Who were the Picts? And what about those tattoos?

I recently wrote a short story for Torquere Press in response to their call for submissions for “INK”–an anthology of tattoo-based stories. Of course, since most of my fiction has centered on fifth-century Ireland and other celtic locales, I thought right away about the Picts.

While reading about those mysterious people, I found out a few interesting bits that I’d like to share with my readers.

True or false? The Picts were really Caledonians, the people who later became Scoti to the Romans, and finally “Scots.” Answer:  PROBABLY FALSE.

True or false? The Picts bore blue tattoos on their bodies, virtually from head to toe. Answer: MAYBE.

I realize that I’m hedging my bets here. But almost 2,000 years after the Romans wrote about those people with picti, or pictures on their body, who’s to know for sure where they came from and what those blue marks really were?

Let me begin with the first “myth”–that the Picts were really just an offshoot of the Caledoni, the tribes that the Romans found when they invaded present-day Scotland at the dawn of the first century AD.

If the evolution of language is a way to trace the ancestry of a people, then perhaps it’s only a myth that our present day Scotsmen can trace their lineage to the Picts. Even though the Roman chroniclers were careful to distinguish among the people they conquered–and even those they did not–it seems that the Picts were one group of people, a distinct race, among others that the Romans found when they invaded the north of the great island of Britannia.

There is one school of thought that traces the Picts back to Iberia, the Roman’s name for modern Spain. Others think that the Picts originated in the Orkney and even the Shetland islands, two island groups that lie well north of the Scottish mainland. Could the original immigrants have come from Norway–or even Iceland and beyond–and settled in those islands, centuries before the Norsemen penetrated as far as Britannia itself?

Most scholars think that the Picts were a large distinct tribe that inhabited most of present-day Scotland until about the fifth century AD. Then they began to be subsumed with the people the Romans named the Scoti, a nation of people that emigrated from the region called “Dál Riada,” encompassing the modern day Inner Hebrides and a portion of Northern Ireland, modern Co. Antrim. On the satellite image pictured here, Dál Riada is in the shaded oval. Thus the Irish Gaels merged with the Picti to form a nation called Scoti, or Scots. The term “Caledonian” seems to be almost generic, a term the Romans used to refer to anyone beyond the great walls they erected to keep the savages from penetrating the rest of Britannia.

The question that no scholars have been able to answer is this: how could such a large number of people, spread throughout thousands of miles, have virtually disappeared in a few generations? It’s possible that instead of disappearing, the hardy Picti merely intermarried with the Scoti, to form the rugged, handsome people we now call Scots.

Mind you, this is a guess. No one knows for sure. One of the greatest mysteries of the Picts is their language. Not a trace of their language remains except in stone markings called “ogham,” a language that has been traced to the so-called P-Celtic tongue. Not a trace of their widespread early culture remains except in the form of standing stones with distinctive artwork, in unearthed burrows, and in the traces of stone houses, among other remnants.

Likewise, no one really knows the truth about the famous Pictish “tattoos.”

I’m almost reluctant to use the word “tattoo,” originating as it does from Tahiti/Samoa as late as the 17th century. In fact, in that recent short story I wrote about a blue-marked Pict, I used the term “pricked-in” to refer to the falcon embedded on his chest, and below you’ll see why I settled on that term.

The very word “pict” derives from the term used by  a Roman chronicler who thought that these people were covered with blue “pictures.” The blueness of the markings has been thought for centuries to be derived from a plant called “woad,” a member of the mustard family, whose ground roots render a distinctive blue dye.

Until recently, it was assumed that the woad plant was inserted under the skin after elaborate markings were picked, or pricked-in, with some kind of slender needle. But experiments show that first of all, the woad dye is short-lived, lasting only a week or two before it becomes so faded that it almost disappears. Second, anyone injected with woad paste or powder becomes very ill. It’s a substance that humans can hardly tolerate.

So how did the Picts make their tattoos?

Well, it’s entirely possible that the markings were not picked into their skin at all, but were painted–much the same as the Amerind “war paint.” I like to think that those who saw the distinctive blue swirls and designs were on the wrong side of the Picts’ better nature, and those marks were the sign of outright hostility–war paint, if you will.

Another plausible theory is that the blue paste worked under their skin was woad mixed with an iron-based pigment that would ensure that the marks remained, and that did not sicken the wearer.

I like to think that these ancient warriors, with a  culture based on matrilineal descent, were naturally drawn to the  intricate curved and geometric designs that we think of to this day as “Celtic” or “Pictish.”

Remembering that the Picts lived in a matriarchal society, ask yourself:  Who but a woman would have thought first of adorning herself with lovely patterns that highlight the muscles and natural curves of the body? You read it here first, my friends: Pictish tattoos were invented by a woman. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  ;-)

The novels of Erin O’Quinn are centered largely in the northern portion of ancient Ireland–Derry, Inishowen, Tyrconnell (Donegal), Coleraine. From there, the characters have journeyed to sacred Armagh and Tara, south  to Wales, across Britannia to Deva Victrix, to Cambria, north to the great wall of Hadrian and beyond.

Join the growing number of readers who are beginning to learn about the wild-ass people of this exciting time on the cusp of written history through a series of unique novels.

Erin O’Quinn’s Manlove blog:  http://romancemanlove.wordpress.com/
Storm Maker:  http://amzn.to/O218y7
The Wakening Fire : http://amzn.to/N1Gc6C
Captive Heart:  http://amzn.to/Qm8b1X
Fire & Silk:  http://amzn.to/P6jZtn
Warrior, Ride Hard:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-ride-hard
Warrior, Stand Tall:  http://www.bookstrand.com/warrior-stand-tall

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30 thoughts on “Who were the Picts? And what about those tattoos?

    • Dear Theo,
      I wonder whether Stewart meant that the people were “small” in size, or in numbers. Certainly neither of those is true! They were probably as large as other warriors of their day, for they were definitely feared by the Romans, who spent nearly four centuries trying to beat them back from invading the south of Britannia. And their numbers were great, according to historians who place them throughout most of modern Scotland. As far as living in the “north woods,” even that is suspect. Some think that when the Scoti came into the Pictish lands, they took the highlands while the Picti remained in the lowlands, involved in agriculture and fishing. So I don’t believe I’ll soon turn to Mary Stewart for my history lesson. . . . Seriously, Theo, thanks so much for coming by and leaving a comment. That’s what my blog is all about–a forum for ideas and a sharing of impressions. Slán, Erin

      • She meant small in size. And she did her research. She was also British. :) I have no other opinion though, not being part of that world. It just rang a bell when you said “picts”.

  1. Great post, Erin. I’ve always thought writing about the Picts would sort of give a literary “license to steal,” since so little is known of them. It’s interesting, though, that more and more the old Roman chronicles are being shown to be surprisingly accurate. They were excellent historians, with or without Roman prejudice and propaganda in the mix.

    • Thanks, Miriam. I agree with you about those pesky Romans. As judgmental as they were, we’re finding that much of what their chroniclers recorded was fairly accurate. And they were sticklers for things like square miles of territories, numbers, types of weaponry–in short, they were wonderful bean-counters. Lucky for future generations, eh? I tend to believe that they saw blue markings on those tough warriors. Whether the marks were indelible or painted on–that will forever be a mystery, but one that’s fun to speculate on. As always, it’s a pleasure to read your remarks. Slán, Erin

  2. Hi Erin,
    I have been fascinated with the Picts for a long time. My trilogy has some Pict characters. In addition to what you posted, some believe that they are a mixture of the native Neolithic peoples and the Celts, and one thing I found interesting is that their language is very similar to Welsh. There were alliances and connections with the Welsh, and with Dal Riata–the Irish king my main character is based on was believed to have wed a Pict princess and fathered a Pict king. But they also fought against Dal Riata–King Bridei is a well known Pict king in the sixth century that fought against Dal Riata. They didn’t call themselves Picts, but may have referred to themselves as Priteni. The Gael name for them was Cruithne–that’s the one I use in my books since my main characters are Gaels. Thanks for sharing this info. I enjoy reading your posts.

    • Dear celticchick,

      I share your fascination. I’m not suggesting that the peope from Dál Riada waltzed over and started intermarrying with the Picts…but I do think that there must have been, over the years, a melding of the cultures until we have the Scoti who “became” the modern Scots. All of it is complex, compelling, and–wow, do I agree with you–rife with possibilities for us to write about. As for the language, that is a whole ‘nother Gordian knot. Some modern scholars even see similarities with the Basque tongue!

      One of these days I promise faithfully to buy and read all your books. It’s just that I’m so riveted by the mid-fifth century that I am loath to “look ahead.” But it’s rare to find a like-minded writer, and I am truly intrigued by your work. Best of success, and thanks as always for your valuable insights.

  3. Interesting post Erin. The latest take on Picts/ Celts etc comes from the DNA analysis of the UK population, well described in Professor Bryan Sykes’ excellent book, Blood of the Isles and more recently in The Scots, A Genetic Journey, by Moffat and Wilson. These books blend the DNA evidence with all the history and mythology to create a clearer picture. The first thing to say is that all the native tribes who were around at the time of the Romans were descended from the original hunter gatherer population which migrated north as the ice age relaxed its grip. So the Picts didn’t come from anywhere, they were always there and occupied most of Scotland. We should also not underestimate the power of Roman propaganda. They were the scribes and were hardly likely to portray their annoying northern neigbours in a positive light. Adding body paint to the Picts ups the savagery level and makes them a more worthy enemy, justifying more Roman divisions to keep them at bay. Regarding the idea of Celtishness, this appears to be a nineteenth century romantic invention. There is no DNA evidence for a later intrusion of “Celtic” people from Europe. On the other hand the swirling motifs found on high status jewellery and other artefacts might well have a European origin spread through trade. The coveting of bling and fashion among high status individuals is hardly new.

    • Dear Alan, I knew when I wrote this post that I was flirting with trouble. There’s no earthly way to do justice to such a complex subject in an article aimed at a general audience. I didn’t want to bring up the recent DNA studies, but of course you’re right. What I disagree with is the statement that the Picts were “always there.” No group of people have “always been” somewhere. Like my own ancestors (Amerinds), they migrate–from dangerous conditions, etc. But of course there could have been no time in the last several thousands of years that SOME groups of peopple dd not inhabit such a fertile and beautiful country.

      Your comments bring up several intriguing branches of discussion, such as the idea of “Celtishness” and the origins of the artwork. If the swirling markings and other “art” were imported from “Europe,” why are they found on cairns dating from milennia ago, all throughout the most inaccessible parts of the “celtic” world?

      Intriguing and compelling! I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to leave your thoughts for all of us to mull over. Sincerely, Erin

    • I agree with you that there was a melding of the cultures. Alliances were made by inter-marriage so I think we would be surprised just how much these ancient people and possibly enemies were related. Kenneth McAlpin, the first recognized king of Scotland, was believed to be descended from the clan Gabrain of Dal Raita and the Picts.

  4. Erin, this was very interesting to read. You bring out a lot of good points as to how it all started, and theories behind it. I don’t know the history of Picts or anything like that, but I will say I like your theory of a woman starting it. (Ha) Who ever was the first, I am very grateful. My love for body artwork is intense.

    • I agree with Erin that I don’t believe the Picts or at least all of them were already there. I think there is some truth to all the theories and that the ‘Picts’ were a mix of races. I also think that some of them were Gauls and Britons that escaped the invading Roman legions, which would explain why there are different descriptions of them from being small and dark to being tall and having reddish hair.

      • Dear cc,

        I’m answering your answer to Kim, I guess! Most of the references I’ve seen describe the Picts as rather menacing with their long red hair, their muscled bodies and of course their fierce tattoos. How much of that is due to later folklore and how much to truth? Hopefully, new scholarship will shed new light on those intriguing people. While (as Miriam and Alan suggest) the Romans are hardly reliable witnesses, the fact remains that they are among the very few who have even mentioned the Picts. So we have to “pict” through the slender facts to come up with a plausible theory. :-)

    • When doing research, you have to consider a variety of things. I always look at the timeline and what happened in other parts of the world, archaeological evidence and written documents. The Romans kept excellent records so they are a great source for information. You just have to take into account that they are speaking about their enemies.

  5. Wow, Pat, you bet I’ll read that! If true, it kind of blows a lot of theories out the door, doesn’t it? Of course, Siberia is a bit of a distance from Scotland…but the idea of body tattoos could not have sprung full-blown from one relatively small nation of people. The “technology” of tattooing is found throughout the world. I’m off to read that article. Thanks for that, and for taking the time to stop by and leave another intriguing bit of scholarship to follow.

  6. Here’s an update to that article Pat McDermott provided: Fascinating and beautiful! The designs are remarkably similar to the ones I’ve always associated with Pictish tattoos. There are several large renditions of the tattoos, ones found not only on the “princess,” but on two “warriors” buried near her. One major disappointment, though–there is not one single word about the tatts themselves, aside from a discussion of their gorgeous designs. What was their chemical composition? Were they rendered with needles? I was longing to learn how those tatts survived since the fifth century BC, even immersed in permafrost, and how they were applied to the skin.

  7. Interesting stuff Erin. for me the Pict were a wild band of celts, living in Scotland. In fact the scotts took over them… I find their history similar to that of the The Native americans Indians for the Picts were also considered like savages only because they refused to changed their way of life for the benefits of civilitation…

    • Dear Elena, I have to admit that I guiltily equate my own ancestors, American Indians, with those mysterious Picts. Both groups painted themselves for various reasons, fought and died as their civilization crumbled before the encroaching society of others. In my heart, Elena, I know that my feelings are hopelessly maudlin, but there you are. It’s too late to change my heart. Just don’t tell anyone.

  8. Hi, Erin!
    Watch for a PM with some research you asked me about …

    You didn’t mention the ‘other’ explanation of why anyone in their right mind would actually WANT to live in Scotland … the theory that a Scot is really an Irishman who owned a rowboat, and a Welshman is a Scot whose Dad had a bike … [ducks to avoid flak]

    So far I’ve found credible sources which confirm that tattoos were known and used as long ago as the Neolithic period. A mummifies body dated over 5300 years old was found in 1991, covered in tattoos – interesting, considering this was pre-Christian times, the tattoos are almost exclusively in the form of crosses …

    • I would like to add to Paul’s post.
      The cross was around long before Christianity. This is taken from my website: It is believed that the ancient
      Cross symbolized the earth’s four directions and the divine center.

      Spaniards saw Indians worshipping the Cross. The Peruvians and
      Babylonians had the Maltese Cross. The druids were believed to
      have made their Cross out of a stem and two branches of the oak
      tree. Buddhist Crosses are common throughout the East. The
      Thor’s hammer Cross is a well-known Pre-Christian Cross and
      several deities of ancient Egypt hold a Cross in their hands.
      Wheeled Crosses are seen on some Pre-Christian stones,
      possibly as symbols of solar worship.

      Ireland is known for its many ancient Crosses. Pre-Christian
      Crosses have been identified at Dowth and New Grange on the
      Boyne, Knockmany of Tyrone, Deer Park of Fermanagh, Cloverhill
      of Sligo and Slieve-ha-Calliagh near Lough Crew of Meath. The
      ancient faery people of Ireland, the Tuath-de-Danann, had
      Crosses that were adorned with snakes, birds and other animals.

      In the Scottish Highlands, the Fiery Cross, when dipped in goat’s
      blood and flaming, was a message of alarm among the wild tribes.
      A serpentine figure was often twisted around the Fiery Cross.

      • Dear celticchick,

        Because I went straight to the dashboard in my blog, I didn’t see your comments when I answered Paul. Thanks!!!! for teaching us some really valuable information. While I knew about the ancient nature of crosses, I should have researched before I fell all over my own tongue saying that the celtic crosses dated from Patrick. It just makes sense, now that I think about it, that crosses would abound in non-Christian contexts.

        I love the way that you and the others have cross-referenced each other and taught us all a lot more today than we knew when we started. I so much appreciate you…all of you…

        xErin

    • A mo chara Paul,

      I hope our readers know that you’re of Gaelic heritage and a Brit besides, so that your humor is more understood and appreciated…or tolerated? ;-)

      I know that the “cross” motif is a very, very ancient symbol. Whether it represents the four winds, the earth/air/fire/water of the alchemic wizards, or the “swastika” of much later, the symbol does show up in every corner of the earth, from time immemorial. Karl Jung called it an “archetype,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it anywhere, even on 5300-year-old mummies… The so-called “Celtic crosses” are by and large Christian symbols, dating from the time of St. Patrick.

      Thanks, as always, for your sprightly and enlightening comments. And I’ll look forward to your message on FB. Slán, Erin :-D

      PS…I wrote this answser before I saw celticchick’s learned remarks above. So I guess I’m wrong about most of the celtic crosses dating after Patrick. I need to dive into some research books, and thanks cc!

      • Erin, You might be right about St. Patrick introducing the Christian Celtic Cross to Ireland. Here is something I found that was interesting. Not sure if about the source, but it makes sense to me:
        Read Original Here: Sacred Celtic Crosses : Fantasy-Ireland http://www.fantasy-ireland.com/Celtic-crosses.html#ixzz24he4SNS9
        Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Share Alike

        One of the most prominent differences between pre-Christian and Christian Irish cross designs is where the ring is found upon the cross. The pre-Christian version is more symmetrical, with the ring centered both vertically and horizontally.

  9. Not only a fascinating subject, Erin, but obviously one with many possibilities! I love your theory that a woman is responsible for the tattoo. At school in Scotland, we were taught about the blue dye made from woad but I can’t remember much else from then as I preferred more recent history. But there was definitely compelete intemingling between the Scots and Irish – as most of us in the west coast of Scotland can confirm!

    • Dear Rosemary, I’m grateful that a bonnie Scot is not chasing me out of town over this article….Thanks for joining the conversation. I think my “theory” is pretty funny, but of course the subject is a serious one, and one to scratch our brains over. What is it about human nature that draws us to cover ourselves in markings? If indeed the Picts did so, why were they the only people in that region to do so? Were the Romans really lying? Why is there no trace of the Pictish language? I like Miriam’s point of view best–the lack of history gives novelists like me “license to steal,” and I’ve certainly committed literary larceny on this subject….

  10. Oh, Erin, you bad girl, you. Paul, do you have any knowledge for us on Cornwall? My grandfather was Cornish and I know shockingly little of the history. He rarely opened his mouth. :) That’s one reason my brother and I are pursuing the DNA project. Everybody else blathered incessantly, but not Granddad Wells. Nope.

  11. Note: the site moderator has edited this comment somewhat for length.

    “True or false? The Picts were really Caledonians, the people who later became Scoti to the Romans, and finally “Scots.” Answer: PROBABLY FALSE.”

    You have a bit of play on words here because the Picti were in fact the Caledonians, the early British Tribes who came probably in the second wave of people from the continent after the last Ice Age. But they were probably not the Scoti. Because of DNA testing of people in the Argyll region of Scotland, some now believe they were not necessarily the Gaels who came to Scotland in the 4th and 5th century but were probably descendants of the first Celtic people who spoke a form of Gaelic .

    Geneticists now believe that the Gaels of Dalriada were probably descendants of those first Gaels and were pushed out by ensuing waves of Brtions. As to Caledonian–that was a generalized term to include all the native tribes above the Forth/Clyde line. And though many believe that the Picti or Caledonians may have painted themsevles, it was probably not a widespread custom.

    It is now generally believed that the Picti or the Caledoni (nothern briton tribes) actually did not vanish but more likely were absorbed into another culture–namely, that of the Gaels who had already embraced Christianity. If in fact the Gaeles of Dalraida came in the 4th century, the merger of the Kingdom of the Picts and that of the Gaels was over 400 years in the making. The spread of Christianity had a lot to do with that. Many scholars beleive that the Gaels of Dalraida and the northern Picts had to merge together to defend themselves from the marauding Danes and Norse.

    There is a new book out by Tim Clarkson which some of you might be interested in called THE MAKERS OF SCOTLAND: THE PICTS, ROMANS, GAELS AND VIKINGS. He also has a book titled THE PICTS: A HISTORY; and one on the Britons as well, titled THE MEN OF THE NORTH: THE BRITONS OF SOUTHERN SCOTLAND.

    • Dear Jody,

      I’m indebted to you for your clarifying remarks. I mentioned in a note to another contributor that my blog must be kept rather straightforward and short in order to engage the maximum number of readers. The subject of Picts is one that really does fill volumes, and I unfortunately had to gloss over many facts in order to present an overview.

      Thanks for your insights and additions to my article! Slán, Erin

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