The Picts - 300-800AD
the writings of the classical authors who mention northern Britain,
we know that by the fourth century AD the Picts - known to the Romans
as "Picti" or "Painted People" - were the predominant
force in northern Scotland.
Orkney was, at least for a time,
part of this Pictish Kingdom, probably with its own local ruler,
but owing fealty to a central High King.
Adomnan, the biographer of St Columbus,
states that there were Orcadians at the court of the Pictish High
King, Bridei, in 565 AD. These Orcadians were described as "hostages"
which could imply that relations between Orkney and Pictish King
was perhaps strained - the hostages being Bridei's insurance policy
to keep Orkney on a tight leash. Some historians, however, have
pointed out that these 'hostages' could have an altogether less
hostile interpretation and that they were merely guests at the King's
Although we now think they were simply
the descendants of the original broch builders, surprisingly little
is known about the Pictish Orcadians. This lack of evidence is due
in part to the fact that the Romans, the major chroniclers of early
British History, did not make it this far north in any great number.
And we must remember that the Romans regarded the northern Picts
as little more than savages.
The most typically Pictish items
that can still be seen today are the numerous ornately carved symbol
stones dotted across northern Scotland. The meaning of these
symbol stones is still debated today. Orkney only boasts a handful
of these symbol stones, the most famous being the one found on the
The Brough of Birsay, an offshore
island settlement on the west coast of the Orkney Mainland. The
Brough is known to have been a Pictish site before the Norsemen
claimed it for their own.
Orkney's first contact with the new
religion of Christianity was more than likely in the sixth century
but the islands can not said to have been under church authority
until the eighth century.
It was at an even later date that
the islands could be said to be totally "Christianised"
- we must remember that the successors to the Picts were the pagan
Norsemen - some of whom were reluctant to give up the ways of their
The fate of Orkney's Picts remains
a controversial question to this day. Were they completely obliterated
by the settling Vikings or did the two live together in peaceful
There are supporters in both camps
and the question remains hotly debated. Click
here for more details.