NAMES tell stories. And few are more fascinating than the story of the name of Britain. It was probably coined by a Greek traveller some time around 320BC. Pytheas made an epic journey to these islands, the earliest recorded to come down to us.
Having left his home city of Massalia, modern Marseilles, he may have travelled overland to the headwaters of the Garonne and then downriver to the Bay of Biscay.
Amongst other things, tin was what interested Greek merchants, for it was an essential admixture to the alloy known as bronze, and there were islands in the northern sea where it was mined and smelted. But no-one had ever been there. When Pytheas eventually reached the southern shores of the Channel, perhaps somewhere near Calais, he looked across at the distant shimmer of the white cliffs and asked a question. "What are these people called, those who live across the narrow sea?"
Pretannikai was how he wrote down the answer, and the island was called Pretannike. By the time Julius Caesar's legions splashed onshore in 55BC, the name had changed a little from the Greek to become Britannia in Latin. And it stuck.
"Britain" is so much part of the way we think about the world that we rarely consider it might mean something, literally. And that it might have something important to say about the beginnings of our own history, about who the peoples of the island were and what they looked like.
Pretannikai means "The Tattooed People", and Britain means the Island of the Tattooed People. It was such a distinctive cultural characteristic for the early peoples of Britain to decorate their bodies that those who lived to the south thought it defining and they conferred the name. This most perishable artform, of course, died with the people who made it, but some sense of what the early British looked like and why they decorated their bodies has survived in the archaeology of the north of Scotland.
In AD235 a minor civil servant known as Herodian wrote a history of the Roman Empire. Amongst the most savage of the peoples pressing on the imperial frontier were a group to the north of the province of Britannia, the inhabitants of part of what is now Scotland. Apparently they were famous for tattooing their bodies not only with the likenesses of animals of all kinds but with all sorts of drawings. So that they did not hide their tattoos, Herodian insisted that these warriors did not wear clothes. They must have been hardy as well as colourful.By AD297 Roman commentators were talking of a people they called the Picts, and for a century their raiding parties were to cross Hadrian's Wall, sometimes reducing the province of Britannia to chaos. Writing after the collapse of the Western Empire in the 5th century, Isidore of Seville not only gave details of how the Picts applied their tattoos but also related the designs to personal rank, their painted limbs being marked to show their high birth.
Surprisingly, some of these marks or designs appear to have survived. The Picts left little or no literary evidence of their culture and history and few other material remains have come to light. But one dazzling phenomenon does stand testament in the landscape. Their great symbol-stones remember the Pictish centuries in the north of Scotland, and they tell a rich story. Two hundred stones have survived, almost certainly a small fraction of the original number. They may have been used as boundary markers, memorials or simply as expressions of personal prestige. The earliest group are known as Class I and, pre-Christian, they date to the time before AD600. Many carry mysterious, abstract symbols as well as representations of animals. Following Isidore's observations, these may well have been tattooed on the bodies of individuals and were full of significant, possibly religious meaning.
Many cultures have used animals as totems, and early Roman maps listed peoples in northern Scotland with suggestive names. The Epidii in Kintyre translate as the Horse Kindred, the Venicones of Fife were the Kindred Hounds, the Lugi in Sutherland were the Raven People and the Orcades in Orkney, the Wild Boar People. Birds, horses, boars and other animals appear on the symbol stones and, at Burghhead on the southern shore of the Moray Firth, the old Pictish naval fortress seemed to be dedicated to a bull cult. Thirty carvings of bulls were found on the site, although only six now survive. There were other echoes around the firth. Roman mapmakers plotted a coastal fortification called Tarvedunum, the Bull Fort, and Thurso translates as "Bull's Water". This version of geography is a powerful reminder of the role of native animals as well as people in shaping a vivid sense of the identities of early Scotland.
At its zenith in the 7th century Pictland stretched from the northern shores of the Forth up the eastern coastlands to Caithness, on to Orkney and Shetland and across the Highland massif to Skye and the Outer Hebrides. The symbol stones show kings and aristocrats, battle scenes and ranks of soldiers, animals real and fantastical, gorgeous decoration and the enigmatic designs that may have been badges of rank. Pictland oozed prestige and power. When the English-speaking kings of Northumbria threatened to overrun the north, they were stopped dead in their tracks at Dunnichen, near Forfar. In 685 a Pictish army cut them to pieces in an ambush and killed the Northumbrian king. But by the early 9th century the confident society shown on the symbol stones was fading.
In AD839 a fateful battle was fought in Strathearn, many Pictish aristocrats were killed and within a generation their power was becoming a memory. The Vikings had sailed into history and it seems that at Strathearn their elemental savagery all but extinguished a culture. The language of the Picts, that of most of the north of Scotland, was silenced, and since no written records survive, it is impossible to reconstruct. All that remain are a few names and words for geographical features. No-one now can utter a sentence in Pictish.
What happened to these people and their language, culture and political power? Were they massacred, driven off their land into starvation and extinction or simply submerged into other dominant groups? Where did the Picts go?
Nowhere. DNA studies are unequivocal. The Picts are alive, well and living quietly among us. Their distinctive DNA marker has been identified and is one of the very few to have been given a name. S145-Pict is carried by 7 per cent of Scottish men, 175,000 in all, and its distribution is wide, extending over much of the north of Scotland, over ancient Pictland. In the seven traditional provinces of Angus and the Mearns, Atholl and Gowrie, Strathearn and Menteith, Fife and Kinross, Marr and Buchan, Moray and Easter Ross and Caithness and south-east Sutherland, most carriers were clustered. More than that, it was in these areas that most mutations of the marker had taken place, and therefore it had certainly originated in the Pictish provinces of northern and eastern Scotland.
It also turns out that Pictish kings and noblemen did not all perish at Strathearn and some lineages appear to have carried on – but under assumed names. The owners of clan names are especially enthusiastic about tracing their genealogy and having their DNA analysed.
Clan MacGregor has a colourful record, with men like Rob Roy and Sir Gregor MacGregor making slightly disreputable but dashing marks on history. Their clan lands were in Perthshire, on the eastern slopes of the Drumalban Mountains, firmly in the ancient domain of the Picts. From a sample of 144 MacGregor Y chromosomes, a large proportion, 53 per cent, clearly descend from one individual. The clan motto is "S Rioghal mo Dhream", my race is royal. They claim lineage from Alpin, the ancestor of Kenneth MacAlpin, king of Dalriada and Pictland in the mid-9th century and the king of Scotland from whom all successive monarchs are numbered.
The problem with the tradition is that MacAlpin's DNA was almost certainly Irish/Celtic, and that of the 53 per cent of the MacGregors who share a common ancestor is not. They all carry S145-Pict. Whoever Gregor was, he is unlikely to have been a Dalriadan. And with 53 per cent of the total sample being Pictish compared with only 7 per cent of the Scottish population, the clan is emphatically Pictish and possibly descended from royalty. But perhaps not the royalty they had in mind. More surprises have cropped up to the west of MacGregor country. Another large lineage cluster in the extensive sample of men with the name of MacDonald has a very different origin. They are not branches of the lineage that stemmed from the first Lord of the Isles, Somerled the Viking. Around 12 per cent of MacDonalds carry the classic S145-Pict marker and it may be that they are descended from a powerful individual whose identity is now lost but who chose to join with Clan Donald and adopt the name. There are two mainland branches: MacDonell of Glengarry and Clan Ranald. Both have chiefs with the Somerled marker but their followers may well be Pictish.
Nevertheless, the carriers of S145-Pict may console themselves with a simple fact. Their kings and aristocracy may have largely fallen, but the surviving lineages are amongst the oldest in Scotland. And even if they no longer tattoo their bodies, they can fairly claim to be the last of the British. The victors of the battle in Strathearn were unquestionably ferocious and determined warriors, and in many ways the 9th century in Britain was the Viking century. But one aspect of their legacy is surprising. Despite the trail of savagery and gore, or perhaps because of it, most Scottish men asked about their DNA before being tested appear to want it to show descent from the terrifying Vikings.
• The Scots: A Genetic Journey by Alistair Moffat and Dr Jim Wilson is
available now. Readers of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday can buy copies of the book at the special price of 12.75 (p&p free in the UK) by calling 0845 370 0067 and quoting reference SMAN211. A radio series based on the book is broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland every Wednesday (3:30pm) until 23 March, repeated on Sundays (10:30am).