Pictish symbols as a simplified communication system

Katherine Forsyth states: “Whatever it was intended to convey, it [the Pictish symbol system] performed its function sufficiently well that people all over northern Britian found it useful and continued to use it, generation after generation, for perhaps as long as four centuries.”[1] Samson, Forsyth and Cummins are not really concerned with the origin or meaning of the Pictish symbol stones, but they look for clues by examining the possible function of the symbols.

Ross Samson

His article “The reinterpretation of the Pictish symbol stones”, published in 1992, is a reaction to the theory of Charles Thomas, discussed above. Thomas claims that the symbols on the Pictish stones are statements about a deceased person. Samson disagrees and states that this is impossible because of the small number of symbols. According to him there are not enough symbols to honour so many different individuals. He claims that this is a mistake that can also be seen in other theories which try to solve the problem of the Pictish symbols. It is impossible to find a meaning or origin if there is not a clear notion of the general social meaning of the symbolic system. In other words, theories cannot be proven when there is not a fixed idea which indicates how the system of symbols works.[2]

Samson interprets the Pictish symbols as phonetic sounds. When there are 28 true symbols that all represent phonetic sounds, the Pictish language would have had almost twice as many phonetic sounds than the sounds that are available in current English. This would even mean that there were twice as many phonetic sounds in Pictish as there were in other languages that were spoken at that time, such as Irish and Latin. A combinations of two symbols, or two phonetic sounds, can create a word, or according to Samson, a name.[3]

The only source that gives some insight in existent Pictish names are the Pictish King-Lists. However, their number of names is not enough when we would try to make up a corpus of names. For this reason, Samson tries to prove his theory by looking to other known names from neighbouring peoples of the Picts. Germanic peoples use a prefix and a suffix to ‘build up’ different names. A prefix is the first part of a name and the suffix is the last part of a name. A prefix could be ‘Ju-‘ and a suffix could be ‘-dith’. This suffix could also be used with another prefix to build up another name, for example ‘Edith’, or the prefix could be used with another suffix, for example ‘Jude’. Samson attempts to apply the prefix and suffix system to the Pictish symbols. On a common Pictish monument, one that consists of two vertically placed symbols (with or without the Mirror and Comb), the upper symbol stands for the prefix and the lower symbol stands for the suffix. Samson claims that the addition of a Mirror and Comb means that we are dealing with a woman.[4]

Samson has attempted to make up a theory about the meaning of the Pictish symbol stones because of his criticism on other theories. That is why he also sees the flaws in his own theory and tries to find solutions for them. Samson demonstrates that the numbers of different combinations with the available Pictish symbols adds up to 500 Pictish names. This seems a lot but he cites a research by O’Brien, which was conducted in 1973, in which he shows that the Irish used at least 3500 different names before 1100. And although it is possible that the Picts did not use a great number of different names, it is unlikely that they have such a small amount of names compared to their neighbouring people. It could be possible that names could also be read upside down, in this case the lower symbol acted as the prefix and the upper symbol acted as the suffix. He does not think that this explanation does suffice. Even if there were two reading directions, in Germanic names there is always a preferred placement of prefixes and suffixes. For example, the phonetic sound ‘-son’ will always be preferred at the end of a name and will not be put at the front of a name. Samson also considers the possibility of painted symbols. In this case the symbols would have been painted and the paint layer has vanished over time, leaving only the carvings.  It could be possible that when a symbol was painted in another colour it could stand for another prefix or suffix.[5]

Another problem are the other symbol-carriers. Samson decided to leave the votive tablets and metalwork out of his theory because the carrier changes the context of the Pictish symbols. The symbols on the other carriers must therefore be different than the symbols that are displayed on the erected stones.[6] Finally, there is the problem of the Mirror and Comb. There are monuments that carry the same upper and lower symbol, but one monument has a Mirror and Comb symbol and the other has not. According to Samson this means that there was a female version as well as a male version of this name. The number of women names on erected stones consist of 20 to 25 percent of the complete corpus of Pictish monuments. According to Samson this is similar to the number of Irish females that are remembered on monumental stones.[7]

Katherine Forsyth

Katherine Forsyth wrote a short article that is called ‘Some thoughts on Pictish symbols as a formal Writing System’, published in 1997 in The Worm, the Germ, and the Thorn: Pictish and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson. She is mostly inspired by Samson’s work on the Pictish symbol stones, insisting that his suggestion of seeing the Pictish symbol stones as a representation of language instead of looking at their origin and meaning is a completely different approach which needs further investigation. She takes off where Samson stopped and tries to group the different Pictish symbols.[8]

She tries to explain the Pictish symbols through the system of the Ogham-script.  Ogham is an alphabetic script in which each character consists of a bundle of between one and five long strokes or short strokes or dots placed in one of four positions relative to a baseline. The characters can be divided into four groups, depending on the way they relate to the base-line. For instance, the vowel group, A O U E I, consists of bundles of short strokes placed on the line.[9]

Forsyth only provides a mere set of ideas about the Pictish symbols as a formal writing system. She does not implement her ideas in a fixed theory, but she only presents ideas which complement Samson’s theory. Forsyth claims that Pictish symbols can be placed in four groups just as characters are placed in four groups in the Ogham-system. The groups are: discoid, rectilinear, curvilinear, creatures and a separate subordinate category that contain other symbols. The groups have been chosen by looking at the stylistics of the different symbols.[10] Just as the Ogham vowel group has stylistic similarities, the Pictish symbols in each group have them too. Furthermore, all groups have one symbol that can be modified with a V-rod or a Z-rod. Forsyth states that symbols from one group commonly combine with members of other categories and rarely combine with symbols of their own category.[11]

Again, Forsyth states that the similarities between Ogham and Pictish symbols are striking. She claims that the Pictish symbol system must have worked well, considering the widespread use around Pictland. The individual Ogham characters only have meaning in relation to the rest of the system, Pictish symbols must have had this too. Because of this similarity, Forsyth claims that it is even possible to conclude that the Pictish symbols were invented at a single point in time, and not gradually formed over a long period, because the Ogham-system was also invented at one single time.[12]

William Cummins

William A. Cummins wrote The Picts and their Symbols, a book published in 1999. In this book he views the symbols as part of a formal writing system. He explains the theory of Samson and does not agree with him that one symbol must stand for a prefix or suffix. Cummins thinks that if this is the case, some symbols must be dominantly placed at the top as prefix and some must be placed below as suffix. The pair-forming symbols occupy both upper and lower positions without showing any strong preference for either. Therefore Cummins believes that a symbol must represent a complete name or word instead of one phonetic sound.[13]

Cummins thinks that people had two names, which where represented on a stone with two symbols. Some had only one name (a monument with one symbol), and some people had more than two names (monuments with three or four Pictish symbols). Cummins states that this is in correspondence with the Pictish King-Lists, in which most kings have two names. A Pictish monument was a display of the name of a king and his father: Nechtan son of Erip. Nechtan would be a symbol and Erip would be a symbol.[14]

This solution to the Pictish writing system does not provide a lot of names. If every symbol represents one name, this would mean that there were only 50 names. Cummins provides an answer to this problem, he claims that some names are more popular than others. It seems that, by looking at the King-lists, the names Drust, Talorgan, Brude, Gartnait and Nechtan were very popular names. It is highly likely that the names of the Pictish kings were also popular names among the aristocracy at that time. This could also be seen in later times during the pre-Tudor kings, their names and their sons’ names were used often by the English aristocracy too. Assumingly, only the richest people could afford it to erect a monument hence the small amount of names.[15]

Cummins believes that each symbol represents a name and two combined symbols construct the Pictish equivalent of a medieval coat of arms. Which names are represented on a monument is unclear. But Cummins claims that the monuments that also carry Ogham-script give insight in the names that are represented. For example, the monuments of Ackergill and Latheron in Caithness have Ogham-inscriptions that read NEHTETRI and DUV NODNNATMAQQNAHHTO. This seems to be unintelligible, but Cummins claims that the Ogham inscriptions could refer to NEHT and NAHHT or the Pictish king’s name Nechtan. Because both monuments bear a Fish symbol, this Fish symbol could be the coat of arms for the name Nechtan.[16]

Cummins claims that it is impossible to detect meaning of the Mirror and Comb symbol. He says that the interpretation of the Mirror and Comb as a female symbol is highly sexist: ‘Did men not comb their hair, or did they do it without looking in the mirror?’[17]

Read more

  • Ross Samson has also done research on the Vikings and other Germanic people. For example see: R. Samson (ed.), Social approaches to Viking studies,Glasgow, 1991.
  • Samson, ‘The reinterpretation of the Pictish Symbols’, in: Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 145 (1991), 29-65.
  • Forsyth, ‘Some thoughts on Pictish symbols as a formal Writing System’, in: D. Henry (ed.) The worm, the germ and the thorn: Pictish and related studies presented to Isabel Henderson, Balgavies, 1997, 85-98.
  • For Katherine Forsyth work on Pictish language cf. Pictish remains: philological data. http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/2081/1/languagepictland.pdf  This links gives direct access to: K. Forsyth, Language in Pictland: the case against ‘non-Indo-European Pictish’, Utrecht, 1997.
  • Forsyth, ‘Language in Pictland: spoken and written’ in: E. H. Nicoll & K. Forsyth (ed.), Pictish Panorama: the story of the Picts, Balgavies, 1995.
  • A. Cummins, The Age of the Picts, Stroud, 1995.
  • A. Cummins, The Picts and their Symbols, Stroud, 1999.
  • A. Cummins, The Lost language of the Picts, Balgavies, 2001.
  • A. Cummins, Decoding the Pictish symbols, Stroud, 2009.


[1] Forsyth 1997, 95. [2] Samson 1992, 31. [3] Samson 1992, 42-45. [4] Samson 1992, 51-53. [5] Samson 1992, 47-49, 57. [6] Samson 1992, 36. [7] Samson 1992, 58-59. [8] Forsyth 1997, 85,87. [9] Forsyth 1997, 87. [10] Cf. Pictish remains: table: this table shows which symbol belongs to which group. [11] Forsyth 1997, 86, 89-90. [12] Forsyth 1997, 92-93. [13] Cummins 1999, 44-45. [14] Cummins 1999, 48. [15] Cummins 1999, 54-55. [16] Cummins 1999, 60-62. [17] Cummins 1999, 142, 150-151. [18] Cummins 1999, 150-151.