The Kingdom of the Picts

Pictavia is simply the Latin for the 'land of the Picts'. As no real trace of the Pictish language remains, no one knows quite what name the Picts gave to their own nation, so 'Pictavia' remains the best name we have. (The alternative 'Pictland' seems to lack a certain sense of romance.)1


Pictavia encompassed what we would today think of as northern and eastern Scotland; that is broadly speaking, everything to the east of of the Grampians and highlands and north of the Firth of Forth.

The kingdom was naturally divided into two halves by the Mounth; a stretch of high ground that extends from the Grampians across to the coast. This natural division seems to have often resulted in a political division of the kingdom into a two southern and northern halves as various Pictish nobles warred against each other.

The origins of Pictavia

The origins of the kingdom are as clouded as the origins of the Picts themselves. Tradition speaks of the seven sons of Cruithne, that is the seven tribes of the Picts, which it seems likely at some point in time united in a single tribal confederation.

When and how these tribes coalesced into one kingdom is not known; it may have been in response to Roman agression in the second and third centuries, it may have been in order to organise raids into Roman territory in the fourth and early fifth centuries or it may have been as a result of the new political conditions of Sub-Roman Britain when they had to defend their land from the twin pressures of the Scotti from the east and the Anglo-Saxons from the south.

Certainly by the mid sixth century Bruide son of Mailcon the united kingdom of the Picts had become a recognised political entity. The various Irish annals would record the succession of rulers tha Rex Pictorum

How they chose their kings

How the various kings of Pictavia came to be chosen as kings is a matter of some dispute and controversy. It was the Venerable Bede who wrote that the Picts,

choose a king from the female royal race rather than from the male: which custom, as is well known, has been observed among the Picts to this day
These remarks have been dismissed as fanciful, but Bede was writing in the early eighth century at a time when there was a close connection between Northumbria and Pictavia, if only because they spent much of the time at war with one another.

Two things are clear from the Pictish Chronicle, which records the names of the Kings of Pictavia; firstly that all are listed as sons of a named father and secondly few if any of the named fathers appear to have been kings of Pictavia themselves.

In fact in only two cases 2 are the fathers of Pictish kings actually identifiable, namely;

In both cases the fathers were 'foreigners' - (English and Strathclyde Welsh respectively). Apart from the fact that a pattern of brothers succeeding one another it is quite impossible to otherwise identify the relationship between succeeding generations of Pictish kings.

From which the only sensible conclusion is that some arrangement other than the 'normal' patrilinear succession from father to son was in operation, although the exact arrangements made are unknown.

The most sensible hypothesis that has been advanced is that descent through the female was used to identify a pool of potential candidates for the kingship, from which one king was then selected either;

  • because it was a way of ensuring that there was always an adult male suitably qualified to lead the nation or,
  • simply a method of ensuring that the office of the 'high-king' of the Picts was effectively rotated between the various individual tribes.

The history of Pictavia

After emerging from the shadows of Sub-Roman Britain as a distinct kingdom in the mid sixth century the entire history of the kingdom is dominated by the struggle to maintain its identity and independence from its neighbours.

The first recognised historical king of Pictavia was the aforementioned Bruide son of Mailcon who ruled during the mid sixth century and who, according to Adomnan, played a crucial role in the conversion of the Picts to Christainity. From Adomnan we gain the information that Bruide was a strong and dynamic leader whose power extended as far north of the Orkneys.

After the death of Bruide dominated by struggles against the

To the south, Northumbria gained control of Edinburgh in 638 and conquered the Brythonic kingdom of Gododdin and extended its borders as far as the Forth. Further expansion led Northumbria to take control of southern Pictavia in the years 657 to 685. The Northumbrians established a diocese for the now subject Picts at Abercorn and appointed Trumwine as its first bishop and clearly intended to stay. The Picts however rebelled and under Bruide son of Bili re-established Pictavia's independence at the battle of Nechtansmere.

This was not however the end of Northumbrian attempts to expand in the north and Pictavia suffered a heavy defeat in a battle on the plain of Manaw in 711, and in the mid ninth century Eadberht made further attempts to extend Northumbrian in the north which was only ended by his catasrophic defeat at Niwanbirig in 756.

Thereafter the threat dwindled in the latter half of eighth century as Northumbrian power declined until the final demise of that kingdom in 866.

Against the Gaels of Dal Riada it was a similar tale of resisting expansionist pressures this time from the west.

Aedan mac Gabhrain probably the most powerful and successful of the early kings of Dal Raida may well have temporarily occupied portions of southern and eastern Pictavia during his reign. But once again Pictavia gained the upper hand under first Oengus son of Fergus (729-761) and later Constantine son of Fergus (789-820).

Both these rulers attempted to forge a united kingdom in the north and sought to similarly conquer the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde but failed. Had either succeeded in doing so it might well have placed Pictavia in a position to survive the onslaught that was to come.

The end of Pictavia

The independence of Pictavia really ended on the battlefield as according to the Annals of Ulster for the year 839;

The heathens won a battle against the men of Fortriu, and Eoganan son of Oengus, Bran son of Oengus, and Aed son of Boanta, and others almost innumerable fell there
The 'heathens' were of course the Vikings and in the course of their victory over Eoganan son of Oengus the king of Pictavia, most of the Pictavian nobility seems to have been effectively wiped out. The battle was not, of course, the first example of conflict with the Vikings merely a culmination of a series of raids that seriously de-stabilised Pictavia.

This provided the adventurer Kenneth mac Alpin with the opportunity to interpose his rule on the southern Picts and in the years 843-847 succeeded in crushing any opposition to his authority, finally defeating the last native ruler of Pictavia, Drust son of Ferat at Forteviot. mac Alpin's success was however limited as most of northern Pictavia and the Orkney and Shetland Isles, was occupied by Viking insurgents and became the Viking Earldom of Orkney whose rulers owed their primary allegiance to the monarchs of Norway.

Kenneth and his successors ruled their territories from the old Pictish capital of Fortrenn and in the Latin annals of the Irish continued to describe these kings as Rex Pictorum or 'king of the Picts'. The few remaining Pictophiles mutter dark words of Macalpin's treason and ethnic cleansing, many Scottish historians like to imagine it was all done over a handshake and a pint of beer but was likely as as fraught and bloody affair as most conquests.


1 There are some suggestions, based on references in the Irish Annals to the men of Fortriu or Fortrenn, others argue that this should be construed as references merely to southern Pictavia, and another school of opinion believes that the kingdom Fortrenn refers to the joint kingdom of Picts and Scots forged by the sons of Oengus

2 A third is sometimes suggested in that Bruide son of Mailcon (king of Pictavia 553 to 584) is said to have been the son of Maelgwyn king of Gwynedd; although this is not impossible there is no evidence other than the co-incidence of name.


W.A.Cummins The Age of the Picts (Sutton, 1995)
Lloyd and Jenny Laing The Picts and the Scots (Sutton, 1993)
Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)
The Annals of Ulster
The Venerable Bede
Scottish Radiance website: The Making Of The Kingdom Of Fortriu at

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