Some 2,000 years ago, Scotland was home to a group of people known as the Picts. To the Romans who controlled much of Britain at the time, they were but mere savages, men who fought completely naked, armed with little more than a spear.
But the Picts were fearsome warriors.
Every time the Roman Empire tried to move into their territory, the Picts successfully fought back. The Roman legions were the greatest military force the world had ever seen and the only people they couldn’t conquer were this wild clan.
Yet despite their formidable warrior culture, the Picts mysteriously vanished during the 10th century. The wild men the Romans could not conquer faded away and barely left behind a trace of their existence. Today, historians still struggle to piece together a glimpse into who the Picts were and what happened to their mighty culture.
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues/Wikimedia CommonsA Pict woman drawn covered in flower tattoos.
The Picts were so named by the Romans who observed and record them, but as was the case with many ancient peoples, the Picts did not refer to themselves that way. “Pict” is believed to be a derivation of “The Painted,” or “Tattooed People,” which described the blue tattoos with which the Picts covered their bodies.
Julius Caesar himself was fascinated by the culture. Upon meeting them in battle, he recorded that they “dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue color, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible. They wear long hair, and shave every part of the body save the head and the upper lip.”
According to other Roman sources, the only clothing the Picts wore were iron chains around their waists and throats. Iron was considered to them a sign of wealth and a material more valuable than gold. In addition, iron also served a practical use, the Picts could use these chains to carry swords, shields, and spears.
Their bodies were otherwise adorned head to toe with colored tattoos, designs, and drawings of animals. Indeed, these designs were so so intricate and beautiful that the Romans believed the reason the Picts didn’t wear clothes was to show them off.
Battle of Nechtansmere of 685 AD.
When the Roman Empire invaded Britain, they were accustomed to winning. They had conquered every powerful civilization they had yet come into contact with and destroyed any armed opposition with a flash of armor and steel that knew no equal. But they had never faced an enemy like the Picts.
The Romans expected another easy victory against the Picts, a primarily land-based people, going into their first battle. Indeed, the Picts retreated nearly as soon as they’d started fighting, and the Romans declared: “Our troops proved their superiority.”
But the victory proved to be an illusion. While the Romans were setting up camp, the Picts returned pouring out of the woods and seemingly out of thin air. They caught the Romans completely unaware and massacred them.
Time and time again, the Picts would lure the Romans into a false sense of security before striking when their guard was down. For instance, they would often charge the Romans on horseback and immediately retreat, luring the Roman cavalry away from their infantry. Then, a second squad of Picts would leap out of the woods and slaughter any Romans that had been foolish enough to give chase.
“Our infantry,” Julius Caesar wrote, “were but poorly fitted for an enemy of this kind.” Indeed, when the Romans took over a Pict village, the clans would move on to another one and prepare to strike back. Much like Napoleon could not pin down the enemy and force them to fight on his terms during his invasion of Russia, the Picts continuously frustrated the seemingly superior Roman forces by their refusal to fight in the Roman way.
The Picts were faster, knew the land better, and had they more to fight for. By Roman counts, some 10,000 Picts died fighting against their forces — but Scotland never fell to them.
This story, though, is one told by an invading force. It’s a Roman version of the Picts, which is likely far from the whole truth.
It’s hard to say what life among the Picts was really like. Little Pict writing has survived to this day. The only hints we have come from a scattered handful of relics uncovered in British archaeological digs.
What we’ve found, though, bears little resemblance to the Roman version of the story. The Picts, historians believe, weren’t a particularly warlike people. With the exception of a few cattle raids between neighboring tribes, they lived in relative peace only taking up arms when the Romans forced them to defend their homes.
There is little proof even that they really fought naked. Most of what archaeologists have discovered about the Picts comes from the 5th century or later, but by then, at least, the culture had taken to using linen, wool, and silk. They drew themselves dressed in tunics and coats in pictures.
Interestingly enough, the Picts seem to have been farmers and were a peaceful people who focused their faith on nature. They believed a goddess had walked through their lands and that every place where her foot had landed was sacred. Their fierce commitment to their ancestral land is likely what motivated them to become fearsome protectors of it and a dangerous enemy to the Romans.
William Hole/Wikimedia CommonsSaint Columba converting the Picts to Christianity.
In the end, it wasn’t the drums of war that toppled the Picts: it was the cross. In 397 AD, Christian missionaries started moving into the Picts’ territory and spread the message of Jesus Christ. One of the most successful individuals in converting the Picts was Saint Columba, who famously won over the clans by banishing a monster they thought dwelled in the River Ness – a story that’s believed to be the basis for the legend of the Loch Ness Monster.
By this point, Pictish culture began to change. More and more, they became influenced by their Gaelic neighbors and started to imitate their language and beliefs.
The last Pictish kings died in 843 AD — killed, depending on who you believe, by either the Vikings or the Scots. Then, the King of the Scots, Cinaed Mac Alpin or Kenneth MacAlpin, crowned himself as their ruler and formally united the Picts with the Scots.
Jacob de Wet II/Wikimedia CommonsKenneth MacAlpin, the first King of Scotland and the last King of the Picts.
At the same time, Scotland was threatened by ongoing Viking raids. The remaining Picts had no choice but to fight side-by-side with the Scots to defend their ancestral land. By the 10th century, their Kingdom was wholly transformed into the Kingdom of Alba, and their own language was replaced by Gaelic. The last traces of a distinct Pict culture were lost.
By The Newsroom30th Mar 2016, 12:26pmUpdated 31st Mar 2016, 12:02pm
Research into the genetic origins of Scots found that that 10 per cent of Scottish men are directly descended from the Picts.
Speaking in 2013, Dr Jim Wilson, a senior lecturer in population and disease genetics at the University of Edinburgh, said:
“As you go up your family tree there are all sorts of paths.
“But if we can see that about 10 per cent of fatherlines look to have a Pictish origin, then we can make the prediction that probably a lot of the other lines do.”
Yet mystery has long surrounded the fate of the tribe of fierce enigmatic people who battled with Rome’s legions before seeming to disappear leaving behind a rich history.
The Picts were some of the first settlers in Scotland, myths tell of their descent from the Celtic goddess Brighid, their lineage passed down from the female line.
Kenneth I - the first King of Scotland - was descended from this line, his mother being one of the Pictish Queens.
Brighid was a Celtic Goddess, from the Tuath de Danaan, which legend says were an ancient fairy race of Ireland. The first King’s wife - although never named - is said to be a direct descendant, as are all the subsequent royals, right down to Queen Elizabeth II.
Even the name “Britain” is derived from Brigihd, named for the people who worshipped her, the Brigantes.
But very little is known of the beginnings of these ancient northern kingdoms - the first record consisting of just a list of kings, dating back to 312.
The kings were named in the Pictish Chronicle, thought to be dated from King Kenneth II of Scotland, who ruled Scotland from 971 until 995.
The first recorded King of the Picts was Vipoig, who reigned from 312–342.
Not much is recorded about these early kings, other than that they held off attacks from both the Romans and Angles, living in their own separate community about the Firth of Forth.
The Angles were ruled by King Oswiu in 642, and were rapidly expanding north, taking the River Forth and heading up towards the River Tay.
King Oswiu acted as an overlord, demanding the subordination of the Britons, Gaels and now the Picts. When he passed away, a new Northumberian king was chosen - Ecgfrith, in 664 - and he wasted no time in setting out to crush the Picts, slaughtering an entire colony near Grangemouth.
According to Northumberland reports, so many Picts were slaughtered that it was possible to walk across the River Carron without getting your feet wet.
The Pictish King Bridei lead the Picts in retaliation for the massacre at Grangemouth.
As the Angles advanced on the Pictish fortress of Dunnottar, Bridei set his trap. The Battle records of Dun Nechtain against the northern Angles station in Northumbria were so well preserved, that we know it was fought on Saturday March 2, 685 at 3pm.
The Angles spotted a Pictish warband and set of in fast pursuit, climbing down over Dunnichen Hill. They found themselves surrounded, the main body of the army lying in wait, trapping the Angles with the Loch behind them, where all met their fate.
After that moment, the Picts and Gaels were freed from the overlords, the Angles never recovering their hold on Scotland.
When Kenneth I rose to power in 843, he wanted to conquer the Picts, their armies having murdered his father in battle.
The story goes that in 848, Kenneth invited the Pictish King Drust IX and the remaining Pictish nobles to Scone, under the pretense of peace negotiations.
While the Pictish men were at dinner, the Gaels released the bolts from their benches causing them to fall into hidden spike filled pits below, wiping out an almost millennium old lineage.
Kenneth McAlpine went on to claim the remaining Picts and northern Scottish lands for himself, and in the process became the first King of Scotland.
Within a few generations, the Pictish language was forgotten, the Pictish Church taken over by the Scottish Colombian Church and most artifacts of Pictish culture erased.
The Story of f Drust I, Ruler of the Picts Picts remain the most mysterious and continue to be a crucial focus for many researchers, archeologists, and historians. The history of these Celtic-speaking peoples is full of enigma. These warlike tribes had no established and developed writing system, and much of what we know about them today comes from outside sources, many of which are hazy at best. So, what do we know about these peoples of Ancient Scotland? Well, one thing that slipped through time is an extensive list of all the purported kings of the Picts. One such king is Drust I, son of Erp, a legendary leader of the Picts and certainly one of the kings with an interesting background. However, the information we know about Drust I is scarce at best, or is it?
This elegant piece of metalwork may have existed during King Drust I’s rule and is part of the St Ninian's Isle Treasure. (Johnbod / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The “Pictish Chronicle” is a very old, early medieval manuscript that is dated to the reign of Cináed mac Maíl Coluim, better known as Kenneth II , the king of Scotland from 971 to 995 AD. By this time in history, it can be safely assumed that the Pictish identity in the region of Scotland was hazy at best, and mostly phased out, assuming somewhat of a mythical role. The rapid progress of Gaelicization was underway, meaning that the Gaelic language quickly overshadowed and replaced the old Pictish language , which was much like the Brythonic language of old.
Around this time the name “Alba” also came into use, replacing the previous names for the lands of the Picts. Nevertheless, it is agreed that the Pictish Chronicle does include a mostly historic list of previous rulers amongst the Picts. And although they were mostly separated into distinct clans or tribes, which often warred and raided each other for cattle, in times of hardships they banded together and were ruled over by a single leader.
Historians agree that the “Chronicle” is almost entirely historical after the part which mentions King Brude , son of Maelchon, who reigned between 554 and 584 AD. However, the chronicle goes back way beyond this ruler, and, if correct, could be an important insight into the history of the Picts.
This Pictish stonework, on the famous Bullion Stone in Scotland, is generally thought to depict Drust I on a horse. (Johnbod / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The name of Drust is often recorded in different spellings: Drest and Drust being the most common. The name of his father is also recorded as either Erp, Irb , or Urb. The name itself is often mentioned amongst the Picts, with numerous kings bearing the exact same name. What is more, the name is vouched for amongst all the peoples of the British Isles.
In regard to the Picts, the name is given to a good number of somewhat mysterious kings. Some argue that the name can be connected to that of Tristan, the famed hero of Arthurian legend. The “Drust” version of this name is distinctively Pictish, and is also recorded as Drustan (i.e., Tristan), Drost, and Droston, and is almost exclusively a royal name. It also appears in the Welsh language and history, as Dryst, Drystan , and Trystan.
In the chronicle, Drust I, son of Erb, was an early king of the Picts, ruling in a time when the Romans were leaving Britain. It was a time of rapid change and characterized by a somewhat chaotic, disorganized state of affairs. It is likely that Drust I arose as a competent leader who could unite his people and capitalize on the situation.
Main - Archaic carvings, a common symbol of Pictland as seen at Anwoth, Scotland. Inset - Theodor de Bry, Celtic or Pict Warrior, representative of Drust I. Source: Internet Archive Book Images /Public Domain
He is widely known as the “ King of One Hundred Battles, ” since the chronicle states that he “fought a hundred battles and lived a hundred years.” His actual historical reign is cited variously, with the most commonly accepted one being from 412 to 452 AD. One thing that is crucial about Drust’s reign is the fact that it was seemingly under his auspices that Christianity was first introduced amongst the Picts.
This was done by Saint Ninian (died 432 AD), whose life does coincide with the period of Drust I’s alleged rule. This was perfectly summed up by an early Scottish historian, Thomas Innes, whose work “Critical Essay on the Ancient Inhabitants of the Northern Parts of Britain” from 1729 is one of the crucial takes on this matter. In it, he writes:
“By this calculation it appears that it was during the reign of this Drust (Durst) that the gospel was first preached to the Picts by St. Ninian, in the beginning of the fifth century, and afterwards by St. Palladius and St. Patrick to the Scots and Irish, betwixt A.D. 430 and 440. And here ends the first part of the abstract of the Pictish Chronicles, which contains the account of the succession of their kings in the times of ignorance preceding their conversion to Christianity, when, it is like, they first received the use of letters.”
Another example of Pictish metalwork from the St Ninian's Isle Treasure. (Johnbod / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
While a lifespan of one hundred years seems a bit unlikely and mythical for that ancient period, the “one hundred battles” aspect could very well be true. What little we can piece together from history indicates that Drust I was very active in military campaigns.
It is most likely that it was this very king that was responsible for the constant Pictish raids to the south, which were so critically mentioned by Gildas the Wise in the 6th century. Gildas left a highly important insight into the “ Groans of the Britons” (Gemitus Britannorum) , a historical plea of the Britons to the departing Roman military. It was a request for aid and was made between 446 and 454 AD, roughly coinciding with the reign of Drust I, son of Erp.
The Britons complained about the incessant incursions and raids by tribes of Picts and Scots. As the Roman military gradually withdrew southwards and then out of Britain, these northern tribes exploited the lack of military presence and penetrated deeply to the south, raiding and pillaging. The famous Briton plea states amongst other things: “ The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.” The barbarians here are the Picts.
Certainly, the Britons responded to this threat as best as possible and sought ways to remedy the growingly chaotic situation resulting from the raids. It is widely agreed that due to these Pictish incursions, likely led by Drust I himself, the Britons were left no choice but to hire more and more Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to battle this threat from the north. This in turn led to increased Anglo-Saxon presence in Britain, and their gradual settlement there.
The famous Pictish Aberlemno Serpent Stone. (Catfish Jim and the soapdish at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Ultimately, as a result there was a huge increase of Anglo-Saxon culture and settlement in Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Drust I was seemingly quite capable of protecting his southern borders against Britons, Anglo-Saxons, and the encroaching Gaels. He not only led offensive campaigns to reduce these threats, but also established fortified harbors along the coastlines of his land in order to protect them from maritime incursions.
One location in Scotland is today believed to be the main fort of King Drust I. It is today known as “Trusty’s Hill,” and is located near the town of Gatehouse of Fleet in the parish of Anwoth, in the district of Dumfries and Galloway. Here it is important to note that the name “Trusty” is a corruption of the name “Drust.” Thus, the location is literally called “Drust’s (Drusty’s) Hill.”
The fort is not too well preserved, although some remains of it can be seen. It was partially excavated in 1960 by one Charles Thomas, who deduced with certainty that the fort dates to pre-Roman times, i.e., well before the reign of King Drust I. Archeological excavations yielded traces of high-quality metalwork and large-scale feasts, which could indicate that this was an important and perhaps royal center.
Furthermore, a carved Pictish stone stands on this location, at the entrance into the fort. The stone is carved with well-preserved Pictish symbols: a lavish “double disc with a Z-rod,” an elaborately carved sea creature, and a representation of a Pictish dagger. This Pictish stone is one of the very few that were discovered so far south, outside the heartland of the Picts. It might correlate to Drust I’s proposed raids and southern incursions, which became such a big problem for the Britons.
Pictish symbols at Trusty's Hill, one of the few places in Scotland to be clearly associated with Drust I. (Billy McCrorie / Pictish Symbols at Trusty's Hill )
As the first, most likely, historical king of the Picts, Drust I is also mentioned in Irish sources, chiefly the Annals of Clonmacnoise (Annála Chluain Mhic Nóis ). This is an early medieval manuscript that was later translated into English, and it details the historic events in Ireland and the region from the supposed creation of time until 1408 AD. In this chronicle is mentioned Drust mac Erp (Drust son of Erp), the Pictish king who allegedly ruled for 29 years and died in 449 AD. It also states that it was in the nineteenth year of Drust I’s rule, around 435 AD, that Saint Patrick’s mission arrived in Ireland.
But once we connect these dots we can clearly understand that King Drust I was an able Pictish leader that rose up and managed the volatile situation that emerged in the early 400’s AD. As the Roman military presence waned and altogether ceased, and especially when the garrisons on Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned, the way was open for the warlike tribes of the north, whom the Romans could never fully subdue, to descend southwards and harass the vulnerable Britons.
Around this time, it is documented that the Roman signal stations on the Yorkshire coast were burned and destroyed. This occurs in the early 400’s and could very well be one of the initial moves by the Picts of King Drust I.
Another thing we know about Drust son of Erp is the fact that he exiled his own brother to Ireland. This man was known as Nechtan Morbet (Nechtan “ of the Speckled Sea ”) and was either exiled or fled to Ireland. This could be evidence that Drust and his brother feuded over the rule of the Picts. Nechtan later returned to his home and eventually became the king of the Picts, ruling from 456 to 480, most likely after his brother died.
It is said that Nechtan founded the village of Abernethy ( Obar Neithich ), which was at one time a capital and major political and religious center of the Picts. An early monastery founded there was erected on land granted by King Nechtan, son of Erp. The Pictish Chronicle records this of Nechtan:
“Nectonius, living in a life of exile, when his brother Drest expelled him to Ireland , begged Saint Brigid to beseech God for him. And she prayed for him, and said: "If thou reach thy country, the Lord will have pity on thee. Thou shalt possess in peace the kingdom of the Picts.”
A Pictish stone in the Museum of Scotland collection showing what could also be King Drust I. (Johnbod / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Pictish history remains largely obscured by time. The lack of written heritage, and due to the turbulent history of the British Isles, the fate of the Picts was largely doomed from the start. What little we can piece together is fragmented and obscure, and closely intertwined with myth and legends.
Nevertheless, if we broaden our horizons and view the corresponding historical events in the region, we can with some certainty narrate the story of early Pictish kings.
Drust I, son of Erp, is one such figure. Viewing the historic events unfolding during that time, we can by all means label him as a historical figure. The King of a Hundred Battles certainly seems as a logical and plausible epithet, one which this king earned by exploiting the vacant space left by the retreating Romans, to unite the Picts under one banner and wreak havoc amongst the vulnerable Briton tribes.
And it could be very well likely that it was these actions by King Drust I that led to the gradual settlement of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. And that itself was one of the defining moments in the entire history of the British Isles. It led to the emerging history of the English people, and thus the history of the world as well.
Top image: Celtic warrior. Source: jozefklopacka / Adobe Stock
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