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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 14 - The Caledonians as painted by Herodian


We advance to a darker feature of our country in its first beginnings. The inhabitant was as untamed as his rugged land. Those who occupied the southern half of our island, were, as the fruits of the earlier Roman invasion, a considerable cultivation of the soil was already to be seen, were known by the name of Britons. Those who inhabited the northern division, the men who roamed over the bleak moors and dark hills we have described, were called Caledonians or Picts.1 The Scots—the contingent thrown in to attemper the general population, and give to it its predominant quality, if not its numerical strength—had not yet arrived in a country which was to bear their name in after ages. The Greek historian Herodian, who has given to our early ancestors a place in his sketches of the campaigns of Severus, may have unduly deepened the shades of his picture. He never was in Britain, and could relate only what others told him of the country and the people. But his descriptions may safely be taken as the portraiture of the Caledonian current at Rome in the age of the Emperor Severus. Herodian paints the men of Caledonia as going naked, only encircling their necks and bellies with iron rings, as others array themselves in ornaments of gold.

Their country, he tells us, abounded in swamps, and the vapours exhaled from these miry places by the heat filled the air with a continual murkiness. The natives traversed their bogs, wading up to the neck in mud, wholly regardless of the discomfort and defilement of person to which they subjected themselves. They had no raiment to soil, and a plunge into the first stream would cleanse their persons. Battle was to them a delight, and the greater the carnage the higher their satisfaction. Helmet and habergeon were unknown to them; protection for their persons they sought none, save a narrow shield of wicker-work covered with cow-hide. They carried no weapon into the fight but a javelin or lance, and a sword girded on their naked loins.2 Their bravery, their contempt of danger, and their recklessness of life, made them no despicable antagonists, even to the legions of Rome. Their flight was sometimes more fatal to the enemy than their attack. The barbarian, burdened only with his few simple accoutrements, skimmed the surface of the quaking bog with agility and safety, and was soon out of reach of his pursuers, while the Roman soldier, weighed down by his heavy armour, sank in the morass and was held fast, till his comrades came to extricate him, or the foe he was chasing returned to slaughter him. Herodian can hardly conceal his chagrin that these untrained and unclothes warriors should have adopted a mode of fighting so alien to all the established usages of war, and which placed their opponents in so many points at a disadvantage. It was hardly to be expected that the Caledonians would consult the convenience of their haughty invaders or give themselves the least concern whether their mode of defence agreed with or crossed the usages of Rome.3

Their appearance, as Herodian has depicted it, must have been uncouth in the extreme. Hardly have we courage to look calmly at the apparition which his pen has conjured up. We are fain to persuade ourselves that the historian has given the rein to his imagination, and produced a picture such as would grace his pages rather than one that would find its likeness on the moors of Caledonia. And yet there must have been some foundation for the statement, otherwise, it would not have been so publicly made by writers of name, and in an age when it was so easy to test its truth. The Caledonians were in the habit, so Herodian assures us, of tattooing their bodies, after the fashion of the New Zealanders and the American Indians of our own day.4 What we would have accounted a disfigurement they reckoned an embellishment. It cost them no little pains, and some suffering to boot, to effect this ingenious metamorphosis of their persons. By means of a hot iron the Caledonian imprinted upon his limbs the figures of such animals as he was most familiar with, or as he chose to make the symbols or interpreters of his predominating dispositions, much as the knight of our own day blazons on his shield the figures which are most suggestive of the virtues or qualities he is emulous of being thought to possess. The parts of the body touched by the hot iron were rubbed over with the juice of the plant called woad, and this brought out in blue the figures which the iron had imprinted upon the person. We can imagine the barbarian, after completing this strange adornment, surveying himself with no little pride, and thinking how formidable he should look in the eyes of his enemy, blazing all over with the shapes of monstrous and terrible animals. Before going into battle he was careful, we are told, to deepen the colour of these wild figures in order to heighten the terrors of his appearance.5

Besides this curious emblazoning, worn on the person, and not after the more convenient fashion of modern times, on the shield, one other circumstance helped to make their aspect savage and terrible. This was their manner of disposing of their hair. Their locks, dark and matted, hung down, shading their faces and clustering on their shoulders. This arrangement served in some sort as a vizor. It may have stood them in some stead on occasion, but it would tend to hide the fire of their eye, and so diminish the terror of their countenance, unless, indeed, when the wind blew aside their locks, or the action of battle momentarily parted them, and then their faces, burning in fury, would gleam out upon the foe.5

Strange looking personages, indeed, must these forefathers of ours have been, if their first historians have not done them injustice. Blue men, figured all over from head to heel with the representations of horses, bullocks, wolves, and foxes; traversing their wilds with foot almost as swift as that of the roe and deer which they chased; stalking by the shore of their lakes and their seas in the pride of barbarian independence, disdaining to plow or weave, to dig or plant, their loins begirt with skin of wolf, their long hair streaming in the wind, and their dark features brightening with keen delight when the chase was to begin, or kindling with the fire of a yet fiercer joy when battle was to be joined. Were these uncouth progenitors to look up from their resting places on lonely moor or underneath gray cairn, it is hard to say which would be the more astonished—we or they? We to see the men who went before us, they to behold the men who have come after them: we to behold the Scotland of the first century, they to see—striking contrast—the Scotland of the nineteenth!


FOOTNOTES

1. That the Caledonians and Picts were one and the same people is now universally allowed."—Pinkerton, i., 105.

2. "The primitive Celtic dress," says Pinkerton, "was only a skin thrown over the shoulder, and a piece of cloth tied round the middle. Gildas mentions the last as the dress of the Scots or Irish in his time."—Vol. ii. p. 144.

Herodian says, "Tantum scuto angusto lanceaque contenti, proeterea gladio nudis corporibus dependente." Lib. iii. 268.

3. Herodiani Historia Cum Angeli Politiani interpretatione latina, Vindocini, 1665, lib. iii. p. 266-268. Neque enim vestis usum cognoverunt, sed ventrem atque crevicem ferro incingunt: ornamentum id esse, ac divitiarum argumentum existimantes, perinde ut aurum caeteri barbari.

4. The statement of Herodian that the Caledonians painted their bodies, acquires confirmation from the well known passage in Claudian:—

"Ille leves Mauros, nec falso nomine Pictos,

Edomuit."

"He the fleet Moor subdued; and painted Pict

Not falsely named."

And again—

"Ferroque notatas,

Perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras."

"They on the bodies of the dying Picts

Saw the rude figures, iron-graved."

5. Herodiani Historia, lib. iii. 267. Quin ipsa notanbt corpora pictura varia et omnifariam formis animalium quocirca ne induuntur quidem, videlicet picturam corporis ne adoperiant. Sunt auten belliciosissima gens atque audissima caedis.

6. It does not appear that the name Pict was an ancient one, or long continued. It probably came from the Romans. Finding the Caledonian warriors figured over with these strange devices, they would naturally speak of them as picti, or painted men.