By Alistair Heather
‘Whaur we cam fae’ is a tryptych explorin the history an explodin the myths o the last twa thousand years o Scotland. Tae ken whaur we are gaein ye maun ken whaur we’v been.
The Pechts war warriors, fermers an airtists that ruled ower maist o Scotland throu the first millenia AD. They war the distinct fowk that emerged whan aa the hunners o wee clans in verra early Derk Age Scotland gaithert thegither. They spreid ae appearently homogenous cultur out fae their hertlaunds in the saxt century, an suin Pechtland raxed ower maist o Scotland. Their name an the ends o their muckle launds are commemoratit in the Pentland Hills, south o Embra, an the Pentland Firth aff John O’ Groats, wi Pent bein anither name for Pecht. There’s a guid amount o haivers spak about the Pechts, an little truith. Lat’s here ging on a wee journey throu the story o the Pechts an sort out whit’s kent fae whit’s keech.
The Pechts war, in a sense, inventit bi the Romans. The Romans didnae get faur north o Hadrian’s Waa in ony permanent sense, but they did big a dizzen or mair wee mairchin camps an wad send thousands o sodgers north tae fouter about near the Hieland Line. Wee rammies, sporadic fechts an occasional trade went on atween the fowk north o the Waa an the Roman sodgers gairdin it. Nou an again these Romans wad stravaig about Scotland wi immunity atween their mairchin camps, makkin maps an leukin out for resources. Nou an again they wad be gien a sair lesson. The kenspeckle 9t Legion o Romans, wha haed shed bluid aa ower the Roman Empire, mairchit intae Scotland fae their base south o Hadrian’s Waa tae pit doun a Scottish rebellion. They disappeared. Naeb’dy kens tae this day whaur their bodies lie, but maist fowk credit the idea o a Roman massacre, cairied out bi the indigenous peoples. Roman historians screivit tales o the northren barbarians, an the people becam a bogle uised tae mak bairns aa ower the Empire feart at nicht.
The Romans biggit up the idea that Pechts war a fowk fae lang ago that haed aa the nobility an savagery o the barbarian. They stotted about in the scud in their cauld launds, baws aye hingin in the snell nor’lin wind wi naething but their tattoos tae protect them. They war uised tae fleg the general Roman population, or else uised as a handy frontier, ower which they could breenge gin ae emperor or anither wantit tae shaw hou big an strang he wis bi blouterin intae some enemy.
The Pechts seem tae hae gaithert thegither unner the banner o ‘Rome’s Enemies’. They raidit south ower the Waa, an cam round the coast bi boat tae pit the fear o God intae puir sowels bidin in the lea o the Roman camps. The Pechts developed as a cívilisation strang eneuch tae be gey unwalcome neebours. They war mebbe ower thirled tae a mairtial wey o life at this stage, an archaeologically they didnae lea’ us muckle.
Whan the Roman Empire fell apairt we see Pictish cultur suddenly flourish. The muckle fort at Burgheid on the Moray coast wis biggit, wi ramparts fifty fit abuin the sea, an a deep well for ceremonial, or mebbe sacrifícial, uiss wis dug out o the law. The relígious centres an pouer centres at Rhynie, at Rosemarkie an ither places shaw a confident fermin an fishin fowk wha traded wi aa o Europe an beyond.
Archeology in airts sic as Rhynie gie us insichts intae the complex heirarchies at play, an the buirit troves o siller jewellery fund in Fife gar us tak tent o the great airtistic cultur that becam the hert o the Pictish warld. There’s guid evidence that the famous Beuk o Kells wis screivit an illustratit in a Pecht monastery.
But really, gin ye want tae see ae wee skelf o the warld as the Pechts seen it, an hou they altered an interactit wi their warld, ye maun vísit some o their staundin stanes. Nae ither fowk in Europe hae lea’d us sic a fouth o carvit stanes. Around twa hunner o them exist, in ilka airt fae Gallawa tae Skye an Shetland. They uised a series o sýmbols, wha’s literal meanin is tint tae us nou, that are unifrom ower their hail domain, indicatin a shared cultur an unnerstaundin fae south tae north.
Nae lang syne I made ma wey tae the maist Nor-Westerly o aa the mainland Pictish staudin stanes. The Farr Stane staunds in a kirkyaird at the mouth o the fertile strath in Sutherland, whaur the saumon-rich river Naver oscillates its wey tae the sea. It staunds heicher nor ma ain hicht, an leuks proudly out ower this bonnie pairt o the warld. It haes a muckle cross carvit intae its face, an proclaims its Christianity — an thereby its connection wi the wider European cultur an fashion o their day — out tae sea, as if projectin its ain beliefs north tae the pagan wilds o the Viking nations. Here, wi the wind blawin ower the ragged heather, the collapsed brochs, the tuim ferm biggins, ye get a sense o whit the Pechts war aa about. The laund here is rich, the Naver floods nou an again, makkin great dumps o alluvial soil. Whiles it’s mebbe a bit plowterie, but the Bens tae the west tak the warst o the stottin rain. The river is fouthie wi braw saumon, the sea accessible thanks tae a lang, safe naitural herbour.
The Pechts pit doun roots in the maist bonnie an conducive-tae-life airt they could find in the north, an merkit it wi a stane as a declaration o cívilisation. This paittern ye find in ilka airt whaur the Pechts haed a serious base. Guid fishin, guid fermin an relative safety.
There’s a wheen blethers ye hear about the Pechts fae time tae time. Some claim they bade unnergrund. Ithers that they war about fower fit tall. The Declaration o Arbroath, ane o the great documents o Scottish history, even claims that the Scots “utterly destroyed” the Pechts whan the time cam. Aa’hing here haes ae fit in truith an anither in fiction. The Pechts, or at least their immediate forbears, dug out hunners o unnergrund barrows an earth-houses (also kent as Souterrains). These war uised tae store fuid in the caller air aneath the earth, no tae bide in. The idea that Pechts war tiny wee fowk also is pairtially true. The first account o Pechts bein wee is fae a Norse scriever, wha merely suggestit they war a bittie on the smaa side. Nae dout they war, compared wi the lang-shankit Norse fowk. This myth, alangside the ane about them bidin in earth houses, led tae the idea that they war totty wee bairnie-sized fowk. Dinnae you believe it.
Thon lest idea, that the Scots utterly destroyed the Pechts, haes been the maist damagin ane tae their legacy. It haes gied us the idea that the Pechts war in somewey wiped aff the earth in ae muckle genocide as the Scots, their heids an claes droukit wi the bluid o the natives, swept aa afore them. This wisnae the case at aa. The Pechts an Scots wirkit thegither an, ower hunners o years o intermairiage o elites, airtisitic, mairtial an economic pairtnership, they amalgamatit intae ae people. Bi cuttin aff the legacy o the Pechts wi the foundation o Scotland we cut oursels aff fae our ain Derk Age past. The Pechts ruled ower much o whit is nou Scotland, estaiblisht trade an traivel routes we still uise the day an gied our laund mony o its names an featurs. As outlined abuin, the Pechts gied us a kist o riches in terms o archeology, airt, jewellery an history. The few damagin myths around them are the sneckit lock on this kist. Unsneck it, open it up an tak pleisur in explorin the aulder history o Scotland.
Alistair Heather wirks wi the Elphinstone Institute at the University o Aiberdeen, heezin up Scots in the North-East throu impruivin its vísibility in the media an tourism, an estaiblishin Scots in ilka pairt o the education sýstem, fae bairnheid tae unnergraduate. He also maks Scots Radio, alangside Frieda Morrison, an Scots Radio TV. He scrieves for The National, The Herald an aab’dy else wha’ll pit him in prent. Gie him yer chat @Historic_Ally an via Alistair [DOT] heather [AT] hotmail.com.