"Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis, Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferronque notatas Perlegit examines Picto moriente figuras"
The above words of the Roman poet Claudian perhaps give the only physical description of the race of people known as Picts who once raided Roman Britain, defeated the Angle-Saxon invaders and in one of the great mysteries of the ancient world, disappeared as a separate people by the end of the tenth century. "This legion, which curbs the savage Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict," are the Claudian words which give some insight as to the name given by Rome to the untamed tribes north of Hadrian's Wall . The Romans called this pre-Celtic people Pictii, or "Painted," although Claudius' words are proof that (as claimed by many historians), the ancient Picts actually tattooed their bodies with designs. To the non-Roman Celtic world of Scots and Irish and the many tribes of Belgic England and Wales they were known as "Cruithni" and for many centuries they represented the unbridled fury of a people who refused to be brought under the yoke of Rome or any foreign invader.
The origins of the Picts are clouded with many fables, legends and fabrications, and there are as many theories as to who the Picts were (Celtic, Basque, Scythians, etc.), where they came from, what they ate or drank, and what language they spoke, as there once were Pictish raiders defying the mighty legions of Rome. Legend tells us, perhaps incorrectly, that Rome's mighty Ninth Legion, the famous "Hispana" legion, which had earned its battle honors in Iberia, conquering Celtic Spain for Caesar is never heard of again when faced against the Picts (they actually surfaced years later in Israel). We do know that the Picts may have spoken a non-Celtic language, (although many Celtophiles feel the Picts spoke a Brythonic-Gaulish form of Celtic language) as St. Columba's biographer clearly stated that the Irish saint needed a translator to preach to the Pictish King Brude, son of Maelchon, at Brude's court near the shores of Loch Ness. At other times the Pictish king lived at Scone, and we know there often were two separate Pictish kingdoms of Northern and Southern Picts. We know that they were mighty sailors, for the Romans feared the Pictish Navy almost as much as the wild men who came down from the Highlands to attack the villages along the wall. We also know that as far as the 9th century they wrote in stone a language which was not far in design from the Celtic "Ogham" script but was not Celtic in context, although Prof. Richard Cox thinks that it is Norse, which has really turned the carefully galvanized world of Pictish academic opinions upside down. By the legacy of their standing stones, we know that they were great artists as well. It is also well known that the Picts were one of Western culture's rare matrilinear societies; that is, bloodlines passed through the mother, and Pictish kings were not succeeded by their sons, but by their brothers or nephews or cousins as traced by the female line in (according to the scholar Dr. Anthony Jackson) a complicated series of intermarriages by seven royal houses.
It was this rare form of succession which in the year 845 A.D. gave the crown of Alba and the title Rex Pictorum to a Celtic Scot, son of a Pictish princess by the name of Kenneth, Son of Alpin. This Kenneth MacAlpin, whose father's kingship over the Scots had been earlier taken over by the Pictish king Oengus, who ruled as both king of Picts and Scots, and who possibly harbored a deep ethnic hatred for the Picts, and in the event known as "MacAlpin's Treason" murdered the members of the remaining seven royal houses thus preserving the Scottish line for kingship of Alba and the eventual erasure from history of the Pictish race, culture and history.
The true mystery in Pictish studies is the extraordinary disappearance of the culture of the tattoed nations of the North. The fact that within three generations of MacAlpin kings, the Picts were almost held in legendary status as a people of the past must be the real question to be answered, and the historian is consumed by legend, lack of facts and the nagging story of an obscure intrigue leading to genocide of a people, its customs, culture, laws and art.
It is in the sculptured stones of Scotland, left behind by the Pictish and proto-Pictish people of ancient Alba and present day Scotland that we can find some information about a mighty race of people who defied and defeated Rome and who slaughtered the invincible barbarian hordes of Angles Germans at Nechtansmere in Angus, and hammered the invading Vikings back home thus forever preserving a separate culture and race in Scotland. It is in these sometimes mighty, sometimes delicate stones that the history of ancient Scotland is now recorded. Were they descendants of the ancient Basque people of northern Spain once known to Rome as Pictones, who then migrated to northern Britain after they had helped the Empire defeat the seagoing people of Biscay? Or are they descendants of the dark tribes of ancient Stygia and the huge Eastern steepes? No one knows - only the Stones.
Campello, F. Lennox. 2006. "The Picts". Pictish Nation. Posted: 2006. Available online: http://halfmoon.tripod.com/