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Ancient Scotland - The Picts and Scots

Ancient Scotland - Stone Age to Kenneth McAlpin (5000 BC - 843 AD)

Summarizing several thousand years of the history of ancient Scotland is impossible in "25 words or less." If you like, skip Scotland's stone age, and click down to bronze age, iron age (the Celts), Roman Britain (the Picts), or Dalriada (early Scottish history).

Stone Age in Ancient Scotland

Archeology is a fascinating field of study. You get to spend your life holding, for instance, a small carved stone ball up to the light while saying "What in the world did they use this for?" The two favorite words of archeologists? probably. possibly.

Probably farming began to take hold in ancient Scotland around 4000 BC. Possibly the carved stone balls were used for a game. In the east, people were buried in large barrows (called cairns when made with stones). In the west, they used chambered cairns (everyone got their own spot). Later, possibly, these two cultures merged under the new technologies, greater population, and increased trade of the Bronze Age.

Archeologists do magnificent work, bringing the past to light, but must walk a fine line between assuming ancient peoples thought exactly the way we do with very similar motivations and interests, or conversely lived in a world of such deep superstition and barbarity that we should be unable to relate to their concerns and activities in any way. It's a tough task. Once in a while, archeologists are rewarded with a very well-preserved site, such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

Undercovered by a storm in 1850, the village of Skara Brae survived under sand for 5000 years almost completely intact. Why? Because virtually everything was made of stone - houses, beds, dressers and shelves - even wall recesses with drains beneath, suggesting indoor facilities. They had to use stone, since Orkney has few trees.

Other sites, similar to Skara Brae, suggest that the Orkney tribes were totem-based. At Cuween Hill, many dog skulls have been found, while the Ibister were people of the eagle.

These were the early years of the great henges and stone circles, though most were built during the Bronze Age, including some of the largest such as Stone Henge. What is a henge? Henges include the circles of stone, but are surrounded by a ditch, with the earth dug up and piled around the outer perimeter of the ditch, encircling and protecting the stone and timber arrangements inside.

There is a great deal of speculation about the uses of the circles. Many included altars and burials. Some seem oriented toward the sun and some toward the moon. It would seem they may have been used for a variety of purposes depending on the time, place and current culture. Popular imagination peoples the henges with druids, but the circles of stone predate the druids by many, many centuries.

Bronze Age in Ancient Scotland

Archeologists believe that new people, called the Beaker people after their most common archealogical product, moved to the Isles around 2500 BC bringing their metalworking skills and culture with them. This was a peaceful influx, a more technologically advanced society influencing and dominating the less advanced. However, the Beaker people embraced wholeheartedly the notion of stone circles and they are the ones who perfected the art. So cultural exchange worked both ways.

Scottish culture changed dramatically with the advent of metalworking. Learning to smelt gold and copper, and later to combine copper and tin into sturdy bronze, opened broad new vistas in trade, the arts, accumulation of wealth, and warfare. All of these produced commensurate changes in class structure and ancient society. Gold and copper were available in Scotland, but the tin had to come from Cornwall, increasing trade traffic all around the Isles.

With metalworking, the days of bonking someone over the head with a club or sailing a stone at them were over. Swords and shields, dirks, daggers and spearheads - all beautifully crafted and carved - and, of course, expensive. They would belong to the man who could get them and hold them, and the age of warrior aristocracy began. Stone age cairns held many people, but the Beaker people buried their aristocracy alone, complete with artifacts and goods for the journey ahead.

While all these changes were taking place in ancient Scotland, a new people were spreading across the face of Europe. Coming from the steppes of southeast Asia, as had so many before them, they made great use of horses to overcome and subdue. By 700 BC, they had reached England and their influence spread until their culture dominated the British Isles. They were the Celts.

Iron Age in Ancient Scotland

Now we come to one of the two great areas of debate concerning early British history (the other, found below, involves the Picts). Who were the Celts? When did they get to the British Isles? Are Celts and Druids really a part of the same culture?

First of all, there is a simplistic mental image, produced by reading textbooks, in which we envision "waves" of people hurling themselves across Europe, destroying all in their path, and imposing their ethnic identity and DNA on the hapless prior inhabitants. This is incorrect. DNA testing has revealed that present-day inhabitants of Britain are primarily descended from the mesolithic (early stone age) or original inhabitants of the islands.

It is true that a tribe or group of people may "win the war" and impose their rule and their culture - this happens time and time again. But they intermarry, rather than annihilate, and the basic stock remains the same. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how widespread Celtic culture was in western Europe (Spain, France, and Britain) hundreds of years before the Romans took an interest in their history.

By 400 BC or so, we stand at a crossroads in our study of ancient Scotland. For the Celts are still living in the world of archeological record, while the Mediterranean world has long since moved into the realm of history. The difference? Writing.

From the Greek and Roman historians who first encountered the Celtic peoples we have developed our basic image of the fierce Celtic warrior, woad-painted and naked, howling like a banshee. We've also garnered images of ancient druids, congregating under the sacred oaks, harvesting mistletoe, and supervising human sacrifice.

Some of what they record is likely true and some colored by hearsay, wishful thinking, and political expediency. Unfortunately, the Celts cannot answer back because at that time they had no written language.

There is one point of great debate and historical interest, however. By the time of Julius Caesar, it would appear that the power base of druid religion and culture derived from Britain. In other words, the druid religion may have spread outward from Britain to Europe rather than vice versa. Perhaps, as the Celts migrated into the British Isles, encountering the indigenous culture and its great stone circles, they developed a unique religion, druidism, which then migrated back to France and Germany. The implications are stunning and call on us to do our own research and come to our own conclusions.

There is more information about Celtic culture and religion on our Celtic Mythology page.

Roman Britain

In Iron Age Scotland, based on Celtic tribal society, warfare was common. First millenium BC Scots built hillforts, great duns (stone hill fortresses), crannogs (forts and houses built on stilts in lochs, and, unique to Scotland, brochs. Brochs are round stone towers, tapering inward as they rise from the ground. Hundreds may be found all over north and west Scotland and the Isles.

When the Romans arrived in ancient Britain, they found numerous fierce tribes which they grouped under some general headings: Britons in England, Scotti in Ireland, and Picts in Scotland. It is believed that all these groupings were fundamentally Celtic. The Gaelic language of the Britons survives in Wales, Scots Gaelic (derived from Irish Gaelic) in western Scotland.

Many scholars believe the Picts spoke a version of Gaelic, related to Welsh but unknown to the later Scots (St. Columba required a translator when he converted Brude, the Pictish king). Other scholars claim evidence of a prior, non-indo-european language, related to Basque. The Pictish script found on stone monuments appears to use similar letter forms to the Irish Ogham, but remains as yet untranslated.

Another area of debate concerns the word Picti, meaning "painted" in Latin. Rather than painting themselves, other historical records suggest they actually tattooed their faces and bodies. Irregardless, they were mighty warriors, holding off Romans, Angles, and Vikings before their culture was absorbed by the Scots. The Hadrian and Antonine Walls are a tribute to the fear they instilled in Roman hearts.

Pictish society was one of the very few matrilineal societies of ancient Europe (setting them quite apart from the Irish and British), with kingship conferred through the mother. This is how Kenneth McAlpin, first Scottish King of the Scots and the Picts, came to the throne - his mother was a Pictish princess.

Remarkably, Pictish culture seems to have completely disappeared into legend and myth by the end of the 10th century, leaving behind a wide-open field of lively debate among present-day scholars.


Northern Ireland is "nae so far" from Scotland, and as early as 258 AD the Romans complain of Scots from the north sweeping down upon them. The ancient Irish kingdom of Dalriada (race of Riada) traces its legendary lineage from the High Kings of Tara. About 500 AD, the sons of Erc, King of Dalriada, Fergus, Loarn, and Angus, established kingdoms in the Western Isles and Argyll, with their seat at Dunadd.

The kings of Scotland are descended from one of Fergus Mor's sons, Gabhran. In the mid-500s, St. Columba established a monastery on the Isle of Iona. From there, he acted not only as missionary to the Picts, but diplomat as well, helping to unite the Scots under Gabhran's son, King Aidan. Nevertheless, the Scots did not fare too well their first three centuries in Scotland, losing to the Britons in the south, and the Picts in the west. Indeed, the Picts continued as the strongest force in the land for 300 years more, both numerically and politically.

There are a great many legends surrounding Kenneth McAlpin, Scotland's first Scottish king. They say he killed the members of all seven Pictish royal houses to secure the throne. Such ruthlessness paid off, though. While some future kings were styled "King of the Scots" or "King of the Picts", all were buried on Iona as Scottish kings and the name of the country became "Scotia".

So Pictish power gave way to Scots, and the kingdom of the Gaels stretched from the Western Isles to the eastern coast. But there were Vikings in the north, and Britons and Angles in the south. Future kings would have the task of expanding Scotland's borders to their present extent and preserving her independence.

Move on to Medieval Scotland (843-1296)
Visit our Celtic Christianity page

Additional Resources: Ancient Scotland and Celtic Books

We recommend this excellent article by Jeff Nisbet about Scotland's ancient carved stone balls. What was the purpose of these fascinating and beautiful artifacts?

Tomb of the Eagles
Tomb of the Eagles : Death and Life in a Stone Age Tribe

By John W. Hedges

Excavations in the Orkneys seem to be turning the archeological world upside down. Just how advanced were these ancient stone-builders? Hedges details discoveries of a clan whose totem was the white-tailed eagle. Engagingly written. 5 stars.

Stone Circles
Stone Circles : A Modern Builders Guide to the Megalithic Revival

By Robert L. Roy

Not strictly "on topic" but too fascinating to pass up. Rob Roy not only lovingly describes some of the world's most interesting stone circles, but teaches you how to build them! Want a Stonehenge in your backyard? Wonderful book. 5 stars. Highly recommended.

The Picts and the Scots
The Picts and the Scots

By Lloyd and Jenny Laing

History of the Scots arrival in Dalriada and eventual merging with the Picts as they battle against Anglo-Saxons and Danes. Fascinating historical account of the merging of two peoples into the Scots Highlanders.

Sacred World of the Celts
The Sacred World of the Celts: An Illustrated Guide to Celtic Spirituality and Mythology

By Nigel Pennick

Filled with beautiful illustrations and photographs, this book is a wonderful introduction to Celtic religion and culture.

Oxford Companion to Scottish History
The Oxford Companion to Scottish History

Essential companion for anyone interested in Scottish history. It includes Columba, Macbeth, and William Wallace; Burns Clubs, curling, and shinty; clans, Clearances and Covenanters.

The Legacy of Rome
The Legacy of Rome - Scotland's Roman Remains

By Lawrence Keppie

As an outpost of empire, Scotland played a significant, if unusual, role in the Roman world. The south and east were occupied intermittently from AD 79 to the early third century, while the north and west remained outside Roman control. A detailed gazetteer introduces all the major Scottish sites and includes photographs and detailed plans.