Callanish by Catriona Fraser

The Pictish Kings

As one would expect, the information available as to the history of the kings of Pictland or Alba is as full of mystery, legends, hearsay as the origins of the people themselves. The fact is that most of what is known about the kings of this ancient race comes from lists and chronicles generally written by other peoples, some of whom were enemies of the Picts.

The only historical writing which may have been a Pictish version of events is the document known as "The Pictish Chronicle". As the only possibly Pictish-written historical record, it is a sad reminder of the incredible lack of Pictish records, for the Chronicle is nothing more than a list of kings. Thus, historians try to use other documents of the time to attempt to reconstruct and verify some claims from the Chronicle. There are Irish documents and legends, the writings of Bede in 731 A.D. and other missionaries tales, Roman reports, Greek maps, etc.

The Legends

In the beginning of time, there was a Pict king named Cruithne, son of Cing, and Cruithne reigned for 100 years. He had seven sons (the number seven is the key to many Pictish mysteries, and as the work of Jackson shows a key element to understand the Pictish stones - more later). His sons were called Fib, Fidach, Foclaid (or Fotla), Fortrenn, Caitt (or Cat), Ce and Circenn. The names of Cruithne's seven sons were also equated to the seven provinces of Pictland detailed in an ancient account of Scotland called De Situ Albanie (possibly written in the 14th century according to F.T. Wainwright). Of note, Argyll, which was the beachead of the invading Scots, is not listed as a Pictish province.

"Victorious Pict"
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The list of kings does verify one area which is the largest obstacle to those who seek the Celtification of the Picts - The list delivers clear evidence that the Picts were a matrilinear society - that is: the bloodlines passed through the mother, and rarely did a son succeed a father to the crown of Pictland. This is rare enough in western society and not recorded in any Celtic society (although the Scots, once they assumed the Pictish throne, curiously kept a matrilinear descent of the crown, but within the MacAlpin dynasty). This Pictish matrilinear evidence is confirmed by Bede, who wrote that the Pictish succession went through the female line. Bede also re- affirms the existence (at least at the time of his writing in the mid 700's) of two kingdoms of the Picts - a northern and southern king.

Rhynie Man - Who does this sinister figure represent?

The Historical Kings

Many Pictish kings were named Bridei (or Brude). In the writings of St. Columba's biographer (who was no friend of the Picts) we learn of one of the most powerful of these Bridei kings.

The writer (Adamnan) details the journey of the Irish saint to the court of Bridei near Loch Ness. The legendary monster of the lake makes its historical debut in this same story, and we are told that King Bridei (ruled 554-584) was an exceptionally powerful king. We are also told that Columba needed interpreters to speak to the king, clear evidence that the Picts did not speak the Celtic language of the Irish and Scots (or at the very least not the Gael version of the Celtic tongue). King Bridei also defeated the Scots, in battle against their king Gabran and laid waste to the Scottish holdings in the west. Had he pressed on and expelled the Scots from Argyll, Scotland may still be Pictland or Alba today.

Bridei was succeeded by Gartnait IV, the 37th king in the list, who reigned for about 20 years. Sometime during this period, the son of the defeated Scottish king, Aedan MacGabran (who may have been married to a Pictish princess), began warring against the Picts in his northern frontier (and the Northumbrians to his south) once more. The Scottish king was defeated in his southern expansions, by the great Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelfrid of Northumbria. It was this same Teutonic king who then marched into Pictland and conquered it as far as the Firth of Forth; suddenly, the Picts had a new worry in the nearly invincible Germanic tribes who had conquered most of Celtic England by this time.

Back to the Pictish kings, Gartnait IV followed was Nechtan II, son of Irb (Canonn in the Irish lists). He was succeeded by Ciniath (around 630), son of Lutrin. He was in turn followed by Nechtan III, son of Uid, Bridei/Brude II and Talorc IV. In 637, Pictish warriors may have fought on Irish soil as part of a multinational host of Britons, Saxons, Scots and Picts assembled by the Ulster nobleman Congal Claen to take over the crown of Ireland. Back in the Anglo- Saxon borders, Oswald had become King of Northumbria, and by 668, his brother Oswiu had conquered part of Dalriada and more of southern Pictland. In the free north, another Gartnait had ruled and died in 663 to be succeeded by Drest, who revolted against the Anglo-Saxon invaders, but was crushed by a Northumbrian host led by King Ecgfrith, who had succeeded Oswiu. After the defeat, Drest was removed as a king by another Bridei. This great Pictish king began his reign by taking the great ancient Pictish fortress at Dunnottar in 681.

Dunnottar Castle by Catriona Fraser
The modern Dunnottar Castle c. 11th century

He then assembled a Pictish fleet which sailed north and destroyed the growing Orcadian sea power in 682 and finally laying waste to the Scottish capital of Dunnadd in 683. Two years later, on 20 May 685, the Pictish King faced the huge host of the Anglo-Saxon invader on the plains of Dunnichen, in Angus. The battle which followed, called the Battle of Nechtansmere by the English and Dunnichen by Caledonians, remains one of the most significant turning points in ancient history and has shaped the character of the land for the next 1300 years.

It was at Nechtansmere that Bridei made his name great. The invincible Anglo-Saxons had defeated every force which they had faced, and by now had occupied southern Pictland for 30 years. The Picts won that day, and massacred the entire English Anglo-Saxon host including its proud king as well as "cleansing" the land by killing or enslaving the remaining Northumbrians who had settled in Pictland. Had Bridei lost that great battle, the Scotland of today would not exist and all of Britain would have been English.

Bridei was followed by Taran, son of Enfidach and he was in form followed by Brude/Bridei IV, possibly the grandson of the Brude of Nechtansmere fame. He also fought the Northumbrians (this time far south of Pictland) and is thought to have destroyed yet another Northumbrian host and killed a Teutonic sub-king in the Lothians. Legend has it that this King endorsed (along with 51 other tribal kings of Britain) "The Law of the Innocents," which prohibited women from fighting in battle and in turn protected them, children and the clergy from the viciousness of the war itself. It is interesting to know that the "Law" had been proposed by Adamnan, whose mother Irish legend has it was horrified to see Pictish women fight viciously in war and made Adamnan promise that he'd stop women from taking their place on the battlefield. Brude was succeeded on his death in 706 by Nechton mac Derile. It was this King who rejected the Celtic Church and embraced the Roman Church.

After Nechton, the Pictish List King becomes muddled by in-fighting and rapid successions (the ugly problem of matrilinearity and the large numbers of aspiring and eligible would-be kings). In 724 Nechton entered a monastery for a few years and was succeeded by Drust, who was removed two years later by Alpin. In 711 a Pictish army is routed by a Northumbrian host on the plain of Manaw, probably somewhere in West Lothian; this marks the last known threat from these southern neighbors as Northumbrian power declines soon after that and ends with the fall of York to the Danes in 866.

Alpin was in turn replaced by Oengus (Angus), who defeated the old retired king Nechton, as well as his successor Drust, whom he killed in battle in 729. Oengus comes to us as a true warrior king. Upon taking the Pictish throne from his contenders, he turned his attention to the Scottish problem. Together with his son (called Brude) he laid waste to the Scottish fortresses of Dunnadd and others, and after brutalizing the Scots on British soil, he invaded Ireland and massacred them on their ancestral homeland by defeating them in two great battles in 741. Nearly invincible, he captured and drowned the King of Atholl, conquered the remaining Dalriada Scots on Britain and after beheading the Scottish king, became the first King of Picts and Scots.

The great military victories of Oengus once more gave the Pictish nation the chance to rule unhindered by the Scottish menace. The Dalriada Scots had been beaten on Argyll and on Ireland, and a Pict ruled over them as king and liege lord. Drunk with victory and mad with power, Oengus unwisely looked south for more territory to conquer, in the lands of the Britons of Strathclyde, the kingdom formed south of the old Roman Wall. He fought them in 744 and may have defeated them in open battle. Six years later (in 750) he fought them again, in a battle in which the Picts may have been led by his brother Talorcan (possibly in contention for the Pictish throne); in any event, some historians feel that Talorcan, not Oengus may have been leading the Pictish armies. Regardless, Talorcan was killed, as was the British king Tewdur, Son of Beli at the battle of Mocetwawc. The Britons held and Oengus had to retreat. Again in 756 the Pictish King marched his tattooed host south, to the great Briton fortress at Dumbarton Rock, where he was joined by a Northumbrian ally intent on destroying the Strathclyde kingdom. This time the combined armies nearly succeeded in capturing the great rock fortress, but in a stunning reversal, they were nearly destroyed in battle and Oengus retreated north where he died five years later.

His brother Brude V succeeded him for two years, and then Ciniod (who may have had Scottish blood as well as Pictish), son of Wredech reigned until 775. Meanwhile, in the nearly forty years since Dalriada had been wasted by Oengus, the Scots had been rebuilding under the leadership of Aed Finn, son of Eochaid, who by 768 was invading the Pictish territories again. However, a blanket of historical darkness engulfs both Pictish and Scottish history though the latter years of the eight century and the ninth. Nonetheless, according to The Annals of Tigernach, no less that 150 Pictish ships were wrecked by a storm near Ross Crussini, perhaps a hint of a war fleet raised against northern enemies. We also know that Aed Finn repealed Pictish laws and managed to regain freedom for the Scots in 768, and by the time of his death, Dalriada was independent again.

Confusion reigns in the List of Kings now. Three Pictish kings are listed in a period of seven years (Alpin II, Drust VII and Talorc II). He is succeeded by Talorc III, possibly a son of Oengus, and in turn Talorc III is followed by Conall. The next Pictish king was to rule for 35 years, again as the second King of Picts and Scots.

Castantin son of Uurguist possibly won the Pictish throne by defeating and killing Conall and he also wore the crown over the Scots of Dalriada, who by now may have been a significant part of the Pictish royal lines through intermarriage. He was succeeded by his brother Oengus II, who is reputed to have brought the relics of St. Andrews back to Scotland. Oengus II was followed by Drust VIII and Talorc.

Uven, who may have been a son of Oengus II, followed Talorc and is listed as the King of both Picts and Scots. He was killed in 839 by the great new menace in the north, at a great battle where the northern Pictish armies were destroyed by the new enemy: the Vikings. He is the last Pictish king to be recorded in the Irish versions of the list of Pictish kings. Other lists record Uurad, son of Bargot and Brude, son of Ferath. He is followed by Kenneth, son of Ferath and Brude's brother, yet another Brude, son of Fethal and finally Drust IX, yet another son of Fethal.

This list of 69 Pictish kings ended with Drust IX, when he was killed by that dark, shadowy figure of Kenneth MacAlpin, the first Scot to become King of Picts and Scots in an episode known as "MacAlpin's Treason."

Most historians agree that around 839 a huge battle took place in which the Pictish king died while leading his men against the Vikings. This shattering defeat also took the life of his brother (and thus successor to the crown) as well as "others almost without numbers." This decimation of the Pictish warrior class by the Vikings is perhaps the most decisive point which swings the pendulum of control to the Scots. The Pictish defeat at the hands of the Norsemen ranks as the most significant in Pictish history, and was ironically repeated many centuries later by the destruction of the Scottish nobles at Flodden. This culling of the Pictish royal houses and its warrior elite, delivered the decisive shift in the pattern of succession, and handed the Pictish crown to the Scottish House of MacAlpin.

Back to the Pictish Nation
MacAlpin's Treason: The End of the Picts
The Ancient Names of Scotland
The Ancient Connection between Spain and Scotland
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