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The Picts

Pictish Stone SlabThere are many beautifully carved Pictish standing stones around the Moray Firth area. In Easter Ross these are detailed in the Pictish Trail guide and at Groam House Museum, Rosemarkie. Tarbat Discovery Centre is also the site of a Pictish monastery, whereas Burghead on the Moray Coast was the capital of the Northern Picts.

Who were the Picts?

The term Picti, first recorded in 297AD, was regarded as a Roman nickname meaning ‘the painted ones’. The Picts were descendants of the native Iron Age tribes of Scotland, as well as a combination of earlier tribes – they were the true aboriginals of the northern half of Scotland.

In historical terms the name Pictish is applied to the period between 79 AD, when the Romans advanced beyond the Forth – Clyde isthmus into Caledonia, and 842-900 AD when the MacAlpine dynasty came to establish itself. What may be one of the earliest power bases as well as the largest (by a factor of three), is the coastal promontory fort at Burghead.

The Picts were almost certainly a Celtic society of farmers and hunters with many parallels to other cultures across northern Europe. However, there are many mysteries linked to these vanished people. We know them from their Roman nickname, but what did they call themselves? Though they had the art of writing, they left no written records. Even Pictish artefacts are rare and much can only be deduced from the visual records they left on their most spectacular monuments: their carved standing stones, of which some fine examples have been found between the Dornoch and Cromarty Firths. The Tarbat Discovery Centre at Portmahomack features the archaeology of a Pictish monastery, the first identified in Pictland.

In general, the profusion of carved stones is the most fascinating evidence of the Picts. Their symbols do have meaning; they were once recognised and understood by a whole population. Yet the Picts seem lost to history. They disappeared quite suddenly in the mid-9th century, when the Scots were expanding east and north to gain control of Pictland, already weakened by Viking raiding. Today, only their legacy in stone remains.