Alba, Pictland, Caledonia, Scotland – the birth of a nation

 

Once upon a time long, long ago a man from across the sea and far away travelled to the ancient land of Gaul and there he heard tales of exotic people who painted their bodies with strange patterns and symbols. Never before had the man seen beings with painted skin so he decided that the painted ones, called Picti because there was more than one Pict or picture person and Latin was in vogue at the time, were sufficiently different from all the people he was used to they were positively dangerous and uncivilised.

Roman raiders who invaded and conquered Gaul (in the way people with powerful armies tend to do) agreed with him.

 “We don’t like people who are different and we don’t like people who refuse to capitulate and accept us as their rulers. We like people who look just like us and invite us to take over their lands.”

Tile or Thule showing early map of northern Scotland

The man was called Hieronymus but for obvious reasons he changed his name to St Jerome. St Jerome who is often painted, though not on his body, with a lion representing Christ was disgusted by the weird folk living on the island across the water from Gaul. Not all of them, only the awkward squads of Picts, Atticots or Scoti or versions of the name. They were cannibals, he wailed. To illustrate the point he said if a shepherd, his wife and their flock of sheep were to stroll past a group of Picts, Atticots or Scoti they would be eaten down to the shiver while their mutton on the cloven hoof would be left alone.

“They must be barbarians!” wailed St Jerome; a saint with firm views. And he called out the painted people, Picts and their associates for their attraction to human flesh – in every meaning of the term – one of which old Jerome himself knew a thing or two about.

It may have occurred to some, though not Jerome, that tales of Picti, Atticotti and Scoti barbarity might have been exaggerated – not least by Roman legionaries embarrassed that their marauding antics and expansion into the island across the water from Gaul was only partly successful because the Scoti, Picti and Atticotti in the land called Alba refused to prostrate themselves before the Romans roaming across their territory.

 Angry and embarrassed over their failure to bludgeon the Atticotti, Picti and Scots into submission, legionaries sat around camp fires spinning yarn after yarn about wild, ruthless, cannibals who turned their painted noses up at being invaded in the land the Romans called not Alba but Caledonia – the land the painted people just called Home. Raging Romans and their hingers-on were hell-bent on demonising the Picti, Scoti and Atticoti.  

scotland and pictland

“They were twelve-foot giants, honest. With bad breath. And they’d eat a man as quick as look at him.”

If you make the mistake of looking up Atticotti or rather the alternatively spelled Attacotti on Wikipedia you will read they were –

“a people who despoiled Roman Britain between 364 and 368, along with Scotti, Picts, Saxons …”

 at which stage the author of such nonsense should be reminded in no uncertain terms it was the Romans doing the invading and marauding not the indigenous peoples defending their homes and way of life – including partaking of the occasional shepherd and his wife – not that shepherds had wives, more temporary bidie-ins.

On investigation the Picti – let’s forego the Latin plural and settle for Picts – when they weren’t savaging shepherds were chawing on ears of corn. For they were also referred to as Picts of Cruitnich. Cruitnich, as you’ll know in a minute, means corn eaters. So much for eating fellow men and women. Although no-one can live by corn alone. So, it seems when they weren’t out defending the land from aggressive Imperial Roman types Picts were farming, hunting and fishing and carving imagery into big stones. The Atticotti were doing something else and the Scoti were swatting up on irregular Gaelic verbs.

In the land of corn-eaters spelling was a free-for-all so Cruitnich became Cruitkne and Cruitin. Cruit became a byname for Picts. You can understand it for Picts of Cruitnich is a mouthful, almost as great as a shepherd’s foot. Careless writing turned Cruitin into Priten and as sure as Cruitin is Priten it transformed into Briton. Briton being a word for the people of a place meant Britain was the place where they dwelled.  

 We know some names of Pictish clan chiefs in long-ago Scotland; such as Talorg, meaning bright-browed. His reign as chief was from 388 to 413 and he was succeeded by Drust, son of Erp who ruled till 453. They were quite long-lived these Picts, except for the shepherds.

 The inhabitants of Britain most easy-oasy over being invaded by Romans were soft, southern types while those who weren’t – brawnier, bolder folk backheeled it to the north.   

The land of the north; Alba or Caledonia was demonised by the resentful Romans who felt entitled to conquer any part of the world they fancied. Just because they could. Only they couldn’t. Alba or Caledonia stood firm but their lands so reviled by so many continued to attract the waspish eyes of many a monarch from among the soft folk of the south.   

 The people of Alba were once strangers landing on the shores of the land to the north of the island across from Gaul before Gaul was Gaul. In later times Picts tended to occupy the east of the land while eventually the Scoti or Scots came as boat people from Hibernia – Hibernia later known as Ireland – so the first Scots lived where they dragged their boats ashore, on the southwest coast of Alba. They  were no less ferocious than those pesky Picts, according to the Alexandrian poet, Claudius Claudianus.

Claudius didn’t actually meet any Scoti or Picts but relied on hearsay or anecdotal accounts from – you’ve guessed it – Roman legionaries describing tattooed bodies of the people they had slaughtered in Alba (or Caledonia as they insisted on calling it.) The land that was said to be –

 “tepid with the gore of the Picts and Iere” (Irish Scots)

 “weeping her heaped-up piles of slain Scots”

 …once the Romans had finished with it.

Not that anyone in Pictland or Scotland at this time was averse to slaughtering their fellows. From the Scots or Scoti from Iere or Hibernia who overpowered the Picts to dominate Alba came the first king of Scots to be consecrated, back in 603. This was Aidan who led his men to the Bernician frontier. Bernicia covered the land now southeastern Scotland and northeastern England. In a battle of thrones that was typical of the time, Aidan’s men confronted Aethelfrith, king of Bernicia, at the Battle of Daegsastan on the river Jed and lost – though both armies were virtually wiped out.   

Blood flowed in the north of the north as well. Orkney was reported to have run with Saxon blood. Saxons were people who first washed up on the shores of the island of Britain from the place we now call northern Germany. Most Saxon migrants settled in the southern parts of Britain where they and their close neighbours, the Angles, left their stamp on the heart of every patriotic Englishman and woman revelling in their pure Anglo-Saxon bloodstock, that is – German.

Saxons being a mouthful for the Scoti and Picti was given the Alba treatment and became Sassenachs. Some Sassenachs carried on migrating, northwards, but growing knackered by their long walk they mostly stayed on in a part of Alba called the Lothians.

It was around the year 843 when Kenneth MacAlpin became King of the Scots and Picts and power and control over Alba was centralised in a continuing line of monarchs. This being 1200 years ago means Scotland’s ancient pedigree is a very, very long established one.   

Rivalries continued with Picts losing out to Gaelic Celts and bringing to an end the culture of the Alba’s exotic painted people. By the tenth century the language of the Picts has been lost for all time, replaced by Gaelic, although their paintings and carvings remind us of the very special painted people of Alba. In time Celtic culture itself was diluted and altered from the south by the influences of the Sassenach and from the north the impact of Vikings. 

Hundreds of years later Johnny-come-lately waspish-eyed monarchs from England claimed the ancient land of Scotland belonged to them. Roll on 400 years to the Act of Union where a handful of nobles sold-out the people of Scotland in exchange for bags of cash – to the fury of  Scots.    

This unpopular Union between the ancient land of Scotland and England is but a blink of a bloodshot eye in Scotland’s long, long existence – longer than the English usurper’s.   

Scotland, the land of Picts, Scots, Vikings and, yes, Sassenachs does not pretend purity of a single race. That peculiar claim of unadulterated national identity is confined to a branch of extreme English nationalism and I don’t want it said that in this tale of the birth of a nation I have forgotten our southern brethren and sistren. So, I’ll leave the last word to an Englishman, a Sassenach, who composed the following ditty in 1839 – 

A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

A figurative fib, in fact a fiction;

A something meant t’express in verse

A man akin to all the universe:

From Pict, Scot, Saxon, Norman, Dane, began

That heterogeneous thing – an Englishman.”

 

PS – the peoples of the four nations of Britain lived happily ever after. Or did they?

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