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Orkney in the Pictish Period

Early accounts of Pictish Orkney

Looking elsewhere in the scant historical records, we learn from the sixth century British historian, Gildas, that the Picts attacked Britain from over the sea.

In his De Exidio Brittaniae, Gildas wrote that the Picts came from the north and the north-east to settle in the most remote part of Britain, from where they conquered the north of Britain, as far south as Hadrian's Wall.

The same tale appears in the writings of the ninth century Welsh historian, Nennius. He informs us that Picts occupied the islands known as "the Orchades" from where they "laid waste to many regions of the north". It has been suggested, however, that Nennius was classing the Norsemen as Picts.

Irish tradition

According to Irish tradition, the Picts came from Scythia, or Thrace. They landed in Ireland, where they received Irish wives, before sailing north and settling in Orkney.

From Orkney, wrote Nennius, the Picts went on to conquer all of Britain, north of the Firth of Forth. This legend supposedly explains the reason for the tradition that Picts practised matrilinear descent. Upon receiving their brides from the Irish noblemen, the Picts agreed that their kings would always be taken from the mother's side.

Just as in the writings of Gildas and Nennius, the Irish legend adds that once the Picts had settled in Orkney, they used the islands as a base for southern raids. Irish historical records seem to confirm this enmity between Orkney and the Irish. In 580AD, for example, Aed, son of Gabran, the King of the Dalriada Scotti, led an expedition to Orkney. Another Orkney conflict was recorded in 709AD, the Annals of Ulster recounting only the death of someone named Artablair.

Another British historian, the venerable Bede, repeats the Irish tradition, stating that the Picts came from Scythia and were refused permission to settle in Ireland. They went to Britain, he wrote, where they were offered wives by the Scots and then began the occupation of northern Scotland.

But although all these tales undoubtedly contain elements of pure myth, through the veil of folklore we can see that Pictish Orkney appears to have played a considerable role in the larger Pictish Kingdom. Pictish Orkney was possibly as powerful as it was influential.

Uneasy relationships

Documenting a visit to the Pictish High King Bridei/Brude son of Maelchon, Adomnan, the biographer of Saint Columbus, tells us that Columbus encountered a "sub-king" of Orkney at Bridei's court near Inverness.

Also at the High-King's court, he wrote, were a number of Orcadian "hostages". This fact that has led some scholars to suggest that although Orkney's rulers had accepted Bridei as their overlord, it was perhaps a strained truce and one that required certain safeguards to maintain. Others cite the hostages as proof that Orkney was a recently conquered territory.

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 court.

The relationship between Orkney and Pictland seems to have finally broken down in 682AD when the Pictish king Brude son of Bili ravaged Orkney. As Professor W. A. Cummins writes, this was "hardly the treatment to be meted out to a part of his own kingdom”.

One of the few Pictish historical documents, the Pictish Chronicle, also seems to indicate that Orkney was not considered part of the Pictish kingdom - at least at the time the Chronicle was compiled. This account details the seven provinces that made up the Pictish Kingdom - but makes no mention of Orkney.

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