The Enigma of the Picts
By Jonathon M. Wooding
Journal of the Sydney Society for Scottish History, Vol. 1 (1993)
Introduction: The Picts are the first chapter in Scottish history. Indeed, they are really more of a foreword or a preface: for it is only with their merger with the kingdom of Scotti of Dalriada (in Argyllshire) in 843 A.D. that we have a kingdom called ‘Scotland’ for the first time. The language and customs of these Scotti (Irish migrants from around the fifth century A.D. or earlier) came to dominate the culture of the new kingdom, at the expense of that of the Picts and it is with the decline of the Picts that ‘Scottish’ history begins. Nonetheless many elements of Pictish culture must have gone into the making of Scottish civilisation. But there is much disagreement as to what Pictish civilisation was really like. This ‘enigma’ of the Picts (as I will call it), the controversy and unanswered questions surrounding the identity of these previous occupants of Scotland, have a compelling and fascinating quality, for academics as much as for the general reader. So I suppose I had best begin by stating that I am a scholar behind whom stretches a long and noble tradition of failure! Many scholars have set out to solve the enigma of the Picts, some great names among them, but there is still little agreement. It would certainly be vain of me to suppose that I will do any better in attempting to resolve the problems.
Yet superficially the subject does not seem so problematical. The task in hand is that of identifying the general political, linguistic and cultural personality of the people, or peoples, who lived to the north of the ForthClyde line from the first century B.C. (around when the first historical details were collected) to the ninth century A.D. (when the Pictish kingdom disappeared). For this task we have a number of accounts by outsiders (Roman, Irish and Anglo-Saxon writers), some archaeological finds, placenames, the odd inscription and a large number of pictures in a distinctive style carved on standing stones. Admittedly a small quantity of evidence, often somewhat contradictory, however this can be the case with the evidence for many early historic peoples. Historians have done much with much less.
Pictish studies have, however, become notorious as a graveyard for good scholars. Not for nothing did John Buchan have an imaginary scholar, in one of his stories, ruin his reputation with theories regarding the Picts! They have become something of a byword in unsolved historical mysteries. In 1955 Frederick Wainwright was moved to write a book not simply on the Picts, but on The Problem of the Picts perhaps still as adventurous a title as should be given to a general work on the subject.