A lack of clear thinking dominates the subject of Pictish history, which is relayed to us not by the Picts themselves (as we know very little about what they thought), but rather through Roman records – or the people who conquered much of ancient Briton. There is often references to Irish and even Viking sources referring to the Picts (by different names), but this is supposition. There is a habit of viewing Pictish history with an inverted mindset, suggesting that the Picts themselves were a mystical race of ethereal supreme beings who suddenly manifested into this material realm, perhaps from clouds floating down to earth, or (as a Scottish friend of mine once described them), ‘as little black people that emerged out of holes in the ground.’ A stab at a more scientific grounding suggests the Picts were culturally advanced people who migrated to Northern Scotland from various places in Europe, and brought their metal work, stone masonry, fort building, ship building, jewellery manufacturing, cloth producing and military skills to the Highlands, not to mention a hierarchical political and social structure that brought law and order to the once tribal existence. Although highly romantic in nature, there is absolutely no evidence for any of these theories, but this does not stop the muddled thinking and even (on occasion) the ‘racism’ that has been associated with the Picts through modern (Eurocentric) commentary (even though the Picti skin tone is unknown).
The Picti as a distinct ‘Romanised’ cultural grouping certainly did not pre-exist the Roman presence in Scotland (Caledonia), but the ancient Britons who would eventually become the ‘Picti’ (i.e. British Celts) certainly did pre-exist the coming of the Romans. Bear in-mind that the Greek term ‘Keltos’ originally referred to anyone ethnically ‘non-Greek’ and corresponds to the Latin-based ‘barbarian’ (as all ‘foreign’ languages to the Romans, apparently sounded like sheep barring). Therefore, the (Latin) term ‘Celtus’ referred to any and all tribal culture spread throughout Europe, that did not possess a civic society or distinct political system, or who did not purchase goods through the use of money. As the Romans associated the Gauls (or ‘Gaels’) of Western Europe as personifying everything that was wrong with Celtic existence, the term ‘Gaelic’ became synonymous with ‘Celtic’ and was used interchangeably (and still is). The ancient Britons that the Romans encountered across the entirety of the British Isles, were culturally similar and distinguished by tribal or clannish origination. A dominant man or woman would hold power over the collective tribal grouping, and be responsible for setting the calendar, planting crops, harvesting crops, marriages, migrations and warfare, etc. Although not unsophisticated, the Celtic existence was looked-down upon by the Romans who preferred their own interpretation of Greek civilisation. The Picts arose not as a sudden (not to mention ‘undocumented’) transference of people from foreign lands into Caledonia, but rather as a transference of a dominant socio-economic culture from the Romans to a particular section of the ancient Briton population, (a process that is documented). These ancient Britons remained ‘free’ to use the most progressive elements of Roman life, whilst not being subsumed into the milieu that was the all dominating culture of Rome.
This is the (Marxist) non-inverted manner of interpreting Pictish history, which is no less great for using this method. The Picti represent an indigenous people that were able to convert the culture of a conquering foe with considerable intelligence and ingenuity. As a result, when I visited Northumberland and Scotland probably around 10 years ago, I was astonished and over-awed by the Pictish standing stones (some of which exist on grass verges within housing estates), as well as the buried Pictish fort at Burghead, and the nearby stone jetties used to launch and recover Pictish trading and warships. I also visited numerous museums and observed all the Pictish artwork and use of the Ogham and Latin written languages. After talking to numerous experts, I remain unconvinced that the Picts were ‘Christian’ and would suggest that they represented ancient Britons that whilst taking-on everything progressive about Roman culture (including soldiers wearing leather skirts), nevertheless did convert to Christianity, simply upon the grounds that there was no sustained or enforced cultural contact with Rome following its conversion to Christianity in the early 4th century CE. By that time the Pictish identity was already fully established and Christianity (even the earlier Irish version) would have had no discernible place in what had become a secular civic society with its exploration and use of the scientific method. Furthermore, on this point, I am of the opinion that Irish or Pictish crosses originally had nothing to do with Christianity but were co-opted by that religion at a much later date.
The Picts arose from around the 1st century CE in what is now referred to as Northern and Eastern Scotland and had disappeared from the historical record by the 10th century CE. The term ‘Picti’ was applied by the Roman conquerors of ancient Briton, to a distinctive group of unconquered barbarians living freely to the north of effective Roman political and military control of Southern Caledonia (the Roman name for Scotland), marked by the Antonine Wall or Hadrian’s Wall, etc. These boundaries were often aggressively patrolled miles into enemy territory by the Roman Legions, with the indigenous tribal people being kept far away from the fortifications. Indeed, when not fighting or avoiding the Romans, there was much interaction governed by Roman standards of protocol and decorum, with the local inhabitants having to conform to Roman cultural modes of behaviour, if trade and other interaction was to be allowed. Although the indigenous peoples of Caledonia valued their freedom and self-determination, they were also able to learn about the Roman culture ‘at a distance’ (rather than through direct imposition), and benefit from Roman ingenuity, science, medicine and modes of social organisation. Like in the Mainland of ancient Briton, many tribal people in Caledonia came to associate themselves with the norms of Roman culture, and as they existed outside of direct Roman rule, were able to take Roman ideas and functionality and develop their own distinct version of this Greek-like organisation in the region. Obviously, as those who ‘painted their bodies’ (Latin: Picti) were not subject to direct Roman control, they retained their non-Roman, ancient Briton culture, often referred to as ‘Gaelic’, ‘Celtic’ or even ‘Irish’, etc. This change in psychological context for these Caledonians unleashed immense intellectual and physically creative powers that altered the landscape and led to immense building projects, as well as the use of ornate (carved) stones (that told stories in beautiful pictures) and the use of (Irish) Ogham and Roman Latin as written languages. Curiously, unlike the Romans, the Picti were excellent shipwrights and sailors, and commanded a highly effective navy that kept ancient Briton from being invaded by the growing dominance of a Viking presence on the high seas. More to the point, the Pictish navy would often ‘raid’ all along the British coast under the nose of the Romans who were unable to prevent such incursions and defiance of their authority. This might explain why similar carved stones (containing Ogham and Latin script) exist in Cornwall. However, certain ancient Britons (sometimes termed ‘Celts’) were famous for their seafaring skills, particularly the peculiar little shore-hugging boats known as ‘caracals’. The point is that although caracals were often designed for individual sailors, nonetheless, the idea of dominating the British coast and moving freely from one area to another was existent within ancient British culture.
There is no evidence that the Northern Britons were ethnically (or culturally) any different to the Britons that inhabited the entirety of Mainland Briton. The Romans initiated a rupture between indigenous British culture and that forcibly imported from Rome. This means that although the foundations were laid for what would become ‘England’, the tribes that inhabited Mainland Briton were essentially identical from a cultural perspective. This changed as much of Caledonia did not fall under Roman rule and the Caledonians retained their ancient Briton culture. Although this was modified through contact with the Romans, the ‘Picti’ that culturally emerged from the Caledonian Britons, did so with their freedom and self-determination intact – a cultural marker that defines modern notions of Scottish identity. In the meantime, the Picti built their own fortifications (mirroring those of the Romans), developed their own version of civic society and political organisation, independent trade routes, military technology and military practises, and distinctive cultural expressions (often using the bull in artwork). Although the bull was used in Roman art (a possible origination), it is also true that archaeology in ancient Ireland has revealed that cows were kept on that island in immense numbers, and this association might well explain the Pictish fascination with the bull. Despite a number of academics associating the Picts with Christianity, there remains a distinct lack of any Christian iconology within highly developed Pictish artwork. Of course, this might be explained by the fact that Celtic Christianity (that spread to the Western shores of ancient Briton from Ireland), predates the arrival of Roman Catholicism, and was not dominated by the usual symbols of power associated with the Vatican. Furthermore, there is a theory that the Celtic (or Pictish) cross predates the Christian cross, and originally referred to the passing of the four seasons and the unity of nature. It could well be that Christianity later adopted the cross only after encountering it amongst the pagan peoples of Europe.
There is no DNA evidence that the Picts represent a different ethnicity or racial grouping, vastly different or distinctive from the rest of the ancient Britons. In other words, the group of indigenous Britons that became known to the Romans as the ‘Picti’ (we do not know what they called themselves), were not an exotic or otherwise an advanced group of people that migrated into Caledonia and resisted the Romans due to their similarly superior and very well-developed culture. The Picts were ancient Britons occupying a particular socio-economic niche, within which they were harassed by the Romans, but not directly conquered. This led to a unique cultural development within a relatively small group of indigenous Britons, whereby the environmental pressure applied by the presence of the Roman war machine in close proximity, led to a rapid psychological and material development, the purpose of which was to meet this challenge (as the Roman presence continuously threatened physical – if not cultural extinction). The most efficient way for these ancient Britons to meet this challenge was to copy the parts of the Roman culture most applicable for immediate and longterm survival, whilst altering and developing this culture into new modes of cultural expression and interaction. This process developed what looks like a political and military stalemate, with the Romans and the Picts being fully aware of one another, whilst tending to avoid any direct military contact, or political exchange. Of course, the Pictish kingdom outlasted the Roman occupation of Briton by nearly 600 years, but even this distinctive culture eventually collapsed when its most progressive elements became widespread and adopted by all politically and culturally dominating groups. The Picts historically represent the most progressive elements of Roman culture (and civilisation) freed from the usual political and cultural dominance exercised by the Romans over subordinated peoples. The Picts, as is evident from their artwork, developed their own class system with a dominant upper class controlling the toiling Pictish masses. High status Pictish women are seen riding a horse side-saddle – a habit still seen within the British royal family today.