Historical context

The Picts lived during a turbulent time called the Migration Period. At the beginning of the fourth century the Roman Empire started to lose its power. Barbarians (all peoples that are not Roman) migrated within or into Europe in territory that had belonged to the Roman empire for centuries. This forced the Romans to leave parts of their empire. Britannia was the first province left by the Romans in circa 410. The Roman conquest of Britain had started in 43 A.D. under emperor Claudius.[1]


Map of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall in Britain (source: see images)


The Romans have never controlled the entire British mainland. The Pictish area, or Pictland, and Ireland were never under Roman authority. The Romans made a fortified border to keep the uncivilised barbaric Picts out of their territory and to secure the borders of their empire. The Romans built two lines of

defence: Hadrian’s Wall (built between 122-128) and the later Antonine Wall (built started in 142). Although the Romans did not control the Pictish area, they did know the Picts and are even responsible for their name. The Picts were first mentioned by a Roman eulogist in 297. He called them the ‘Picti’, which is Latin for painted, or perhaps tattooed, people.[2]  The Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy had drawn a map of theBritish Isles, which included Scotland, in the 2nd century A.D.[3]


Hadrian’s Wall 122-128 (source: see images)

After the Romans left Britannia, but already in the 2nd and 3rd century, other peoples migrated to Britain. The Irish came from Ireland and settled in western parts of Britain. At the end of the fifth century they founded the kingdom of Dál Riata, which at its height, around 700, encompassed Argyll and Ulster. The people that lived in this kingdom and who were orginally from Ireland were named ‘Scoti’ by the Romans. Germanic tribes, such as the Jutes, Angles and Saxons, sailed to the south en east coasts of England and settled there.[4]


The area of the Kingdom of Dál Riata (source: see images)

The main source for our knowledge of the Picts is the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede from Wearmouth-Jarrow, who wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (c. 731):

“And so the Picts went to Britain and proceeded to occupy the northern parts of the island, because the Britons (Brettones) had seized the southern regions. As the Picts had no wives, they asked them from the Irish, who consented to give them, but only on condition that, where the matter came into doubt (ubi res ueniret in dubium), they should elect their kings from the female royal line rather than the male. And it is well known that the custom has been observed among the Picts to this day.”[5]

Bede’s remarks have given rise to much speculation. The Picts had, according to his writings, a system of matrilineal descent, which is a very rare phenomenom. Rulership in Pictish society must have been arranged completely different compared to the practice of other European peoples. More importantly, Bede claims that the Picts were a foreign people that did not originally come from the British Isles. They came from overseas and chose Scotland as their new home.

Bede also writes about the conversion of the Picts to Christianity. According to the Anglo-Saxon monk the Southern Picts were converted to Christianity by Saint Ninian in the early 5th century. The Northern Picts remained pagan until the Irish saint Columba, who had founded a monastery on the Isle of Iona, christianized them in the 6th century.[6]

Read more

  • R. Hutton, Pagan Britain, New Haven, 2013.
  • P. Fouracle (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 1 (c.500 – c.700), Oxford, 2007.
  • I. Henderson, The Picts, London, 1967.
  • J-J. Aillagon, U. Roberto & Y. Rivière (ed.), Rome and the Barbarians: The Birth of a New World, Milan, 2008.
  • The translation of Bede is from Wyatt North Publishing: Bede, History of the English People, Boston, 2014.

[1] Hutton 2013, 275-276. [2] Wainwright 1955b, 2. [3] Jackson 1984, 3-7. [4] Anderson 1991, XV-XVII, XXXI. [5] Driscoll, Geddes & Hall 2011, 27-28. [6] Beda III.XXV.