10 December, 2007

The Picts (or Cruithne, or Albans): What's in a name?

“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.


Bernita said...

Comprehensive and succinct, Carla.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As always with the Picts/Cruithne/Albans (Delete as appropriate) there are few definite conclusions. But I agree that the Latin "Picti" meaning "Painted" may have been a mere coincidence as the Romans would have been more than familiar with woaded savages before reaching Pictland (a name we could now translate as "Landland" oddly enough).

I have read somewhere that it was the Spanish and Greek seafarers who first used the name Alba (meaning "white") when navigating around Britain. Referring to the cliffs of Dover.
Alb or Albe is translated as hill or mountain pasture from Indo-European & Germanic. Although this would better describe the land of the Picts I can find no evidence to suggest it has anything to do with Pictland.

Whatever the case, I find it extremely fascinating and informative.
Keep up the good work!

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you

Mark - For what it's worth, my guess would be that 'Pit' referred to some distinctive system of landholding, rather than to 'land' per se. So it could have meant something like "land of the people who divide their land up according to this method". Aitchison suggests that the Pit- names may have referred to dependent parts of a central estate - he didn't go into detail so I'm not entirely certain exactly how that might have worked (something like medieval manors?), but it may have been an important differentiator between them and the Scots, who reckoned by numbers of households rather than by land area. Then again, that might be a distinction without much of a difference, as the English system of reckoning by hides can be taken as either land area or household number or a bit of both. Bede always refers to land areas as '....the land of X many families...'.

Whatever the details of the system, if it resulted in a lot of places called Pit-something, the Picts' neighbours might have adopted 'Pit' as a general name for the inhabitants. In which case it might be translated as something like "land of the people who call their land Pit-".

Since it seems to have come in as a later collective noun in the 4th C for tribes that had been established since at least the 1st C, perhaps it reflects a tribal system of organising landholding that was noticeably different from the Roman system in use south of the Wall? Or perhaps the resemblance to 'painted' was just too cool to resist for a late Roman writer looking for a collective name for exotic barbarians?

I've heard that derivation of 'Alba' or 'Albion' from white too. It makes perfect sense for someone looking at perfidious Albion from the north coast of Gaul, where the chalk cliffs are very prominent in the view and could easily justify a name like 'the white land'. Not so obviously applicable to the whole island or to North Scotland, though!

The mountain pasture suggestion sounds as though it's related to 'Alp'. It would certainly apply to Scotland north of the Forth, although perhaps it would fit rugged Dal Riada (which is nearly all mountain) even better than Pictland, which has some big fertile plains near the east coast.

Since it seems to be the Irish who made routine use of 'Alba', it would be instructive to find out whether it has any plausible meaning in Old Irish, wouldn't it? On the face of it, an Irish origin might be more likely than a Germanic or Classical one for a term that turns up in the vernacular in Irish records. At least Cruithne, as the Irish equivalent of 'Britons' makes perfect sense.

Linda C. McCabe said...


Do you know when they were first called Scots?

Or were the Scots a different tribe from the Picts and lived in the same general area?

I'm curious because I am writing a story set in the time of Charlemagne and mention in passing the Scots, the Irish and the Britons.

I will readily change it to Picts if you feel that is more accurate for the time period. It's a small detail, but I would hate to make anyone cringe if I can help it.



Carla said...

Hello Linda and welcome. The Scots first appear in the historical record in the 360s, so about the same time as the Picts. Latin sources also sometimes refer to the inhabitants of what is now Ireland as Scots, so it can be very confusing.

The area that is now modern Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus became a united kingdom in about the middle of the 9th century under Kenneth mac Alpin. Irish-language sources such as the Annals of Ulster refer to it as Alba. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in Old English, refers to Scots at this period e.g. the entry for 902/903 where an 'abbot of the Scots' is described. Later medieval sources used Scotland in English and Scottorum in Latin, e.g. Edward I's famous title 'Malleus Scottorum', Hammer of the Scots. So I suppose Scots as a general name for what is now Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line came into use in English-language sources somewhere around the end of the ninth century, about the same time as Irish-language sources started using Alba for the same area.

In the 8th century, the Picts and Scots were still separate kingdoms. Roughly speaking, the Scots occupied the area of modern Argyll and spoke a form of Irish. Their kingdom was called Dal Riada. The Picts occupied the rest of Scotland north of the Forth-Clyde line. Their language is not known, although it was probably a branch of P-Celtic, and nor is their name for themselves and their territory (see main post).

So if you are referring to people in Charlemagne's day who lived in north-east Scotland, i.e. north of the Forth-Clyde line and not in modern Argyll, they would be Picts, and if you're referring to people who lived in the area that is now modern Argyll in west Scotland they could be called Scots.

If you're referring to the inhabitants of Britain in passing, you could do much worse than follow Bede. He was writing in AD 731, which is not so very much before Charlemagne's time, and his terminology may be the closest approximation to a contemporary souce, assuming you don't have a source from Charlemagne's court itself. See the link in the original post for the exact reference and the full text.

Hope this helps.

Constance Brewer said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing, I learned a lot.

Russell Whitfield said...

That was a fascinating read, Carla, thanks so much. I'm doing a right onerous task at work right, now and this piece you've done here has really brightened my day!



Gabriele Campbell said...

It's such a fun mess. ;) Johannes Scotus, Alcuin's successsor at the Carolingian Palace School, came from Ireland, not Scotland.

And there are those lists of tribes (like Selgovae, Votadini, Epidii, Novantae ...), mostly north of the Hadrian's Wall, that contradict each other and the Roman sources. One book - don't remember if it was Laing or some other one about the Picts - calls them for proto-Picts which is nonsense, imho. Either their culture and language was Pictish, or not. I think they were Picts.

Judging from the mess the Roman sources made with the German tribes (the Suevi live in like three different places, fe.), I suppose they never bothered to get the details right, be it in 83 AD or 360 AD - the guys were trouble, and that was enough. :)

Carla said...

Constance - glad you found it interesting!

Russell - hope you weren't too distracted!

Gabriele - it's puzzling that 'Scot' became the preferred term, isn't it, given that it could also mean Irish. Perhaps it was as confusing at the time as it is now.

For what it's worth, my guess is that the tribes between the walls eventually became the Gododdin and the kingdom of Strathclyde. If Pictland was essentially a confederacy, maybe they were part of it at times as well. If the 'Picts' represent some sort of confederacy of earlier tribes, then I suppose the earlier tribes could be described as 'proto-Picts' to indicate that they later became the Picts (or at least, became called Picts).

Since the Irish could call the people of North-east Scotland Cruithne = Britons, it's perhaps likely that there was no hard and fast dividing line between Picts and Britons, except perhaps the artificial one created by the Roman wall(s). The various tribal labels may well have been used as imprecisely as modern labels like 'Asian', which would explain why the sources don't agree.

Rick said...

Now I'm curious as to how late the Picts stayed around. I've always thought of it as an "ancient" term that ceased to be current around 900 or so - perhaps not by coincidence, about the time the term Scot shows with relation to northern Britain. So I was surprised to see it turn up in non-antiquarian sources as late as 12th-14th century. (Though you do say the 14th century Pictish Chronicle could be from an earlier original.

I get the impression that Picti was a generic term for northern peoples, who might well be related to each other, but probably did not call themselves Picts. Though once they've been fighting the Romans long enough, surely they acquire some collective awareness, whatever their political arrangements.

The flip side of when and how they stopped being Picts, I suppose, is the process by which northern peoples of various background eventually all become Scots, not only to the English and others but to themselves.

Carla said...

Rick - It depends what you mean by non-antiquarian sources. The Annals of Ulster survive in a 12th century manuscript, but the entries after about 900 or so refer to 'Alba' rather than the Picts, which may suggest that the term went out of use around then but was preserved in the entries already in the annals for earlier years. So perhaps one could argue that early (depending how you define 'early') entries in the Annals represent an antiquarian source. Similarly with the Pictish Chronicle; if it was copied verbatim from a (much?) earlier orignal in the 14th C, would it count as an antiquarian source?

If one assumes that the Annals of Ulster and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle were being written contemporaneously with events by 900 or so, it seems the label 'Picts' had gone out of use and been replaced by Alba in Irish and Scot in English. When it went out of use among the Picts themselves - if indeed they had ever used it - is anyone's guess. If it was a variant of their own name for themselves, I suppose it would have gone out of use when their language did. In what is now the south of Scotland the new language was English or a variant thereof so the label adopted was the English-language label 'Scot'. North of the Forth-Clyde area the incoming language was Gaelic or a variant thereof, so the label adopted was presumably Alba. I can think of at least one place name in Argyll containing Alba; there's a mountain on the west side of Glen Etive called Stob Coir' an Albannaich "The Peak of the Corrie of the Men of Alba". When the name was given is anyone's guess, but it may reflect use of the Irish-language label for the Picts among the inhabitants of Dal Riada.

Why the English-language label became 'Scot' is a mystery. Perhaps the Scots were the dominant partners when the Pictish and Scottish kingdoms merged under Kenneth mac Alpin in 840-ish, and so 'Scot' became the preferred label for the new kingdom. One can sort of imagine official envoys from Kenneth mac Alpin to neighbouring kingdoms introducing themselves as "I'm from the King of Scots", and the scribes going "Oh, right" and writing that down as the new name for the folks up north.

Since Scottish Dal Riada was so much smaller than Pictland it's perhaps surprising that it should have become the dominant partner and given its name to the merged kingdom. But there are a lot of hybrid Pictish-Gaelic place names in the Highlands, so perhaps the language and culture of Dal Riada had been influencing Pictland for generations before Kenneth mac Alpin formalised the merger. Why this should be is anyone's guess (again). Maybe when the Picts adopted Christianity from Irish missionaries like Columba they started adopting the language and culture that went with the new religion.

The label Picts had presuambly gone out of use and been replaced by Scotland for all practical purposes by 1435, or there'd have been no need to make up an origin legend about an Egyptian princess called Scota. She'd have been called Picta :-)

It's been argued that the Picts were a confederacy of pre-existing tribes who combined together under the pressure of the Roman threat from the south. Possibly it was a name defined in opposition to Rome, and when there was no longer a Roman state to the south it was no longer needed and faded out of use.

Rick said...

For this purpose, verbatim copying probably counts as antiquitarian, though the motive is different. A responsible copyist might gloss a term that has fallen out of common use, but would not arbitrarily "update" a source document. (Composing a new document is entirely different.)

My gut feeling is what you suggested. "Picts" came into use meaning broadly "northern people fighting the Romans." Once the Romans were gone, the word hung around in the vaguer sense of northern peoples who maybe had once fought Romans. But once the main northern ruler is the King of Scots, then they all become more or less Scots.

Even ones who probably neither knew or cared who the King of Scots was, till centuries later. :)

Carla said...

"Even ones who probably neither knew or cared who the King of Scots was, till centuries later. :)"
As in, when Edward I came on the scene?
Given the geography of what's now northern Scotland, I'd expect regional identities to have been at least as powerful as any national identity. The 'man on the Pictish street' may well have thought of himself as belonging first to his family or village, then to his region (Fortriu, Fife or whatever) and to Pictland or Scotland or whatever it happened to be called a very long way third, unless there was some major external threat to band together against (e.g. the Romans, Edward I). All this debate about what they were called might well seem very academic :-)

Rick said...

As in when Edward I came on the scene?

Well, since you mention it,yes. I imagine a good many tribal leaders said, in effect, Well, if that's how they're going to be about it, then yes, I bloody well am a Scot.

But out on the fringes, did the Lords of the Isles care even then, or at any time till Jimmy IV mounted big guns on his ships? (Before Henry VIII did, by the way.)

The LotI is of course one of my favorite medieval entities, just because of the cool name. Which is why I steal the name and bestow it on the Channel Isles writ big, so that between isles they're lords of one of the most important waterways in Europe, instead of commanding the trade of the Hebrides. :)

virtual nexus said...

Carla, I have nominated you for the Shameless Lions Roar for Powerful Words in recognition of your depth of understand and clarity in historical writing. See mine for details.

virtual nexus said...

Carla, I have nominated you for the Shameless Lions Roar for Powerful Words in recognition of your depth of understand and clarity in historical writing. See mine for details.

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, the Lord of the Isles is a marvellous title, and no, I don't think they gave a fig for the King of Scots most of the time. There's an extra strand in it all by then, because of the strong Norse heritage in the Isles. I was quite struck when we went to Trotternish on Skye that half the place names looked Norwegian.

Your synologue raises an interesting question. Why wasn't there a powerful maritime lordship in the Channel? I guess because the Normans were it?

Julie - Thank you! I'm deeply honoured. It'll take me a little while to figure out my nominations, but I promise to try to get to it before Christmas!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I was quite struck when we went to Trotternish on Skye that half the place names looked Norwegian.

And the other half is Gaelic. There's not much English in the language they speak, either. A bus tour from Kyleakin to Armadale with only me and the driver turned out to be a first class language lesson. :)

Rick said...

Having about the most powerful territorial lordship in Europe so close at hand didn't help! And the Channel Islands plus the Isle of Wight aren't large enough to support a substantial base population.

Perhaps, though, the Cinque Ports are a hint of might-have-been - in slightly different circumstances they might have emerged as a maritime league, perhaps with a Lord of the Channel.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I can think of worse ways to get a language lesson :-) Some of the Scots coach and bus drivers I've come across ought to be on the stand-up comedy circuit.

Rick - Good point about the Cinque Ports as a might-have-been. Didn't the Lords of the Isles also control quite a lot of the Highland mainland at times - places like Lochaber and Moidart? Despite the name they weren't entirely confined to the Isles.

Dedalus said...

Hello, I am interested in the Cruithne, as it has come up in some of the readings on the historical roots of my family. However, the discussions of the family name indicate that the people had found a home in a confederacy smack in the middle of Ireland in the 400s. With the wonderful research you have done here, could you hypothesize about Cruithne presence in Connacht (Galway and Roscommon specifically) around the 5th C?