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Language - Picts - 03 Examples



Type of Spiritual Experience


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A description of the experience

Ogham Stones in the Pictish Area

The majority of Scottish Ogham stones are located in areas which were under the control of Pictish kingdoms, along the eastern coast of Scotland north of the River Forth, and in the Orkney and Shetland islands. All of the stones along the east coast of Scotland are in low-lying areas on or near the coastline, with the largest concentration of stones in mainland Scotland in the area inland from Aberdeen. There are no known Ogham stones from the highlands or the Outer Hebrides, although a number of portable artefacts with Ogham inscriptions have been found in the Outer Hebrides, the Orkney islands, and the Shetland islands (marked with green tags on my map), suggesting that Ogham was more widely used than the distribution of monumental Ogham stones would suggest. These and other Ogham-inscribed portable artefacts will be discussed in a future blog post.

There are a couple of Ogham stones in the east of Scotland which are pillar-shaped and have an inscription running up one of the natural edges of the stone (AUQUH/1 and NEWT/1), but these differ from the pillar stones of Dalriada in that the inscriptions on them seem to represent Pictish personal names rather than Gaelic personal names.

The majority of Ogham inscriptions from the Pictish areas of Scotland are very different to those found in Ireland and elsewhere in Britain. Firstly, the inscriptions mostly occur on Pictish symbol stones or cross slabs where the Ogham inscription is just part of a larger design that includes Pictish symbols and images and/or intricately interlaced cross designs. Secondly, the Ogham inscription is usually engraved on an artificial stemline on the surface of the stone, either on the main surface of the stone (e.g. FRMSN/1 and BRATT/1) or running up one or both of the narrow sides of the stone (e.g. DYCE/1 and FORDN/1). In some cases the inscription does not have an artificial stemline when it runs along the sculptured edge of a monument (e.g. GOLPI/1).

The most intriguing feature of the Ogham inscriptions from the east of Scotland and the Orkney and Shetland islands is their language, which has been subject to much discussion, as well as some fanciful suggestions which I shall not repeat here. The identification of the language of these inscriptions has been hindered by the peculiar orthography employed, with frequent doubling or even trippling of letters, but the general view is that the language of these stones is mainly Pictish, and that Pictish is related to the Brythonic languages spoken in Southern Britain. Unfortunately, Pictish is so poorly attested that it is difficult to be certain what the Ogham inscriptions mean, although by analogy with Ogham stones from elsewhere it is thought that the inscriptions largely represent personal names. Although the names on these inscriptions mostly seem to be Brythonic, i.e. Pictish, several of the inscriptions include the Goidelic element MEQQ" (BREAY/1, STNIN/1) or MAQQ (ALTYR/1, DYCE/1, FRMSN/1, LARON/1) which presumably corresponds to the Primitive Irish word maqi "son of" commonly found on Ogham pillar stone from Ireland and Wales. MEQQ or MAQQ in these inscriptions may be a Gaelic loanword in Pictish, or it may indicate that at least some of these inscriptions were written in a Gaelic language, and that only the personal names were Pictish. I tend to favour the latter hypothesis as it seems unlikely that the Picts would need to borrow such a common word as "son" from their Gaelic-speaking neighbours (it has been argued unconvincingly that Pictish had no word for "son of a father" as it was a strictly matrilinear society, but in that case why would they need to use such a word in monumental inscriptions?).

There have also been some attempts to read Old Norse names and words in some of the inscriptions, particularly those from the Orkney and Shetland Islands, which were subject to Scandinavian colonization during the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The most convincing example occurs on a decorated cross slab from Bressay in Shetland (BREAY/1) which has the inscription "CRROSCC NAHHTVVDDADDS DATTRR ANN[--] | BENISES MEQQ DDROANN[--]" (The cross of Nahhtvddadds, daughter of Ann[...], and Benises, son of Droann). Katherine Forsyth regards the language of this inscription as mixed Norse-Gaelic, with the red-coloured names and words being Old Norse, and the green-coloured names and words being Goidelic. In particular, she identifies the word DATTR as Old Norse dóttir "daughter"; but although the Goidelic word inigena "daughter" only occurs a single time in the entire Ogham corpus (EGLWC/1) it seems somewhat unnecessary to have to borrow the Old Norse word for daughter when writing Ogham.

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