Warlord centres of Pictland:glimpses into a lost history

Pictish horse and stronghold mound, Bass, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

Pictish stronghold mound and carved horse stone at the Bass, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire

The bard was asked who of the kings of Prydein
is most generous of all
‘And I declared boldly
That it was Owain’
The Gorhoffedd, 12thC heroic poem


The subject of royal lineage brings out the romantic in the scholar and the scholar in the romantic.

Lordship and kingship in a Pictish context has been given both treatments over centuries of scholarship, each with its version of history. Lately tolerance between disciplines allows students of literature, language and art history to communicate with archaeologists and pre-historians in a renewed attempt to investigate the rôle of royal centres in the Pictish kingdom.

Pictish kings and sub-kings ruled a nation which grew from a loose confederation of tribal groups in the third century to become a major political and land-owning force at the time of their takeover by the Scots in the ninth.

To describe them as a lost society is to ignore the evidence.

Derilea tries here to demonstrate that the ethos of those early-Historic royal centres, far from being lost, has become incorporated within our culture and has meaning for us today.

As much as it is assisted by modern techniques, our perspective can be clouded by modern thinking.

Fealty, faith, heroism and violence are not fashionable concepts.

Yet these were an integral part of a power centre, as important as glitter of armies or riches in landholdings. Early Celtic neighbours held mutual respect for oral recitation of lineage, bravery, protection of one’s people and, in particular, generosity and hospitality.

Anyone reading the 6thC Welsh heroic poem of Aneurin, the Gododdin, which glorifies the last battle of high king and nobles of the huge fortress on Traprain, outside modern Edinburgh, cannot but marvel at the imagery of that aristocracy whose lineage hailed from 5thC Christian Votadini of treasure-hoard fame. The Welsh name Gododdin is linguistic translation for Roman Votadini.

It is difficult from our modern perspective to gain an understanding of hierarchy in the Pictish kingdoms North of the Mounth – that long barrier of mountain chain which shuts off Aberdeenshire – Pictish – from all Pictish landholdings to the south, including its immediate neighbour, Kincardineshire (the Mearns) – or Picitish Cirig. Cirig and its ancient capital, coastal St Cyrus, both take their names from one of the last High Kings of both Picts and Scots Giric/Grig who was deposed in AD889. The family name Greig (including the musician) is a direct descendant of this great name.

Aberdeenshire remained elusive because historical documentation was hindered by its remoteness from both geographical and clerical centres. Physical and literary evidence is still slight; but recent scholarship accepts a correlation between Irish sources such as the Annals of Ulster (AU), Annals of Tighernach and fragments carefully compiled by Aberdeenshire historian Skene (1867), as more accurate than previously supposed, although his sources have an understandably Irish slant.

In the time of church historian Bede, (AD673-735), the Pictish nation was geographically divided by the Mounth into those southern Picts living on ‘this side of the steep and desolate mountains which separate them from the provinces of the northern Picts’ (HE Ecclesiastical History III, 4).

While early land divisions may never become crystal clear, it is known that later 9thC Pictish rule was considerably sophisticated and a distinct advance on the system of leadership of those early ‘confederations’ mentioned by Roman historians and the mythology of the Pictish creation legend (‘Irish and Pictish Additions to the “Historia Britonum”’, Skene, 1867).

Later Pictish kingship (AD500-800) invariably held power greater than that of the Scots.

Early 7th century kings of Fortriu (Forteviot) controlled the huge nation from a warlord centre near the river Earn. They had nobles spread across the nation commanding allegiance, agriculture and armies with impressive force. They also had access to skilled labour – artists, masons, carpenters, architects and military engineers.

In military terms they were no different from their Dalriatan neighbours across Druimalban, the spine of Britain as described by Adomnan, Abbot of Iona beforehe died in 703 (Vita Columbae II 46), except in ‘the exploitation of fertile land’.

No Scots king, however, ever commandeered the Columban Church in quite the same way as Nechtan, son of Derilei (706-729), controlled the Church in Pictland.

After gleaning all he needed from Anglian Jarrow on ecclesiastic propriety, ritual and usage, and borrowing skilled architects to help him build stone churches (HE V, 21), Nechtan expelled the resident familia of Iona from Court in 717. Royal control persisted for the next 170 years until the time of northern king Giric son of Donald son of Alpin (878-889) who, according to Chronikil of Kings,

‘first gave freedom to the Scots Church which was under servitude until that time after the custom and manner of the Picts’.

From mid-6thC until final assimilation by Scots, circa 843, Pictish aristocrats administered land tenure, exacting tithes and allegiance through kinship in exchange for protection, while fostering a thriving industry in decorative and domestic materials from the centre of an all-powerful local lord (or laird).

This laird in turn was subservient to the next in rank, sub-king or High King, whose central fortress would have been impressively rich in trappings of authority, and controlling vast acres of fertile agricultural ground. He too would have highly-skilled masons, metalworkers and woodcarvers at his disposal.

One of the early High kings, Bridei son of Maelchon (died 585), ‘powerful king of the Picts north of the Mounth’ lived in such a fortress, Brudei munitio near Inverness, as described by Adomnan (V.C II 35). Its obvious wealth, its size, impenetrable position, its great wooden doors barred against Columba when visiting on his first mission, all impressed the simple monk; Adomnan describes Bridei’s other powerful asset: his personal Druid, Broichan, wise-man-in
chief, consulted on augury, keeper of knowledge and laws, magician-in-residence who could ‘raise and still storms’ (V.C II 34).

Not only was Bridei’s stronghold large enough for royal family, retinue, advisors and slaves, but it housed hostages taken as a means of insuring the loyalty of an Orcadian sub-king
(V.C II 42).

remains of Pictish citadel on Aberdeenshire's North Coast

Dundarg gateway is all that remains of this Pictish citadel on Aberdeenshire's North Coast

In later times, when the Scots became powerful enemies, such northern fortresses, like Burghead (Moray), Dundarg (Aberdeenshire) and Dunnottar (Kincardineshire), each sited within reach of a fertile plain, were prime targets for siege-and-burn raids because of wealth, real or imagined, which could be carried off as booty. As neither side paid its army, the promise of treasure hoards in exchange for military allegiance was an important factor in maintaining a functioning force.

Burghead well entrance to the chamber

Burghead Pictish stronghold had its own chambered well, useful during siege

Warlord centres had to have quick access to surplus food supplies in order to feed workers temporarily removed from agricultural production in peacetime or soldiers during siege; this implies rich landholdings immediately adjacent, land in a wider radius, or, in time-honoured fashion, plundering one’s neighbours.


Terraces on the slopes of Dundurn two miles inland from coastal Sandend, Banffshire, indicate immediate access to a food supply, regulated planting and harvest, immediately outside the walls.

fortified Dunnottar on the Kincardine coast

Supremely fortified Pictish warlord centre, Dunnottar was protected on three sides by sheer cliffs rising out of the North Sea

Records indicate coastal Dunnottar, on the Mounth’s eastern extremity, was besieged more than once (AU, 681, 694?). Its fortified position, set on towering cliffs, bounded on three sides by the North Sea and defended on the remaining narrow strip to mainland fields by bank and ditch enclosures, is perhaps the most dramatic of northern warlord centres. It may have been a much-prized potential conquest for Bridei son of Bile, southern Pictish ‘King of Fortrenn’ (genitive of Fortriu) in his siege of Fothair in 681. Under him great armies fought the battle of Nechtansmere near Dunnichen in 685, resulting in Pictish independence from Northumbria. Northern warrior aristocrats may have had just as powerful armies at their disposal marshalled from equally impressive royal seats. Dubhtalorc, 8thC ‘rex Pictorum citra Monoth’ (died 782, AU) probably ruled from just such a fortress ‘on this side of’ the Mounth.

Status and wealth were directly related.

Pictish Burghead was ringed by 30 ritual bull carved stones

Pictish Burghead was a supreme fortress overlooking the Moray Firth

The larger the citadel, the more land it controlled; but it had the burden of producing more to feed its dependents. Food had to be grown in abundance to stock a royal town (urbs or civitas, Bede, (HE I1). For a small dun crops could be grown locally. Whereas in a larger province, centred on a major fortress, a higher proportion would be tithed and collected as tribute from widespread tenantry.


30 carved bull stones ringed the fortress of Burghead on the Moray coast

One of 30 carved bull stones from Burghead, Moray

The chief seat of a district while heavily fortified, ritually protected in the 5/6thC (multivallate Burghead was ringed on the landward side with around 30 carved bull stones), by the 9thC it may not have needed such fortification. It would still, however, have administered all surrounding landholdings, including that of the church, not ‘given liberty’ until the reign of Giric (878-889), above.


Jewellers and metal artisans working full-time produced rich adornment for aristocratic overlords at local level and, through gift-giving and hospitality, in distant kingdoms.

Generosity was a mark of status. Hospitality was a key feature of tribute given and received among princely equals. But feasting was appreciated by all: the best way in which a warlord could thank his warriors in advance for services to be rendered in battle was to ‘feast them all for a year’ (Song of Taliesin).

After all, they might not return.

As law-giving and government increased in sophistication, so negotiation between noble confederacies changed from violent bloody encounters to political and matrimonial alliances, sealed over the feasting table with Mediterranean wine.

Forteviot, an elite capital of later kings of Fortriu, seems to have centred on a glorious palace – palisaded, but not as formidable as neighbouring Dundurn, (AU 683) with feasting hall, royal church of decorated stone and Christian burial ground. Strategically set in lush Strathearn on the Water of May, its landscaping is more relaxed than iron-nailed ramparted Dundurn: suggesting perhaps fewer raids in more enlightened times.

It is possible, however, that Fortriu could afford to show affluence, as protection came from a line of fortresses, Dundurn among them, similar to the line of promontory forts as coastal guardians of Banffshire. It was spiritually guarded from above by 8/9thC Class II (Christian) carved stones, of which Dupplin and Invermay crosses are only two.

Custatin filius Forcus on the Dupplin Cross overlooking Forteviot, now in a museum

Custatin filius Forcus cast a kingly eye over Forteviot from the hillside

From the reign of Bridei son of Bile, d.693, kings of Fortriu seem to have enjoyed overkingship, as the term Fortrenn is used in annals with dual meaning denoting kingship as well as head of a dynasty.


The Dupplin cross, in particular, may demonstrate the importance of Fortriu as supreme kingdom. Its inscription celebrates Constantine, among the last of the Pictish kings.

’Custatin filius Forcus’ (Urgust, Fergus)

who ruled Pictland from Fortriu in 789, assumed kingship of DalRiata by 811, and retired to the monastic life in St. Andrews (Cillrighmont) where he died in 820.

Forteviot had prestige and precedent. Pictish capital at the height of its power, it ministered to an orderly nation accustomed to hierarchy based on allegiance developed over a millennium. No wonder for the Scots who subsequently ruled there – at least for a time – it was the ultimate prize.

‘He held his household . . .
Sometyme at Edinburgh, sometyme at Striveline,
In Scotlande, at Perthe and Dunbrytain,
At Dunbar, Dunfrise, and St. John’s Toune,
All worthy knights more than a legion,
At Donydoure also in Murith region
Jhon Hardyng, 1465

©1998-2009 Marian Youngblood


Gaels progress through Pictland via the Church

Promontory with Pictish stronghold before Scots takeover

Promontory with Pictish stronghold before Scots takeover

In recent years an increasing flow of evidence supports a gradual spread of Gaelic through Pictish territory, rather than a sudden loss of culture after a takeover of Picts by Scots.


Here we trace how this progressive Gaelicisation may be attributed to the contemporary work of the Church. Rather than cover all of Pictland from the Orkneys to the Forth, evidence is directly drawn from Northeast Scotland as a ‘control’ area and used comparatively with Fortriu,

centred on Forteviot.   Further work in a wider spectrum, based on this evidence, might prove interesting.


First it is helpful to draw a larger picture connecting the Church with royal foundations.


At the beginning of the period marked by the Columban mission to the Northern Picts, one such as the fortress of Bridei at Ness (munitio Brudei, d.585), is unlikely to have had any developed form of Christian building. Northern Picts at that time were still carving pre-Christian stones.


However around 100 years later there is evidence supporting the foundation of churches in association with Pictish royal centres.


As early as 678 Trumwine was ‘bishop to those Picts . . . subject to English rule’ at Abercorn, south of the Forth (Bede, HE IV, 12).

In 685 King Ecgfrith led an army into Pictish country (HE IV, 26) and his defeat and death at the battle of Nechtansmere near Dunnichen, Forfarshire accelerated Pictish independence from Northumbria. Although a break from Anglian domination in church matters resulted from the battle, it was not until 717 that there appears the first recorded instance of a Pictish king taking the Church under royal patronage.


At the request of King Nechtan, son of Derilei (706-726, d.732), architects were sent from Wearmonth to


‘build a stone church . . in the Roman style’ (Bede HE V, 21).

Arch from stone building in Pictish capital Fortriu/Forteviot

Arch from stone building in Pictish capital Fortriu/Forteviot

Certainly by the mid-9th century Forteviot in Strathearn was the chief royal centre of the Pictish kingdom, featuring a richly carved stone arch with central short cross, which suggests the presence of a royal chapel and a royal hall or palace where Kenneth son of Alpin, first king of combined kingdoms of Picts and Scots died ‘in palacio, 858’ (in the palace, Pictish Chronicles).

During Kenneth’s rule of both kingdoms, particularly after the translation of the relics of Columba to his royal foundation at Dunkeld, 848/9, Gaelic would become the language of Alba (the Scots’ name for the kingdom of Picts which they took over). It had already become one of two

languages of learning and writing, albeit bilingual, in Pictland before his reign.


Four elements mark bilingual literacy via the Church during the 7th and 8th centuries.

  • Class II stones in a Christian tradition, using pre-Christian symbols;
  • ogham inscriptions; 
  • plain incised crosses alongside ogham or alone and 
  • ‘kil’ (cill-) placenames.

 All provide unquestionable links with a Pictish Church.

Ecclesiastical and agricultural placenames continued to evolve as Gaelic adaptations were added up to the 13th century.


Most potent evidence of a thriving Church in 8th century Pictland is firstly the large number of sculptured stones whose art derives from monastic culture, erected following Nechtan’s Romanization of the Pictish Church.

East face of the Dupplin Cross as it stood in a field above Forteviot; now in a museum

East face of the Dupplin Cross as it stood in a field above Forteviot; now in a museum

Class II stones bear elaborate crosses on one side while maintaining relief-form Pictish symbols, perhaps as an attempt at legitimization or to be better understood by an uneducated populace. Yet by the reign of Constantin (c789-820), at Forteviot not only is that king’s name inscribed on the free-standing Dupplin cross, but any attempt at placating a pagan minority with Pictish symbolism has been abandoned.  

There appears to have been a concerted effort to use the royal connection to spread the Christian word.



The Elgin Class II cross slab shows Christ alongside falconry symbolism, a regal pursuit as meaningful to the population as a griffin motif in royal funerary art would have been on the St Andrews sarcophagus.



Massive Sueno's Stone at Forres, wrongly named for a Viking

Massive Sueno's Stone at Forres, wrongly named for a Viking

By the late 9th century via Sueno’s Stone, on the Class III monolith at Forres displaying a Christian message, ranked horsemen, but no pagan symbols, Kenneth follows in the footsteps of Constantin’s Dupplin proclaiming victory in battle and thanksgiving to God (and doubtless Columba), in what is seen as a royal inauguration ceremony below a giant cross on Sueno’s west face.

In areas where Class II cross-slabs are notably more numerous than Class I, such as in Angus, Forfar, Perth and Fife, the presence of a fully Christian Pictish establishment is clear.


However, beyond the Mounth in Aberdeenshire, where Class I (pagan) stones vastly outnumber Class II (early Christian), the separate practice of cross-incision may have substituted for fully-developed Class II stones during the sixth and seventh centuries. These are called by Dr Henderson’s (1987) classification Class IV: cross-incised stones ‘with no other ornament’. They may even have sufficed for a ‘conservative’ populace.


Only at Monymusk were cross-incised stones followed by a so-called Class II cross-slab, itself not fully progressed from Class I incision.


In Moray, where classes I, II and III all exist, alongside one known free-standing cross – unusual for North Pictland – there is new evidence for a long-standing ecclesiastical foundation at Kinneddar on a par with Forteviot or Kilrymonth/St. Andrews.  This foundation is thought to be perhaps as early as the mid-eighth century.


Then there is a strong case for early dissemination of ideas by the Pictish Church through the use of ogham as an Irish influence, rather than one of Iona.  With its 3rd-5th century origins in locations where Irish was spoken, ogham in Pictland appears in sixth to eighth century contexts. This compares with the use of Irish-Roman script on Pictish stones such as Fordoun [inscription: P Idarnoin trans. Pax, peace of St.Eddarnon] of 7th century date and the ‘Drosten Stone’ at St Vigeans [inscription reads: ‘drosten ipe uoret ett forcus’, trans. son/descendant of Fergus and Uurad].  This one has been dated to AD 839×842, the dates of the reign of Uurad son of Bargoit.  


A variant peculiar to the Pictish Church, borrowed ogham seldom uses Irish unless one allows marginal use of ‘mac’, son of, but exploits an Irish alphabet.  Thus it succeeded in portraying Pictish names often within a Latin context. Latin was since Nechtan’s time the preferred language of his ‘Roman’ church.



Ogham and unknown script reside side by side on the Pitmachie stone at Newton

Ogham and unknown script reside side by side on the Pitmachie stone at Newton

This multi-cultural incongruity is seen at its most ‘Pictish’ where V is substituted for the Irish C sound in recently-discovered Pictish ‘vvrohht’ (Doric ‘vracht’, Eng. wrought, Lat. me fecit) on at least one Class II stone, at Dyce and possibly in the interchangeable use of the ogham X instead of crroscc, Ir.Gael. cross written out in full, as on stones at Aboyne, Afforsk, Bressay and Newton.

The rather under-catalogued remnants of cross-incised stones in Northern Pictland can be seen as an indication of widespread Christian teaching by Gaelic-speaking missionaries in 6th/7th centuries.


In Aberdeenshire occurrences of early church dedications linked to a controversial ‘pre-Columban’ Brittonic mission are also widespread.


Debate is warm in Pictish academia on activity in Northeast Scotland of saints such as Brandan (Banff, Ruthven), Comgan (Turriff), Drostan (Deer, Aberdour), Marnan (Marnoch, Aberchirder, Leochel), Moluag (Clatt, Clova, Lumsden, Mortlach, Rhynie), Serf (Culsalmond), Maelrubha (Applecross, Loch Maree), Nachlan (Tullich, Oldmeldrum) and Walloch (Glass, Tarland).



Simple incised cross in a boulder delineating the boundary of Pictish church lands at Afforsk, Aberdeenshire

Simple incised cross in a boulder delineating the boundary of Pictish church lands at Afforsk, Aberdeenshire

The association of cross-incised or simple cross-relief stones with all of these localities is remarkably clear. In addition, cross-stones have been found in locations of known early foundations such as Botriphnie (Fumac), Culsalmond (Serf), Dyce (Fergus), Fintray (Modan), Premnay (Caran), as well as in early ecclesiastical sites with no proven founder, such as at Abersnithock, Barra, Bourtie, Dunecht and Inverurie (Apollinarius).

Placenames, particularly those containing cill– and both– elements, show

origins in the seventh century and possibly earlier of the location of a simple church or cell. This ties them in with contemporaneous reference to patron saint Ethernan, d.669, as one means to substantiate dating.

While a lot of Ethernan research concentrates in Fife one might extrapolate to include the occurrence of IDDARRNON or its abbreviations (DDOAREN, DDARRNNN) in ogham in locations where all three elements exist, suchas Brodie, Brandsbutt, Fordoun, Newton and Scoonie.


King Giric (878-889) is said in the Chronicles to have given

‘liberty to the Church, which was in servitude up to that time after the custom and  fashion of the Picts’,

(Scots Chronicle, Skene, 1867, 1887).

In 906 King Constantin and Bishop Cellach swore on Scone’s Hill of Faith to ‘keep the laws . . .of the faith and rights of the churches. . .in the same

manner as the Irish’ (Poppleton MS).


pre-Christian pagan symbolism on the Pictish carved stone in Inverurie kirkyard

preChristian pagan symbolism on the Pictish carved stone in Inverurie kirkyard

By that time, brought back to prominence at the Scots court from banishment in Pictish King Nechtan’s time, Ionan céli Dé reform had begun again.  Certainly in ‘Alba’ by the 9thC, the Gaelic language must have been in full use by kings, noblemen and the skilled classes in former Pictland, with diminishing enclaves of Pictish survival.


There appears a rationale for the concept of domination and utter extinction of the Picts by the ‘might is right’ attitude of their aggressors, the Gaelic Scots, with consequent purging of all Pictish lifestyle, customs and language.


There is a passage in the Poppleton Chronicle (Skene, 1867), a post-AD780 kinglist translated into 10th century Gaelic from materials contemporary with the 9th.  It demonstrates the self-righteous attitude of an already victorious race for a ‘people expelled for its sins from its promised land’:


God deemed (Picts) deserving of being deprived of their inheritance 

‘by reason of their wickedness,

because they not only spurned the mass

and commandment of the Lord,

but in right of justice

would not be put on a level with others’.


From within the security of an accepted (Columban) faith, this message proclaims a holy right to Gaelicize Pictland, and to subdue a previously superior and independent people.


™Marian Youngblood (1997-2009)   
Bede HE = Bede’s 8thC Ecclesiastical History

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