Places to Visit in Scotland
- Pictavia Visitor Centre, Brechin
When the Romans invaded Britain and marched north into the area we now know of as the Highlands of Scotland, they were met by fierce tribes the Romans called "Pictii" or "painted people". They are thought to have originated as Celts in central Europe and, as Bronze and Iron Age settlers, moved into the area after the ice age.
The Romans identified individual tribes as the Caledonii and the Maetae. In AD 83/84, the Romans under the governor Agricola, marched up the east coast of Scotland, establishing temporary forts. The Picts, under the leadership of Calgacus, harassed the Romans but in the north-west, the Romans advanced inland. A pitched battle was fought at Mons Graupius (possibly near Inverurie) between 30,000 Pictish warriors and the Roman Legions. The Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about the campaign, claimed that Galgacus, rallying his followers before the Battle of Mons Graupius, rejected the 'pax Romana' with the resonant words "they make a solitude and call it peace". The Roman cavalry outclassed the Picts and 10,000 were slaughtered (by Roman estimates). However, the Romans never again marched into the Highlands and stayed behind their fortifications further south.
Apart from late lists of kings written in Latin, the Picts left no written record, so we do not even know the name by which they called themselves. The Picts built wooden forts and left many carved standing stones with symbols as well as narrative stories and representations of mounted warriors. A few items of gold and silver jewelry have survived and some antler combs. None of their weapons has survived - only representations carved in stone. Later carved stones had Christian symbols on one side and narrative scenes and symbols on the other.
The illustration here shows the Cadboll Pictish cross-slab found in Easter Ross where it had lain for 1,200 years (and now displayed in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh).
In addition to the Highlands, including the Hebrides, the Picts spread into Angus and Fife as far as the river Forth. The Picts were eventually overcome by the Scots from Dalriada (that is, in Argyll in the west). Kenneth mac Alpin may have defeated the Picts in battle but around the 9th century they disappear from the historical records.
Although the capital of the Picts was probably near present-day Inverness, the area we now know as the county of Angus was certainly an area in which large numbers of Picts were located. Many of their carved stones have been found in the countryside around including some - such as this one at Aberlemno - are still standing in the open air. Just over the border in Perthshire, there is a museum at Meigle with over 30 such stones collected from both Angus and Perthshire.
The town of Brechin has been a religious centre since the days of the conversion of the Picts to Christianity and it is here that "Pictavia" visitor centre has been built. This provides an excellent introduction to the Picts with displays of their carved stones (sometimes replicas rather than originals) with explanations of the symbols used by the Picts, many of which recur frequently on different stones.
There are maps showing the territory they covered and musical instruments which have been created in modern times, based on the illustrations in their stone carvings. Near Brechin, at Dunnichen, the Picts fought a major battle against the Northumbrians in 685AD (see below) and Pictavia has a major presentation on this.
Battle of Dunnichen
When the Romans left Britain, Germanic tribes called Saxons and Angles (Anglians) began to infiltrate the island. In the north of England a powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom in "Northumbria," (from North of the river Humber") was formed by merging Bernicia, north of the Tees, with Deira to the south. The Northumbrians were under pressure from the south and in the 7th century, the Picts found themselves being attacked the Northumbrians - and were coming off worst. The Northumbrians advanced as far as Lothian, south of the river Forth and defeated the Gododdin tribe there and subjugated the southern lands of the Picts.
The Picts suffered a serious defeat on the plain of "Manau" (near Grangemouth) and 12 years later in 685AD, a huge force of Northumbrians led by King Ecgfrith advanced into the land of the Picts. The Pictish King Bruide split his army into two at Dunnichen, near Forfar in present-day Angus. The weakest portion confronted the enemy while the strongest warriors hid over the hill. The Picts involved in the initial fighting appeared to retreat - and led the Northumbrians into a trap. Bruide and his best warriors swept over the hill and the Northumbrians found themselves trapped by a marshy loch and were soundly defeated and King Ecgfrith was killed. The story of the battle was told by the Northumbrian historian and monk Bede and it is for that reason the conflict is often referred to as the Battle of Nechtansmere, his name for the location.
It has been argued that if the Picts had not defeated this invasion by the King of Northumbria, Scotland as a separate nation would not have come into being.
How to Get There
Pictavia is on the A935 main road leaving Brechin to the west. It is open from April to September on Monday to Saturday from 9.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. and Sundays from 10.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. See also the Pictavia Web Site.
See also the Location Map (you can enlarge the scale of this map, if required).
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