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Sunday, 18 June 2017

What I learned about the Picts?

Researching BLOOD FEUD was great fun. The Isle of Skye is a fascinating setting and the history and culture of the Picts was one I loved immersing myself in. 

As well as gaining a lot of info online, I got out library books on the history and culture of the Picts. A friend also loaned me a book on Pictish symbols, which she'd bought during a visit to Aberdeen. All helped me add depth and color to my story.

Here are some of the discoveries I made about the Picts (specifically those who were likely to have lived upon the Isle of Skye in the 4th Century):

  • The early Picts were a tribal society, formed by hunting (boar and stags mainly), fishing and farming (sheep, goats and cattle). They were also a warrior people and their would have been a number of feuds and battles between tribes. Ironically, the only time the Picts ever truly united together was against a common enemy: the Romans.
  • The Pict chieftains lived in fortified stone forts (duns) upon headlands—the heart of the fort would have been a brochs: a stone round-tower.
  • Pictish houses tended to be dug into the earth and circular in shape with alcoves around the edges for sleeping. They had cone-shaped thatched roofs, giving the inhabitants room to stand up inside. The dwellings would have been built in this way to make them warmer and protect from drafts during the cold winters.
  • The clan (the word comes from 'clanna' which means 'children') came much later in Scottish history. Instead, the early Picts could have easily been grouped according to animal names (according to the many animal symbols they used). i.e. the People of the Eagle.
  • The word 'mac' meant 'son of' so a warrior's name: Galan mac Muin meant 'Galan son of Muin'.
  • Many historians believe that Pictish chieftain descendency came down through the female, rather than male line. There is some debate about this, but the fact remains that Pictish women enjoyed considerable independence and rights (compared to some of the later British cultures). Pictish women were also warriors, and could be as formidable as their menfolk in battle.
  • The Picts didn't wear kilts or tartan (that came centuries later)—however, it's likely they would have worn clothing (leggings or skirts) made of plaid.
  • Despite the cold climate the Picts often went barefoot, and the men barechested. What clothing they did wear would have been minimal, with leather foot wrappings to protect their feet during the coldest months of the year.
  • They bore blue (woad) tattoos on their bodies (depicting the tribal markings and symbols of their people) and would have painted their bodies for special occasions and before going into battle.
  • The Picts took pride their appearance, the men and as well as the women—they wore beautiful jewellery and hair accessorys, and both sexes generally wore their hair long.
  • They were a pagan people, who would have believed in more than one god—rather a host of gods and goddess to represent different times of the year and different stages of life.
  • The passing of the year was celebrated by a number of fire festivals (as with all Celtic peoples).
  • The Pictish were highly artistic—they left behind a number of symbols and carvings on standing stones, buildings and jewellery.
  • They were a culture that believed in magic and superstition—they believed in fairies (called the Aos-si or 'Fair Folk') and in magical creatures such as selkies (half man, half seal), kelpies (water horses), brownies (a type of pixie) and wulvers (men with heads of wolves). 
  • Druids were an important part of Pictish society, and highly respected.
  • When the Picts wed, they did so barefoot and standing outdoors in nature.
Those were just some of the bits and pieces I gleaned during my research, and which I wove into my story. 

Piecing together Pictish culture when we have so little recorded history on them means that an author has to fill in a lot of gaps herself! As there is no existing map to show us what 4th Century Isle of Skye would have looked up, I have delved into the realms of fantasy and created my own—complete with four warring tribes: The People of the Stag, Wolf, Eagle and Boar. Here's the map which appears in BLOOD FEUD.


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  1. The Picts are definitely an enigmatic people, I researched them plenty for my sequel that comes out this year, where thew Picts feature heavily in it as the antagonists.

    1. Yes, they certainly were a fascinating, and mysterious, people. I've still got two more books in this series to delve into their culture more - I'm looking forward to it! What was the best resource for you? I used the local public and university library, as well as online resources, but must admit you have to dig deep to find any detail. A friend of mine who lived in Aberdeen for a while, loaned me a book on Pictish symbols which was a goldmine. Best of luck for your sequel! :-)