The origins of the Picts are shrouded in the mists of history. What is known for a fact is that they were first referred to as Picts by the Roman writer Eumenius in AD 297, and that the Pictish nation lasted until AD 843 when Kenneth Mac Alpin, a Scot, became king of a united Scotland.
The people who built the brochs and souterrains are sometimes referred to as proto-Picts. The Picts left no written records, so much of what is known about them is second-hand. Irish scholars wrote of the Picts’ own foundation myth, but this may have been invented by the Irish to explain where the Picts came from.
It states that the Picts were warriors from Scythia who arrived in Ireland as mercenaries, and after fighting for the Irish king were rewarded with Irish wives and told of a land in the north of Britain where they could settle.
Whether or not this foundation story is true we will perhaps never know. We don’t even know what the Picts called themselves – the Romans may have used the term Pict to signify painted people, which may have been because the Picts tattooed themselves or daubed their bodies with woad.
The Irish referred to the Picts as the Cruithni which again may have been in response to the Picts’ practice of colouring their bodies, or may simply have derived from Pretani, an old name for Britain.
What we do know about the Picts comes mainly from their great legacy – hundreds of designs carved in stone and etched on jewellery – and the bits of their language that appear in placenames.
There are around 650 stones carved with Pictish designs, from the very south of Scotland in Dumfries-shire, to the west on the Western Isles, the east in Aberdeenshire and the north in the Shetlands.
However, the majority can be found in what was once the heartland of “Pictland”, the centre to north-east of Scotland, from Perthshire up to Aberdeenshire.
The Picts probably spoke a form of Brittonic or Brythonic, a Celtic language related to the P-Celtic languages that developed into Welsh, Cornish, Breton and Cumbric.
Remnants of this language can be found in Pictish placenames which contain elements such as Aber-, Cat-, Dol- and Pit- and whose location largely corresponds to that of the Pictish stones.
Below is a map showing the distribution of Pictish stones, forts, placenames, hoards and other sites in Scotland.