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Orkney in the Pictish Period

Slipping from history

In Orkney, little more than a scattering of Pictish archaeological sites and a handful of placenames have survived.

Although once the overlords of Orkney, and a powerful political and military force in their own right, by the time of the Norsemen, Orkney's Picts had already slipped from history into the shadowy realm of folklore.

As time went on, the line between historical fact and fable blurred further. As early as the twelfth century, the historical Picts were regarded as a semi-mythical race with distinctly mythical attributes. With each century that passed, the pre-Norse inhabitants of Orkney became thoroughly confused with elements of trow and fairy folklore.

The Norse accounts

The Norsemen began arriving in Orkney in the eighth century but, surprisingly, their historical records make little mention of Orkney's indigenous inhabitants. The Orkneyinga Saga, for example, pays absolutely no attention to any pre-Norse population of the islands.

The Historia Norvegiae, however, describes them as beings that were small in stature who "performed miracles in the building of walled cities".

Written around 1200AD, this Latin document states that Orkney's inhabitants lost their strength and courage completely in the middle of the day. This, it claims, forced them to hide themselves away in little underground houses.

Aside from an obvious connection between Orkney's Picts and the builders of the brochs, there is little of historical value in this account. But what it clearly shows is that, even by the twelfth century, Orkney's Picts had become creatures of folklore.

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