Author's Historical Notes: The Bridei Chronicles

Writing about the Picts

The Bridei Chronicles are a blend of known history, informed guesswork and imagination. The Picts were a mysterious people, all the more fascinating for the lack of written records of their culture. What we know of them comes from Roman references and from clerics such as Adomnan, who recorded the story of Saint Columba’s mission to the north of Britain.

In writing a series of novels based on the life of Bridei son of Maelchon, king of the Picts from 554 to 584AD (a long reign) I made a series of choices. I wanted to base the story on known history. At the same time, I wanted to present Pictish culture and life as something real and immediate, and to place it in the context of the other cultures of the time – the Gaels of Dalriada in the west, the Britons, Angles and Saxons in the south, the people of the wilder northern territories.

However, while such documents as the Pictish King List and the accounts mentioned above do provide a few basic facts to go on, our knowledge of the broader aspects of Pictish culture must be based on those few, intriguing artefacts they left behind them, notably the carved symbol stones that are scattered across the north of what is now Scotland. The Picts, strong players in the dynamic power games of Britain from the time of Roman occupation until the rise of the Gaels in Dalriada, virtually disappeared as a distinct culture around the year 1000AD. Nobody seems quite sure what happened. There were battles and religious struggles, and the Picts prevailed in many of them. Eventually, however, the Gaels (Irish) who had come across the sea from Dalriada in Ulster to found a kingdom of the same name in northwestern Britain, overtook the Picts in their own land and established themselves as the dominant culture, giving their own nickname (Scotti = barbarians) to the new kingdom of Scotland. And the Picts were gone, vanished into the part of history that is memory and mythology.

So, where to start with a novel? Historians disagree on many aspects of Pictish culture, from the matrilineal succession to the meaning of the elaborate system of symbols that are the artistic legacy of these people. According to Roman sources, the Picts were tiny, dark people who darted under stones for concealment. Adomnan’s account of Saint Columba’s visit to Bridei shows the Pictish king awed by Christian miracles, though his druid is more sceptical. The King List, which exists in two contradictory forms, at least tells us that the culture lasted a long time and was often quite stable in its leadership. We also know that certain kings led their people against the Gaels with some success; Bridei (sometimes spelled as Brude) son of Maelchon was one of these. However, what accounts do exist are very much of their time and setting. For instance, Adomnan’s Life of Columba is more hagiography than history, and the Roman accounts read as something between propaganda and light entertainment.

I made my own choices as to how things would be for Bridei and his people, balancing historical accuracy with storytelling.

 

Pictish Language

It is not known whether the Picts had a written language. The lack of surviving records suggests they did not. They were thought to have spoken a Celtic language of the same grouping as Welsh and Breton (the P-Celtic group.)

That presented me with a problem in choosing place names for the story. Readers familiar with the Great Glen area of the Scottish Highlands will recognise a number of locations on the Dark Mirror map, but not their names. Since most of the current names derive either from Gaelic (brought over by the Irish Gaels) or Norse (which arrived later with the Vikings) I could not use them for this story, which predates the incursion of both these cultures into the book’s territory. The only authentic place names I’ve used are Dunadd and Dalriada (both in use at the time of the book), Five Sisters and the Great Glen itself.

For the rest I’ve employed a combination of English descriptive names such as Longwater and Oak Ridge, and names constructed from Pictish / Brythonic components such as we know Bridei’s people had in their language. Banmerren, Pitnochie, Abertornie and Caer Pridne fall into this category. Caer Pridne is in fact Burghead (a Norse-derived name), where you can find both the remains of the ancient fortress (sadly, almost obliterated by insensitively planned development) and the eerie subterranean well of the story. I placed Fola’s sanctuary of Banmerren on the headland that now houses the spiritual community of Findhorn. The Shining One would be happy with this. The place of the triple cairns is based on the Clava Cairns, near Culloden, but I’ve taken the liberty of putting this within walking distance of Fola’s establishment. Broichan’s home of Pitnochie is located near Drumnadrochit, where Castle Urquhart sits on the shore of Loch Ness. It is thought there was a Pictish fortification there prior to the construction of the castle, and this may be the location of one of Columba’s miracles. The four lochs of the Great Glen have been named according to their character. The place where Bridei plans to build his new court is Craig Phadrig in Inverness, which is indeed thought by some scholars to have been the site of his stronghold. Bridei names it White Hill.

As for the names of characters, apart from the historical characters (Bridei and Broichan, the two King Drusts, Maelchon of Gwynedd and Gabhran of Dalriada) the male characters are mostly named from the Pictish King List. As we have no Pictish names for women, I have named them according to an invented system, with most being feminine forms of the men’s names.

 

Pictish Religion and Folklore

Pictish religion:
All we know about the Pictish faith is that it was pagan; Columba’s mission was to bring the Christian gospel to this part of Britain. The religious system, gods and festivals of Bridei's people are my invention. They are based on what I know of the pagan religions of the time and the emphasis in Pictish design on the natural world, in particular the animals of the region. We do know there were druids or mages amongst the Picts; Broichan is identified as one of these in Adomnan’s account. Whether the druids practised human sacrifice is a matter for conjecture; modern day druids like myself tend to favour the argument that they did not. However, the well at Burghead holds many secrets; it is not a comfortable place to visit.

The Good Folk:
This is the traditional name for the fairy folk of Scotland. The Urisk, the Tarans and the Host of the Dead all appear in Scottish folklore. Hearth magic was commonly used to placate such visitors. Changeling children feature often in the stories, but Tuala, of course, is not a changeling but a gift.

 

The Matrilineal Royal Descent / The Years of Darkness

The matrilineal royal descent:
There’s been a lot written about this, most of it by people more scholarly than myself. There are good arguments both ways, the most telling one in favour of royal descent through the female line being the Pictish King List, from which it can be seen that no son ever succeeded his father as monarch of the Picts. Historians are now tending to discount the possibility of matrilineal descent amongst the Picts. We’re unlikely ever to have a definite answer. Because I had used matrilineal descent in an earlier book, Wolfskin, which featured the Picts of Orkney, I have used that model for Bridei’s culture as well.

As for the system of electing a king, that is pure invention on my part, but seems as good a way as any of doing it when there might be a number of eligible men seeking the position. There was indeed a division of the kingdom into two parts under the two King Drusts, one pagan, the other Christian, prior to Bridei’s election to kingship.

The years of darkness:
It’s mentioned in The Dark Mirror that when a king of the Picts neglected to perform the sacrifice at the Well of Shades, the gods punished the people by sending three years without a summer. This remarkable statement is based on truth. Historical accounts from cultures around the world identify the years 535-536AD as the time of a drastic short term climatic change in much of Europe. Ice core samples and the study of tree rings support the theory that a cataclysmic event, probably a major volcanic eruption in the Indonesian region, caused skies to darken for a period of around three years, with a resulting total failure of crops in the north. This time also coincides with the final years of the putative life of Arthur of the Britons. In terms of storytelling, this was a conjunction too good to miss.

 

Hostages / Fostering / The Symbol Stones

Hostages:
Historical accounts tell us there were hostages from Orkney held at the Pictish court, as surety that the vassal king of the islands would not attack his overlord. Ana’s situation is not unusual for the period in question.

Fostering:
A common practice of the time was the fostering out of the sons of noble families during the years of their growing up. This strengthened alliances between influential families. While Bridei is a little younger than most foster children might have been when sent away, the fact that he travels from Gwynedd (in what is now Wales) all the way to northern Britain is plausible. It is likely that Bridei’s father, Maelchon, is the same person as Maelgwyn, King of Gwynedd, who features in some of the early stories of the great battle-leader, Arthur of the Britons. It’s worth noting that the relationship between the young Bridei and his druid foster-father Broichan is not dissimilar to that between Arthur and Merlin.

The Symbol Stones / Tattoos / The Sons of Pridne:
There’s a wealth of reference books about the Pictish symbol stones. These stand in many parts of what is now Scotland, both preserved in museums and here and there in farmers’ fields. Scholars dispute the meanings of the carvings, in which particular cryptic designs are often repeated. The same symbols appear in Pictish jewellery and other artefacts.

A common theory as to the origin of the name Picts is that the Romans called this race Pictii, or painted people, because of the tattoos they wore on their faces and bodies. Another possibility is that the name derived from the original ancestor, Pridne, whose seven sons gave their names to seven provinces or tribes. These in turn became areas of Scotland (Fib = Fife, Caitt = Caithness and so on.) The Irish (Q-Celtic) version of the name is Cruithne, the Pictish (P-Celtic) version Priteni. I like the tattoos, which seem entirely consistent with this people’s evident love of decoration. I decided these markings would be given for two reasons: to identify a man of noble blood by showing the tribes of his parents, and to mark a warrior’s participation in major battles.

 

Bibliography

For those keen to read more about the Picts, there are many good reference books to choose from. Some of those I found especially useful in researching the story of Bridei are listed below. A good one to start with is the Elizabeth Sutherland title, which is both well researched and very readable.

Life of St Columba by Adomnan of Iona (Penguin Classics)
Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland AD 80-1000 by Alfred P Smyth (Edinburgh University Press)
The Picts and the Scots at War by Nick Aitchison (Sutton Publishing)
The Age of the Picts by W A Cummins (Sutton Publishing)
In Search of the Picts: A Celtic Dark Age Nation by Elizabeth Sutherland (Constable)
Picts, Gaels and Scots by Sally M Forster (Historic Scotland)
Surviving in Symbols by Martin Carver (Historic Scotland)
The Picts and the Scots by Lloyd and Jenny Laing (Sutton Publishing)
The Sea Kingdoms: The History of Celtic Britain and Ireland by Alistair Moffat (HarperCollins)
Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots by Ewan Campbell (Historic Scotland)