The Celtic World after Rome

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

A historical account of northern Britain beyond the Hadrian’s Wall. A view of the constant power struggles present between the Pictish, British, Irish, Scotti, and other Celtic tribes, during and after Rome’s withdrawal from Britain.

Image of Hadrian's Wall in ruins
Ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, located in Northern England, on the border with Scotland.
(Image: Paul Banton/Shutterstock)

It was somewhere in the northern part of Britain where Saint Patrick was captured as a slave and taken to the north of Ireland. We don’t know for certain where Saint Patrick came from. Some people place him in the far north, while others put him in the far south.

Saint Patrick’s life signified the underlying confrontation that existed between the people who may have come under the general heading of Picts, or at least of northern un-Romanized Britons. Saint Patrick served as a slave in the north of Ireland for six years. He was raised as a Christian, but the experience of captivity gave him time to pray and reflect.

After his escape, he studied for the priesthood and returned to Ireland to preach the Gospel. It was during this mission that Saint Patrick came up against Coroticus, a British warlord from southwestern Scotland. Saint Patrick excommunicated Coroticus for a massive slave raid in northern Ireland, and although the raid was the reverse of what Saint Patrick experienced, it also captured many Christians.

Learn more about ancient Celtic culture.

This picture of political chaos in northern Britain and northern Ireland is the epitome of those times. If one were to look at a map of northern Britain in this period, one would get a sense of what modern historians are up against in reconstructing these events.

We don’t see a kingdom called Pictland. Instead, we see a number of tribal confederations, much as we saw in Britain when the Romans first arrived. These tribal confederations fell into two rough categories: some of them belonged to the Pictish category, while historians classified the other tribal groupings as British.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The British, the Scotti, and the Angles

What was the difference between the ‘Pictish’ and the ‘British’? Part of the difference would’ve been language. There may have been other cultural and political forces that were driving these inhabitants of northern Britain into two distinct ethnic groupings as well.

The origins of those divisions, though, remain obscure. Nevertheless, by the period of Roman withdrawal, it was becoming clear that there were two main power blocs in the northern part of the island. But even within these two main categories, there was no political unity. There was not one single Pictish kingdom going up against a single British kingdom. 

To add to this complicated picture, in the fifth century, we have newcomers to northern Britain coming in from two directions.

We have Irish settlers in the north and west of Scotland. It is these Irish settlers, Scotti, that Scotland is named after. These Irish settlers were coming into northern Britain from the kingdom of Dál Riata, in the north of Ireland. In the process they were creating a political entity that existed on both sides of the water. Hence, in those areas, the language being spoken was increasingly Irish.

Image of a Celtic torc terminal.
Spirals and a triskelion etched on a Celtic torc terminal from Galicia, at the Museum of Castro de Santa Tegra. (Image: Froaringus/CC BY-SA/Public Domain)

And there were also people coming into northern Britain from the south and east. These Germanic-speaking peoples called Angles began colonizing northern Britain. The Angles gave us the first element in the term ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ They started pushing far north into what is now Scotland. And they spoke a language that was related to our modern English language. Their advance into the Lowlands of Scotland is the main reason the Scots speak English today.

By around A.D. 600, at least four languages were being spoken in Scotland. Three of which were Celtic languages: British, Pictish and Irish. They may have been closely related but were seen as different from each other at the time. Finally, there was the language of the Angles, which we could roughly call English. It was a Germanic language quite different from the other Celtic languages. We could also add a fifth language, namely Latin, which was the language of the Christian church.

Learn more about the beginning of Celtic art.

The Picts of Northern Ireland

There are many unresolved questions regarding the Picts. We are not sure, for instance, whether the Picts lived only in Scotland or whether there were Picts in Northern Ireland as well. There are hints that there may have been Picts in Ireland at around this time.

There are signs that there were some people in Ireland, especially in the north, who were regarded by the Irish as ethnically distinct. These peoples were called the Cruithin. The term ‘Cruithin’ is etymologically equivalent to a word that is used to describe the Picts, with one telling difference.

At the beginning of the word, where one would expect a ‘p’, we get a ‘c’. Thus, Cruithin rather than Pruithin, which is exactly the difference between the ‘q’ Celtic languages and the ‘p’ Celtic languages. So the ‘Cruithin’ of Northern Ireland may very well have been the cousins of the Picts in Scotland.

A Map of Pictish Kingdoms
The map shows the approximate location of Pictish tribes and kingdoms. (Image: Lord Peyre/CC By-SA/Public domain)

Not all scholars are convinced that there was a genuine ethnic connection between the two peoples. But the boundaries at this period were very fluid. The sea was more of a highway than a barrier, and there was a lot of traffic across the Irish Sea. But northern Britain was also very strongly connected to the rest of the island of Britain. It was not cut off by Hadrian’s Wall either before or after the Romans withdrew their legions. This connection between the northern and southern Britain will also survive the Anglo-Saxon conquests.

Eventually, British speech disappeared from Scotland. It was squeezed out in the southeast by the Angles and in the west by the Irish. The British language was replaced everywhere on the island of Britain except in Wales and Cornwall. The British speech is the ancestor of both Welsh and Cornish.

Learn more about the old model of Celtic identity.

If the story of the British in the north is largely one of retrenchment and defeat, then the story of the Picts is very different. With the Picts, we’ll see political consolidation, even what we might call triumph, at least for a few brief but glorious centuries. 

Common Questions About The Celtic World after Rome

Q: Is a Celt Irish or Scottish?

Celts have both Irish and Scottish roots since Celt means ‘of languages’, which are Manx, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Irish, and Cornish.

Q: When did the Celts populate Ireland?

The Celts populated Ireland around 500 B.C.E. The Celtic Tribes took over the Irish Bronze Age and created a Celtic Iron Age in 100 years.

Q: Do six or seven Celtic nations exist?

There are six Celtic Nations as per the remnants of Celtic languages, such as Cornwall, Wales, Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Mann.

Q: Where did Scottish people originate?

Scottish people originated from the Gael and the Picts, who created the Kingdom of Scotland.

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