On 'The Picts'

by Sebastiaan Verweij

Morgan's source of inspiration and the way 'The Picts' works is summarised excellently by Dunn:

Personal names in 'The Picts', as well as two Pictish words, are probably taken from Wainwright's The Problem of the Picts. Nothing is known of Bliesbituth, Edarnon, Usconbuts or Canutulachama; but the first becomes a 'wild buffoon', Edarnon is said to be 'wily', the third 'brilliant', and that last-named a reader of the stars. Like the future, the unknown past can be invented…(1)

The Problem of the Picts was published in 1955, and addressed the problem that although there is evidence that the people we know as the Picts existed, it is absolutely unclear who they were, where they came from and where they disappeared to. This is what Morgan picks up on from the book, and in the process imagines their history. The tattoos referred to by Morgan are also discussed by Wainwright:

Is the name Picti no more that the Romans' descriptive term for a "painted people"? […] Isodore of Seville, writing soon after A.D. 600, tells us that the Picts take their name from the fact that their bodies bear designs pricked into their skin by needles.(2)

In a later chapter by K.H. Jackson, the question of the Pictish language is addressed, and this must be where Morgan borrowed the Pictish words from:

Or let us consider the Lunnasting inscription. It is perfectly legible, yet except for the name Nehton it is utterly unintelligible. […] So with the Brandsbutt stone, irataddoarens; Keiss Bay, nehtetri; St Ninians, besmeqqnanammovvez; and others. What these things mean nobody knows; doubtless they contain both names and ordinary words. If meqq at St Ninians really is "son" bes and nanammovvez may be names.(3)

'The Picts' is comparable to 'The Ring of Brodgar', in the way that Morgan reinvents an unknown past. Morgan's final remark, "writers / like us regain mere pain on that blue road, / they think honour comes with the endurance)", is similar to the conclusion of 'The Ring of Brodgar'. We know too little of the Picts in order to understand what the tattoo signifies, and the only thing we can readily relate to is the pain of having the tattoo placed. Similarly, in 'The Ring of Brodgar' a future people can only feel the pain of those sacrificed in the circle, without being able to grasp a larger significance.

 

(1) Douglas Dunn, 'Morgan's Sonnets', in: Robert Crawford and Hamish Whyte, eds., About Edwin Morgan, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1990, p. 82.

(2) F.T. Wainwright, ed., The Problem of the Picts, Edinburgh: Nelson, 1955, p. 1.

(3) The Problem of the Picts, pp. 140-1.

 

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