History Files


Gaelic Territories

What's in a Name - Picts & Caledonia

by Edward Dawson & Peter Kessler, 31 July 2020

The Picts were the post-Roman people of the Scottish Highlands, but no Picts existed as any sort of identifiably separate people.

The name was one which was applied to them from outside, and more often on an individual basis rather than as a specific tribal name.

They were just 'painted people', a reference to their blue woad tattoos. The name the Picts themselves used to describe their people remains unrecorded and unknown.

They were an amalgam of northern Celts of various waves plus earlier indigenous peoples of Britain, those who had migrated to avoid later arrivals rather than being submerged by them.

Celtic tribes were predominant (but not exclusively so) below the Antonine Wall (see the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view the location of Caledonian tribes in relation to all other Celts, via the sidebar link).


The name of Caledonia, which predates the general use of 'Pict', is more curious. The ending of '-ia' is a Roman suffix, which leaves Caledon or Galedon.

The '-on' suffix here is the 'definite article' - in English 'the' - which evolved over time into use as a plural.

This leaves Caled or Galed, which looks a good deal like Galat(ia), the regions in modern Spain and Poland. It is simply the Celtic ethnicity name, and in fact 'celt', as recorded by the Greeks, is a version of it.

The location of tribes which carry variations of this name is staggering: Caleti (Belgae), Gallaeci or Callaici (Iberia), Celtici (Iberia), Caledonii (the Scottish Highlands), Gaulish tribes in Galatia (Anatolia), and Gaulish survivors in Galicia.

It also appears that the name may have originally started with a 'kw' instead of a 'g', 'kh', or 'k' sound. The German neighbours to the north of the Celts persistently called them 'wal', not 'gal', and possible dropped the 'k' from the original 'kw' (for more detail on this, see Origins of the Celtic Name, via the sidebar link).

If any name was used by the Picts for themselves, it may have been 'Caledon', meaning 'The Celts'.

The traditional view of Picts as the 'painted people' is based on a description given by the Romans, and the use of blue woad as a body paint does seem to have been highly prevalent in the far north of Britain

The burial cairn at Huly Hill

While a high status chariot has been found near Edinburgh, no such late Celtic arrivals made any impression north of the Antonine Wall

Alani & Roxolani
Frey & Freya
Picts & Caledonia
Sakas & Scythians

Pict naming origins

It may be possible that the term Picti was the Latinised version of a collective name in use by the people north of the Antonine Wall (and south of it, too, before the Roman invasion).

Professor Watson (via Ancient Man in Britain) states that in Old Norse the name is 'Pettr', in Old English 'Peohta', and in Old Scots 'Pecht'.

Today in Fife or Aberdeenshire people are still referred to as 'Pechs' or 'Pechties', suggesting 'Pect' instead of 'Pict', although that follows many centuries of possible alteration in pronunciation.

There was a tribe of Gauls on the Continent known as Pictones, with exactly the same meaning to their name.



Main Sources

Mackenzie, Donald Alexander - Ancient Man in Britain (Blackie & Son Ltd, 2014)

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.