Picts, Scots, and Vikings: an Introduction to the Peoples of Medieval “Scotland.”
By Laurel A. Rockefeller
The people of Scotland are a proud people. From vibrant clan tartans to the frequent protest marches that routinely fill every major city and town, it’s hard to miss the love felt by Scotland’s residents for their country, culture, and unique way of life. Whether your passion is for the rugged highlands, the romance of its historical rebels like Robert the Bruce, or for the world class poets, painters, and writers that call Glasgow and Edinburgh home, there is something for everyone in Scotland.
Scotland seems like a homogenous country, an ancient land where people can count their ancestry back for thousands of years. And while this is partially true, the picture is a bit more complex and nuanced than people believe. Let’s take a look at the three major nationalities from whom most modern Scots count as their ancient and medieval ancestors:
By far the largest ethnic group in terms of both land and population numbers, the Picts were comprised of over a dozen clans spread across the entire region we call “Scotland” today. These are the Brythonic, native peoples who first arrived over three thousand years ago and formed the first settlements. They were builders of the great monoliths whose ruins can be found in nearly every corner of Scotland. Archaeology has recently traced large numbers of the Stonehenge builders to Picts from Orkney. The name “Pict” is Roman in origin and references the Pictish (and generally Brythonic) habit of painting their bodies blue before going into battle.
The Picts spoke a Celtic language that they did not write down. Instead, like other Brythonic peoples in modern day England and Wales, we know about them primarily from archaeology and from written accounts of outsiders like the Romans. It is very highly likely they originally practiced some form of druidism common across other nationalities in the British islands.
As defenders of their lands, the Picts were unbeatable, even by the mighty Roman legions who completely demolished the Celtic societies in England and partially demolished some of the Welsh kingdoms. Hadrian’s Wall was built to contain the Picts and keep them up north.
The Scotti or Scots (Latin for “pirates”) were immigrants from Ireland who arrived around the year 498 CE from eastern Ireland. Though we call the country “Scotland” in reference to them, the Scotti lived primarily in the county of Argyll on the southwestern coast of Scotland – a very small territory relative to those held by the many Pictish clans. From roughly 500 CE to 840 CE they existed as the kingdom of Dalriada. Their language was Gaelic, a Celtic language similar to, but decidedly different from the language of the Picts.
As a rule, Scotti population numbers were very small, especially compared to their Pict neighbours to the north and east.
In 810 CE, King Ailpín of Dalriada’s Pictish princess wife gave birth to their son, Cináed mac Ailpín, better known as King Kenneth I MacAlpin. In Kenneth MacAlpin, the crowns of the Picts and Scots merged into a single person. Kenneth’s coronation in 840 in Scone in Perthshire (approximately 30 miles north of House Dunkeld’s capital in Dunfermline) as “king of the Picts” marks the official formation of the new, blended kingdom of ALBA. “House of Alpin” is considered the first of three Scottish dynasties: House of Alpin, House of Dunkeld, and House of Stewart (Stuart).
Within weeks of Kenneth’s coronation, 143 Viking warships arrived in Dalriada. Almost immediately King Kenneth evacuated Dalriada’s capital of Dun Monaidh. Specifically, he transferred all government documents, religious objects and relics, government workers, and so forth to Scone—including the famous “stone of destiny.” Essentially, King Kenneth abandoned Dalriada to the Vikings in favour of the safety of the much more defensible Perthshire. Without resistance, the Vikings overthrew Dalriada, destroying the kingdom completely.
The Viking story as it relates to modern day Scotland is a Norwegian story. Though the term “Viking” can refer to anyone of Scandinavian origin, the Vikings who specifically invaded Pictish-held lands all came from Norway.
During the 780s, Norwegian war ships arrived in the Orkney Islands. Whether all the Pictish men of Orkney were slaughtered, fled for the Scottish mainland, or a mix of both, we will never know because the Picts left no written records. What we do know from DNA testing is that there are no Pictish markers among any men from Orkney today. Only among the women of Orkney do we see any trace of Orkney’s ancient Pictish heritage.
In 892 CE, the Jarldom (or Earldom – though there are some differences between an Earl and a Jarl) of Orkney was formalized by the Norwegian crown. Orkney stayed under Norwegian control through all three of Alba’s dynasties, completely independent from mainland Scottish control until 1468 when Orkney was given to King James III Stewart as part of the dowry for Princess Mary, daughter of Norway’s King Christian I.
For nearly 700 years, the kings of Norway controlled Orkney. Nowhere else in the British islands did a king of a far-flung land retain such sovereignty.
Over the centuries, the Picts, Scots, and Norwegians became a single “Scottish” people. The languages of the Picts and the Scots, though probably originally as different as Spanish and Portuguese, merged into a single language we call “Scots-Gaelic” to differentiate it from the Gaelic still spoken in Ireland. Under House Dunkeld another language evolved that merged both Pictish and Gaelic with the English brought to Alba by Queen Margaret of Wessex and of course some local loan words. “Auld Scots” is that particular language we think of as Scottish today. Though treated as a dialect of English, Auld Scots is much more complex, a reflection of centuries of blending together the different peoples that call Scotland home.
As for why we call this nation “Scotland” despite the minority of actual Scots from Dalriada, the answer ultimately comes from English conquest and imperialism. It was the English who called the kingdom “Scotland” instead of Alba and the English who called the Celtic language(s) of Alba “Scot-Gaelic” when, in truth, most of the language so labelled is probably Pictish in origin.
Using the name “Scotland” instead of Alba is, therefore, part of the legacy of centuries of war between Alba in the north and England in the south. It is one of many open wounds that continue to divide Alba’s peoples from those who wish to be part of the United Kingdom and those who pray for the day Scotland will be called Alba once more, independent from English rule and truly free.
The 11th century was a dangerous time to be of the line unbroken of King Æthelred II Unread and his first queen, Æfgifu of York. Born in Hungary after King Canute III's failed attempt to murder her father, Edward the Exile, Margaret found her life turned upside down by King Edward the Confessor's discovery of her father's survival -- and the resulting recall of her family to England.
Now a political hostage only kept alive for as long as it served powerful men's interests, Margaret and her family found King Máel Coluim mac Donnchadh Ceann Mhor (Malcolm III Canmore)'s invitation to his court in Dunfermline in Alba the long-awaited answer to her prayers.
Scotland would never be the same again.
Includes two family tree charts, an expansive timeline covering over three thousand years of Pictish and medieval history, plus Roman Catholic prayers, and a bibliography so you can keep learning.
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