History Index : Iron Age

The Celts
Celt "keltoi": (greek) "barbarian" or "the hidden people"

The people we call 'Celts' were an Indo-European people, whose culture spread rapidly across the whole of Europe. The culture spread as far north as Scandinavia, down into the Spanish peninsula, and possibly even into the Asian sub-continent as far as the borders of China.

Today the regions in Britain that we associate as being 'Celtic' are Wales, Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, and Devon, Cornwall and Cumbria in England. The Celtic people made their settlements in these areas and common traits in their customs and languages can be detected in people living in these areas today. In some areas of Britain the old Gaelic languages have fallen out of common usage, as in Cornwall, but in other more remote places, such as the Western Isles of Scotland, these languages are still widely spoken. In Wales there has been a revival in recent years to ensure that the language is passed onto the younger generation, with the introduction of Welsh speaking schools.

The Celtic people were traditionally described by ancient writers as people of great stature, with fair hair and blue or grey eyes. Queen Boadicea is representative and was reported by the Romans as being very tall with long red hair and piercing eyes. The Celtic women seem to have been better off than in most societies at that time, being regarded as equal to men. They owned property, could choose their husbands and some women, such as Boadicea, were even war leaders. The Celts preferred the 'bardic' oral tradition and they did not write down their traditions, legends and beliefs until well into Christian times, when a written Celtic language was developed. What we know about the Celts comes from archaeological evidence and from accounts by the Romans.

We also know of their traditions from old tales and poems handed down orally through the generations until they were eventually written down. We know they were highly skilled craftsmen and produced a great deal of intricate and beautiful metalwork, including decorated vessels, jewellery, belts and ornamented weaponry, as these were often buried alongside them. These objects were of a much higher standard of craftsmanship than had been seen from elsewhere in Europe.

Celtic Settlements and Lifestyle

In the south of Scotland, up to the very edge of the Highlands, the land was littered with small settlements, usually consisting of six round huts surrounded by a large wooden fence or 'palisade' to protect the settlement from other tribes. The huts were built of arched timber and had walls built from wicker and roofs of thatch. In the more northerly and western areas of Scotland, where trees were scarce, stone was used as much as possible but the settlements were built on the same design. The Celts lived in clans; extended family groups or tribes, that had their own social structure and customs. The Celts were the people who brought iron working to the British Isles. Unlike bronze which had been used previously, iron was readily available and relatively cheap. This meant a greater independence and less reliance on trade with neighbours. They were farmers growing wheat, oats and barley and keeping livestock such as cattle, pigs and goats. They generally depended more on the livestock for food than the crops, as farming methods at this time were very simple and the quality of the crops could not be relied on.

the plough
The Plough

The Celts brought the iron-plough to Britain, which for the first time made it possible to cultivate the rich valleys and lowland soils. Before this the plough had been a simple stick with a pointed end, drawn by two oxen. The new iron-ploughs were heavy and required a team of 8 oxen to pull it, so as a result the fields tended to be long and narrow, to avoid having to turn the awkward and large team of beasts.

They were skilled in the art of weaving, and most Celtic clothing was made from wool using large wooden looms. The thread was dyed using bright colours or woven to form striped or checked designs. They also worked in leather to make clothes, harnesses or even drinking vessels and they wove baskets and matting from rushes and created 'wattle hurdles' for walling from thin or split branches.

The Warrior Celts
A Celtic Warrior
A Celtic Warrior

The Celts were warriors and lived for the glories of battle and plunder. They took pride in their appearance in battle, wearing elaborately decorated helmets and breastplates and carrying ornamented shields and weaponry. Some tribes however, would charge into battle fully naked, dyed blue from head to toe to terrify their enemies. In battle the warriors would cut off the heads of their enemies and display them as trophies, as the Celts revered the human head as the centre of all spiritual power. To have a few trophy heads to display was seen as a source of strength. However the biggest problem with the Celtic tribes was that they also fought amongst themselves and were never able to show a united front against the common enemy, which in the long run cost them the control of most of Britain, except for those tribes in the North of Scotland - such as the Picts.

The Druids

Druids were the leaders of the Celtic tribes in Britain and were considered to be the most important members of the society, sometimes even holding more authority than that of the King. As well as being religious leaders of the chief Celtic pagan religion, they were also political advisors, teachers, arbitrators and healers. The Isle of Anglesey, in present-day Wales, was a main centre of Druidic practice.

The Oak
The Oak

The word druid is derived from the Greek 'drus' meaning oak, a tree held in reverence as sacred. The Druids had their own universities, where knowledge was passed on orally, rather than being written down. They taught the immortality of the soul and believed in reincarnation, composed verse, and were expert astronomers. They also acted as ambassadors in time of war and were upholders of the law. In short they were the very fabric of the Celtic society and kept things running smoothly. What we know about the Druids also stems from what was written about them by the Romans, but how true their reports were is a matter of individual opinion. The Romans spoke about human sacrifice as being part of the Celtic religion, but it is possible that the Romans sought to portray themselves as a great civilising force and the Celtic tribes as barbarians in order to further their own political aims. The Romans had the Druids of Anglesey exterminated in 61 AD, which effectively destroyed Druidism until it was revived in the 19th Century.

The Picts - 'the painted people'

The Picts were a group of warrior tribes inhabiting much of Northern Scotland. They dominated a large area roughly north of a line from the Forth to the Clyde, from some time in the Iron-Age before the arrival of the Romans.

Aberdeenshire was one of the heartlands of the Picts, evidenced by the high distribution of Pictish Symbol Stones, and the occurrence of place names with the prefix 'Pit' - or portion of land - such as Pitmunie and Pitfichie in Monymusk. Angus, Perth, Fife and Caithness were also strongholds, but Symbol Stones can also be found in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. It is thought that the Picts may originally have come from Northern Europe, although a legend also tells of them having come as mercenaries from Scythia. The first mention of them is in 297 AD when a Roman named Eumenius wrote that 'the Britons fought their half naked enemies - the Picts and the Irish'. It is not clear what the Pictish tribes called themselves, but the term Pictii meaning 'the painted people' was used by the Romans and probably referred to the fact that the Pictish warriors painted or tattooed their bodies with a blue ochre dye to make themselves more fearsome in battle.

painted for battle
body art

The Irish referred to these tribes as Cruithni; 'the people of the designs', which may also refer to the tattoo designs, or to their characteristic art of animal and geometric symbols, which they carved onto large stones and cave walls. In 844, under the rule of Kenneth MacAlpine, the Picts were united with the 'Scots of Dalriada' (now Argyll), a tribe who originally came over from Ireland, to form the basis of Scotland as it is known today.

Pictish Symbol Stones

Around 40 percent of the two hundred Symbols Stones in Scotland are in Aberdeenshire. Symbol Stones were carved and erected by the Picts between the 6th and 9th Centuries. They clearly depict animals such as deer, fish and horse; mythological beasts like the serpent; everyday objects such as the mirror and comb or the cauldron; and geometric symbols such as the V- and Z-rods which represent broken arrows and spears.

There are three classes of Pictish sculpture:

Class I is the earliest dating from the 6th Century AD. They are Pagan and are often carved on Neolithic and Bronze Age Standing Stones. It is possible that some of these designs were the same as those earlier painted on wood, clothing and skin - perhaps as tattoos. They show Pictish symbols which are used on many stones and seem to have a coded meaning. Some have Ogham inscriptions - Ogham is a form of alphabet from 4th century Ireland and consists of a series of short lines cut across a main verticle, it has never been deciphered.

Class II stones are usually cross slabs carved in relief (i.e. standing out) with cross and interlaced patterns, figures and animals. These date from the early 8th Century and include traditional Pictish symbols.

There are 2 class II Symbol Stones in the Monymusk area; The Monymusk Stone housed in St. Mary's Church, and The Maiden Stone near Bennachie.

Class III stones are Early Christian carvings without Pictish symbols and are carved on boulders or dressed slabs. They are found in old Kirk yards and seem to be grave slabs, shrines or prayer stations for pilgrims.

Pictish Animal and Object Symbols
Pictish Animal and Object Symbols, p.27 'Early Grampian'

1. Goose; 2. Bull; 3. Eagle; 4. Beast's head; 5; Hound; 6. Fish (salmon); 7. Horse; 8. Boar; 9. Serpent (snake); 10. Deer; 11. Beast ('elephant' or 'dolphin'); 12. Disc and rectangle (sun disc); 13. Crescent and V-rod (arrow); 14. Comb and mirror; 15. Triple oval (bronze armlet); 16. Serpent and Z-rod (spear); 17. Flower (bronze strip); 18. Arch (bronze collar); 19. Double disc and Z-rod; 20. S-shaped figure (swathe of cloth); 21. Rectangle (shield or book cover); 22. Notched rectangle and Z-rod (chariot); 23. triple disc and cross bar (cauldron).

The Maiden Stone

The Maiden Stone near Bennachie is a class II Pictish Monument dating from around 700 AD. It is a 3 metre high granite slab carved in relief with beautiful Pictish designs. The east-facing side has four panels. On the bottom panel is a mirror and a comb (14); next up is the dolphin or elephant figure (11); above that a notched rectangle and Z-rod (chariot) (22); and at the top some four-legged beasts which are now too faint to identity, but one is thought to be a centaur. The other side is very badly weathered and difficult to make out, but the lower symbol is an intricate pattern of circles and Celtic knotwork, which previously extended to the sides. Above this is a 1.5m Celtic Cross, a symbol of the Celtic Church which would have been carved later than the other side, and above the cross are pictish symbols, possibly 2 fish monsters. There is a famous North Eastern LEGEND which gives this stone its name.


Hill forts were defensive structures set high up on the tops of hills, encircled by a series of ditches, banks and walls. The main walls of the fort were made of stone and were extremely thick, sometimes up to 15 feet. These forts were not permanent settlements, but were used as strongholds or assembly points for tribes on their way to battle. The Iron Age Celts lived harsh and violent lives in tribal communities and were often warring amongst themselves. Occasionally they would join forces against the common enemy, the Roman Army.

The local area is home to some of these fortified structures on the Mither Tap o' Bennachie, Dunnideer and Top o' Noth near Huntly. These forts have vitrified walls. These are walls built of a combination of stone and timber, which when set on fire results in the partial melting of the inner stonework of the wall and creates a strong vitrified wall. Local legend relates that the peat at the top of Tap o' Noth caught fire and 'night was day for three days and nights'.

Hillfort on Mither Tap

The Mither Tap is not the highest point on Bennachie itself, although the most prominent with its distinctive volcano-shape, but has the remains of an Iron-Age hill fort. The fort was built using hundreds of tons of granite boulders, which had to be carried up the hill and put into place. The fort had two sets of defences, an outer and an inner wall which surrounded the whole of the mountain top, covering about a 500m circuit. The walls were about 6m thick and in places may have been 5m high. Although the whole structure is now in ruins, some of the main wall faces, an entrance and traces of a parapet walk can be seen. The inner wall or any internal structures are difficult to detect, but inside this 10 round hut formations have been recorded by past excavations. It is thought that the fort was used as a refuge, possibly at the time of the Roman Invasion.

Sources: Early Grampian and Guide to Bennachie.

Although the Romans often defeated the Celts in battle they never succeeded in taking over the North East of Scotland. Instead the region managed to retain its independence and was able to form the Pictish Nation as described by the Romans in the 3rd Century AD. As a result the region held onto its Celtic traditions and pagan beliefs for much longer than other areas of Britain, until the arrival of Christianity in around 400 AD.

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