Picts, Brittonic outlaws to Brittonics?
Focusing on the region between the Firth of Forth to the north and the River Tees to the south, this study gathers together those names identified by past scholars as possibly p-Celtic, providing a new assessment as to whether each contains p-Celtic elements. With the identification of eighty-four names probably containing p-Celtic elements, and forty-five further possible examples, it emerges that p-Celtic toponyms in the region are surprisingly numerous. – Bethany Fox 2007
This survival of Brittonic placenames in the Old North is remarkable. Contrary to elsewhere, the replacement of Brittonics by Anglosaxons can be studied in this region. There is reason to think that the distribution of p-Celtic names is historically significant, especially since in general the distribution of -hām and -ingahām names is mutually exclusive of p-Celtic names.
“We have, then, reasonably clear evidence in the region for different mechanisms of settlement and cultural change. Several names in this study show a gradual Anglicisation (or, in the case of Bishop Auckland, Norsification), partly by folk-etymology (such as Aberlady, Bathgate, Binchester and Milfield), which is consistent with this pattern. Another possibility is that discontinuity of settlement meant that in some areas new names were coined in Old English, disguising the adoption of local nomenclature when settlements remained stable. A third possibility, argued for by Hough, is the systematic translation of place-names from Brittonic into Old English—a process which could in theory involve extensive cultural contact and communication, but result ultimately largely in place-names in one language (2004). “
The conditions for the survival of an early medieval Brythonic nation must have been different just north of the Roman province. Wouldn’t the stretch of land between the Hadrian and Antonine Walls have been traditionally vulnerable to Pictish attacks? And later, to Scottish and Anglosaxon attacks. The native population was never protected by the Roman might, and the collapse of Roman structures wouldn’t have improved their safety. Still the Brythonic culture survived here long enough to leave behind some traces. Did they protect themselves or did they arrive at a deal with new overlords? Relying on their pervasive presence and the terror the Picts inspired to contemporary writers, they should have been the masters of the territories north of Hadrian’s Wall.
To me the biggest mystery concerning the Picts is how, being described by their contemporaries as a dreaded and expansive nation, they could immerse culturally and linguistically into the Scots. Gaelicisation must have happened during a long period in early medieval history. Even the Pictish stones are NOT as typical to any pre-Scottish culture as the name indicates. The Pictish stones are most of all an indication of Scottish immigration and dominance in a post-Pictish period.
The implied political weakness is not in accordance with the historic sources. The Scots and Picts always appeared as different nations and this would be at odds with a Gaelic elite that would have constituted the core of the Pictish might. However, closer to the walls the Gaelic participation may have been of a later age and didn’t compromise their early survival facing the Anglosaxon advance to the north. The northern turmoils on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, well outside the Roman province, seem to have delayed the Anglosaxon takeover, and the Brythonic Votadini could locally survive in the middle of Picts and Scots while their brethren south of the Hadrian Wall vanished without a trace.
The confusing picture that emerges in most Pictish studies is that of an expanding Gaelic element in the north that is contemporaneous and geographically similar to what could have been “Pictish”. Even some kind of continuity with Scots is implied. Still the Scots and Picts were described in the contemporaneous sources as two different nations. This “nation” (gens) word was often used to indicate a group of people. In the words of Herwig Wolfram, History of the Goths, p. 11: “A gens is . . . a fraction of a tribe as much as a confederation of several ethnic units.” A nation not necessarily implied tribal, but rather being organized as a unity – maybe even a christianized unity.
Would it be possible that the Gaelics that took the lead in P-Celtic territories to become “Picts”, were locally drawn into the orbit of an older P-Celtic organization, thus were only politically essentially different from the Scots? Or did this Gaelic takeover only represent a later stage of a strife between Scots and Picts, that was won by Scots that by then were already partly “Pictified”? If so, what would have distinguished the Picts from the Brythonic of all other areas north of Hadrian’s Wall?
Traces of a P-Celtic substratum in the North should also imply a sense of related-ness between Britons, Brythonics north of the Hadrian Wall and Picts. The ties and common history may have been increased by Christian influences, like probably also attested by some of the Pictish Stones – even though here the Irish influences are hard to distinguish. Most important: why the Britons according to Gildas considered the Picts as foreigners and was he despective about them, as if they were not related at all?
…the Picts and Scots, like worms which in the heat of the mid-day come forth from their holes, hastily land again from their canoes, in which they had been carried beyond the Cichican* valley, differing one from another in manners, but inspired with the same avidity for blood, and all more eager to shroud their villainous faces in bushy hair than to cover with decent clothing those parts of their body which required it. Moreover, having heard of the departure of our [Roman] friends…
Gildas lamented his “countrymen” (ciuibus) near the northern Wall that suffered from Pictish incursions. If Picts thus were P-Celtic, their outlaw position seems to be at least some indication that the Picts “as a nation” were the result of a very successful Roman policy to estrange their British subjects from their Celtic roots. If part of this policy also involved the active recruitment of immigrants from the continent, that south of the Walls for sure was in favour of the Belgic and Germanic component, this would have seriously damaged the ethnic unity of the Brythonic territories north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. Gildas “countrymen” in the north thus may be less related to his Brythonic kin than conveniently assumed. The isolated position of Brythonic Picts thus appears to indicate that the P-Celtic element was actively suppressed by Rome a long time before it was rooted out in England.
The solution to this problem has been sought in a pre-Celtic, even non-Indo European identity of the Picts. Strongest arguments for this view are supplied by the Pictish stones, that are essentially Ogham stones written in gibberish. It has been suggested this was the work of illiterate artists that were not able to make suitable copies of the Q-Celtic original Ogham stones, that were introducted in the region by for natives unintelligible immigrants from Ireland, possibly passing Roman Britain/Wales. However, those illiterate artists could as well have been Brythonics.
Two nations were a thread to the Brits according to Gildas: the Scots, that originated from the North-West, and the Picts from the North. Also Ammianus Marcellinus, in his Res Gestae (353-378 AD), clearly singled them out as a people that can be distinguished from the Scots, and that also had some history as a group. The Picts broke “the peace to which they had agreed”: How could a bunch of savages from the north have broken anything? This description would even better fit the allegedly allied Votadini just north of Hadrian’s Wall, that excel in their apparent absence in the contemporary sources:
Res Gestae, Book XX, chapter 1:
“These were the events which took place in Illyricum and in the East. But the next year, that of Constantius’s tenth and Julian’s third consulship, the affairs of Britain became troubled, in consequence of the incursions of the savage nations of Picts and Scots, who breaking the peace to which they had agreed, were plundering the districts on their borders, and keeping in constant alarm the provinces exhausted by former disasters…”
Res Gestae, Book XXVII, chapter 8:
“It will be sufficient here to mention that at that time the Picts, who were divided into two nations, the Dicalidones and the Vecturiones, and likewise the Attacotti, a very warlike people, and the Scots were all roving over[Pg 454] different parts of the country and committing great ravages.”
Res Gestae, Book XXVI, chapter 4:
“The Picts, Scots, Saxons, and Atacotti harassed the Britons with incessant invasions;”
(note: this is 367 AD, long before the Saxon landing ~ 440 AD but just 80 years after Carausius 286-293 AD, that may have initiated the most destructive half of the Saxon invasion cycle of 300 year noted by Gildas: from this perspective the destruction of invasion was felt already 150 years before the landing)
The only foreigner of British soil here mentioned next to the Picts and the Scots were the Atacotti. They could have been another people that somehow were subservent to the Romans. A new insight relates them to the Déisi in Irish mythology, whose etymology is virtually interchangeable with another Irish term, “aithechthúatha” meaning “rent-paying tribes”, “vassal communities” or “tributary peoples”. Their link to western Britain even suggests a relation to the Irish that in Roman times were attested in Wales and Cornwall, were some of the first Ogham stones are from. Even there the stones rather attested the Irish language. However, some linguistic features seem to indicate the stones did not directly originate in Ireland. It has been suggested the first Ogham were inspired by Latin and Wales is known for bilingual texts, having Ogham and Latin inscriptions. Also other archeological indications exist that date this Irish immigration in at least 300 AD. The Irish that first arrived in the Roman province of Britain seem to have come as Roman vassals, or at least without Roman objection. This is essentially in agreement with the proposed Attacotti etymology.
It is remarkable that the Brythonics inmediately to the north of the Hadrian Wall hardly figure in the modern assessments on these accounts, even though they were neither fully integrated into the Roman organization. It is also remarkable that the two Pictish nations Dicalidones and Vecturiones are not mentioned by Ptolemy in his maps of Scotland. However, it does not take a lot of imagination to recognize Caledonia in the name of the Dicalidones. The prefix Di is “two”, so literally the Dicaledones appear to be “the people of the two Caledonias”. Caledonia commonly refers to the north of the Firth of Forth. The second place thus implied as another Caledonia may have been the rest of the northern territories that were not under Roman control: i.e. the area between the walls. Remember that Caledonia was employed by Tacitus as a strictly geographic denomination, what rather implies the presence of a nation or confederation than of a distinguished ethnical tribe. The same may be true of the Dicaledones. This is agreement with the distinction of northern and southern Picts that Bede marks as one purely geographical (
The Brigantes south of the Hadrian wall were pacified around 84 AD. What happened between the Hadrian’s Wall and Antonine’s Wall? The maps and records suggest this was either the northern part of the Brigantes confederacy or no-man’s land. The Romans only started building on the Antonine Wall in 142 AD, and failed. It is hard to believe that Hadrian’s wall was meant exclusively to defend Britain from a threat that originated north of the Forth. Most likely, the territory in between the walls harboured the P-Celtic remains of the Brigantes confederacy, that continued to defy the Romans with their spirit of independence, albeit predominantly in a peaceful way. The Votadini belong to this group.
The local P-Celtic remains shouldn’t be expected to have crumbled together with the Roman influence. The population might have had important trade connections, though can’t be easily assumed to have been a Roman creation that depended on Roman protection to survive. As a nation, they must have had their own share of treaties and defensive precautions in dealing with neighbours on their northern frontiers, if any.
The Votadini were not mentioned as a large separate tribe before the Roman conflict with the Brigantes confederacy. Their tribesname remains obscure until much later. It is very unlikely that the “modern construct of Brigantia” like Cunliffe expresses, was consistent with ethnical boundaries. The Romans defined borders much the same way as European colonial powers did: along geographic lines. This is why most African nations have frontiers that cut right through ethnical and historical boundaries. Likewise, the Hadrian Wall was not a natural border that conveniently embraced the subdued Celtic nations. Rather, the P-Celtic nation was torn apart by this wall. To the north the P-Celtic nation survived longer, with or without the threat of unknown foreigners. This balance of power could only be achieved by strength. There is no denying that the Brythonic people north of the walls were strong enough to maintain their independence. The exact nature of their role as a “friendly” buffer against northern invasions is not clear enough. Maybe some friendly actions may be viewed as common interest in the fight against Scots, and they were free to do business with their kin across the Hadrian wall. Their presumed role as a buffer against Pictish aggression is not substantiated by contemporary sources. Maybe less peaceful indications exist that would include these people in the group of savage people the Roman sources referred to as Picts?
The unruly part north of the Hadrian may have included the Votadini. According to Ptolemy they also dwelled north of the Firth of Forth, thus also north of the Antonine Wall, i.e. Caledonia proper. This wall was abandoned a few decennia after being started in 142 AD. Was it really build against Picts, or rather to pacify the locals within? Northern enemies would not have attacked the Antonine Wall for the mere pleasure of it. Still there is no indication that any allegedly northern enemy took advantage of her victory at the Antonine Wall and subsequently advanced to the Hadrian Wall: between the two walls the Votadini continued to thrive. I consider it more likely that the Romans defending the Antonine Wall were cut off from their supplies by an attack from the rear: rather a southern enemy, that refused to be incorporated into the Roman province. Unlike the Hadrian’s Wall, Antonine’s Wall does not have a southern Vallum that would support a rear defensive structure. This deficiency may have been fatal.
The most striking act of the Votadini was their incursion as far as northern Wales (Cunedda, Nennius 62): fighting Scots (often confused or equated with Irish). It has been suggested they did not act with the full consent of Rome, what means they should be understood as a separate threat from the north, virtually indistinguishable from the ethnical Picts.
Nennius does not clearify the Pictish issue any further:
38. Hengist, after this, said to Vortigern, “I will be to you both a father and an adviser; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust: if you approve, I will send for my son and his brother, both valiant men, who at my invitation will fight against the Scots, and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called Gual.”(1) The incautious sovereign having assented to this, Octa and Ebusa arrived with forty ships. In these they sailed round the country of the Picts, laid waste the Orkneys, and took possession of many regions, even to the Pictish confines.(2)
(1) Antoninus’s wall. (2) Some MSS. add, “beyond the Frenesic, Fresicum (or Fresic) sea,” i.e. which is between us and the Scotch. The sea between Scotland and Ireland. Camden translates it “beyond the Frith;” Langhorne says, “Solway Frith.”
I read: Vortigern promised the lands around the Antonine Wall, that may have included Votadini territory. Pictish territories beyond the Fresicum here also suggest Pictish territories south of the Firth of Forth. Why Fresicum would not relate to territories traditionally under the control of Roman-Frisian mercenaries, within reach of the Hadrian Wall? And why refer to a geographic delimitation that imply the involvement of a Frisian history at all?
The above may shed some light at the location or identity of at least part of the Picts, that were mentioned by Ammanianus Marcellinus as Vecturiones. Evidence like toponyms in Frisia (two rivers Vecht, having one branching off south of the Roman fort Fectio), the Jutish territory in the Isle of Wright (already “Vectis” at the time of Ptolemy) and Horsa and Hengest being mentioned as “the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vecta, son of Woden” (Bede) insinuate a Germanic component. If indeed the Picts divided into two nations, this may have been the Germanic component of Caledonia that Tacitus was talking about. We can’t say that a possible Germanic ancestor didn’t leave traces in Scotland, since the overwhelming mayority of Scotland nowadays communicates in their own Germanic dialect. As such, some of the reported Pictish involvement in the north could possibly correlate to Anglo-Frisian finds on the English east coast, thus being referred at as “Pictish” incursions. Another explanation that adds up to the notion of Picts being unrelated to Britons.
The ethnic affiliation of the northern people to Brythonics became obscured for more than one reason. What could have happened to the Brythonic ethnicity when they mutated into villainous Picts?
- Maybe the Picts were dominated by a Gaelic elite? This can’t be true if Gaelic=Scottish, since the Scots and the Picts were two different nations. Picts were not equated nor related with the Scots – at least not until al lot later.
- Maybe the Picts were predominantly a non-Brythonic people, ruled by a thin Brythonic elite? This would not solve the problem
- Maybe only the Britons had changed during Roman rule? For sure, though the history of Cunedda that helped the Britons against the Scots in northern Wales proves that at least some affinity with people north of the walls was preserved. There is still no reason to presume that the Picts were essentially different from the Votodini
- Maybe the Britons did not last long as the dominant people in Roman Britain, and Picts were essentially different only to the vast Belgic-Roman population that was the heritage of Vortigern?
The Welsh allegedly knew the Picts as Prydyn, though this rather is a Scottish derivation of “Cruithne” – that in turn seems to relate to the whole of Britain. Later, the Welsh word for Picts was Fichti, derived from Anglosaxon pihtas or pehtas. Do we have to conclude that the Britons only knew about the horrible Picts through the stories of their natural enemies, the Scots and the Anglosaxons?
Ethnic cleansing of non-Brythonic people in Wales and elsewhere in the former Roman province may have been one of the privileges of Briton independence, inmediately after the Romans left. Part of this was performed by Brythonics from the Old North, that thus must have had a terrible reputation to some. Did they expel the descendants of the people that invented the Ogham inscriptions, from Wales? The first of these people were Irish that must have arrived in the Roman province of Britain without the objection of the Roman rulers. The Irish were allowed to settle in Briton territory, what implies the Romans actively discouraged ethnic claims of Britons to their own country. It could have been part of a wider Roman policy to weaken the native element. The action of the Votadini Cunedda to free Northern Wales from the Irish may have been overdue and post-Roman, though for sure was not in the vein of Roman policy. Those that inherited the Roman province, the people around Vortigern, might have thought about the Votadini as invaders from the north. Maybe they called them Picts.
At the same time Vortigern was reported (Nennius) to have offered the (Votadini) lands around the Antonine Wall to the Saxons. Coincidence or deliberate strife? The two opposing post-Roman alliances in Britain thus appear to be: Roman-Belgae core population + Saxons + Scots against the remaining Briton populations in western Britain+northern Brythonic people including the (“Dicaledoni”) Picts.
This takes me back to a thought that occurred to me before, that the real problem may be rather in the identity of the Scots. Maybe it is a great mistake to equate the historic Scots unequivocally with Irish Q-Celtic, while maybe they were a mixture. Scots were a new element identified with the North West, that left Ireland but unlike the Déisi-Attacotti, without leaving behind a trace. Maybe their history was more complicated than their Q-Celtic ethnicity and their own share of Ogham stones reveal.
We know that Ireland once must have had a considerable Belgic element, that for sure was not Q-Celtic. Where did they go? Did they constitute the earliest Germanic element in the Scottish nation? Is “Scot” (like “Saxon”?) another corruption of Suaeuconi/Suessiones, once the dominant Belgae element in NW Europe?
The distorted view we have of the Picts and the riddles that surround them may be symptomatic of modern wishful thinking that insists in the conjecture of Anglo-Saxon invasions. The Belgic replacement of Britons during the Roman period, and the likely Germanic nature hereof, may need a wider appreciation.
- Bethany Fox – The P-Celtic Place-Names of North-East England and South-East Scotland. A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Issue 10 (May 2007), link
- Saint Gildas – De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, translated by Giles, J. A. (John Allen), 1808-1884. ed., link
- B.Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain: an account of England, Scotland and Wales from the seventh century BC to the Roman conquest, 2005 (4th edition), link
- Nennius – History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum), translated by J.A. Giles, link
- Ammianus Marcellinus – The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus (Res Gestae), English translation by C. D. Yonge, link
- John C. Mann and David J. Breezet – Ptolemy, Tacitus and the tribes of north Britain, 1987, link
- Bede – Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, link