The Great Cross of Oronsay
The Great Cross of Oronsay

The Picts

Isolated by mountains and with no road or bridges until the 18th century, the Highlands have long remained a distinct and individual part of these islands. The celtic people who came to live in this remote and infertile land retained a very very different way of life until recent times.

Sueno Stone

Early sources suggest Pictii, the celtic speaking peoples who lived in Britain north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus, were a grouping of tribes - enemies of the Romans - who developed into a sophisticated political entity, laying the foundations for the modern Scottish nation.
Nowadays the Picts are best known for their legacy of carved stones, which include a range of enigmatic pagan symbols as well as more elaborate Christian designs. Sueno's Stone, near Forres, depicts an elaborate battle on one side and is the tallest medieval sculpture in Scotland (shown right). Other individual sculptures include a cross slab at Elgin Cathedral, the Maiden stone and Picardy stone.

At Aberlemno, near Forfar, a particularly fine 8th century cross slab has on its reverse a battle scene which is interprted as being the battle of Nechtanesmere where, in 685 A.D., the Picts defeated the Northumbrians.
Archaeologists, historians, art historians and place name specialists continue to tease out exciting new evidence for the presence of the Picts in Scotland, such as their settlements, monasteries, and burial places. Traces of their farms remain rare; still recognisable, however, are some of the fortified sites in which their leaders lived. Possibly the earliest and certainly the largest, is the promontory fort at Burghead, where massive ramparts and ditches cut off the headland. This was clearly an impotant Pictish naval base.

At Craig Phadraig (near Inverness) a prehistoric fort was refurbished while at Urquhart a Pictish fort lies beneath the later medieval castle.
In the late 6th century A.D., St Columba travelled from Iona to visit the king of the Picts, living in the vicinity of the modern Inverness. Travelling along the Great Glen he, or more probably his later followers, first brought Christianity to the Picts of northern Scotland, an effort which was later to be redoubled by southern based Pictish king.

The Influence of Argyll

In early historic times Argyll was the power base of the Dal Riata or Scoti, Gaels who had orignally come from north-eastern Ireland to settle in Scotland. Through a process of integration and conquest, the Scotii eventually took over Pictland to the east and , by about 900 A.D. Alba had been founded. Although in fact it was the Picts who had laid the foundations for the modern Scottish nation, the Scotii shared much in common with their neighbours, notably in their art and lifestyles.

Picts battle Northumbrians

In 563 Christianity was brought to Argyll from Ireland by St Columba. Within a few years he had founded a monastery at Iona, later to become a renowned centre of learning and excellence, its most famous product probably being the Book of Kells, now in Trinity College, Dublin. The big vallum (bank and ditch) which defined the monastery can still be traced, and a spendid collection of 8th century high crosses and other carvings remain. Perhaps the finest high cross in Scotland is to be found at Kildalton on Islay.

Columba's followers and other saints were responsible for many of the early Christian carvings, early chapels and monasteries which can still be found throughout Argyll, including Eileach an Naoimh (in the Garvellachs) Keills chapel, Applecross or the collection of stones at the Museum of Islay Life, Port Charlotte.

Most of the people would have lived off the land and sea, inhabiting small duns (roundhouses with thick stone walls, which are commonplace in Argyll). There were up to 4 main groupings of people and their leaders lived in complex forts of which Dunadd near Kilmartin is the best known example.

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© CARUS 1996 - 2007

Courtesy of Historic Scotland