The Name of the Picts



In The Problem of the Picts, (1955)  F T Wainwright posed two questions: “Is the name Picti no more than the Romans’ name for a ‘painted people’? Or does it represent a Latinised version of a native name, perhaps the Picts own name for themselves?”


It has often been said that the origin of the name was due to the PIcts being tattooed. This however makes no sense as tattooing was common across the ancient world and many Roman legionnaires were themselves tattooed. Tattooing itself was already ancient even then as illustrated by the 5.000 year-old ’ice-mummy” known as Otzi, found in the Tyrolean Alps.


From the time of Julius Caesar onwards there are references to natives of these islands painting themselves, though none of the Romans writing of the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall makes any such reference. The first references to tattooing are made by Isidore of Seville, writing in the 7th century, who Wainwright accepted was not a totally reliable source. It may well have been that some, or even all of the tribal peoples of the British Isles when the Romans arrived painted their bodies but the association with the Picts appears to rest on the understanding of the name meaning ’painted”, and not much else.


There has long been a tendency in Western scholarship to see the world through a process of thinking that has effectively been defined by an adherence to the fundamental importance of Christian and Classical learning. This is understandable given how our education, and legal, systems have developed over the centuries, but it does create problems. The idea that civilization is defined by literacy and the urbanisation that both helps define, and accompanies the centralization of power in the modern nation state, has led to an assumption of superiority on the part of societies who have gone through this process towards other peoples.  The very terms savage and primitive are themselves an exemplar of this process and it is hard to deny that such attitudes are ,to varying degrees, racist.  This gives rise to a perception that ideas emanating from such ’civilized’ societies are inherently more accurate than anything that can come from more primitive peoples, even as in this case to the extent of ignoring evidence.


As pointed out by Rivet and Smith (1979 p438) the earliest known term that can be associated with the Picts is ’Pexa”,


It is possible that Ravenna’s PEXA…. is for Pecti, or even more interestingly, Pectia, Pictland. The Cosmographer lists the name as that of an Antonine Wall fort, but we already know that this section contains several names that are nothing of the sort, including two that are probably tribal names misread from a map as though they were forts (Volitario= Votadini, Credigone=Creones). Pexa could well come into this category.


The authors suggest that the origin of the name occurring in the 7th century Ravenna Cosmography (Ravenna)  could have been a military map from the Severan campaigns of 208-211 CE, which itself was based on an earlier one (Rivet &Smith 1979 193ff).


Nicolaisen (1976) tells us that,


….the pseudo-learned etymology which derives the name of the Picts form their supposed habit of tattooing or painting themselves is not acceptable form a linguistic point of view……Whether the Picts did tattoo or paint themselves is another question which has never been answered in a satisfactory manner, but fortunately it does not have to concern us here, since a Roman learned etymology or soldiers’ nickname is not likely to have given rise the name of a whole people. p150


The idea that the Pictish period begins win the year 296 with the first written reference to them is an example of the attitude already mentioned and frankly, silly. This reference is in a work by Ammianus Marcellinus (Rolfe 1940) and it is particularly interesting that he uses the term Picti twice, but Pecti once. We should therefore consider the suggestion that Picti is a variation on an indigenous name, possible even one that the people concerned used themselves.


Rivet & Smith and Nicolaisen were writing in the 1970s but MacCulloch (1935) earlier wrote


…we may see in Picti or Pecti (the latter apparently the correct form) merely the Roman rendering of a native name….p 14


and went on to tell us


The Scottish literary forms of the name were Pegchtis, Pights, Pechtes, corresponding to Anglo-Saxon and Old English Peohtas, Pehtas and Pyhytes. In colloquial Scots the forms were Peht, Pecht and Pegh. Now from Northumberland to the north of Scotland the names in folk tradition became those of a mysterious race and some of the traditions …associated the Pechts with megalithic remains and large buildings, and with legends of the origin of these. p21


These traditions may have a lot to tell us, surviving as they did among populations who we can safely state were the descendants of the earlier Picts. The relevance of such traditions is strengthened by the historical reality that until the beginning of improving agriculture and the consequent Lowland clearances, followed by the clearances of the Highlands after the ethnic cleansing and military occupation following Culloden (NLSmap), most of Scotland’s population lived in a socio-economic, self-sufficient pastoral type of society that had changed little since the time of the Picts. The widespread scatter of these small communities, known in the Lowlands as fermtouns and in the Highlands as clachans (more properly baille, township), can be seen in General Roy’s military maps of 1745-6 (NLSmap). The importance of oral tradition in such types of community is difficult to overstate and as Isaacs (1980) points out, oral traditions not only have remarkable survivability but can contain much interesting, and provable material


MacCulloch’s comments re the Scots literary tradition are echoed by Rivet and Smith and, Nicolaisen in their references to the names that the Picts were called by their contemporaries. Rivet and Smith inform us that the Picts were


..known in Old Norse as PETTR, in Anglo-Saxon as Peohtas, in Old Scots (sic) as Pecht, and in middle-Welsh as Peith-Wyr, all forms which demand original PECT-. (ibid)


Nicolaisen has the following..


The Roman Picti corresponds closely to the Old Norse Pettar or Pettir… and to the Old English Pehtas, Pihtas, Pyhtas, Peohtas and Piohtas of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle… and there is little doubt that these linguistic variants do not derive from each other but come from a common source – probably a native name . Ibid p151


The Middle Welsh Peith-wyr is particularly intriguing given the generally accepted idea that the Picts were P-Celtic speaking. The oldest surviving literary creation in Welsh is Y Gododdin (Gododdin) and this was written around the year 600CE in Edinburgh. The Gododdin tribe, earlier referred to as the Votadini by the Romans, lived alongside the Picts and given their similar linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds, can be seen, at the least, as closely related.


Watson (1926) having referred to Peohta and Pecht as forms ‘which suggest an original Pect-…” (p68) made the point


It would thus seem that. While the form ’Picti” is certainly Latin, it is based on a genuine native form, and we may compare the Welsh place-name Peithnant…(ibid)


There would seem to be very little actual support for the notion that the name of the Picts has anything to do with painting or tattooing. What is interesting however, in both the form Pecht and Pict, is how late the usage of the terms lasted in local traditions. A perusal of the Ordnance Survey 1843-1882 6 inch maps of Scotland (NLSmap) shows just how many ancient monuments were recorded as Pictish. This can only have arisen from the cartographers drawing on local knowledge and illustrates something significant. In some parts of the country, e.g. Caithness, the number of places associated with the Picts is vast as can be seen by using the search term ‘Pict” on the Scotland’s Places web site database (Scotland’sPlaces). The use of the term this way does however occur from the Border to the Shetlands. How much of this is due to actual oral transmission and how much to education in one form or another is moot but the survival of the Pecht form is suggestive of some level of continuity from the far past. And just as it is possible to read Roman commentators as using the terms Pict and Caledonian interchangeably for all the tribal peoples north of Hadrian’s Wall, so we can perhaps see in the widespread  references, to ancient sites, a suggestion of a folk-memory of the Picts as our national ancestors. Ancestors who were not given their name by the ultimately unsuccessful Roman invaders.




Isaacs, J; 1980. Australian dreaming: 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History Landsdowne Publishing Pty; Naremburn

MacCulloch,J.A. 1935 The Picts of History and Tradition in Proceedings of the Scottish Anthropological Society vol1 pp 11-24

Nicolaisen, W.F.H., 1976 Scottish Place-Names Batsford London



Rivet, A.L.F. & Smith, C., 1979. The Place-Names of Roman Britain, London

Rolfe, J C 1940 (trans) Ammianus Marcellinus 3 vols Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass

Scotland’s Places

Watson, W J 1994The Celtic Place Names of Scotland Birlinn Edinburgh  repr

Wainwright, FT Ed. 1980 The Problem of the Picts Melven Press Perth



Stuart McHardy M.A.(Hons), F.S.A.Scot


December 2018