A Consideration of Pictish Names

(Being prompted by a request for advice on a 1st century Pictish name)

by Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn
copyright 1996 Heather Rose Jones, all rights reserved

I. Introduction - What Do We Mean By "Pictish" With Respect To Names?

A. Early Use of "Picti"

The first question that must be considered, in any discussion of Pictish names, is, "What do we mean by 'Pict'?" and "What do we mean by 'Pictish'?" The earliest record we have of the word "Pict" being used to describe a group of people in Britain comes from a poem by Eumenius dated A.D. 297, which mentions the "Picti" along with the "Hiberni" as enemies of the "Britanni". (Wainwright p.2) Although this sets up a contrast between Picts and Britons, in the strictest analysis, it need not imply anything more than a Romanized/non-Romanized distinction. The word "picti" is most often (and most straightforwardly) understood as a plural of the Latin participle "pictum" from the verb "pingo" "to paint; to dye or color; to decorate". This is usually interpreted in the light of Julius Caesar's comment "All the 'Britanni' paint themselves with woad which produces a bluish coloring.' Other, later, classical writers repeat this claim, often narrowing the application to inhabitants of the northern part of Britain and making reference to "puncturing" rather than "painting". The popular interpretation that developed might best be summed up by the early 7th century description by Isidore of Seville who says that the Picts take their name "from the fact that their bodies bear designs pricked into their skins by needles". (Wainwright p.1)

But in interpreting these comments, it must be understood that the classical "anthropological" tradition involved a great deal of repeating and interpreting the claims of earlier writers, and extremely little direct observation and eye-witness report. Another example of this sort of writing is the pseudo-history repeated by Bede which claims a Scythian origin for the Picts, but this seems no more than an attempt to connect them with another people described in classical writings as "Picti". Other pseudo-histories carefully list wanderings and emigrations of "the Picts" that would connect them with every place or ethnic name resembling "pict" (such as the Pictones of Gaul, whose name became modern Poictou) and every mention of skin-painting or tattooing. A great deal of the material repeated by Isidore and Bede and similar writers is demonstrably false. Other parts can be corroborated by archaeological methods. But any use of this sort of material must involve several large grains of salt. Of all the early writers that mention "painting", only Caesar seems to have been an eye-witness, and his observations would have been concerned with the inhabitants of southern Britain, the Celtic peoples that he explicitly calls "Britanni".

B. Later Classical and Medieval Use of "Pict"

From an ethnographic point of view, a better observation is that writers from the 3rd century on (and especially from the mid-4th century on) make reference to Picts as a people living in the north of Britain as contrasted with other identifiable ethnic groups such as Hiberni, Scotti, Saxones, Britanni. An early 4th century reference notes "the Caledones and other Picts" (although it is technically possible to interpret the Latin as "the Caledones, the Picts, and others"); Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century) describes the Picts as divided into two groups, the "Dicalydones" and "Verturiones". Bede, writing in the 8th century, describes four peoples as living in Britain, the Britons, Picts, Scots, and Angles. (Wainwright pp.2-3) So whatever the name may originally have meant (and there are some theories that it is a Latinization of some native name), there was an identifiable ethnic group in the north to whom this name was regularly applied. The earliest chronicles of "Scotland" (used in the loose sense of "the north of Britain") also make reference to an identifiable ethnic group called "Picts" and give several lists of "kings of the Picts".

In this ethnographic sense, "Pictish names" are any names borne by people identified as Picts. The Pictish king-lists are virtually the only source we have for these. The many problems of interpreting these names are covered below.

C. Linguistic Definitions

Another sense in which we can understand "Pictish" is a linguistic one. From the earliest Roman records of pesonal and place names in Britain, it is clear that the vast majority of those names (and thus, presumably, the language of the vast majority of the inhabitants) are Celtic, although of several strata of migrations. However, in the north, there is fragmentary evidence of names that do not appear to be of Celtic origin. Some of the personal names appearing in the lists of "kings of the Picts" also appear to be non-Celtic, although many are clearly of Celtic origin. Additionally, there are Ogham inscriptions from the north that include names and name formulas that are consistant with those in the Pictish king-lists, but that are otherwise indecipherable. (By "indecipherable" I mean primarily that the letters, interpreted according to the usual Ogham correspondences, form words that are not understandable as any known language, although there are also problems with deciphering the letters themselves due to damage and wear.)

>From all of this, it is at least convenient, if not necessarily completely correct, to lump all the "non-Celtic" linguistic evidence from the north of Britain under the label "Pictish". In the case of the earliest place-names, it is perfectly possible that there are also remnants of unrelated non-Celtic, non- "Pictish" languages that left no other trace or comment in the record. For the sake of accuracy, this should be acknowledged, but from a practical viewpoint, there is no reason not to lump all the non-Celtic material into one consideration.

Some writers describe Pictish as a Celtic language with an admixture of some non-Celtic substrate. The amount of Celtic influence on the recorded forms of Pictish names is considerable (about which, more later). In some cases, the influence may have been on the actual names themselves, but in many it can be demonstrated to be a later scribal artifact only affecting the recorded forms, similar to the recording of many vernacular names in Latinized forms. It is certain that whatever non-Celtic element existed in Pictish eventually disappeared. What is in question is whether that element had been reduced to mere vocabulary items in a Brythonic matrix by the time of the earliest records or whether non-Celtic Pictish was still a viable language at that point, although with significant Brythonic borrowings. The best argument for the presence of non-Celtic Pictish at a fairly late date comes from the Ogham inscriptions of the 8-9th century in which some non-Celtic element appears to be strongly present.

Of the non-Celtic element in Pictish, the best conclusion is that it is a remnant of one of the no-doubt numerous languages prevalent in Europe before the spread of the Indo-European language family. Basque is the only remnant of this type surviving today, although there are early records of others, such as Etruscan, that did not survive. (Other modern non-Indo- European languages such as the Finno-Ugric group arrived later than the Indo-European spread.) For this reason, some writers have tried to relate Pictish to Basque directly. There seems to be no direct evidence for this, and to assume a relation simply based on being non-Indo-European is nonsensical. The origins and relations of the Pictish language may never be known, short of the discovery of some bilingual "Rosetta Stone".

D. Archaeological Evidence

A third method of defining "Picts" and "Pictish" is based on archaeology: particular styles of dwellings and ornamentation. Ritchie provides a copiously-illustrated survey of this material, but it cannot be directly related to the question of names, so I do not consider it further here.

The Material
Analyzing and Using the Data
Index of Name Elements

Layout, editting, and publishing by Arval Benicoeur.