Subscribe to Archaeology

Letter from Scotland

Land of the Picts

New excavations reveal the truth behind the legend of these fearsome northern warriors

September/October 2021

Scotland Tap o NothCreeping silently, the warriors emerged from the cover of the trees and made their way toward the fort. Minutes later the fort’s guards were surrounded by semi-naked men, their faces concealed by bushy beards, their bodies covered in tattoos. Some guards were dragged from their posts while others were dispatched with long spears. The warriors then surged over the wall and plundered and laid waste to the town beyond, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Once again, the Picts’ guerrilla tactics had caught their enemies by surprise. At least this is what the Romans, who occupied much of Britain from A.D. 43 to 409, would have the world believe. Given the name Picti—meaning “painted ones” in Latin—these people inhabiting northern Britain stood up to the Roman legions and, against all odds, prevented them from seizing their land.


Scotland Pictland MapThe Picts emerged some 1,700 years ago in what is now northeastern Scotland—known in some sources as Pictavia, or Pictland—and left virtually no written records of their own and very few traces on the landscape they once inhabited. The handful of Pictish dwellings that have been discovered suggest they were a thinly spread population of farmers living in simple turf-walled houses, not the ferocious barbarians the Romans portrayed.


Believed to have descended from Iron Age Celtic tribes, the Picts were culturally and linguistically distinct from their neighbors, the Gaels, who inhabited what is now western Scotland, and the Britons, in what is now southern Scotland. The formation of their identity as a distinct group was likely accelerated by the presence of the Romans. This may have forced fragmented tribal groups to organize and cooperate with each other, forming several Pictish communities that became kingdoms in the face of a common threat. By the tenth century A.D., the Picts had seemingly vanished, leaving behind only myths and standing stones inscribed with distinctive symbols. “It’s one of the enduring mysteries,” says University of Aberdeen archaeologist Gordon Noble. “Who were these fascinating people?”


Over the last 10 years, Noble, who heads the Northern Picts Project, has excavated Pictish settlements in some of the most extreme and unlikely locations in northeast Scotland. Through excavations on windswept hilltops and crumbling coastal promontories, it is becoming clear that these sites were home to a well-connected, creative, organized, and highly skilled group of people whose true story is only now being thoroughly explored. Some of the legends surrounding them, it seems, may not have been so far-fetched after all.