Pictish remains

What are Pictish remains and when can something material or linguistical be considered to be Pictish? Well, the answer is not so simple. We could start by saying that an object can only be considered as Pictish when it has what is called Pictish symbols on them. These symbols appear on quite different artefacts scattered over the area that once belonged to the Picts. Furthermore, these symbols are also characteristically and stylistically unique and their origin is unclear. This is in sharp contrast with other European medieval symbolism which usually is based on Antique sources and heritage. In other words: Pictish symbols are unique to Pictland. The enigma of these signs is augmented by the fact that there are no historical sources that mention the Pictish symbols.

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Pictish Symbols (source: see images)

The picture above shows all symbols that are labelled Pictish by scholars, and are found on objects from former Pictland. There exist 58 of them altogether. Some symbols do appear more frequently on artefacts and monuments than others, read more..

Pictish symbols have been found on:

The Picts lived in Scotland between circa 300 and circa 850 (see further: Pictish sources). This means, that if these symbols are truly Pictish, which cannot be taken for granted completely, every monument must have been erected in this period. Sadly enough, it is not (yet) possible to precisely date incisions or carvings in stone which are not prone to stylistical or iconographical comparison.

Philological data

Bede named Pictish as one of the five languages of Britain (the other languages are English, Brittonic, Irish and Latin). If we interpret Bede correct, the Picts must have spoken a language that was distinct from other languages that were spoken in the British Isles. Evidence of the Pictish language is very scarce. There are a few Pictish monuments that have inscriptions in Ogham, which is a special Insular form of writing. These inscriptions possibly contain Pictish names. However, the Ogham inscriptions that have been found in Pictland seem to be unintelligible, it is very difficult to draw conclusions based on these inscriptions. There are also Pictish monuments that contain Latin inscriptions but unfortunately these do not give any insight in the Pictish language. These Latin inscriptions are usually also interpreted as ‘Pictish’ names. Some place-names do seem to bear evidence to the existence of a Pictish language. Place-names with ‘Aber’ or ‘Pit’ are alleged to be of Pictish origin (e.g. Aberdeen, Aberlemno, Pitlochry).[1] Just as every other aspect of the Picts, the philological remains have been the subject of an ongoing debate. According to Kenneth Jackson the Pictish language was a non-Indo-European language that already existed in Scotland before the influx of Celtic people. In Language in Pictland, written by Katherine Forsythshe moved away from Jackson’s theory and argued that the Picts spoke a language that was a member of the Celtic language family, which was related to Welsh, Cumbric, Breton and Cornish. For more information about the remaining Pictish philological data and the Pictish language in general see the links and texts below.

Read more

  • K. Jackson, ‘The Pictish Language’, in: F.T. Wainwright (ed.), The problem of the Picts, Edinburgh, 1955, 129-166.
  • K. Forsyth, Language in Pictland: the case against ‘non-Indo-European Pictish’, Utrecht, 1997. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/2081/1/languagepictland.pdf
  • W.F.H Nicolaisen, Scottish Place-Names, Edinburgh, 2001.
  • G. Rhys, Approaching the Pictish language: historiography, early evidence and the question of Pritenic, Glasgow, 2015.  http://theses.gla.ac.uk/6285/7/2015RhysPhD.pdf

[1] Nicolaisen 2001, 156-246.