The Picts were perhaps the true ancestors of the Scottish nation - our indigenous people. They were first mentioned during the Roman campaign of Emperor Severus in 210 AD and while it is known that they lived in Scotland in the first millennium AD, and their territory was taken over by the Scots in the 9th century, little else is definite.
What has mainly survived is the great heritage of their carved symbol stones, which remain for us to study and cherish. Angus is particularly rich in Pictish heritage and Pictish enthusiasts are spoiled for choice. Some of the finest carved stones can be seen by taking The Pictish Trail. Pictavia Visitor Centre is located in Brechin and totally dedicated to the history and culture of this mysterious people. St Vigeans Pictish and Mediaeval Stone Museum holds many fine examples of Pictish heritage and is well worth a visit. Pictavia is also a centre for The Pictish Arts Society.
The Picts were a Celtic people inhabiting most of what we now know as Scotland, north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde. This area was divided into at least seven provinces, of which Circhenn, now Angus and Kincardine, was one. Circhenn can be translated as "the crested one" meaning the premier province, and it seems to give way to the new name of Angus, possibly in the late 9th century. Angus may be named after the settlers from the Scottish house of that name following the takeover of the Picts by Kenneth MacAlpin.
Apart from their King lists and some superb metalwork, we have few tangible remains of the Picts. Without any doubt they are best known by their carved symbol stones, of which some of the finest are in Angus. While we cannot be certain of their function, it seems likely that they are memorial stones, and that the symbols are heraldic, indicating rank or lineage.
The earliest sculpture includes incised animals and shapes and can be found on rock faces and in caves. Although no such sites are known in Angus, an early incised stone has been recognised at Westerton, Balgavies, near Forfar.
The Pictish symbol stones themselves are rough, undressed boulders upon which animals and geometric shapes are incised. These may have been inspired by the Romans and were probably being produced between 500 - 750 AD. Fine examples have been found in Angus at Aberlemno, Dunnichen and Kinblethmont. With the coming of Christianity many simple incised crosses appear, usually associated with early churches and monastic sites. While many ecclesiastics were involved with the conversion of Pictland, the Irish St Columba of the late 6th century was the most influential.
The Picts neighbours to the south were the Northumbrians or Angles, a powerful tribe who had established the kingdom of Bernicia. Always on the lookout to extend their power and enlarge their territory, the Northumbrians had advanced steadily northwards during the 7th century, successfully claiming the Lothians and setting their sights further north on the kingdom of Pictavia. Leading a large and powerful force, Egfrith marched into Pictavia in the spring of 685 and was drawn by the Pictish King, Bridei, towards Dunnichen in Angus.
The Picts won a great victory at the Battle of Dunnichen. Not only did the battle end Northumbrian domination of the Picts, but by curbing the Northumbrian expansion northwards, it created the foundations for the Scotland we know today.
The Battle of Dunnichen with its far-reaching consequences was an event of enormous significance for the Picts, and would have been recounted from one generation to another. Over a century after it took place, the Northumbrian historian, Bede, wrote an account of it.
'Egfrith, King of Northumbria, rashly led an army to ravage the province of the Picts. The enemy pretended to retreat, and lured the king into narrow mountain passes, where he was killed with the greater part of his forces...Many of the English at this time were killed, or forced to flee from Pictish territory.'Bede, AD 731.
The Picts too, left a record of the battle: not in writing but in stone. Standing like an ancient war memorial, the 8th century carved stone in the churchyard atAberlemno in Angus, tells the story of the battle.
About 715 AD the PictishChurch was subjected to the reforms of the Roman Church when King Nechtan MacDerile sought advice from Northumbria. This also influenced the sculpture of the period and relief carving on squared, faced slabs became the norm and we see the emergence of the Pictish cross slabs.
Using a page of stone gave Pictish sculptors more opportunity to exercise their talents and the Angus area is justifiably famous for its superb cross slabs. Alongside interlace, scrollwork, key pattern and ornate crosses are the familiar Pictish symbols, usually on the reverse, with many beautiful hunting and biblical scenes. Aberlemno, Cossans, Eassie and Glamis all possess excellent examples.
With the coming of Kenneth MacAlpin and the death of the last Pictish King, Drostan Mac Uuroid in 848 AD, The Land Of The Picts was united with the Kingdom of the Scots, creating the foundations of modern day Scotland. Pictish sculpture after this date changes with the disappearance of the symbols and the introduction of Irish and Norse influences.