Pictish Art and the Sea
The Heroic Age, Issue 8 (June 2005)
Although the sea must have been of crucial importance to the Picts, evidence for this is relatively scarce. Pictish art includes a number of depictions of boats and the form of a common symbol known as the Pictish Beast—although originally probably based upon dragonesque brooches—appears to partially be influenced by the shape of dolphins. The distribution of Pictish sculpture and place names allows the extent of ‘Pictish territorial waters’ to be defined and a number of sites that probably acted as naval bases can be identified.
The Picts, who are attested in documentary sources to have inhabited much of northern Scotland between the late third and early ninth centuries AD, must by necessity have relied on waterborne trade and communications to a great extent. Similarly naval power along the west and east coast must have been crucial in terms of both internal and external relations. There is, however, a paucity of direct evidence and what there is has attracted relatively little attention. This is emphasised by the lack of space given over to the topic in recent general works on the Picts (e.g., Foster 1996, 102; Laing and Laing 1993, 63). General statements describing them as a maritime culture abound; for instance, Martin Carver describes them as “mainly people of the firths and coasts” (Carver 1999, 57), and a strong argument can be made for the importance of the sea.