THE feature titled “Uncovering the mysteries of Scotland’s Picts” in Hamish MacPherson’s series Scotland: Back in the Day which appeared in The National on June 5, was indeed timely, coming hard on the heels of fresh revelations about the Pictish power-base at Burghead near Elgin, as revealed in The National on May 31.

Of course, the restrictive nature of such a piece in a daily newspaper precludes all but a brief assessment of the issues, though a few more words could usefully have been written to describe the beginning and ending of the Pictish kingdom.

Yes, the two main tribal groupings which constituted Pictavia were the Caledonii and the Maetae, but not “at first”; traditionally, there were seven Pictish provinces, each with a distinctive name and ruled by a mormaer (a sort of sub-king).

Their exit from history as a recognisable political and cultural entity, when they were subsumed by the Scots, drew the question “Was that merger entirely peaceable?” The answer given: “We just don’t know” might have considered the gruesome scenes on the un-Pictish Sueno’s stone near Forres, which shows a ritual slaughter by decapitation.

One favoured interpretation is that these seven corpses represent the seven mormaers, having been treacherously executed by the Scots at a parley.

The article highlights the Battle of Dunnichen near Forfar (not for the first time in this series) as being a crucial turning point in Scottish history, though noting the problem of its location.

It is correct to say that this is not known as a matter of factual certainty, but the supposition is based on more than just “Pictish stones and a local tradition”.

There is only one truly local stone, and that is too early to have any connection with the battle.

A little further afield, however, in Aberlemno Kirkyard, is one of the finest and most revealing of all Pictish stones, bearing the only battle-scene in the whole repertoire of Pictish lithic art.

There is ample reason to suppose that it could illustrate the tactics employed by both their infantry and their cavalry in overcoming their Northumbrian opponents on that fateful day of May 20 685.

The only major blemish in the article was the caption to the two photographs: one showed “the site of the Battle of Dunnechin” (ie Dunnichen) and the other “a section of the Pictish stone in the graveyard at Aberlemno Parish Church which is thought to depict scenes from the Battle of Nechtansmere”.

This implies that two separate battles are being discussed here, whereas the conflict to which these names refer is one and the same.

The problem is that we do not know by what name the Picts themselves called their mighty triumph.

Closest may be the Brythonic Gueith Linn Garan (The Battle of the Pool of the Heron) – very poetic, but which pool and what heron?

The name commonly used until the thirteen hundredth anniversary of the battle was the Anglian Nectansmere, again with a watery element, but they were the away team and also the losers, so why choose their name?

Best is the Irish Cath Duin Neachtain (The Battle of the hill-fort of Nechtan).

This name allowed historian George Chalmers, in his book ‘Caledonia’ of 1807, to equate the Irish name with the hamlet of Dunnichen (a slight corruption of Dun Nechtan) in modern-day Angus, and here it was, more than likely, that a victory was won which secured the future of the embryonic Scottish nation.

How about celebrating its anniversary each year as Dunnichen Day?

Graeme Cruickshank

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