What did the Picts really wear?

Did the Picts did not look like this

A late-16th century, fanciful Giclee print of a Pictish warrior with spear and shield.   (clearly based on Herodian's description of the “barbarians” of Caledonia) by John White.

A late-16th century, fanciful Giclee print of a Pictish warrior with spear and shield. (clearly based on Herodian’s description of the “barbarians” of Caledonia) by John White.

We see these depictions all the time, of naked blue people adorned with tattoos and maybe a severed head or two. But evidence shows us they looked was quite the opposite. It’s an incomplete jigsaw puzzle as not much is known, but what we do know is they didn’t look like this, well not all the time.

So Why Blue?

The overall blue tinting of the body is inspired by a remark made by Julius Caesar, who had spent a few weeks in the south-eastern corner of Britain in 55BC and 54BC: “All the Britons, without exception, stain themselves with woad, which produces a blueish tint; and this gives them a wild look in battle.”. Julius Caesar never spent any time here and certainly never travelled up to the North (Pictland).

Who were the Picts?

The origins of the name Pict has been much debated. . What they called themselves is not known – the Picts left no literature – but the Latin word Picti would appear to mean ‘painted people’ (pictus = ‘painted’, hence the English word ‘picture’). It was the Romans that termed the various tribes people of Britain ‘Picts’. In 208, Septimius Severus arrived in Britain to campaign against the tribes of Caledonia (the Maeatae and the Caledonians). Herodian, a contemporary of Severus, writes:

“Most of the regions of [northern] Britain are marshy, since they are flooded continually by the tides of the ocean; the barbarians are accustomed to swimming or wading through these waist-deep marsh pools; since they go about naked, they are unconcerned about muddying their bodies. Strangers to clothing, they wear ornaments of iron at their waists and throats; considering iron a symbol of wealth, they value this metal as other barbarians value gold. They tattoo their bodies with coloured designs and drawings of all kinds of animals; for this reason they do not wear clothes, which would conceal the decorations on their bodies. Extremely savage and warlike, they are armed only with a spear and a narrow shield, plus a sword that hangs suspended by a belt from their otherwise naked bodies. They do not use breastplates or helmets, considering them encumbrances in crossing the marshes.”
Herodian ‘History of the Empire after Marcus’ Book III Chapter 14

Almost a century after Severus, the name Pict appeared (297). Another century later, in 400, the poet Claudian talked of Britain (in female personification) being:
“… clothed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, and an azure cloak, rivalling the swell of Ocean, sweeping to her feet …”
Claudian ‘De Consulatu Stilichonis’ (On the Consulship of Stilicho) Book II
And, in 402, of:
“… the strange devices tattooed on dying Picts.”
Claudian ‘De Bello Gothico’ (On the Gothic War)
And he had, in 396, referred to:
“… the well-named Picts …”
Claudian ‘Panegyricus de Tertio Consulatu Honorii’ (Panegyric on the Third Consulship of Honorius)

Possibly, then, it was their tendency to decorate themselves with extravagant body-art that caused the Romans to nickname them Picti: ‘painted people’. On the other hand, maybe the association of tattooing with British “barbarians” was based not on reality, but on a stereotyped notion of those distant savages. In other words, perhaps it was a myth that the Picts tattooed their bodies. The British cleric Gildas, writing in about 545(?), who refers to the Picts and the Scots as “dark swarms of worms”, and says of them:
“Differing partly in their habits, yet alike in one and the same thirst for bloodshed – in a preference also for covering their villainous faces with hair rather than their nakedness of body with decent clothing …”
Gildas ‘De Excidio Britanniae’ Chapter 19

Gildas most definitely been disparaging when describing these ‘barbarians’.  Nevertheless, in the early-600s, the Spanish bishop and encyclopaedist, Isidore of Seville wrote:
“It is not simply in clothing but in physical appearance also that some groups of people lay claim to features peculiar to themselves as marks to distinguish them, so that we see the curls [perhaps topknot] of the Germans, the mustaches and goatees of the Goths, the tattoos of the Britons. The Jews circumcise the foreskin, the Arabs pierce their ears, the Getae with their uncovered heads are blond, the Albanians shine with their white hair. The Moors have bodies black as night, while the skin of the Gauls is white. Without their horses, the Alans are idle. Nor should we omit the Picts, whose name is taken from their bodies, because an artisan, with the tiny point of a pin and the juice squeezed from a native plant, tricks them out with scars to serve as identifying marks, and their nobility are distinguished by their tattooed limbs.”
sidore of Seville ‘Etymologiae’ (or ‘Origines’) Book XIX Part 23 No. 7

The image of the highly decorate Pict seems to have stuck in the public’s imagination.  Their defining feature to the point they are depicted naked and covered in tattoos.

So what ‘evidence’ do we really have about Pictish Dress

While it is nearly impossible to say anything absolutely conclusive about Pictish dress, this need to carefully piece together the information that does exist makes for very interesting research.

Pictish Dress shown on Stone Carvings

Picture Rhynie Man Pictish Standing Stone

Picture Rhynie Man Pictish Standing Stone

St Viegans stone

St Viegans stone

From stone carvings we can tell they would have worn tunics and been very covered up, especially the women who are all depicted as wearing ankle length tunics. Men were a bit more daring and wore varied lengths.


Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone

Pictish Hilton of Cadboll stone


The Orkney Hood

The Orkney Hood

The Orkney Hood – real evidence

This is the most complete clothing found from Pictish times. Is incredible it’s survived.

It’s from St Andrew’s Parish, Orkney. The Orkney Hood is dates to about 200-615AD and so may be earlier than the Pictish period, but evidence is so sparse. The entire hood is made of wool and the body of the hood is a 2/2 herringbone twill while the bands are tablet woven with two or four hole tablets. The fringe is woven as part of one of the two tablet woven bands and is as long as 11-12 inches. The primary construction stitches are running stitches, hem stitches, and overcast or whip stitches. Based on the wear on the fibers and that the fringed tablet weaving does not seem to be quite long enough, it seems that the fibers may be recycled from other garments.

Other Archaeological Evidence

Here’s a great pdf showing the evidence in archaeology and in stone carvings about what the Picts would have worn:

So Picts maybe weren’t straight out of Avatar.


About Amanda Moffet

I run www.scotclans.com with Rodger Moffet. Live in Edinburgh and love travelling around Scotland gathering stories.

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20 thoughts on “What did the Picts really wear?

  1. Robert B. More

    About the origins of the name “Pict”: “The first historical appearance of the term ‘Pict’ occurred in 297 CE in a Roman speech. The term is not Celtic, but of Latin derivation, and refers to the Roman soldiers’ nickname for Celtic warriors who painted or tattooed themselves, from the Latin pictii, the past participle of pingere, ‘to paint.'” From my book, The Origins of the Mure Family.

  2. Marie

    From what I’ve been able to learn, woad is not a stable pigment for tattooing. They may have painted decorations on their skin with woad, but if they did have tattoos, they were created with other pigments. Also, the Picts may have used woad as a method of treating and preventing fungal skin infections. Since they lived in a marshy area, I would think they were probably prone to fungal infections. Woad is very effective at curing fungal infections, although it does turn you blue for a while.

    • Carolyn McPherson

      I have read somewhere that woad, in addition to being unstable, is also toxic when used in embellishments that puncture the skin. Can it be made into a dye? I keep hoping that somewhere we will find a Pict who fell into a peat bog, thus preserving his body, particularly his skin. Recent DNA tests–indicating that 10% of Scottish men carry a Pictish gene–are very exciting.

      • Judith Rhys Salyer

        I am a descendant of the Picts……can I get DNA tested for that???? I am descended from the Balcoms of Fifeshire.

        • Jonathan MacLean-Lambie

          My understanding is that Paternal Haplogroup designation R-L106 is considered to be Pictish.
          I do not know of any specific Matrilnear designations as yet.

          23 recently updated my Patrnal line to R-L106 after I shared my raw data with GED match.

      • Margaret McLane

        I’d like your source, please. How do they know what a ” Pictish” gene is…. since there are none left. (I’m not a geneticist!) Thanks!

    • Feilith

      I read somewhere recently that they did find copper in the ink a tattoo of a British bog body. What do you think about the idea of using copper and things like that to change the coloring of some tattoos?

  3. Sedary

    If an art print dates from the 16th century, it is not a Giclee’ (ink jet) print but probably a lithograph printed from lithographic limestone plates.

  4. Frank J. Verderber

    I think the problem as to what they wore may be discerned by other cultures war peculiarities. The ancient Athenians and other Greeks went to war naked. The reason behind this is obvious – it threatens the mind to see one so vulnerable yet unmoved from his furry. Secondly there was no clothing to get caught up in an opponents hand or weapon. Even some indigenous American tribes went to war painted up and naked. Here we find that many cultures spread oil on their bodies to prevent an opponent grasping them. Obviously the reliefs show Picts during daily life, but I saw none that showed them engaged in war. I would venture to say that when they whent to war they were effectively naked and so their tattoos were openly displayed.

    • John Bruce

      Picts at war? No clothes illustrated from contemporary illustrations?! Comparing Roman times with post Roman, consider the Roman cavalryman’s gravestone (National Museum of Scotland) illustrating naked, decapitated, Picts, with the Early Medieval Aberlemno Stone (purportedly a depiction of the Battle of Dunnichen (685 A.D.), Bruide MacBili vs Ecgfrith, king of Northumbrian Saxons). Picts, one mounted and unhelmeted, otherwise all carrying spears, swords and shields, assault the mail clad, helmeted, Saxon cavalry. Also consider the epic Sueno’s Stone illustrating a later, but arguably unidentified, conflict. In both the Picts are depicted as wearing a knee length garment, although whether that be a ‘kilt’ or something more akin to a ‘léine’, which was a loose-fitting, long-sleeved, tunic made of either wool or linen and traditionally associated with Ireland and Medieval Highland Scotland, who knows. What is known of the history of tartan suggests that neither early medieval Picts nor Scots dressed in tartan ‘kilts’ is likely, but parallels between the ‘léine’ and the medieval ‘yellow Scottish war shirt’ might be made. Try this link http://www.dot-domesday.me.uk/picts.htm but remember, ‘civilised’ commentators, either Roman or Saxon (especially Bede), employ images of nakedness and semi-nakedness (either sculptural or literary) as a means of emphasising barbarism within a people they despised and wished to denigrate. Consider, finally, Scotland can be, and often is, a very, very, cold country. Hope this helps.

  5. lisa

    The word Pict may not mean ‘painted’. Pict also comes from Welsh and means ‘the wheat growers’. If you have heard of P and Q Celts. Irish and Scots Gaelic are of the Q Celtic group. That basically means that certain words are common to both language except for the ‘p’ and ‘q/c’ sounds. Therefore, the Welsh word is Pretani and the Gaelic for Picts is ‘Cruithneach’. Wheat growers, The Picts, so called by the Romans, called the ‘’Cruithni’’ by the Irish Gaels, from the Q-Celtic dialect, which may be translated into P-Celtic as ‘Pretani’, may have given the British Isles their name, ‘Pretennia’, in Latin ‘Britiannia’.

  6. Lydia

    I know this is an older post but I came across it when looking for history of the Picts, or Scotti, and I want to thank you for clearing up this misconception, about the face painting, etc. Things that are published or reported often become history, but aren’t always accurate, as we have seen over and over.

  7. anastasia chaparro

    There is definitely a tie between Greek and Irish or Gaelic territories; (or Coptic, Greek, and Britain). In ancient history it is known that there were two tribes who settled in Ireland that were of Greek origin. You have to remember that during the time of Christ, the Greeks and Egyptians were all part of the Roman Empire.
    The other hint would be the musical instruments played by the two territories. One being the bouzouki and the bagpipes. So it is very feasible that the early Christians left for lands that they could be free to worship as they pleased.
    If you consider the Druid histories and so forth, it would be easy to imaging why they would convert to Christianity for survival and also because of the eventual invasions of Rome into the northern territories.

  8. Tom Campbell

    Reply ↓
    Why is it that commentators suppose that the ‘Picts’ came from somewhere else? We have concrete evidence of a continual and developing civilization from the end of the Ice Age. Let’s be practical here. When the Dogger Plain began to flood, where would the people and animals go? Would they wait around over generations and drown or would they be sensible and move to higher ground? I rather think the latter. There are numerous indications of a complex and vital people that is spread from the Shetlands to the west coasts of Europe and even Africa. Consider the fact that the inshore waters of the sea provide a perfect highway for exploration and commerce. Let’s dismiss the ‘fake news’ of early writers and deal with the archaeological facts are they are revealed. That the ‘Picts’ didn’t leave a written language in the same form as Greek or Latin is true however; they left a complex record in the form of the incised stones that in today’s terms might be called ‘cartoons’ or ‘advertising’.

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  10. Margaret McLane

    I’d like your source, please. How do they know what a ” Pictish” gene is…. since there are none left. (I’m not a geneticist!) Thanks!


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