The above words of the poet claudian perhaps give the only physical description of the race of people known as Picts who once raided Roman Britain, defeated the Anglo-Saxon invaders and in one of the great mysteries of the ancient world, disappeared as a separate people by the end of the tenth century. "This legion, which curbs the savage Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict," are the Claudian words which give some insight as to the name given by Rome to the untamed tribes north of Hadrian's Wall.
"Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
Quae Scotto dat frena truci ferronque notatas
Perlegit examines Picto moriente figuras"
The Romans called this pre-Celtic people Pictii, or "Painted," although Claudian's words are proof that (as claimed by many historians), the ancient Picts actually tattooed their bodies with designs. To the non-Roman Celtic world of Scots and Irish and the many tribes of Belgic England and Wales they were known as "Cruithni" and for many centuries they represented the unbridled fury of a people who refused to be brought under the yoke of Rome or any foreign invader.
The origins of the Picts are clouded with many fables, legends and fabrications, and there are as many theories as to who the Picts were, where they came from and what language they spoke, as there were once Pictish raiders defying the mighty legions of Rome. History tells us that Rome's mighty Ninth Legion, the famous "Hispana" legion, which had earned its battle honors in Iberia, conquering Celtic Spain for Caesar is never heard of again when faced against the Picts. We do know that the Picts spoke a non-Celtic language, as St. Columba clearly stated that he needed a translator to preach to the Pictish King Brude, son of Maelchon, at Brude's court near the shores of Loch Ness. At other times the Pictish king lived at Scone, and we know there often were two separate Pictish kingdoms of Northern and Southern Picts. We know that they were mighty sailors, for the Romans feared the Pictish Navy almost as much as the wild men who came down from the Highlands to attack the villages along the wall. We also know that as far as the 9th century they wrote in stone a language which was not far in design from the Celtic "Ogam" script but was not Celtic in context.
It is also well known that the Picts were one of Western culture's rare matrilineal societies; that is, bloodlines passed through the mother, and Pictish kings were not succeeded by their sons, but by their brothers or nephews or cousins as traced by the female line in a complicated series of intermarriages by seven royal houses.
It was this rare form of succession which in the year 845 A.D. gave the crown of Alba and the title Rex Pictorum to a Gaelic Scot, son of a Pictish princess by the name of Kenneth, Son of Alpin. This Kenneth MacAlpin, whose father's kingship over the Scots had been earlier taken over by the Pictish king Oengus, who ruled as both king of Picts and Scots, harbored a deep hatred for the Picts, and in the event known as "MacAlpin's Treason" murdered the members of the remaining seven royal houses thus preserving the Scottish line for kingship of Alba and the eventual erasure from history of the Pictish race, culture and history.
It is in the sculptured stones of Scotland, left behind by the Pictish and proto-Pictish people of ancient Alba and present day Scotland that we can find some information about a mighty race of people who defied and defeated Rome and who slaughtered the invincible barbarian hordes of Anglo-Saxon warriors at Nechtansmere in Angus, and hammered the invading Vikings back home thus forever preserving a separate culture and race in Scotland. It is in these sometimes mighty, sometimes delicate stones that the history of ancient Scotland is now recorded. Were they descendants of the ancient Basque people of northern Spain once known to Rome as Pictones, who then migrated to northern Britain after they had helped the Empire defeat the seagoing people of Biscay? Or are they descendants of the dark tribes of ancient Stygia and the huge Eastern steepes? No one knows - only the Stones.