Among academics and laypeople alike, the Picts had long been considered a separate ethnic group from the British peoples. Their unique language and general separation from the British during most of the fifth and sixth centuries were the basis for that argument. However, beginning with the realization that the Pictish language was similar to British, that stance has changed. The current belief is that the only original difference between the northern Britons and the Picts was that the Picts remained independent of the Romans throughout the Roman occupation, while the Britons did not; as late as Tacitus the northerners of Britain were still known as simply Britons.

Nevertheless, the Picts were separated from the other Britons for centuries, developing enough differences to warrant their own chapter here. Pictland, or Pictavia, was essentially the Scottish Highlands, consisted of seven kingdoms according to the ninth-century Pictish Chronicle – Cat, Fidach, Ce, Circind, Fotla, Fortriu, and Fib. As we have seen in the study of The Pictish Chronicle we know almost nothing about most of their rulers during the fifth and first half of the sixth centuries – probably around ninety people in all. Instead, all we have is a single list of kings said to rule all the Picts who are dated accurately from around 563 with the reign of Brude/Bridei.

The other kings did exist though, we can be sure of that. In 1988, Anthony Jackson offered an interesting theory based on the Pictish Stones that dot the Highlands. The Pictish Stones are a regional curiosity; large boulders with symbols carved in them that no one has ever managed to translate or explain. Jackson offered a simple suggestion; what if each dynasty had claimed one symbol and what if marriages were celebrated with the carving of a symbol stone that featured each dynasty’s symbol. Looking over all the Pictish stones with two symbols he found seven that were paired consistently, and if they were put on a map they outlined the borders for the seven traditional Pictish kingdoms.

We do also have outside evidence of other Pictish kings in the pre-Bridei period. One local legend, Culhwch ac Olwen, and Caradoc’s Vita Gildae all claim that Hueil son of Caw was a Pict who raided Arthur. The Vita Cadoci says that the saint raised the chieftain Caw from the dead, and that Caw had originally lived beyond the mountain Bannauc.

The above is more than enough to show that the Picts of the time were not a single united kingdom, but give us no idea of whether they cooperated with each other or were rivals. In fact, since we only have specific evidence of one other Pictish dynasty, it is impossible to know much at all about the internal politics of the Picts or the development of kingship during the period.

Instead we have only a few scattered clues. As late as the fifth century, Tacitus spoke of the northernmost part of the island being occupied by a confederacy of several tribes. From local legends and The Pictish Chronicle it seems safe to accept there were at least two active dynasties. Jackson’s theory would confirm the existence of five more.

There are also indirect pieces of evidence. From the stories of Caw and Hueil to the suggestions within Y Gododdin, the Picts continued to raid the Briton kingdoms well into the sixth century, but they never attempted to invade or conquer those areas.

Dal Riata also provides a fascinating insight into Pictish politics. Somehow, small groups of Irish pirates managed to infiltrate and maintain control over the traditionally Pictish area from at least the fifth century. This only makes sense if there was no united Pictish power strong enough to evict them initially; the Irish pirates had forced the original inhabitants out of Dal Riata or subjugated them and had been too strong to be forced out themselves. By the time of Bridei they would have been well established.

Finally, there is the example of Bridei, or Brude, the details of whose reign will be examined below. For now it is only important to note that he was considered the major king of Pictland during his own lifetime. He was the only Pictish king worthy of a visit by Columba. We can be certain he was no leader of a confederation, either. There is no mention of a confederacy, and the sixth century had no threat to match the Romans.

Reasonably, the fact of multiple kings in the late fifth century and one dominant Pictish king by the late sixth century suggests that there was some serious warfare among the Pictish tribes during the interval. There may have been raids to the South – for prestige, for wealth, or maybe just out of tradition – but the wars were fought in Pictland.

The Picts of the post-Roman period appear to have broken up their confederacy almost as soon as the Romans were no longer a threat; which makes sense if the current theory is true and they had only come together against the Romans. Likely former allies for centuries did not immediately turn against each other, but they take up old rivalries. Within a century there was a dominant king of Pictland. His career will be the focus of an entire chapter below.

1 Forsyth, Language in Pictland: the case against ‘non-Indo-European Pictish’, (Utrecht, 1997); Price, “Pictish”, Languages in Britain and Ireland. (Oxford, 2000), 127-131; “Place names”, The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, ed. Michael Lynch, (Oxford, 2007); Watson and Taylor, The History Of The Celtic Place-Names Of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 2004).
2 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons: 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 33-4.
3 “White Book of Mabinogion”, Journal of the National Library of Wales, 5276D, 334 ff.; Culhwch ac Olwen, ed. and trans. Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, (Cardiff, 1992), ll. 259-60; Two Lives of Gildas, trans. Hugh Williams, (Llanerch, rep. 1990), 90-5. In addition, several other sources name him as a son of Caw without specifying either was a Pict. See Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, ed. and trans. Rachel Bromwich, (Cardiff, rev. 1978), 408.
4 “Vita Cadoci”, Lives of the British Saints, ed. Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fischer, (Cardiff, 1907-13), ch. 26. “Beyond the mountain Banauc” means Foirtrinn in southern Scotland; The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem, trans. and ed. Kenneth H. Jackson, (Edinburgh, 1969), 78-9.
5 Stanzas B1.13.257, A.22, and A.9 by John T. Koch’s organization refers to a Llif son of Cian from Pictland as having participated in the battle of Catraeth, implying that Picts as a whole took part in the Catraeth attack instead of considering themselves culturally separate enemies who only make war on each other.