“Picts” is the name used by late Roman and later writers for the inhabitants of what is now north and east Scotland, with “Pictland” being used for their territory (see map for approximate location). It is identical with the Latin word “picti”, which is from the same root as words like “picture” and “pictorial”, and means something like “the painted ones”. No doubt it has contributed to the enduring image of the Picts as tattooed or woad-painted warriors, revived for Mel Gibson’s late thirteenth century Scottish troops in the 1995 film Braveheart.
Although “Picts” is now the accepted name for the people(s) of north-east Scotland in the late Roman and post-Roman period, with no serious challenge from any alternative label, the name was as far as we know not their own name for themselves but was given to them by outsiders. Where did it come from, what do we know about it, and were there alternative names in use?
Roman sources (Third and fourth centuries AD)
The earliest surviving document to use the name Picts is a Latin panegyric dedicated to Constantius Caesar and dated to 297 AD, which refers to the “Picti” as customary foes of the “Brittani” (Britons) (Aitchison 2003). This may not be the first use of the name, and indeed the fact that the panegyric did not explain it may indicate that it was already an established name that the audience could be expected to understand. It has been suggested that the name Picti may have come into use in the Roman world after the campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus in the early third century (Laing and Laing 2001); whatever the truth of this, it was evidently in use by the end of the same century.
In 313 the Verona List referred to “Picts and Caledonians” (Laing and Laing 2001), and in 364 the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus reported an attack on Roman Britain by “the Picts, divided into two tribes called Dicalydones and Verturiones”. This strongly suggests that Latin writers at this time regarded the Picts as a collective name for at least two distinct groupings. The name Caledonians, to which Ammianus’ Dicalydones must surely be related, appears as far back as Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s Roman campaigns in the north-east of Scotland, written in the first century AD. The Caledoni also appear, along with numerous other tribes, in Ptolemy’s second-century Geography. None of the names in Ptolemy’s Geography appear to resemble the name “Picti”. This suggests to me that Roman writers initially regarded Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line as inhabited by numerous distinct tribes, and that some time in the third century they began using “Picti” as a general label to refer to several or all of them. Whether this reflects a genuine shift from separate tribes to a stable confederacy, as suggested by Cummins (1995), or merely a change in the way the Romans saw and/or labelled them, is open to question.
Gildas (Sixth century AD)
Gildas was a Brittonic monk writing somewhere in what had been the Roman province of Britain, around the middle of the sixth century. He wrote in Latin, and referred to “Picts” (“pictorum” in the original) in extremely derogatory terms. (But then, Gildas was derogatory about almost everybody).
Bede (Eighth century)
Bede was an English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) monk living in Northumbria in the eighth century. He also wrote in Latin, and referred to the Picts (“Picti”, “Pictorum” in the original) as one of the four peoples inhabiting Britain in his own day (Book I Ch. 1). He says they were divided into a northern and a southern grouping, indicating that “Picts” was a general label that could apply to more than one distinct group.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Ninth century)
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was begun in King Alfred’s Wessex in the late ninth century. Written in Old English, the entries that correspond to events recorded by Bede and Gildas refer to “Pihtas” (e.g. the entry for AD 449). The Old English translation of Bede, produced at around the same time, refers to “Peohtas”. These terms could be Anglicised forms of the Latin terms Picti or Pictorum used by Bede and Gildas.
Pictish Chronicle (Fourteenth century manuscript, may be derived from earlier original)
The Pictish Chronicle, written in Latin, uses the same name for the Picts as other Latin sources, Pictorum. It also includes a summarised origin legend, saying (in Latin) “Cruithne, son of Cinge, was the father of the Picts living in this island. He reigned 100 years and had seven sons, Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn”.
Cruithne is an Irish Gaelic word, corresponding to the Brittonic word Pritani, which in turn gives the name of the island, Britain (Laing and Laing 2001). Gaelic and Brittonic each belong to one of the two main groups of Celtic languages. The characteristic difference between the groups is that Q-Celtic (to which Gaelic belongs) uses a K- or Qu- sound where P-Celtic (to which Brittonic belongs) uses a P-sound. For example, the word for ‘head’ is Pen in Brittonic and Kin in Gaelic. If you take ‘Pritani’ and transliterate it into Q-Celtic, you get ‘Cruithne’.
Irish translation of Historia Brittonum
The Irish translation of Historia Brittonum (a ninth-century Latin text) recounts the same origin legend in Irish:
“Moirfeisear do Cruithne claind
Roindsed Albain a seacht raind
Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland,
Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.”
These are recognisably the same names for the founding father figure and his seven sons, but here they are said to have “divided Alba into seven parts”. This strongly suggests that the same people and territory could be called “Alba” in Irish and “Picts” in Latin.
Annals of Ulster (Twelfth century manuscript, may be derived from earlier original)
The Annals of Ulster are of particular interest because they are written partly in Irish and partly in Latin. The full text is available online in the original and in modern English translation. In Latin entries, the Picts are referred to as “Pictorum”. For example:
858 (in Latin) “Cinaedh m. Ailpin rex Pictorum” (modern English translation “Kenneth mac Alpin, King of the Picts”)
Some entries switch language in mid-sentence. For example:
871 (in Irish) “Amhlaiph & Ímar do thuidecht afrithisi du Ath Cliath a Albain dibh cetaibh long, (then in Latin) & praeda maxima hominum Anglorum & Britonum & Pictorum deducta est secum ad Hiberniam in captiuitate”
(modern English translation) “(from Irish) Amlaíb and Ímar returned to Áth Cliath from Alba (with two hundred ships, (from Latin) bringing away with them in captivity to Ireland a great prey of Angles and Britons and Picts.
The same entry transcribed in a different version of the Annals, in Irish, lists the three groups of prisoners as Britons, Albans and Saxons (Cummins 1995).
Again, this suggests that the same people could be called “Picts” when writing in Latin, but “Albans” when writing in Irish. Similar situations are commonplace today, but so familiar to us that we don’t find them confusing. For example, the inhabitants of modern Germany are called “Germans” in English, “Deutsch” in their own language, and “allemands” in French.
The Irish annals also seem to have had an alternative name for the Picts, or possibly for one or more of the groups who comprised the Picts.
866 (in Irish) “Amlaiph & Auisle do dul i Fortrenn co n-Gallaib Erenn & Alban cor innriset Cruithentuaith n-uile & co tucsat a n-giallo.”
(modern translation) “Amlaíb and Auisle went with the foreigners of Ireland and Scotland to Fortriu, plundered the entire Pictish country and took away hostages from them”
In this entry, two Viking raiders plus some foreigners from “Alba” – perhaps Norsemen who had settled somewhere in modern Scotland or its islands – are said to have plundered “Cruithentuaith”. “Cruithen” is recognisably the Irish word “Cruithne” and “tuaith” is from the Irish “tuath” meaning a people or tribe and their territory. So “Cruithentuaith” would mean “the people/country of Cruithne”.
The same term appears in the title of one of the royal signatories to Adomnan’s Law of the Innocents, set out at a synod in Ireland in 697 (Aitchison 2003). In Irish his title is “Brude mac Derilei, ri Cruithintuathi”, translated as “Brude son of Derilei, king of Cruithintuathi”. Brude son of Derelei appears in the correct place in the list of the kings of the Picts in the Pictish Chronicle. “Cruithentuaith”, “the people/country of Cruithne”, would appear to have been an alternative Irish name for the Picts.
Perhaps the Irish had two names in their own language for the same country and its people, analogous to the modern use of “Britain” and “UK” as (not quite identical) synonyms. Or perhaps one referred to part of the other, in the same way as modern “England” is part of “UK” but is sometimes used to stand for the whole. The Irish Annals refer to “Alba” in entries for years after about 900, by which time the territory referred to is the combined kingdoms of the Picts and the Scots (roughly corresponding to modern Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line). Perhaps “Alba” had been in use for some time as an Irish name for this area, and was sometimes also applied to its largest component, Pictland.
Writers in Latin from the third century to at least the fourteenth consistently used the name “Picts”, which was rendered in Old English as “Pihtas” or “Peohtas”.
Writers in Irish used two terms, “Alba” and “Cruithentuaith” (“the people/country of Cruithne”). It is not clear whether these were synonyms, or whether one referred to part of the other. From the fourth to the fourteenth century, the Picts are consistently referred to as being composed of several distinct groups, so regional/tribal names and identities are likely.
As no source in the Pictish language, whatever it was, has survived, we do not know what the Picts called themselves. Since the writers of the Pictish Chronicle, who valued the history of the Picts sufficiently highly to write it down, used the Latin label “Pictorum”, it is perhaps fair to say that the name was at least not considered objectionable.
The name “Picti” could have been a Latinised form of the Picts’ own name for themselves, as seems to have been common Roman practice for naming other Britsh tribes. Place names such as Pitlochry and Pittenweem preserve a conjectural Pictish element “Pit-”, meaning a piece of land. It must be at least a possibility that the Picts’ own name for themselves related to this element (Room 1993), perhaps referring to a particular system of landholding. Its association with the Latin word for painting could have been merely a colourful (!) coincidence.
Original sources available online are linked in the text.
Aitchison N. The Picts and the Scots at War. Sutton, 2003, ISBN 0-7509-2556-6.
Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Sutton, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
Laing L, Laing J. The Picts and the Scots. Sutton, 2001, ISBN 0-7509-2873-5.
Room A. Dictionary of Place Names. Bloomsbury, 1993. ISBN 0-7475-1511-5.