Mystery has long surrounded the fate of the tribe of fierce enigmatic people who battled with Rome’s legions before seeming to disappear from history.
Now new research from ScotlandsDNA, an ancestry testing company, has found a marker strongly suggesting for the first time that a large number of descendants of these northern tribes, known as “Picti” by the Romans meaning “Painted Ones”, are living in Scotland.
Dr Jim Wilson, chief scientist at the company, who found a Y chromosome marker arising amongst the direct ancestors of the Picts, said this was the “first evidence that the heirs of the Picts are living among us”. After testing this new fatherline marker labelled R1b-S530 in more than 3,000 British and Irish men, Dr Wilson discovered it is ten times more common in those with Scottish grandfathers than those with English grandfathers.
A total of 170 men living in Scotland have been found to carry this marker, although the number is likely to be far higher.
While ten per cent of more than 1,000 Scottish men tested carry R1b-S530, only 0.8 per cent of Englishmen have it.
About 3 per cent of men in Northern Ireland carry the lineage, but it was only seen once in more than 200 men from the Republic of Ireland.
It is believed the presence in Northern Ireland is due to the plantations of Lowland Scots in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is a pattern usually seen with markers that appear to be restricted to Scotland.
Dr Wilson, who is also a senior lecturer in population and disease genetics at the University of Edinburgh, said this difference is highly statistically significant and can be applied to the general population as clear evidence of a very Scottish marker. He said: “The finding just popped out of the analysis. While there have been hints of this from previous data, what was surprising was the really huge difference between Scotland and England. “It is a clear sign that while people do move around there remains a core who have remained at home. Perhaps this was due to farming or that moving would have to have been done on foot.”
Dr Wilson added: “As you go up your family tree there are all sorts of paths. But if we can see that about 10 per cent of fatherlines look to have a Pictish origin, then we can make the prediction that probably a lot of the other lines do.”
Ancient Pictland is often defined by historians as the area where Pictish symbol stones and Pictish place-names, such as those that have the prefix Pit or Pett are found. This heartland lies in Scotland north of the Forth and stones and pit-names are seen particularly in Fife, Perthshire, Tayside, the Northeast and around the Moray Firth coastlands. Within Scotland there is a strong concentration of the R1b-S530 group in those very same areas.
Alistair Moffat, managing director of ScotlandsDNA, said: “These findings were probably one of the biggest surprises we’ve had in our research. The Picts seem kind of exotic, and different and quite colourful and so I was personally, really, really rather taken with this.”
Dark age kingdom
The Picts were a confederation of tribes who lived north of the Forth and Clyde beyond the reach of the Roman Empire.
They constituted the largest kingdom in Dark Age Scotland and fought off both the Romans and Angles.
They were first mentioned by a Roman chronicler in about 300AD and were a dominant force in what is now Scotland for at least 600 years. By the late 200s AD the Picts had overrun the northern frontier of the Roman empire on more than one occasion. Their neighbours were the Gaels, Britons, Angles and the Vikings.
The Picts were assumed to have “disappeared”. But this version of history has since been updated and it is now believed they were overtaken by political events becoming assimilated by incoming Scots invading from Ireland.