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Whaur we cam fae: the Pechts

‘Whaur we cam fae’ is a tryptych explorin the history an explodin the myths o the last twa thoosand years o Scotland. Tae ken whaur we are gaein ye maun ken whaur we’v been.

The Pechts war warriors, fermers and 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 oot fae their hertlaunds in the saxt century, and suin Pechtland raxed ower maist o Scotland. Their name and the ends o their muckle launds are commemoratit in the Pentland Hills, sooth o Embra, and the Pentland Firth aff John O’ Groats, wi Pent bein anither name for Pecht. There’s a guid amoont o haivers spak aboot the Pechts, and little truith. Lat’s here ging on a wee journey throu the story o the Pechts and sort oot 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 and wad send thoosands o sodgers north tae fouter aboot near the Hieland Line. Wee rammies, sporadic fechts and occasional trade went on atween the fowk north o the Waa and the Roman sodgers gairdin it. Nou and again these Romans wad stravaig aboot Scotland wi immunity atween their mairchin camps, makkin maps and leukin oot for resources. Nou and 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 sooth 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 oot bi the indigenous peoples. Roman historians screivit tales o the northren barbarians, and the people becam a bogle uised tae mak bairns aa ower the Empire feart at nicht.

Pechtish dice spiel
This bonnie wee dice spiel is inscrievit wi “The Pechts are defeatit, play in safety”. It wis fund in ane o the Empire’s Germanic states, shawin that the reputation o the Pechts wis international

The Romans biggit up the idea that Pechts war a fowk fae lang ago that haed aa the nobility and savagery o the barbarian. They stotted aboot 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 breinge gin ae emperor or anither wantit tae shaw hou big and strang he wis bi blooterin intae some enemy.

The Pechts seem tae hae gaithert thegither unner the banner o ‘Rome’s Enemies’. They raidit sooth ower the Waa, and cam roond 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 civilisation strang eneuch tae be gey unwalcome neebors. They war mebbe ower thirled tae a mairtial wey o life at this stage, and archaeologically they didnae lea’ us muckle.

Whan the Roman Empire fell apairt we see Pictish cultur suddenly floorish. The muckle fort at Burgheid on the Moray coast wis biggit, wi ramparts fifty fit abuin the sea, and a deep well for ceremonial, or mebbe sacrificial, uiss wis dug oot o the law. The religious centres and pouer centres at Rhynie, at Rosemarkie and ither places shaw a confident fermin and fishin fowk wha traded wi aa o Europe and beyond.

Archeology in airts sic as Rhynie gie us insichts intae the complex heirarchies at play, and 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 and illustratit in a Pecht monastery.

The Beuk o Kells
The Beuk o Kells, nou pairt o a public collection in Dublin, shares mony design featurs wi the airt o the Pechts. Experts ’hink that it’s mebbe a relic fae the wheen monasteries that ance dottit the launds o the Pechts.

But really, gin ye want tae see ae wee skelf o the warld as the Pechts seen it, and hou they altered and interactit wi their warld, ye maun visit some o their staundin stanes. Nae ither fowk in Europe hae lea’d us sic a fouth o carvit stanes. Aroond twa hunner o them exist, in ilka airt fae Gallawa tae Skye and Shetland. They uised a series o symbols, wha’s literal meanin is tint tae us nou, that are unifrom ower their hail domain, indicatin a shared cultur and unnerstaundin fae sooth 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 mooth 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, and leuks proodly oot ower this bonnie pairt o the warld. It haes a muckle cross carvit intae its face, and proclaims its Christianity — and thereby its connection wi the wider European cultur and fashion o their day — oot 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 aboot. The laund here is rich, the Naver floods nou and 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 and conducive-tae-life airt they could find in the north, and merkit it wi a stane as a declaration o civilisation. This paittern ye find in ilka airt whaur the Pechts haed a serious base. Guid fishin, guid fermin and relative safety.

There’s a wheen blethers ye hear aboot the Pechts fae time tae time. Some claim they bade unnergrund. Ithers that they war aboot 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 and anither in fiction. The Pechts, or at least their immediate forbears, dug oot hunners o unnergrund barrows and earth-hooses (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 accoont 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 aboot them bidin in earth hooses, 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 and claes droukit wi the bluid o the natives, swept aa afore them. This wisnae the case at aa. The Pechts and Scots wirkit thegither and, ower hunners o years o intermairiage o elites, airtistic, mairtial and economic pairtnership, they amalgamatit intae ae people. Bi cuttin aff the legacy o the Pechts wi the foondation o Scotland we cut oorsels aff fae oor ain Derk Age past. The Pechts ruled ower much o whit is nou Scotland, estaiblisht trade and traivel routes we still uise the day and gied oor laund mony o its names and featurs. As outlined abuin, the Pechts gied us a kist o riches in terms o archeology, airt, jewellery and history. The few damagin myths aroond them are the sneckit lock on this kist. Unsneck it, open it up and tak pleisur in explorin the aulder history o Scotland.