoples, who lived in the ancient eastern and northern Scotland. The Picts are thought to be the descendants of the Caledonii peoples and other Celtic tribes mentioned by the Roman Historians.

Q: What is the difference between Picts and Celts?

The difference between the Picts and the Celts is a label applied to a group of people by Non-Celtic groups, such as Romans who called certain groups as Picts.

Q: Are Picts and Scots the same?

The Picts and Scotts are not the same. Scotti was an Irish, Gaelic tribe that occupied the Highlands and Islands.

Q: When did the Picts die out?

Picts did not die out. The Picts survived as a group until early in the 10th century. There is no record of their dying out or migrating to other places. It is likely that the Picts simply developed into a multi-ethnic nation of Scotti, Picts, Britons, and Angles, which we now call Scotland.

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