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?

Celtic Warriors

We may not know much about the truth behind Arthurian legend, but one thing is pretty certain: if King Arthur existed, he was a warrior. And probably even Guinevere, too. Women were just as likely to be battle trained as men in Celtic society. As I mentioned in a previous post, in King Arthur’s world, you couldn’t get much higher than being a warrior (except maybe being a Druid) because they were the ruling class. 

The Celts were fearsome warriors.  Over a period of 800 years, they massacred four entire Roman legions and even sacked Rome in 390 BC. One of their most famous revolts was led by Queen Boudicca in Britain in AD 60-61.

Membership in the warrior class was usually hereditary, but status as solider often came as part of a complicated agreement similar to feudalism. Any freeman (anyone who was not an outlaw, exile or slave) could get a loan of grain, tools, livestock, horses or whatever else was needed) from another freeman in exchange for military service at an interest rate around 30%. But if a Celt wanted a lower interest rate (around 8%), he or she also had to give food and free labor to the overlord. Because being under service to someone else did not preclude you from having someone in your service, so the web of loyalties and debts often got very complicated. Out of this web emerged the concept of knighthood (and perhaps Arthur’s venerable Knights of the Round), though chivalry would come much later.

Anyone with at least five free clients (under the lower interest loan) and five base clients (the higher interest loan) was considered some level of noble. So the more people in your service (and hence, the bigger your army) the more powerful you were. But it was your military and political prowess that really determined your rank among the nobility.

So if you met a Celtic warrior in a dark alley (which I wouldn’t advise) what would he or she look like? Both men and women wore trousers, colorful cloaks and tunics, and gold or silver plated belts. Some sources say the Celts stiffened their hair with lime when they went into battle. (But no one seems to explain why, at least that I’ve found.) Many fighters would have been armed with chain mail, which the Celts invented. They fought with a long sword, which hung from their right side by a bronze chain, and carried spears or lances to hurl at oncoming fighters. Some also fought with a weapon called a madaris, which seems to be similar to a javelin. And if they were so minded, they could use a sling and bow for distance weapons, but these were not the most important in their arsenal. Defense came in the form of shields made of wood, leather or bronze, which covered the fighter from knee to shoulder. Warriors could be mounted on horseback (whether or not their saddles had stirrups is a matter of controversy), on foot or if in an earlier time than my books, even in a war chariot.

And battle? One-on-one combat was valued, even as whole armies watched, so the outcome of a battle could be decided without mass casualties, but how often this technique was employed is unclear. What we do know is that unlike their Roman counterparts, the Celts were not good at formal formations (except for simultaneously putting up their shields to form a beetle-like barrier against javelins and other missile weapons) and organized techniques of warfare. In many cases, tribal loyalty counted above all, even the orders of a commander, so the battlefield always had the potential to be chaotic.

All the members of a family went off to war together and often died together. Camp women (pregnant and non-warrior women), artists and children often followed the battles, providing needed services such as cooking, laundry, healing and yes, sex. If the army they were following was defeated and they survived, many fled into the wilderness or to the nearest tribe seeking refuge, but most ended up as slaves to the victorious army.


*In case you’re interested, most of this information came from Who Were the Celts by Kevin Duffy and Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson, both of which are mentioned on my research page.

Outlaws in the Celtic World

The word “outlaw” conjures up images of wild and woolly men, with no allegiance and nothing to lose. In the Celtic world, that’s partly accurate. You couldn’t get much lower than being an outlaw (except maybe being a slave). But outlaws (men and women) had much more in common with the highest Celtic class, the warriors, than you might think.

Simply put, outlaws were exiles from their tribe. You could become an outlaw for many reasons: going against the judgement of Druid (whose word was always final), breaking a tribal law or even not being able to pay a fine. In the later case, you would then plunder a neighboring tribe to raise the funds you needed to be reinstated (logical, right?). Exiled nobles often raised an army and fought their way back into society. But others did not have such options available to them.

Outlaws lived in an area of wilderness between the tribes that was vast and empty of what we would consider organized civilization. But they usually had at least a tacit alliance with a local tribe, for both their protection and that of the tribe. In places where this agreement occurred, the outlaws could be called upon to fight with and defend the tribe, if needed.

But they could also be called upon to do the tribe’s dirty work. Since the land and goods of a monarch were inherited by kin, not necessarily the chosen successor, murder and revenge were common to try to gain power. Nobles often employed bands of outlaws as mercenaries to raid or kill their neighbors. Because they were “outside of the law,” outlaws could not be punished under the law by those they harmed. If the wronged party was to have revenge, they had to track  down the mercenaries in the vast, lonely wilderness, a place which the outlaws knew better than their pursuers.

Because they lived in the wilderness, outlaws were also thought to have special powers over Otherworldly nature creatures, including the Sidhe (faeries) and elves. In Irish mythology, there was a special band of outlaws called the Fianna, an elite group of outlaw warriors, who had no clan and no specific allegiance, but who often passed between this world and the Otherworld.


In case you’re interested, most of this information came from Who Were the Celts by Kevin Duffy and Women in Celtic Law and Culture by Jack George Thompson, both of which are mentioned on my research page.