‘Picti’ may be related to a Latin word that means ‘to paint’. The Romans first write about the Picti in AD 297. In AD 368 a Roman historian named Ammianus Marcellinus noted that:
...the Picts, divided into two tribes called Dicalydones and Verturiones… are roving at large and causing great devastation.
Many historians have said that the Picts were the ‘painted people’; that they may have decorated and tattooed their faces and bodies with dyes. The Irish called the Picts the ‘Cruithne’. The Romans used ‘Picts’ as a general term that covered many separate tribes.
Some historians now believe that the Romans may have simply misheard the name ‘Pecht’ or ‘Pect’. In Old Norse the Picts were called the Péttir, Péttar or Peti. Old English names included Pehtas and Peohtas.
Scottish placenames starting with ‘Pit’ - for example Pitlochry, Pittenweem and Pitsligo - retain a fragment of the language of the Picts that was borrowed by later peoples. ‘Pit’ is thought to mean a ‘share’ or piece of land.
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Listen to Veni Redemptor, a 5th-century Christmas hymn, played on the Pictish harp and gemshorn.