The king-lists in the Pictish Chronicle provide quite a few Pictish male names, such as Alpin/Elpin, Drust, Talorc(an), Cinad, Bridei/Brude and Nechtan. Unfortunately, there is no comparable source for Pictish female names. Very few Pictish women are recorded in surviving documentary sources. Given that the Picts practiced a form of matrilineal succession according to contemporary writers such as Bede (see article on Pictish matriliny), it seems surprising that so few royal female names were recorded. Can we infer anything useful about the likely form of Pictish female names?
Pictish symbol stones are found in Scotland, mainly north of the Forth and Clyde, and are generally dated to the period of the 6th to 9th centuries AD. The frequency distribution of the common symbols is a fair match for the frequency distribution for the Pictish names recorded in the Pictish king lists, which is consistent with the theory that the symbols may represent names (Cummins 1995). Ross Sansom (1995) has suggested that a specific symbol, a stylised comb and mirror, may indicate that the person named on the stone was a woman. If true, this may shed some light on Pictish female names.
If a special comb and mirror symbol was needed to indicate the sex of a person named on a symbol stone, this implies that the symbols themselves did not convey this information. In other words, if the symbols represent names, either these names could be borne by either sex (i.e. there were not specifically ‘male’ and ‘female’ names), or male and female names were sufficiently similar that they could be represented by the same symbol, perhaps differentiated by adding a male or female ending.
A system of differentiating male and female names by means of a specific ending is familiar from Latin, where the ending –us indicates a male name and –a indicates a female name, e.g. Julius / Julia, Claudius / Claudia. If Pictish names followed a similar pattern, the main symbol would represent the masculine form of the name (e.g. Julius, in the analogy with Latin) and the comb and mirror symbol the element required to turn it into the feminine form (something like –ia or -a, in the Latin analogy).
Annals of Ulster
The Annals of Ulster mention one Pictish royal lady by name, a Pictish princess who died in the late eighth century:
778. Eithne, daughter of Cinad, dies--Annals of Ulster
The death of Cinad, king of the Picts, is recorded in the Annals of Ulster in 775.
Eithne is, however, an Irish or Gaelic name. This may indicate that the Picts routinely used Irish names for girls, which would be consistent with the colourful origin legend of the first Picts having obtained wives from Ireland (see article on Pictish matriliny for the legend). If the Pictish language (about which little is known) contained a sizeable component of Irish Gaelic, Irish names may have fitted readily into Pictish culture. However, this possibility is not easy to reconcile with the suggestion from the symbol stones that female names were the same as male names, differentiated by a specific feminine name element or ending.
Another possible explanation is that Eithne may be exceptional in having an Irish name, perhaps indicating that this particular Eithne had important Irish ancestry or other connections that the family wished to signal when choosing her name. This would be consistent with her presence in the Annals of Ulster, as strong Irish connections could explain why the Ulster annalist(s) thought it worth recording her death. Unfortunately, with a sample of one it is pretty well impossible to tell whether it represents an exceptional or typical situation.
So, did female Picts use Irish names, like Eithne daughter of Cinad, or did they use the same names as male Picts (such as those recorded in the king-lists), perhaps with a specific element to indicate the feminine form, or indeed something else altogether? I don’t think the available evidence is sufficient to be able to say. The meaning of the symbols on the symbol stones is unknown, and the comb and mirror symbol might convey some other meaning that has nothing to do with gender. Indeed, the symbol stones may not be personal memorials at all. As for Eithne daughter of Cinad in the Annals of Ulster, we know her name but arguing from the particular to the general is perilous at the best of times and doubly so on the basis of a small sample.
For what it is worth, I think it is fair to say that high-ranking Pictish ladies could have Irish names, since Eithne daughter of Cinad did; and that the symbol stones can be interpreted in a way that is consistent with Pictish female names being the same as or similar to Pictish male names. These are not mutually exclusive, of course, since there is no reason to assume that Pictish female names were all of the same type. Name choices could have varied according to region, family, prevailing fashion at the time or simple personal preference.
Annals of Ulster, available online
Cummins WA. The Age of the Picts. Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1995, ISBN 0-7509-0924-2.
Sansom R. Power to the Pictish ladies. British Archaeology 1995, available online