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Orkney in the Pictish Period

Orkney Pict or Pictish subject?

Before we look at the inhabitants of Orkney in the Pictish period, we should first look at the term "Pict" and its usage in relation to the Northern Isles.

Just as the "Pict" is thought to have originated as a Roman nickname, today it remains a generic term, although used slightly differently. Now "Pict", and"Pictish", has been adopted as a convenient label for the period and people from about AD300-800.

Although this is undoubtedly useful to describe specific time periods, an unfortunate side effect is that this has led to a common assumption that Orkney's population and culture changed or were replaced.

But although a number of ancient historical accounts suggest the Picts were foreign invaders, it is now generally accepted that the inhabitants of "Pictish Orkney" were simply the descendents of the islands' Iron Age broch builders.

By AD565, Orkney had been incorporated into the Pictish kingdom and thereafter was labelled by under the all-embracing collective name "Picti".

Although undoubtedly influenced by their Pictish overlords, the people of Orkney continued to live in and around centuries-old settlements, such as the Broch of Gurness, in Evie. In their sturdy, stone houses, they lived relatively comfortable lifestyles as farmers and fishermen.

But although technically under Pictish rule, the question remains as to the extent of this Pictish influence.

It seems likely that Orkney's "Picts" were a small, independent part of a larger political unit. But just because you're part of the Pictish Kingdom doesn't necessarily make you Pictish — just as the inhabitants of nineteenth-century India were technically part of the British Empire, the population and their culture remained their own.

In a similar vein, in 1468 Orkney became part of the Kingdom of Scotland. But we know there were distinct differences in culture, language and tradition, elements of which remain even today.

Others, such as the Norn language, survived until the eighteenth century - 300 years after the islands became technically "Scottish".

Just as post-Norse Orkney was undoubtedly affected by the influence of the new Scottish rulers, centuries before it is also likely that the main "Pictish" kingdom influenced the Orkney kingdom - but although there are clear examples of distinct Pictish influence in the county, does this necessarily mean a widespread acceptance of Pictland's culture? The question is open to debate.

So where we see the phrases "Orkney's Picts" or "Pictish Orkney", perhaps it would be better to read "the people of Orkney during the Pictish period."

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