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How Religious Friction Caused Extinction of Pict Culture

Dalriada, at the end of the seventh and the opening of the eighth century was the most Christian and civilized country in Europe.  Their Christianity, unlike that of most continental countries at that period, was drawn from the Bible, and was of the kind which goes to the roots of individual and national life, and instead of expending itself in rites and ceremonies, developed in the quiet and enriching virtues of purity, truth, industry, and sobriety—a true civilization.
Iona, the ritual centre of the Columban  Church, had now for a century and a half been shedding its evangelical light over the country.  Five generations had been reared under it.  The land was fairly planted with churches. The pastors who ministered in them were thoroughly trained in Divine learning, and were a race of pious, humble, laborious, and, in many instances, studious and scholarly men.  The universal education of youth was cared for.
The population, happily relieved from the distractions of war, cultivated the arts of the time, both ornamental and useful. The same men who interpreted Scripture to them, taught them how to use the pen and the chisel, how to construct their dwellings and cultivate their fields.  The sons of princes and nobles were proud to be enrolled as pupils in the school of Iona.
Scholars from abroad came to visit a land that had become so famous, that they might increase their stores of knowledge; and kings when dying, commanded that their bones should be transported across the North Sea, ferried over to the island of Icolmkill, and laid beneath the shadow of its saintly towers.

But soon after the opening of the eighth century, this fair picture was deformed by sudden tempests.  Who or what was it that set Pict against Pict, and Scot at times against both?  That age in Albann was not barbarous: on the contrary, it was pious and peaceful; this being the fifth generation which had given the plough the preference over the sword, and cultivated peace rather than war with their neighbours.

These disturbances had a religious origin, and that they grew out of the visit of the papal envoy to the court of King Nehhtonn of the Southern Picts, and his subsequent attempts to impose, at the sword’s point, on the pastors of the church, the badge of submission to the new faith and the foreign authority which he sought to install in the country.

Even when the troubles came to an end, the numerous and powerful nations of the Picts had entirely disappeared, if not from the soil of the country, from the page of history, and the comparatively small handful of Scots in Dalriada had come to the front and grasped the supremacy, and henceforward gave their name to the nation and to the country. 

The commencement of these troubles began with the arrival of the Papal envoy, Boniface at King Nehhtonn’s court, and his ridicule of the Columban Church.  He was successful in convincing Nehhtonn to convert to the Holy Roman Church, and to expel all pastors from the southern Pictish Kingdom on their refusal to have their heads shorn in the Roman fashion. 

At this same time, there was a great political revolution within Albann apart from the troubles to which the expulsion of the clergy across Drumalban into Dalriada may have given rise.  The two great divisions of the Picts, north and south, burst into sudden flame, arraying themselves in arms against each other, followed by a century of strife and bloody internecine battles.

There was no political occurrence which could have so suddenly and violently disrupted the bonds between the northern and southern Pict Kingdoms except in the change of religion in the south.  It divided them into two churches. The Picts of the northern kingdom continued their loyalty to Iona.  Their pastors continued to feed their flocks as before, preaching the evangelical faith of Columba, whereas those in the south  had (officially) forsaken the faith of their fathers for Roman rites and doctrines, and wore the coronal tonsure in token of their submission to Papal authority.

The animosities and hatreds which this great secession provoked, resulted in civil war.  The crisis was rendered more acute as it imperiled the political independence of the country as well. It opened the door to invasion from Northumbria, with whom the southern Picts had become one in their religious rites; and ambitious chiefs on both sides, under pretext of religious or patriotic aims, sought to enlarge their territories or acquire greater personal authority.

The Scots never fell away from Iona, and they naturally sympathized with their co-religionists in the north, and supported them throughout these wars against their Romanized countrymen in the south.

The sudden and unexpected reappearance of King Nehhtonn from the monastery to which he had retired, the moment he saw a chance of recovering his throne, is also suggestive of the religious element in these complications, and shows that the foreign monks were pulling the wires that plunged the Pict tribes into murderous internecine war.

The Pictish chronicles clearly indicated this as one of the great causes of the fall of the Pictish monarchy.  So long as both branches of the Columban church, the Irish and the Dalriadic Scots, were governed from one centre, Iona, the Scots  felt they were one with the Irish, being linked to them by the most sacred of all bonds, their one church.

However, when that bond was broken by the erection of two parent institutions, the Scots doubtless felt that they were alone as a church, and as a nation, and that henceforth, their agenda must be exclusively towards acquisition of influence and territory in the country where they had fixed their abode, Albann.

The spirit of Columba still predominated in the North, and the pastors, there sent forth from Iona, continued to feed their flocks, though not in the same simplicity of faith, nor with the same fullness of knowledge and zeal, which had characterized them in an earlier age.

It is now the opening of the ninth century, and Castantan, able and patriotic beyond the measure of other sovereigns of his age and country, was on the throne of the southern Picts.  He reigned for thirty years, dying in A.D. 820. He was succeeded by several kings whose reigns were so short, and whose actions were so obscure, that their names hardly deserve mention.

When the church of Iona was plundered and burned by Norsemen, the foundations of a new church were immediately laid in the realm of the southern Picts by Castantan.

The policy of King Castantan, in founding Dunkeld, was plainly one of conciliation.  He wanted the good will of those of the majority of his subjects, who had not yet been brought to believe that Easter was more honoured by being kept on this day rather than on that, and the chief glory of a pastor lay not in the depth of his piety, but in the form of his hat.

The act was a virtual revocation of the ban pronounced against the Columban clergy by his predecessor Nehhtonn, and a virtual permission to the extruded shepherds to return and feed their former flocks. Some—perhaps many—did, doubtless, return, and found admission into the heritages and livings which their predecessors, a century before, had been forced to vacate.

In what way their influence would be employed is not difficult to guess.  It was put forth for the re-establishment of the Columban faith, and by consequence, the ascendancy of the Scots by whom  that faith was mainly held.

Even among the southern Picts there appeared to have been two powerful religious parties during that dark century, that intervened between the conversion of King Nehhtonn, and the founding of the church at Dunkeld.  The Church of Rome would not have suffered such a defeat of the Universal faith, and would not have allowed the Columban liberty to prevail, had she been a popular mistress among the southern Picts.

At this juncture, the male line of the great King Onnist (Oengus in Gaelic), became extinct, and the throne was claimed by Alpin. He was a son of Achaius, king of Dalriada, with whom Charlemagne is said to have formed an alliance.  Achaius had for a wife a sister of Onnist.  Thus Alpin, the claimant of the Pictish throne, was a Scot by his father’s side and a Pict by his mother’s.  He advanced his claim in A.D. 832.

The conciliatory policy of Castantan, was followed by Alpin, the first Scot to reign over the two peoples, however briefly, when he brought the relics of Columba to consecrate the new church at Dunkeld—a ceremony which, he must have judged, would gratify his new subjects, and tend to consolidate his control over them.

The Pict sceptre was not grasped by the Scot/Pict Alpin line until after several bloody battles.  The greater people were not likely to yield up the rule to the smaller without bringing the matter to a trial of strength on the battlefield.  The first encounter between the two armies took place at Restennet, near Forfar.

When night closed the battle, the uncertain victory was claimed by Alpin; but even this doubtful success had cost him dearly, for a third of his army lay on the field. The Pict king was among those slain, but the Picts notified that they did not hold the death of their monarch as deciding the issue of the war, for they quickly proceeded to elect another in his stead.

Nor was this all, Alpin took a still more decided step in the same direction. He set the Abbott of Dunkeld over the church of all Picts and Scots. This was to undo the work of Boniface, and to restore the supremacy of the Columban Church over the whole of Albann.

The peace and quiet in which this revolution was accomplished may be accepted as proof that the faith of Rome had not gone very deep among the southern Picts, who had refused to yield their true faith to the novelties which the Roman missionary had brought with him.

Moreover, there was a party among the Picts themselves, who from community of faith favoured the Scottish succession.  As the result of these concurring causes there had come to be a crisis in the Pictish supremacy.  Is it Pict or Scot who is to be the future ruler of the land?  And by what name shall North Britain be known henceforward? By that of Albann, or by that of Scotland?  Such was the question now waiting solution in ancient Caledonia.

Alpin had committed the greatest of all sins by attacking the Pict army on the holiest of all Christian days, Easter.  The Picts would never forgive this sacrilege.  They had a special fate in store for him, the ancient Pict execution method for traitors.

The second battle was fought in the neighbourhood of Dundee. It was the Picts who triumphed in this fight, and they won the battle by a stratagem similar to that which Bruce employed four hundred and eighty years later at Bannockburn.  The camp attendants were instructed to mount the baggage horses and make their appearance on the heights around the field when the combatants should be in the thick of the fight.

This make-believe second army advancing to the aid of the Picts threw the Scots into panic. They broke and fled: the king and his principal nobles were taken captive on the field. The nobles were slain on the spot but Alpin was reserved for more ignominious execution. All ransom being refused for him he was bound, led away, and beheaded, and his head, fixed on a pole, was carried in triumph around the army. This gory trophy was stuck up on the walls of the Pict capital at Abernethy to rot.

There followed a few years’ cessation in the war.  Elated by their victory, the Picts broke out in fiercer dissensions among themselves than ever. It happened, too, about this time, that they were assailed by the  Dane Vikings, and one of their most powerful tribes all but exterminated.  Thus the Scots had respite, and were able to recruit their strength, much impaired by their disastrous defeat.

Kenneth, the son of the fallen Alpin, a brave and worthy prince, was placed on the throne of Dalriada.  The young monarch was naturally desirous to prosecute the quarrel against the Picts, and his ambition to enlarge his realm by adding Pict territories to it was quickened by the cruel indignities to which his father had been subjected, and of which he was touchingly reminded by some adventurous youth, who took down the head of the murdered Alpin from the walls of Abernethy and carried it to the young Kenneth.

He convoked an assembly of his nobles and strongly urged upon them a renewal of hostilities against the Picts’ but the older and more experienced of the nobles, were averse, believing that the time for another trial of strength was not yet come. Kenneth MacAlpin allowed the matter to sleep three years longer.

But in the fourth year, Kenneth revived the project, and succeeded in overcoming the reluctance of his nobles by the following extraordinary stratagem.  He invited his nobles to a banquet in the palace, and prolonged the festivities to so late an hour that the guests, instead of departing to their homes, sunk down on the floor of the banqueting room overcome by wine and sleep.

The king had previously selected a youth, a relation of his own, whom he instructed in the part he was to play, providing him at the same time with a luminous robe, made out of the phosphorescent skins of fish, and a long tube which was to serve the purpose of a speaking trumpet. It was now past midnight: all was dark in the chamber were the feast had been held, and the silence was unbroken, save an occasional interruption from the heavy slumber of the prostrate mass that covered the floor.

Suddenly a terrible voice rang through the banqueting room and awoke the sleepers. On opening their eyes, they beheld with amazement a figure in the middle of the hall, in a blaze of silvery glory, speaking in a voice of more than mortal power, commanding them to gird on the sword and avenge the murder of King Alpin, and thundering in their ears dreadful maledictions should they not obey. No sooner had the spectre delivered its message than it disappeared as noiselessly as it had entered, leaving those whom it had dazzled, or terrified by its unearthly brightness, bewildered by its mysterious exit.

When morning broke the nocturnal apparition was the topic of conversation, and all were agreed that a celestial messenger had visited them in the night, and that it was the will of the Deity that they should renew the war with the Picts. They were confirmed in this conclusion by the king, who assured them that the same celestial visitor had appeared to himself, bringing with him a message which left him no alternative but a resumption of the war. The character of the times made the success of such a stratagem possible, and so makes the story credible.

But whatever we may think of the story, we now find the Scottish nobles, who had hitherto held back, rushed into the field, and plunging, noble and soldier alike, into furious battle with the Picts.  Crossing Drumalban, and advancing into the low grounds of Stirlingshire, the Scots, shouting their war-cry, "Remember Alpin," flung themselves upon the ranks of the Picts.

The Pict army was broken and routed.  But one battle was not enough to decide the issue of the war.  The Picts rallied; battle followed battle, and when we think how much was at stake, and how inflamed were the combatants on both sides, we can well believe that these encounters were as sanguinary as the chroniclers say.   At last the matter came to a final trial of strength near Scone.   When this last battle had been fought, the Pict king lay dead on the field; and around him, in gory heaps, lay the bulk of his nobility and army. The Tay, which rolled past the scene in crimsoned flood, making flight impracticable, increased the carnage of the battle.

That severities and atrocities were consequent on victory, to awe the conquered country, and prevent insurrection and revolt among the Picts, is highly probable. Submission was a new experience to this impatient and war-like people.  But the legend that assigns to the Pict race, as the result of its conquest by the Scots, the fate of utter extermination, is wholly incredible.

Such an effusion of blood, even had it been possible, would have been as profitless as it would have been revolting. It was blood far to precious to be spilled like water. If that ancient and valorous race had been swept off, the Norsemen from across the sea, and the Anglo-Saxons from the other side of the border, would have rushed in and taken possession of the empty land.

How sorely should the Scots have missed the Picts in the day of battle! They were of the old Caledonian stock, descendants of the men who fought the Romans at the roots of the Grampians, and their blood instead of being poured on the earth was to be mixed with that of the Scots, to the invigoration of both. Mixed blood is ever the richest, and gives to the race in whose veins it comes, a notable robustness and variety of faculty.

It was not extermination but incorporation that befell the Picts at this epoch.  It is true that their name henceforward disappears from history; but so, too, had the earlier name of Caledonia in a former epoch. It was not a sudden and complete disappearenc, and no one supposes that the people who bore it suffered extermination.  In both cases, it was the name only, not the race, that became extinct.  They merely began calling themselves Scots.

In A.D. 843, the 3/4 Pict, 1/4 Scot, (with Pict Christian and Surname) Kenneth MacAlpin ascended the Pict throne as ruler of Alba.  Under him, the two crowns and the two peoples were united.  The conquerors and the conquered gradually merged into one nation.

The Pict kingdom had, for some time, been on the decline.   When  southern and northern Picts were united, and one king ruled Alba from the Firth of Forth to the Pentland, the Picts were a powerful people.  Their numbers, and the surpassing bulk of their territory, quite over-shadowed the Scots in their little domain of Dalriada.

Due to the Pict 90% majority, the Scot establishment was very careful not to antagonize the Pict establishment.  Pict Mormaers were established to rule vast areas in the King's name throughout former Pict districts.  Many Pict cultural aspects lingered for hundreds of years.  People in northern areas spoke Gaelic with distinct Pict accents and still do today.

Old grudges festered and erupted when day, in 995 AD, Kenneth was lured to a house in Fettercairn by the Pict, Finella (a daughter of Kindar, a Mormaer of Angus) and there assassinated, in revenge for the death of her son who had been executed on Kenneth's orders.

From the day that Columba arrived on the western shore and kindled his lamp on Iona, the disproportion between little Dalriada and the greater Albann gradually grew less. The moral influence which radiated from Iona, and the scholars it sent forth, gave power at home and influence abroad to the Scots, despite their tiny kingdom.

The names of the greatest literary icons in France in that age were those of Scots.  When the Emperor Charlemagne founded the University of Paris, it was to Scotland he turned for men to fill its chairs of philosophy, of mathematics, and languages.  Among Scots in France, eminent for their attainments in literature and piety, was Joannes Scotus, or Albinus its equivalent.

Clement, another distinguished Scot, proved a thorn in the side of the Papacy.  He stood up in the centre of Europe in opposition to Boniface, whom Gregory II. had sent to the Germans, and maintained in public the sole authority of the Scriptures against the traditionalism of Rome.

The tide was turning against the Papal missionary, when the eloquent and undaunted Clement was seized, sent off under guard to Rome, and never heard of again.  So, Albann had the honour of furnishing the first martyr who suffered under the papacy.  This by no means exhausts the list of Scotsmen who, by their learning and piety, placed their little country on a pedestal whence it was seen all over Europe.


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