Tag Archives: Picts

Slavery in the British Isles

Celtic slavery resembled that of ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were acquired from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude. The word slave in Celtic languages was similar the Latin word for captive which may indicate the early origin of slaves. Slavery was hereditary, though manumission was possible. Manumissions were discouraged by law and the word cumal, meaning female slave, was used as a general unit of value in Ireland.

Slavery in Britain and Ireland dated from before Roman occupation. Parts of northern Britain and Scotland had large slave populations. Taken in war or raids the slaves were racially similar to their masters and were often integrated into the society. Some gained their freedom and became clients of their former masters as in Rome.

Anglo Saxons continued the system of slavery, often working with Norse traders who sold slaves to the Irish. They routinely exported slaves for trade. Dublin was a major slave trading center for centuries. St. Patrick was captured in England by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland. St. Brigit was the daughter of a Chritian Pictish slave.

In the Doomsday Book of 1086 about 10% of the English population were slaves. Legal penalties and economic pressures that led to default in payments maintained the supply of slaves, and in the 11th century there was still a slave trade operating out of Bristol. Chattel slavery gradually disappeared after the Norman Conquest to be replaced by the villeins who were tied to the land. In England, however, beggars could be enslaved until the middle of the 16th century. Tomorrow, The Vikings. Rita Bay

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Spirits & Heather Ale

Alcohol Used as Medicine

     The history of distillation (the making of alcoholic spirits) began in ancient Egypt with the production of perfumes.  Arab alchemists in the 10th Century discovered how to distill spirits (alcohol) while making cosmetics and perfume by distilling flowers and brought the technique to Spain. From there, it spread throughout Europe. By the 12th Century Europeans were distilling spirit from grape, grain, fruit, vegetables or whatever they had.  

Barrels & Still

    Whiskey, Scotland’s “water of life” was often used for its medicinal value-not surprising given the feeling of well being derived from the drink.  The drink’s name evolved from Uisge Beata to Usquebaugh, then Uisge and finally Whisky.  The first aqua vitae was distilled from fermented barley by monks in Ireland which then spread to Scotland. By the end of the 16th Century whisky distilling in the Scottish Highlands had become widespread in the farming communities. Using the recently harvested barley, Scots could distill their spirits with  the extra grain that might otherwise have gone bad stored in the damp climate. Then the remains of the grain (the draff) could be used as an animal feed.

Read more about distilled spirits at http://www.lochlomonddistillery.com/history-of-scotch.htm

Heather Ale (Leanne Fraoch) is an ancient ale said to be brewed by the Caledonians/Picts since around  300 AD but may go back centuries beyond that. 

     Legend has it that the last surviving Pictish King who with his son had kept the recipe for heather ale advised his Scottish captors to toss his son off a cliff and he would give them the recipe.  Once his son was dead, he laughed at them and threw himself off the cliff—taking the secret of heather ale with him.      

     Brewer Bruce Williams (http://www.williamsbrosbrew.com/) shares the following recipe: into the boiling bree of malted barley, sweet gale and flowering heather are added, then after cooling slightly the hot ale is poured into a vat of fresh heather flowers where it infuses for an hour before being fermented in copper turns. Williams says the ale has a distinctive floral aroma, full malt character and a dry wine-like finish.

Tomorrow, The Vikings & York   Rita Bay


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Calgacus: Caledonians Against the Romans

Calgacus Addressing the Caledonians at Mons Graupius

     The Roman writers are often the only source of information about “barbarians.”  While the Celts and  Picts did not put their history or beliefs  into  writing, the Romans recorded their own observations, what they’d heard from others and personal views about their enemies.  Since the readership of the Roman writers was other Romans, they expected to read about the superiority of the Roman culture and the evil deeds and/or intentions of the enemies who needed to be conquered to insure the safety of Rome and its possessions.

     Tacitus was a first century AD historian who wrote extensively about the Romans in Britain who happened to be under the leadership of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola.  Agricola was appointed governor of Britannia about 78 AD.  He immediately focused his attention on subduing the tribes in Wales and northern Britain.  Titus, Vespasian’s successor, ordered Agricola to conquer the rest of Britain.  His two legions attacked the tribes of what is now southern Scotland and prepared to advance north.  A revolt to the south forced him to quell that rebellion before proceeding north.  When Domitian succeeded his brother Titus, Agricola was ordered to push the attack.

     In 83 AD after Agricola’s ships invaded Scotland, Calgacus and his army gathered at Mons Graupius (location unknown) Tacitus recorded both generals’ speeches but the following words of Calgacus’ are the most famous:  “They create desolation and call it peace. Let us then, unconquered as we are, ready to fight for freedom, prove what heroes Caledonian as been holding in reserve!”  Tacitus reports that Calgacus’ army was decimated by the superior strategy and training of Agricola’s army—10,000 dead Picts compared to 360 Roman soldiers.  Agricola withdrew south, leaving the northern tribes to conduct guerilla warfare against the Romans.  The mighty Roman army never advanced so far into Scotland again.  An excerpt of Calgacus’ speech follows:

     “To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude (also translated as “create desolation” RB) and call it peace.”

To read the entire speech: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/readings/agricola.html

Tomorrow, The Tower Houses of Scotland  Rita Bay

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The Homes of the Picts

The mysterious Picts (so-called by the Romans) lived throughout Scotland the Romans arrived, during the Roman occupation, and for several centuries after the Romans left.  No one knows for sure their origins—from the ancient local populations, Ireland, Spain, Norway,  or somewhere else. Elements of their language, culture, and art was unique to their people—a topic of discussion for another day and post. 

Pictish Settlements

The range of Pictish settlements that have been discovered is very broad and depends on the location and resources available for building. The Picts left brochs (round stone towers), souterrains (underground storage passages that were used as food stores ceremonial use, or hideouts.), crannogs (houses built over the lochs), and round houses which often surrounded the Iron Age brochs or hillforts for protection.  Most of what survives today is constructed of stone and found in the Northern and Western Isles.   

Mousa Broch


The southern Picts built with more perishable materials, such as timber and turf.  The settlements of the southern Picts are no longer visible other than in the higher glens. Excavations at Pitcarmick in Perthshire revealed very long, broad, round-ended turf buildings the purpose of which is unknown. No Pictish palaces survive but some remains were identified at Forteviot in Strathearn. Forteviot stood on important trade routes, surrounded by rich agricultural land.

Pictish House

The Picts became Christians and eventually disappeared, absorbed by the Scots—but more on that another day. 

Tomorrow, At Home with the Scots      RitaBay


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