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The Picts

by craig.horne 

Posted: 19 August 2008
Word Count: 344
Summary: For some time I've been wanting to write fiction based on the Picts, whose kingdom encompassed most of Scotland in the Dark Ages. Until now, however, I've struggled to think of a way to introduce them. They remain a relatively obscure race from a shadowy time. I think the following piece solves this problem. What I'd love to know is does it evoke the time, place and people intended? Is it clear we're in post-Roman Britain, I suppose, is the most important question. Thanks.

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“Stone,” said the old man, as he scooped up a handful of pebbles in one hand and let them trickle down into the other, “our old friend.”
He repeated the motion without dropping one, as effortlessly as if he were playing with flour. “Stone to the west holds those wretched Gaels back,” he said, letting a few pebbles fall from his hand to form a line on the ground. “Mountains.”

“And to the north,” he continued, dropping another line of stones on the ground, “more mountains – keeping the folk of Fortriu at bay.”

“But aren’t they Picts like us?” asked the boy.

The man scowled and tossed a pebble that struck the boy lightly on the forehead.

“Oww,” he protested.

“You’ll get worse from others if they hear that word from your lips. We are the Pritani, those in Fortriu too, but we are often at war with them.

“Picts are what the Romans called us. It meant painted savage… something like that. Use that word here or up north and they’ll treat you like a Roman; lop your head off and mount it on a stick.

“Stone was the Romans’ downfall as well you know,” he said after a pause. “We’d lure their legions deep into the mountains and then come tearing down the slopes at them like a rock-fall.

“They had to build two huge walls in the end to hold us back.”

The boy laughed bashfully and looked away.

“The other use stone has,” the man said, fingering the last remaining pebble in his hand, “is that it remembers us when we’re gone.” With that he flung the pebble and it struck a great sandstone slab engraved with strange symbols which stood behind the boy.

“And,” he said, as he looked down at the game board that lay on the ground between them, “today stone is a friend to me indeed.”

“You have three of my playing pieces but of yours I have formed two mountain chains and had two left over to throw. I think that means I’ve won.”

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Comments by other Members

NMott at 02:03 on 20 August 2008  Report this post
An interesting extract.
In answer to your main question, no, I don't get a strong sense that the Romans have left yet. I think the old man needs to give a bit more information about their actual leaving and the aftermath - the Romans built two walls to keep the warring tribes apart, but one would expect the old man to continue with a tale about the tribes going to war when they nolonger had the Romans to keep them separate.
And maybe the boy could ask a few more questions - maybe interject snippets of tall stories &/or anecdotes he has heard about the Romans so it doesn't lapse into an information dump with just the old man talking.
I like the lines about the pebbles, and the line about the game at the end.
There was one thing that confused me: Why would the boy 'laugh and look bashfully away'? Maybe, instead, he could make a joke about the two walls to give the old man a lead in to the rest of the tale about what happened when the Romans left.
I'm intrigued to know what the 'great sandstone slab engraved with strange symbols which stood behind the boy' is.

- NaomiM


Just a minor nit-pick about pov (point of view). Where you say 'strange symbols', are they strange to the characters? Presumably the slab has been there for awhile and the symbols are either native (maybe Druidic), or Latin. In either case, they would be familiar to the characters, even if they couldn't read them.
Sorry, I know I'm being pedantic, but I'm just wondering if it is the writer's pov that they are 'strange'.

craig.horne at 03:09 on 20 August 2008  Report this post
Many thanks indeed for the feedback Naomi. You're definitely right about the boy needing to have more of a role. It's essentially just a monologue as it is now. The boy looking bashfully away was just a reaction I thought would come with his young age. But some kind of witticism would be better. The slab would have been one of the many strange stones that can be found to this day all over Scotland, carved by the Picts.

Account Closed at 07:12 on 20 August 2008  Report this post
Hello Craig - tend to agree with Naomi, but you've got the bones here and little more work either now - or coming back to it later as you get into the piece will fine tune it all.

The idea of the stones in his hand and then game is a good image. A good starting point. I think it just needs a little fleshing out and to remember that the reader is coming at this totally blank and sometimes needs a bit more of a picture to clearly understand.

Regarding the dialogue - I don't think you need so many 'he saids' etc. Sometimes it's clear the old man's still talking and it might flow more naturally without too many interventions.


NMott at 12:42 on 20 August 2008  Report this post
The slab would have been one of the many strange stones that can be found to this day all over Scotland, carved by the Picts.

Aha, so they would not be strange to your characters, then. It is a very minor point about pov, but it does have implications. I was hooked by the 'strange symbols' and, as the extract is in the old man's pov, I wondered if it had suddenly appeared behind them - maybe there would be an element of fantasy in the story. But as the writer's pov it is intrusive (authorial intrusion). You could just as well ditch the old man and the boy and give the introduction to their tribe and the retreating Romans yourself in the form of an omniscient pov. As I said, minor point, and I've learnt something here, myself. Off to check my own work to see if I've done something similar.

- NaomiM

SusieL at 19:45 on 20 August 2008  Report this post
I think a novel based on the pictish times would have so much scope. As there is very little written history about these times (the Romans aside), you can really let your imagination fly - loads of fun!. I think your stone with the strange symbols is very intriguing. As no one knows for sure what the symbols stand for, your interpretation can be as valid as anyone elses.


wyf of bath at 17:27 on 21 April 2009  Report this post
i am new here but i thought i'd let you know i think you are on to something with this. i would buy a book about picts (i am so fed up with tudors :D)
i agree with the other comments that the 'strange symbols' on the stone needs some consideration but you can sort that out later. of course even if the symbols had been there for sometime the 'ordinary' people would not be able to interpret them so they would be 'strange' in that sense; maybe it just needs rewording a bit.
i like it overall, it just needs a bit more work. looking forward to more.

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