Weird History

14 Facts About The Picts, A Scottish Tribe That Gave The Roman Empire Hell 

Carly Silver
Updated December 19, 2019 373.1k views 14 items

So, who exactly were the Picts? They were a mysterious group of people 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.

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Photo: Theodor de Bry/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
They Might've Painted Themselves Blue And Been Covered In Tattoos

Although whether this was 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.

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Photo: Daveybot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0
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.

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Photo:  Jacob de Wet II/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
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 MacAlpin (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.

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Photo: Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
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.