The Problem of the Picts

 

In the 1980’s and 1990’s I lived in North East Scotland and, as an Englishman out-of-place I was struck by how different the locals were from other Scots. It seemed obvious to me that the reason for this is that most are not Scots, but Picts! So I decided to investigate further, resulting in the book Picts and Ancient Britons first published in 1998.

 

Anyone who studies the ethnography of the Picts will find that very little is known about their history. Therefore in 1955 the various historians, linguists and archaeologists got together in a symposium and published their papers in a report called ‘The Problem of the Picts’. The conclusion of the editor F.T. Wainwright regarding Bede’s story of the Scythian origins of the Picts is memorable:

 

“At best it represents a tradition current among the Picts; but no concrete evidence has yet been produced to support the suggestion that the Picts came from Scythia and the story must be dismissed as legend or literary invention”

 

This ‘dismissive’ attitude towards traditional evidence is sadly typical; I encounter it again and again as I study other myths and legends. Quite incredible: for a modern academic to assert that they know better than the Picts knew about their own history, or better than historians who were contemporary with them.

 

Another hangover from this landmark study was the linguistic review given by Kenneth Jackson, which summarised all the earlier commentators. He reviewed the prevailing opinion that Pictish was a p-Celtic language related to Welsh and concluded ‘there the matter rests’. However if you read his words carefully he was himself far from convinced that many of the words in the meagre vocabulary available were ‘clearly or probably Celtic’. Nevertheless the editor summarised the prevailing opinion and henceforth the Picts became officially Celts.

 

The difficulty is that once such ideas become embedded in the textbooks it becomes almost impossible to challenge them. We may find later researchers doing comparative studies of Celtic languages including all the Pictish words as proven Celtic and citing these earlier references. My own opinion of most of the comparative linguistics that I have read could be summed up by a colloquial English word beginning with ‘b’.  This kind of linguistic study is unsafe when you have only 30 or so words of variable provenance (mostly names from Ptolemy’s map) that can be claimed as Pictish. If some future researcher possessed only 30 random words of English then 60% of them would be of French origin. They would likely conclude that English was a Romance language.

 

 

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New Deer

 

I am indebted to Mrs Jean Pearce of Insch, Aberdeenshire, who wrote to me after reading Picts and Ancient Britons to offer an insight that I had not considered. She suggested that the Picts called Niduari by Bede in his Life of Saint Cuthbert (or Niuduera in another source) might recall a visit by the saint to the monastery at New Deer in Buchan. Although believed to date from 1219, notes in the Book of Deer claim that the first monastery was actually founded by Saint Columba and has its origins in the Pictish period. The etymology of the place-name Deer is obscure (see Kenneth Jackson, Gaelic Notes in the Book of Deer, p 39) and so the name New Deer could be an anglicised form, of a Gaelic form, of an original Pictish word. Note that there is also a village called Old Deer a few miles away! Mrs Pearce also drew my attention to the hill of Dunnideer, the vitrified fort near Bennachie.

 

One of the suggestions in my book was that this word Niduari is an example of a Finnic-Pictish word related to the modern Finnish word Noita or Lappish Noiade, implying a shaman, a witch or a warlock, i.e. a Druid. Perhaps Cuthbert was merely stating that he had visited the converted Christian priests of the Picts, who continued to call themselves by their pagan Pictish name. The lady’s suggestion that the saint visited Deer Abbey is therefore quite reasonable; and the name Dunnideer would mean something like ‘hill of the Druids’; a venerated pagan holy site.

 

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Pictish DNA?

 

Since Picts and Ancient Britons was published in 1998 the science of DNA analysis has advanced beyond all expectations. In 2017 a study of British DNA was published that includes results for Scotland.

 

In the triangle of north-east Scotland the results show overlapping populations that are termed Northeast Scotland 1 & 2. This corresponds to the two tribes on Ptolemy’s map, the Taexali and the Vacomagi. The overlap would suggest an older population overridden by later immigrants.

 

For the Orkney Islands a complex picture emerges; and for southern and western Scotland the populations are more homogeneous and show overlap with Ireland. This has raised again the question that there was an identifiable ‘Pictish gene’, unrelated to the ‘Celtic’ populations further south and west – if indeed these people were themselves ethnically Celtic. This entire question is now opened-up for further study.

 

It should not surprise us that 10% of Scots may carry a unique gene related to the Basques of Spain. After all, the historical Scots came from Ireland and all the Irish legends of origin bring the Irish invaders over from Spain. The legends of Pictish origin say they were all-male and came from Baltic Scythia - but they took Irish wives. Therefore, half the people of Pictish origin and all of the western Scots should have Irish DNA. But there were people already in Scotland before these invaders came, so there is much more to this story. Perhaps the term 'Caledonian gene' would be a better choice to describe the ancient native element.

 

More information may be found by following the links given on the Further Links page of this site.

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Not to be taken too seriously!

 

In the 1990’s I attempted to publish a magazine article in a Scottish magazine, about the Scythian origin of the Picts as it is related by Bede. It was heavy with the usual references to Jackson, Watson, Wainwright, etc, that are expected. The editor came back, unfortunately we can’t publish because (I paraphrase from memory) this sort of ‘Biblical who-begat-whom style’ does not make very interesting reading.

 

So, I toned it down a bit and instead tried sending the revised article to a journal that publishes more scholarly papers on Scottish history, who responded that it would indeed be the right place to publish. As expected he submitted it to a suitable referee for an opinion. Back came the reply: ‘clearly he has not read the works of Jackson, Watson, etc … he seems to be suggesting that there were no Celtic Picts’. There is no use saying that it’s only what the Picts themselves believed; and also the venerable Bede, who actually corresponded with living Picts. You can’t argue with a judge in court and you can’t argue with an academic referee!

 

          (February 2019)

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What did the Picts look like and how did they depict themselves?

Here are some examples and a new stone recently discovered in Fife.

Three Pictures of Picts