So, who exactly were the Picts? They're a mysterious group of guys and girls who resided in what is now northern England and southern Scotland and popped up in the annals of Roman history in the first few centuries CE. Although not a great deal is known about the Picts, historians do know that they caused quite a bit of trouble for the Romans who were trying to conquer every inch of land they could get their spears on. However, there are plenty of Pict facts aside from their Roman relationships.
Here are some things you didn't know about the Picts. For one, they were extremely talented artists; for another, apparently a lot of Scotsmen count the Picts among their direct ancestors. To amp up the Pictish facts and trivia, did you know that the first king of Scotland might have massacred the Picts to take power?
Most importantly, the ancient Picts might not have thought of themselves as a single group of people. So who were these fascinating Pict warriors who gave the Romans a run for their money? Read on to find out.
They Might've Painted Themselves Blue And Been Covered In Tattoos
Although whether or not this was actually the case has been the subject of much historical debate, invading Romans - including Julius Caesar - described the Picts as dyeing themselves blue in order to give themselves a "wild look in battle." In Latin, the Picts were originally called the "Picti," or "the painted ones," because they supposedly had lots of tattoos in addition to staining their entire bodies blue. What did they use to achieve this? Woad, a cool, dark blue dye.
They Were Hardcore Pirates
Apparently, the Picts were pretty bad about blurring the line between "traders" and "pirates" in their coastal commerce with the Romans along the southern shores of the British Isles. Citizens of Londinium (the Roman name for London), recounted watching as hardcore bands of Pictish pirates would sail by after a successful raiding expedition in some small Roman British community - spoils and captives in tow. Although the Roman Brits attempted organized counterattacks against the Pictish pirates, their diffuse, guerilla style of piracy made them incredibly difficult to quell.
They Vanished In The Middle Ages
By the beginning of the Middle Ages, Scotland didn't have people called "Picts" anymore. Under the control of the Scots-Irish King Kenneth mac Alpin (who might have had a Pictish mom), Scotland became a relatively unified realm; it appears that the newly Gaelic kingdom simply absorbed the Picts, as focus shifted to a different cultural perspective. But was it all peaceful? Legend has it that Kenneth and his Scots-Irish forces actually massacred Pictish nobles at a banquet using collapsible seating, then took power for themselves.
They Might've Chosen Royalty Through Female Bloodlines
Pictish kingship didn't pass from father to son, but from random relative to random relative. Some scholars have opined that royal blood wasn't patrilineal for the Picts, but matrilineal, meaning that the women of the clan (sisters, nieces, etc.) were the only ones who could give birth to kings. Matrilineality allowed the Picts a larger pool of kingly candidates to choose from, as opposed to one or two sons of a single monarch. Although scholars aren't completely sure exactly how the Picts chose their kings, it's worth noting that if power passed through the mother's bloodline, this didn't necessarily mean that women were given more power in society.
What The Picts Called Themselves Remains A Mystery
The Picts weren't a unified group of people, but a confederation of tribes that the Romans lumped under one name. The term "Picti" - or "the painted ones" - was a disparaging moniker that the Romans gave their enemies. The name implied that the Picts were barbarians for painting themselves; what the Picts called themselves - or if they even saw themselves as a single group and gave themselves a name - is unknown.
They Were Master Stone Engravers
The Picts were master engravers and loved inscribing the many stones of Scotland with intricate designs. There are roughly 350 surviving Pictish stones, and they contain images that range from dragons to horses and swirls to crosses, showcasing a truly beautiful artistic style. Although most just contain symbolic images, a few do have ogham, an ancient Irish alphabet, inscribed on them.
The Romans Said They Battled In The Buff
The Romans claimed that the Picts and other peoples they deemed "barbarians" ran around naked in battle. This isn't as crazy as it might sound; there's actually a long history of people fighting nude. And the Picts appeared to have shown themselves naked on some of their stones, but who's to say they were fighting in those engravings? Maybe they were just hanging out in the buff.
They Probably Didn't Wear Tartan Kilts
When people think of Scottish men today, they tend to think of plaid kilts, but sadly there's no evidence for their Pictish ancestors donning these sexy skirts. There's a ton of evidence that ancient people in Western Europe wore checked fabrics, but none to support the idea that each clan had its own pattern or that tartans then had the same significance they have now. In fact, some scholars have asserted that the individual clan tartans are an early-modern invention, spurred on by a poetic interest in Highland culture in the 18th century.