Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation

Surviving in Symbols: A Visit to the Pictish Nation

Synopsis

The Picts were an artistically brilliant people and a nation of great warriors who occupied the eastern part of north Britain around AD 300-900. They were exposed to Christian missions from the sixth century onwards and by the eighth century they were the dominant force in Scotland, ruling from Orkney to the Forth until the arrival of the Vikings and the disappearance of the Picts into a new kingdom of Scots. Yet their symbol stones are still alive with scenes of hunting and music, battle and court. Their characteristic 'pit' names remain and their great forts at Dundurn, Dunnottar and Burghead dominate the surrounding country. Of all the people who built Scotland, none has such deep roots in the prehistory of the land, and none has left such an individual legacy in the form of the symbol stones: the surviving testimony of their ancestry and belief. Surviving in Symbols is part of a newly updated edition of the acclaimed Making of Scotland series produced by Historic Scotland and Birlinn which provides lively, accessible and up-to-date introductions to key themes and periods in Scottish history and prehistory.

Excerpt

Calling people names

In the first century AD the Romans called Scotland ‘Caledonia‘ - and advanced into the eastern part of it on a mission of conquest under Agricola, the Provincial Governor. In AD 82, somewhere north of the Forth, the Ninth Legion was surprised and nearly lost in a night attack. A year later at Mons Graupius (perhaps Bennachie in Aberdeenshire) the Romans confronted a massed gathering of Caledonians under their leader, the heroic Calgacus, and defeated them. A Roman fleet sailed round the north of Britain in a victory tour, but later emperors decided to leave the region out of the Province of Britannia, establishing the boundary first at Hadrian’s Wall, then at the Antonine Wall between the Forth and Clyde, and finally at Hadrian’s Wall again. The people beyond the walls were known at first by typical British tribal names – Venicones, Decantae, Cornavii – but by the 300s they had acquired a nickname: the Picts or ‘the Painted People’. Giving nicknames was a widespread Dark Age habit: the ‘Saxons’ seem to have been named after the knives they carried and the ‘Vikings’ after their habit of dodging in and out of creeks.

During the first millennium AD, at least five peoples competed for territory in the land that was to become Scotland: the Britons (in Strathclyde and the southern lowlands), the Scots (in the west, the territory they called Dál Riata), the Angles (in Lothian and Tweeddale), the Picts (in the east) and, from the 800s onwards, if not before, the Scandinavians (in the far north and the west, along the ‘sea road’). These peoples spoke different languages, and generally believed in different ways of living, of governing people and controlling land. Over several centuries there was a long-running debate between shifting factions, occasionally breaking into war. Ruined and defunct, but ever lingering in people’s minds, was another silent contestant, the mighty ghost of the Roman Empire, a model to which every great British and European leader then, and later, was drawn. In the fourth to the ninth century, that Empire was being reborn as Christianity. These centuries, the time of the Picts, were once known as the Dark Ages because so little was known about them; now they are called the Early Medieval period or (in Scotland) the Early Historic period, a period illuminated both by documents and by archaeology.

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