The Picts, known as the ‘painted people’ occupied the north east of Scotland around 1,000 BC. They probably evolved from Bronze-age inhabitants and early Celtic people.
The Roman Army encountered the Picts when the Romans invaded Scotland. In fact, it is possible that the Romans gave these people their name, the painted people, because of their prolific art. All over the north east of Scotland there are thousands of examples of their artwork. They left a fantastic legacy; large standing stones that have been carved with abstract and religious symbols.
Why did they carve stones? No one really knows for sure, but it is thought that they may have been created to mark battle sites or perhaps they were territorial markers. The Picts were tribal and they often fought over land, so perhaps these stones were carved to symbolise a victory or mark a tribe’s rights to a section of territory.
It has been suggested by some researchers that the Picts were early abstract artists! Their early stone carvings show symbols rather than ‘real’ images. It is thought that perhaps they were abstracting reality from the scenes they were carving, perhaps as an early form of code.
It is believed that the reason why the Romans failed to conquer Scotland was because of the fierce opposition from the Picts. According to early literature, 11,000 Roman troops were met by 30,000 Picts at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Although no one knows for sure, this famous battle was possibly fought on the foothills of Bennachie, a majestic hill that rises 1,600 feet a few miles outside Aberdeen.
A striking Pictish fort stands at the top of Bennachie. Now in ruins, the scale of the fort is still obvious today. Archeologists from the local university have discovered a well, and carbon dating puts the structure very much at the time of the Picts. It is incredible to think that these people created a stone fort at the top of a hill. Perhaps they were protecting themselves from the Roman invasion.
In the year 563, Saint Columba travelled from Ireland to Scotland, and his mission was to spread Christianity across the country. Around this time, it is clearly seen that the Picts stone carvings changed from warrior images and symbolism to images depicting Christianity. Their art is not only a wonderful record of an ancient civilisation, it is also a record of the changes that took place in Scotland during the turn of the millennium.
Growing up the north east of Scotland it was hard not to come across Pictish stones. I have always been fascinated by their culture and their art, so decided to cast a few pieces made from their stone carvings. I incorporated these casts into a piece that I hope captures something of their culture.
Please let me know if you have come across Pictish art, or perhaps you have been inspired by their images?