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This page is being extensively re-written and will be uploaded later this month. [12.x.17] What follows below should be taken with a pinch of salt.

When the Vikings began their great expansion westward to the Northern Isles and beyond in the 8th C., they found the Picts already established. “The Picts were the most numerous of the peoples of early medieval northern Britain, and occupied the best land.” [Lynch, 2001] Not a state of affairs to be tolerated for long by any self-respecting Viking. A later Icelandic chronicler bequeathed posterity one of the earliest misleading statements about Orcadian Picts in the anonymous ‘Historia Norwegiæ’ probably written originally in the early 13th C. The earliest surviving manuscript is a copy in Latin from the early 16th C. Writing of the Orkney Islands: These islands were first inhabited by the Picts and the Papar. [Papar = christians, probably Irish hermits] The Picts, who were only a little bigger than pygmies, worked great marvels in city-building each evening and morning, but at noontide they were utterly bereft of their strength and hid for fear in little subterranean dwellings. At that time moreover the islands were not called the Orkneys but Pictland, and this is why still to this day the sea dividing the islands from Scotland is called the Pictland Firth by the local people. The greatest of all whirlpools is to be found there, which engulfs the strongest ships, sucking them in at ebb tide and spewing out their fragments with a belch at flood tide. We do not know at all where these people came from. It remains to this day a matter of debate where the Picts came from. It is also true that the Picts worked great marvels in stone, most notable their carved symbol and other stones of which more anon. They certainly constructed small dwellings and workshops both attached and separate from brochs but as for the construction of the brochs themselves, not to mention the ‘subterranean dwellings’ now called souterrains or earth houses, and in Scots known as weems, is far from clear. Whether the Picts hid in them bereft of strength and courage I cannot say, but confronted by gangs of marauding Vikings who's is to blame them? There are two well-preserved weems near Kirkwall; one at Grain on the edge of town and one a couple of miles west at Rennibister. The Pictland Firth is still just that although the name has morphed into Pentland Firth; and the whirlpool, The Swelkie, is still there just to the north of Stroma, marked on charts and as furious as ever. The prevailing view seems now to be that the Picts have been resident since time immemorial - or at least their ancestors have been since ca. 6,700 B.C. in the case of Orkney where that most exciting of finds, a charred hazel nut, was recovered from The Holm of Papay providing evidence of Mesolithic occupation by humans. The jury is still out as to whether these were settled people or seasonal migrants. Hard evidence abounds for settlement of an advanced and numerous society by the Neolithic [3,600-2,000 B.C. in Orkney] and subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages. Then came the Vikings, but before them were the Romans. The earliest Mesolithic and/or Neolithic peoples are, in the main, thought to have originated from Celtic tribes in central Europe. The Picts were certainly Celts, as were the Scots and other Irish tribes. Just how and when they arrived in Orkney is debated.


Some have argued that in Orkney there were two separate cultures which could have evolved from rival branches of the same ethnic group or represent different cultures of separate, competing ethnic groups. What distinguishes these two cultures in Orkney are the types of tombs they built, being either of the chambered [e.g. Maeshowe] or stalled type [e.g. Midhowe]; their domestic acrchitecture associated with different pottery types e.g. small, single family, units such as that at the Knap of Howar constructed ca. 3,600, associated with Unstan Ware, and occupied for about 800 years making it “the oldest house in Europe” compared with somewhat later village communities such as that occupied at Skara Brae for some 600 years from 3,100 till 2,500 and associated with Grooved Ware. Also, until the Bronze Age, skull types are predominantly dolichocephalic [‘long-headed’] people; appearing later in Orkney with the Bronze Age are ‘round heads’, brachycephalic people. The early Bronze Age in Orkney dates from ca. 2,200-1,200 B.C. In an article entitled ‘A Comparison of Stonehenge With Stenness’ [Cook, 1939] John Cook, describing burials in the vicinity of Stonehenge wrote; Two quite distinct races were buried in the barrows - one long-headed and the other round-headed. Curiously enough, the long-headed race built long barrows, and the barrows of the round-heads were also round.

Gaels called the Picts Cruithne; the Britons called them Prydyn; speakers of Anglo-Saxon referred to them as Peahtas. The Scots have called them Pecht, Pech, Peth, Peicht, Peycht, Peytht, Peight, not to mention paychtpech, pegh, peght, peycht, paight, peaght, peht, peiht, peech(t); picht, pight, and Pick. [D.S.L. and D.O.S.T] This last, Pick, has an Orkney pedigree according to Hugh Marwick's ‘The Orkney Norn’ [O.U.P. 1929] in which he says of Pick: usual Ork. pronunciation of Pict. Sometimes Pike. ‘Pecht’ seems quite obsolete, if, indeed, it was ever used. The first use of the name is credited to a Roman writer, Eumenius, in A.D. 297 the name indicating ‘painted people’ - probably tatooed or possibly dyed with woad or both, a fanciful impression of which is shown by these engravings by Theodor de Bry of ‘True Pictures of Pictes’ published in Thomas Hariot's ‘A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia’ [1588]. In case you are wondering what the Picts have to do with Virginia, de Bry explained that his illustrations were intended “to show how that the inhabitants of the Great Bretannie have been in times past as savage as those of Virginia.” However, according to Joshua J. Mark, This origin of their name has been contested by modern scholarship, however, and it is probable they referred to themselves as some form of ‘Pecht’, the word for ‘the ancestors’. See Picts In spite of this plethora of names bestowed upon them by others, and pace Joshua Mark, it is not known what the Picts called themselves. As with almost everything to do with the Picts, you pays yer money and takes yer choice. One of the best books, in spite of its being over half a century old, is very appositely entitle ‘The Problem of the Picts’ [See Wainwright, 1955].

The history of the Picts [must be] pieced together from scattered references in Irish, Welsh, and English sources. It is impossible to construct a narrative history: the historical record presents little more than a disjointed succession of battles.

So saith Katherine Forsyth. [Lynch, 2001] She also saith “In other respects however” i.e. other than their carved stones, “the Picts may be regarded as very similar to their neighbours.” Their nearest neighbours as far as mainland Scotland was concerned were the Scots in the south west, Irish clansmen from Antrim who established an enclave known as Dalriada, roughly Argyll, and who ultimately expanded to control the whole of Scotland or, as it was then known, Alba, before which it was ‘Pictland’ although they probably did not call it that themselves, and to refer to it thus misleadingly implies a unified whole which Pictland seems rarely if ever to have been. What Pictland was, was a loose amalgum of as many as seven separate kingdoms some of whom were interconnected by marriage. Such alliances were not just between Picts, but included Northumbrians and British to the south as well as Scots. Success in battle was another factor governing the imposition of overlordship by one king over another, and the consequent merging of kingdoms until a change in fortune led to a reassertion of their individsual identities. One such separate ‘kingdom’ was Orkney.

The precise date of the Picts' arrival is as uncertain as that of the Vikings, but Pictish culture was dominant from around 300-843 AD in possibly as many as seven separate kingdoms. The Pictish kingdom of Orkney, including part of Caithness, may have been semi-autonomous. “Regardless of the exact number of kingdoms and the names of those kingdoms, the Pictish nation was not a united one.” [Wikipedia 24.x.2013] This seems an over-simplification, and true only before ca. 685 AD by which time; “Pictland formed a single kingdom. Or, to be more accurate, there is no reason to doubt that Brude mac Bile was recognised as king by all the Picts... By the time of Bede it is clear that the Picts were a single people and that they ‘formed a definite kingdom, not a mere congeries of tribes.’ ” [Wainwright 1955] However, Wainwright makes a nice distinction between politics and culture. “The Picts... achieved a political unity, represented by the Pictish Kingdom, but apparently were never a single race... If, as seems likely, the Picts were a heterogenous people, we cannot assume they possessed a common culture or spoke a common language.” [Ib.]

It is not surprising that Picts should intermarry with Scots as both were Celtic in origins and spoke related Celtic languages, albeit aparently mutually unintellibable. Picts, as far as can be judged from such meagre evidence as a few placenames, seem to have spoken P-Celtic, whereas the Scots spoke Gaelic which derived from Q-Celtic. St Columba, who established a missionary position on Iona and was himself of Irish descent, spoke Q-Celtic but, according to his biographer Adomnán, needed an interpreter in order to converse with Picts. [Adomnán was also the first writer to describe the Loch Ness Monster.] It was believed by many that the Picts arrived late to the party that was the Celtic settlement of Scotland and the Northern Isles, and in their haste had failed to pack enough women. While in transit in Ireland they ‘borrowed ’ breeding stock from the Irish who, in exchange, extracted a promise from the Picts that in deference to the honour thus conferred upon them they would matrilineal succession. This myth seems to have originated with Bede writing ca. 730 and been bolstered by subsequent matrilineal succession, but the myth-believers seem selectively to ignore the fact that more often succession was patrilineal as well as occasionally tanistry. Whether resort was made to ‘Bloody Tanistry’, whereby the strongest royal male inherited, usually through the agency of war or murder I don't know, but it would seem more than likely.

TThe only trace remaining of the Picts are a number of finely carved stones, including some from Orkney, and a whisper of place-names across mainland Scotland. In Orkney not even the placenames have survived. Particularly significant in Scotland are placenames prefixed Pit- e.g. Pitlochry. The Pit- element derives from the celtic word pett signifying a share or landholding. Pictish stones were divided into three classes by xxxxxxx in xxxxxxxxx Class I were undressed stones or rocks on which symbols were carved; Class II were dressed stones which combined Pictish symbols with Christian iconography; Class III were carved stones but without Pictish symbols. This classification, especially insofar as it was supposed to enabled the stones to be pl;aced chronologically, is now seen to be flawed. Many of these stones are now in museums but they were all originally public statements of some sort placed in the landscape. Whether boundary markers, memorials of people or conquests or conveying some other message is all good fodder for debate, but what is significant is that when placed on a map they coincide with the extent of Pictish place names thus providing an accurate idea of the extent of the Pictish empire. However, it needs stressing that the stones, whatever their relative sequence, only date from ...

In spite of at least a millennium of Pictish dominance, “as far as can be ascertained, no Pictish names are recorded in Orkney.” [Lamb 2003] Clues as to Pictish language continue to be sought in Orkney however the vast majority of place-names in Orkney are of Norse origin. Jakob Jakobsen could find only 40 Shetland names which he claimed contained Celtic elements [‘Shetlandsøerne Stednavne’ 1901]. Of Shetland he wrote “Every small hill, point, rock, dale, cleft, brook, piece of field or meadow, etc., bears its own name, and these names, with comparatively few exceptions, have been handed down in Norn dialect.” Hugh Marwick claimed to have identified 30 Orkney placenames of Celtic origin. [‘Celtic Place-names in Orkney’ 1923] Since then however, F.T. Wainwright concluded in ‘The Northern Isles’ [1962] that apart from one or two possible Brittonic names, not a single name can with certainty be attributed to the Picts. Depending on your viewpoint, just why so few or no Pictish Orkney place-names survive is also a matter of continuing debate. The wholesale eradication, if such it was, of Pictish names suggests that the human population suffered the same fate at the hands of the coiners of new names. The archaeology suggests that this was not the case. The Picts were under pressure on all fronts and not just from Viking incursions in Orkney. Across the Pentland Firth, in 843 AD, the Picts united with the Dalriada Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin for reasons that remain obscure and promptly disappear from history. The Vikings, for whatever reasons of their own, set about renaming everything and their names endure to the present. Notwithstanding the many subsequent centuries of Scottish and Anglophone influence, Orkney place-names remain stubbornly redolent of their Norse origins. “The Norse, whatever their relationship to the previous population, indelibly stamped the islands with many thousands of their own place-names - the whole vocabulary of today's landscape is unmistakably Norse.” [Thomson 2008]

And yet, the name Orkney itself is Celtic. “The first element of Orkney ...is Celtic.” [Lynch, 2001] There is more controversy over its meaning, but the prevailing view favours the porcine; “...Orkney, the Orcades (‘islands of the “young boars” ’)” [Lynch, 2001 - his punctuation.]

Norn was spoken as late as the 18th C. in Orkney and somewhat later in Shetland. Long before that the ‘official’ language had become Scots. Mooney, in an article published in ‘Orkney Heritage’, writing of two cash books found in a cathedral strong-room, asserted that while they “provide a good deal of information about the activities of the Kirk Session of Kirkwall’ between 1631 and 1653, found ’no Norn words in these records.” The last official Orcadian document in Norse was issued in 1443 [Thomson, 2008]; the earliest in Scots just ten years earlier [ib.]. The ensuing eclipse of Norn by Scots was as rapid and total as the earlier extinction of ‘Pictish’ with the emergence of Norse, and the later displacement of Scots by standard English from around the Reformation in 1560, the publication of the King James' Bible in 1611 and subsequent forced introduction of the Book of Common Prayer.

To conclude, a somewhat off-message rent which you are free to pass over in silence.

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  • Renfrew, Colin: The Prehistory of Orkney [Edinburgh U.P., 1990]
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  • Ritchie, Anna [ed]: Neolithic Orkney in its European Context [McDonald, 2000]
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  • Ritchie, Anna: Scotland BC [HMSO, Edinburgh, 1999]
  • Ritchie, Anna: Picts. An introduction to the life of the Picts and the carved stones in the care of Historic Scotland [H.M.S.O. Edinburgh, 1993]
  • Ritchie, Anna: Perceptions of the Picts: from Eumenius to John Buchan [Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie, 1994]
  • Sutherland, Elizabeth: In Search of the Picts [Constable, 1995]
  • Thomson, Gordon: The Other Orkney Book [Northabout Publishing, Edinburgh 1980]
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  • Wainwright, F.T.: The Northern Isles [1962]
  • Wainwright, F.T.: The Problem of the Picts [Edinburgh, 1955]
Thomson wrote two separate histories of Orkney published some fifteen years apart.

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