The Training of a Pictish Warrior

Caledonian Pict by Iantresman via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

Caledonian Pict by Iantresman via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]

If you’re anything like me, when you hear the word “Pict,” you automatically think of Braveheart, or warriors who are similar. Even with all the research that I’ve done, that’s my brain’s default image (thank you Hollywood). While that movie has a lot to answer for in the area of historical authenticity, it did do one thing right: it showed us how fierce the warriors of the north were. And the movie takes place many generations after the Picts.

So, what would their ancestors have been like? As I’ve said ad nauseam, one of the frustrating things about pre-Conquest history is the lack of solid evidence. But I have found a few good accounts of the training of a Pictish warrior and I thought you may like to know what all they went through to become so feared.

Like most other peoples of the time, warriors were rarely trained by their parents, but sent out to other houses in a system of fosterage that not only benefited the warrior, who learned from a seasoned hero, but promoted bonds of peace and trust among families and clans/tribes. According to The Pictish Warrior AD 297-841, warriors (likely both men and women, at least for a time, although the book focuses on men) began their training somewhere between age seven (Ireland) and ten (in the Highlands). They were expected to master these feats:

  • Dexterity (juggling swords)
  • Strength
  • Voice (the hero’s cry – not described, but I’m thinking it was some kind of blood-curdling battle cry, since historical sources document that the enemies of the Picts were frightened by the savage sounds they made. Another source says they purposefully learned to imitate the sounds of animals to frighten their enemies.)
  • Weapons handling
  • The spear vault (where a spear is placed in the ground butt-first and the warrior jumps up and performs on its point). This seems nearly impossible to me, but I’ve also never seen it attempted. I’ve also read this term to mean a way of mounting a horse where a person takes a running start and uses the spear as a pole to vault onto horseback. There’s beautiful depiction of this in Manda Scott’s historical fiction Boudicca: Dreaming the Eagle.

Training wasn’t all based in physical strength. They also learned more refined skills. According to the folktales “four and twenty games of the Britons,” all young warriors were expected to learn:

  • Six feats of activity (hurling weights, running, leaping, swimming, wrestling and riding)
  • Four exercises of weapons (archery or javelin throwing, sword, sword and buckler, and quarterstaff)
  • Three rural sports (hunting, fishing and hawking)
  • Seven domestic games (poetry, music, heraldry, diplomacy, etc.)
  • Four board games (no examples are given, but there is precedent in Arthurian legend that a game very similar to chess was played)

They also played ancient games like shinty to simulate fast-moving battle scenarios. At night, the warriors in training played strategy games. At the end of their training, warriors had to prove their skill by participating in a cattle raid in which they brought home some sort of proof of valor (possibly even the head of an enemy) or passing another type of test.

In my third Guinevere book, I’ve chosen to graft these Pictish practices onto the Votadini tribe (one of the four tribes living south of the Highlands in between Hadrian’s and Antonine Walls) because we have even fewer records of them than the Picts. As tribes literally caught between two worlds (the Britons and the Picts), I think it logical to assume their culture drew from both.

Correction: This post as been updated to delete erroneous information from the source material. John Matthews kindly pointed out that salmon leap was specifically learned by the Red Branch heroes of Ireland (not the Picts) and that the caber toss came into being with the establishment of the Highland Games in the the 19th century. My thanks to him for these corrections!

Source: Pictish Warrior AD 297-841 by Paul Wagner

What else do you know about the training of the Picts? Do you know of any good sources on the subject? What do you think about what I’ve recounted here?

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4 thoughts on “The Training of a Pictish Warrior

  1. It’s absolutely fascinating. Other cultures have rich histories, too, but for some reason Britain gets me every time.

    Just a side note: I live in the Los Angeles area and am often asked to describe my book in movie terms. I always say, “Brigit Jones meets Braveheart.” Close enough.

    • I started your book, but I haven’t gotten back to it because of reading books for review. Maybe I’ll do that next. I really like what I’ve read of it. Britain is my baby, too. I like it so much more than American history. I think it’s a soul connection thing.

  2. Thanks for the article. This was really interesting, especially as some of these “training practices” can still be recognised day in the highland games and olympic/commonwealth games. very cool 🙂

    • You’re welcome! I have yet to make it to a highland games, but I will! I thought of that when I was writing this. The Scots have been great about preserving their history and keeping it really alive, not just in memory. If only every nationality/ethnicity were able to do that.

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