The Picts were a Celtic people who lived mainly in the north and the east of Scotland c. AD 200-900. This indigenous people were created by the union of a number of tribes who might have come together just before the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83 when the Roman historian Tacitus said that the natives of Caledonia (or the ‘Britons’) had combined their forces against the Roman commander Agricola, to face a common enemy. The first literary mention of them as ‘Picts’ comes from the Roman writer Eumenius who called them by the name ‘Picti’ in AD 297.
Although scholars thought that this appellation meant ‘painted people’ they now believe that what Eumenius meant was ‘a piece of land’. His use of the word probably sprang from ‘Pit’ (as in Pitlochry), which is a Pictish word meaning a farm or an estate. Both St. Ninian (400’s) and St. Columba (AD 565) spread Christianity among the Picts before they became the most powerful group in northern Britain c. AD 700. In AD 843 they united with the Scottish king Kenneth MacAlpine and then seemed to disappear as a people around AD 900.
Before (and after) the Romans left Britain in AD 410, the Picts were raiding deep into southern Britain, by sea and by land. Mostly, they were after plunder in the form of silver, which was portable and not too heavy – unlike cattle, which was another form of wealth. Some of the silver from these raids into southern Britain has been found in Pictish silver hoards such as that found at Norrie’s Law in Fife (c. AD 650). This contained 2 Roman silver coins and a Roman silver spoon, alongside some scrap silver and 2 Pictish leaf-shaped plaques. Both of these small pendants (for the ears?) are inscribed with a ‘Z-rod’, which bisects a double disc, and each also has a beast’s head at the foot.
The symbols engraved on the Norrie’s Law plaques lead to another similarly engraved silver object found at Whitecleugh in Lanarkshire: a solid silver chain (c. AD 400-800) which weighs 61 oz and is 19 inches long (1731 grams, 148 mm).
This is made up of 22 pairs of links, which are held together at both ends by a ‘napkin-ring’ or terminal clasp. It was probably made for a person of high status and would be fitted around the neck for ceremonial or other important occasions.
So far (1995), 10 of these chains (weighing from 2-3 kg.) have been found – mostly outside of what was once considered to be traditional Pictish territory, and it is possible that they were stolen from the Picts or traded. However, Pictish stone inscriptions in Galloway (and across southern Scotland), the chain from above, and another chain discovered on Traprain Law in East Lothian, seem to suggest that sometime between the 5th and the 9th century AD, the Picts actually settled right across the south of Scotland .
Although the Picts seemed to have disappeared as a people, their cultural legacy lived on to influence the art of other communities like Govan on the Clyde.
Here, there is a truly remarkable collection of early Christian carved stones from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Most of these 31 highly decorated works are still intact and all of them were found within the grounds of Govan Old Parish Church. Although much of this sculpture lies within a local Strathclyde tradition, it also has strong links with Pictish work as can be seen for instance in Govan’s unique collection of 5 hogback memorial tombstones.
These long, slim stones are steeply pitched and covered from half way up with what appears to be rectangular ‘roof-tiles’, which is what they probably are – if they represent houses for the souls of the departed. Beneath the ‘roofs’ is the familiar motif of interlaced fretwork while at each end of the stones; the heads of stylised beasts frame the ends and face each other across the concave roof .
Although hogbacks are found in different areas of Scotland and England, each of them has their own local peculiarities – apart from outside influences. In the case of Govan, 4 of its hogbacks are far heavier than any found elsewhere while they all have inscribed designs and a distinctive form, which is unique to that locale. Thus, both the heritage of the Picts and its influence on Govan’s hogbacks will be seen in this necklace, which will be the first of its kind in over a 1, 000 years, and also the first of its type to show the connection between, and the heritage of both cultures in silver.
The whole process from melting and moulding the silver to the engraving and final polishing will be filmed and documented by GalGael. The results of this will then be made available to the wider community, not just as an educational resource, but also as a reminder of Scotland’s treasures and its unique heritage in the art of silver smithing.