THEY are invariably described as mysterious and the “Lost People” of Scotland, but gradually we are beginning to learn more and more about the Picts, the ancient inhabitants of the north, east and possibly a lot of the south of this country.

Thanks to immense study by researchers in a number of fields, we are finding out much more about our ancient ancestors, and there are things we can say with certainty about them, and a lot we simply don’t yet know, such as the language they spoke or the exact boundaries of what many people refer to as Pictland.

We know about their standing stones, but can’t quite translate their symbols. We know they were mentioned in Roman history in the early part of the first millennium AD – the name Picti, meaning painted or tattooed people was coined by the Romans – and we know that they were effectively finished as a separate people by 900 AD. We don’t know what they called themselves, but we can say with some degree of certainty that they were a confederacy of tribes who we would now say were Celtic in origin and that they came to Scotland from central Europe after the ice age retreated.

If Roman and later sources are to be trusted they were at first divided into two groups known as the Caledonii and the Maetae, though they amalgamated into a single Pictish kingdom.

We know that they had an advanced agriculture-based society and had their own religion – we would class it as Pagan – until they converted to Christianity in the sixth and seventh centuries, tradition holding that this happened after a mission by St Columba.

We do not know their exact polity or the names of all but a few of their kings, and we can only presume that their society was ordered on similar lines to other Celtic peoples. We know from discoveries that they traded with other nations and tribes, some of them on the Continent.

We can infer that they lived in wooden houses on the mainland, because precious few remains of their dwellings have been found, in contrast to the stone homes and brochs of the ancient Orcadians. We know that they merged, probably through intermarriage, with the Scots who came from Ireland to set up Dalriada, the kingdom based in Argyll which spread its influence and people across much of Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. Was that merger entirely peacable? Again, we don’t know.

We also know that Scotland probably would not exist in its current form had the Picts under King Bridei mac Bili not fought and won the extraordinary Battle of the Battle of Dunnichen or Dun Nechtain, known to the English as Nechtansmere, over the Anglo-Saxon forces of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria.

I have written about this battle before in Back in the Day and I repeat that we do not know its exact location, but Pictish stones and local tradition maintain that the land around Dunnichen Hill in Angus saw the pitched battle on May 20, 685 – a date confirmed by the English historian the Venerable Bede writing less than 50 years later.

As I wrote at the time: “It was a total triumph for Bridei and his Pictish confederates, and their independence was secured.

The Venerable Bede wrote: “The enemy made show as if they fled, and King Ecgfrith was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces.”

Thank goodness for that or we might all be Northumbrians, as Ecgfrith was known to be a man keen to expand his kingdom as far north as he could go. Instead the remains of his devastated army went south.

No army from England dared to go north of the Forth for many decades, until the Northumbrians came marching through what is now East Lothian in 832 and were met by the Picts and Scots under the Pictish king Oengus, or Angus Mac Fergus, with the same result – total victory for the Scottish side. Again the invading king, Athelstan – not to be confused with Athelstane, the first King of the English who reigned 100 years later – was killed and the battle took its name from a nearby ford into which the defeated king fell, giving us Athelstaneford.

It was that battle which confirmed the Saltire as the flag of Scotland due to Oengus’s vision of a cross of St Andrew in the sky.

So for our flag and those battle wins, as well as the kenspeckle contemporary figure of Robbie the Pict, we owe the Painted People a great debt, and that’s also why it’s infuriating that we have no written early history of them other than mentions by writers of other nations.

We can certainly consider the early Pictish settlers to be the aboriginal people of mainland Scotland and it’s fairly sure that they also spread to Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides, though some experts maintain that the Celts on the isles didn’t become Picts until well into the first millennium. The truth is that we just don’t know.

As The National reported last week, the excavations being carried out at Burghead in Moray by the Northern Picts Project of Aberdeen University’s School of Geosciences are proving spectacularly successful in discovering more about the people who lived in the major fortification on Burghead, one of the biggest, if not the biggest ever, forts built by the Picts. The Vikings burned down the fort thus preserving items which are telling us more about the Picts almost on a daily basis.

Led by Dr Gordon Noble, the Aberdeen team has been on the site since 2015, three years after the project began.

It was the finds at Rhynie in Aberdeenshire that really got the project going. As Noble explained in his blog: “One of the key sites of our project is Rhynie in Aberdeenshire. Work here – funded by Historic Environment Scotland – has revealed a Pictish power centre. The Picts left behind few historical sources, however they did leave a rich legacy in the form of a series of enigmatic carved stone monuments, found throughout northeast and northern Scotland from Fife to Shetland.

“A group of these carved stone monuments are at the heart of our investigations at Rhynie – the name of which comes from the early Celtic rìg, meaning king. That etymology, combined with our findings at the site, suggests Rhynie was an early Pictish high status place (perhaps a royal residence) during the 5th and 6th centuries AD.

“Excavations of Rhynie in 2011-12 uncovered a series of fortified enclosures where one symbol stone, the Craw Stane, still stands today. Two others, including the iconic Rhynie Man, were discovered there in the 1970s.”

ALL these recent developments blow away the theories of those historians who say the Picts were a myth. In the early 20th century John Milne, the historian and toponymist – a person who studies place names – who derived much of his theories from studying the names of towns, villages and other settlements across Scotland, was able to conclude with certainty: “The sum of the matter is that the Pictish story is a myth, and that traces of the Pictish language need not be looked for in the Celtic place names of Aberdeenshire.”

Milne missed the obvious point that the assimilation of the Picts into the Scots – if that’s what happened, as it might well have been a genuine merger – wiped out all traces of the original tribes and their language, a process that took place over a few generations. That it happened relatively quickly is also a source of mystery.

Yet Milne posed the question which all who study the Picts must ask: “Was there in the east of Scotland north of the Firth of Forth, within the period of the Roman occupation of Britain, a people called Picts different in race and language from the Britons whom Caesar found in the country in his two expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BC?”

Developments in science enable us in this modern era to conclude that the answer to that question is an undoubted yes.

Milne was writing at a time when scientific archaeology was in its infancy, and it is largely thanks to archaeologists that we know so much more about the Picts than pre-20th century historians. That, and a decent slice of luck.

For in recent times there have been “lucky” finds of Pictish coins and silver. That is not an entirely new phenomenon, for back in 1819 in Largo in Fife, one of the largest ever hoards of Pictish silver was found buried in a Bronze Age barrow. It is known as the Norrie’s Law hoard and examples from it can be seen in the Royal Museum of Scotland whose experts have dated it to the 7th century.

The symbols carved in to the silver jewellery are all Pictish and echo those found on the Picts’ standing stones.

There was no true corroboration of the theory that the hoard was Pictish in origin until the Gaulcross hoard was “re-discovered” a few years ago and the 100-odd pieces of silver confirmed that the Picts created their own silver coinage, known as hack silver, from coins that were Roman in origin.

Even more remarkable in the 20th century was the discovery of the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure on the island of that name in Shetland, found by a local schoolboy, Douglas Coutts, while he was helping archaeologists from Aberdeen University on a dig in 1958. The hoard that was buried under a ruined church and clearly contained items of Anglo-Saxon and Pictish origin, suggesting that nobles from what is now England and the Picts traded or exchanged gifts up to the 9th century AD.

The find at Birnie in Moray in 1996 was also remarkable – detectorist Hamish Stuart found a hoard of Roman coins that dated to the late second century AD, proving that the Romans did indeed pay protection money to the Picts to keep them north of Romano-British settlements.

Studies of the Pictish standing stones have moved on in recent years and these monuments, some of which are undoubtedly gravestones, are beginning to give up their secrets, albeit slowly. Personally, I feel that if we crack the “code” of the inscriptions on the pre-Christian stones we will know so much more about the Picts, given that many symbols on the stones also appear on Pictish jewellery.

The Burghead dig is really exciting because of the preservation of walls and rubbish pits by Viking fire. The Aberdeen team had already found a longhouse on the site and, as Noble said at the time: “This is important because Burghead is likely to have been one of the key royal centres of Northern Pictland and understanding the nature of settlement within the fort is key to understanding how power was materialised within these important fortified sites.”

So there is genuine hope that soon we may know more about the people who, in a very real sense, made modern Scotland what it is today.