Sir Fiachna The Problem Pict
When I joined the SCA in 1980, I named my persona without careful thought, and the name is now well established as mine. The effort to explain the name has resulted in a detailed history of my persona. Now when I assume my persona, I have a specific knowledge of his history, desires, motivations, and future. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Why Be a Pict?
COSTUME: I like minimal clothing and comfort, and our climate is not conducive to later Medieval and Elizabethan costume. Also, Picts were described as fighting naked and painted blue, which excuses some pleasant excesses in me.
RANGE OF CIVILITY: Historically, the Picts existed as a people from the time of Christ until the mid 1100’s. Thus, I could combine elements of the noble savage, the barbarian raider, and courtly sophistication. I chose Galloway and the 1100’s for the free mixing of and conflict between Pictish, Anglo-Norman, and Norse cultures. Galloway was the last stronghold of the Picts, and the Picts are last mentioned as a people in the Battle of the Standard (1138). After that, they are lost among the Scots forever. Living in this location and time, my persona can partake of several cultures while being one of the last to maintain his own.
MYSTERY: Regardless of the century, the limited information on Picts places them at history’s misty borders. This lack of fact allows me to quietly flirt with Færie.
RARITY: Like many people in the SCA, I was attracted to things Celtic; however, my natural bent is to try to be recognizably different. The Baron of Bryn Madoc, my SCA birthplace, is crawling with Welsh and Irish (and Italians), so I looked at Scots to be both Celtic and different, and while looking at them, I discovered Picts. Thank God I did because Tir Briste is overrun with Scots!
In 1120, Fiachna was born the first son of Dombnall mac Hoireabard (or mac Francis depending on the source).(1) Dombnall was chief huntsman and harborer to Fergus mac Donnel, Lord of Galloway, and not surprisingly, his cousin. The family dwelt in Kirkcudbright, the high seat of the Lords of Galloway.
At that time Galloway was mostly independent of the control of the Scottish throne, a distinction lost during the rules of Fergus’ sons, Uhtred and Gilbert, whose sibling rivalry helped weaken their power enough for the Scottish king to effectively take control. Fergus did as he pleased despite the wishes of King Alexander and his successor/brother David, though Fergus often joined the Scottish king’s forays and raids into Northumbria. (2)
When Fiachna was eight, he was sent live and study in the monastery at Whithern with his great-uncle Georas, acting bishop of Galloway. (3) Like Fiachna’s father, Georas believed strongly in the ancient traditions of his Pictish ancestors and despaired of their passing. So although Fiachna studied Latin, Gaelic, and English, he also studied what remained of his ancestral language and Pictish history. His uncle foresaw the coming Anglicization of Scotland and tried to prepare Fiachna to benefit from this change which was already well rooted in the surrounding lands; Anglic traditions had been encroaching on Celtic Scotland since the sixth century, and Norman influence had increased its speed. The Gallowegian Lord Fergus even married an illegitimate daughter of Henry I of England. (4)
Fiachna’s great uncle Georas died in 1131, and in 1134, Gilalden was made bishop in Whithern by Thurstan, archbishop of York. Soon after the arrival of Gilalden, Fiachna left the monastery at Whithern and returned to the Kirkcudbright court. Now 14, he found himself in the position of translator for Fergus in dealings with the Anglicized Scots and other foreigners who came ever more frequently. It was they who gave Fiachna his Anglic nickname: Theodend, ‘translator’, which slurring and accents corrupted to Theaten (spelled variously). (5) His given name appears only once in an early pipe roll listing Fergus’ household and servants. Fergus was so pleased with his early service that he awarded him an estate that included his birthplace beside the Water of the Girvan (read: Award of Arms).
These events probably began the germination of Pictish nationalism which came to dominate Theaten’s life.
During the next few years King David and his subjects made frequent raids into England, but Fergus held back to see what success the Scottish king had. When the Scots did well in two campaigns, Fergus gathered men at Christmastide 1137 and joined the third assault on Northumbria. Theaten went as well. Fergus forbade Theaten to fight unless in immediate danger, instructing him to stay close and not be killed because he was more valuable as a negotiator than a warrior, considering his stature and training. Fergus had Theaten arrayed in a captured hauberk and helm to compliment the short sword and broad Celtic shield his father had given him, just in case. (6)
Although skirmishes occasionally reached him, Theaton did avoid death, but mostly because Fergus and his guard fought off the enemy. Theaton would not have been as well off if it weren’t for the fact that at each battle the Scots were advancing and held the field. Fergus did allow him to join attacks on villages and helpless farmers, and in the general rapine that followed each victory, he accumulated some wealth in booty.
This all ended August 21, 1138 at the Battle of the Standard near Northallerton. In this battle, Fergus demanded that his troops be allowed to form the van of the Scotch army or he would withdraw them from the field. David allowed him this since he needed the men to keep his force much larger than that of the defending English. Notably, David’s other generals felt the move was unwise. Fergus and his Picts (the Gallowegians) and Theaton among them (Fergus was using every man) charged the line of English spearmen braced on a rise. As the Picts ran screaming at their line, the English archers let forth a hail of arrows; many Picts dropped in their tracks. Theaton reached the English shield wall only to have his own shield pulled from his arm. He would have been killed had not a friend been close at hand to strike down the spearman who leaned forward too far to take an easy target. In a panic, Theaton grabbed the spear as the English man fell and ran backwards with the other Scots/Picts around him. He stabbed at a pursuer (possibly wounding him, but possibly just tripping him) and escaped with those Scots who survived.
That battle was such a route for Scots and allies that Theaten had to abandon all he had gained and made his way home with only a hauberk and spear to show. He lost his helmet in the fray. Fergus later replaced it with a Norse helm garnered during a successful repulsion of Scandinavian adventurers. However, Theaten did gain one thing: a Welsh noble family allied to Fergus awarded him some lands for his generous service to them during the campaigns (read: Order of the Dreamstone).
Theaten’s experience at the Battle of the Standard led him to believe he was naturally adept with the spear. He took up the poleaxe for its cutting as well as thrusting capabilities and gave up on shields. He is also mentioned as having been partial to bows, especially the light crossbow depicted in Pictish carvings, (7) and sword styles that disregard shields.
During the time Theaten served as Fergus’ translator, 1134-1148, he developed a reputation as a predatory courtier, especially with the daughters of visiting nobles. Despite this, he aggressively courted the daughter of an eccentric nobleman from Kintyre, Robert. Her name was Breisis (a Greek name), and her father was a wide faring merchant with several small ships. A partial diary by one of the court noblewomen records that Breisis and Fiachna married after some six years of courting, but that the courtship, the marriage, or family relations were not very harmonious. Eventually, Fiachna was discovered with a powerful Norman lord’s wife. He fled court and disappears from Gallowegian records for awhile. Nothing more is recorded of Breisis, her family, the Norman, or his lady. (8)
Fiachna does not reappear in Galloway for four years; however, in 1150, an odd record in Satsuma province of southern Japan raises interesting questions. The court scribes record the winter arrival of a stranger with white skin and blue eyes who claimed to have come from the farthest West beyond China. He wore armor like that of the steppes dwellers, wielded an unusual naginata, and carried a small, sideways bow. After some months of study with the court scribes, this stranger learned to converse haltingly in Japanese, and he took the name Shimazu Karasu. (9) He gained enough favor in the local court to be made a hatamoto (read: Grant of Arms). Then, he apparently departed suddenly a year before a period of inter-clan warfare that would last for decades began. (10) The last entry concerning the stranger Karasu mentioned that he exhibited an overweening affection for satsuma-imo and shochu. (11)
The Fiachna who reappears in Fergus’s court after the four year absence seems different from the original courtier of earlier years. Instead of a womanizer, we see a family man. Church records in Whithern indicate the marriage a between a man named Fiachna and a woman named either Maut or Matilda (the two extant records differ), who may have been of a Northumbrian Saxon family. This is interesting considering Fiachna’s distaste for those not true to his Pictish ancestry. Marginalia indicates that Fiachna’s first son, Gradigh, was born about 1155. Later he would father two more children, another son and a daughter. As an odd side note, an 1153 pipe roll records court payments to a brewer named Maut MacAlpin, who may be the same woman. (12)
An 1155 Gallowegian pipe roll again finds Theaten in the service of Fergus.
The roll records his name as Sir Fiachna (indicating he had been elevated to the status of knight) and he oversaw the lands and villages of northern Galloway, known as Carrick. Also, a hidage record from 1158 indicates that Fiachna’s holdings in Carrick had significantly expanded (read:
Pelicanate), but whether by the grace of Fergus or Malcolm is unclear.
In 1160, Fergus revolted against King Malcolm IV (13), which was quelled only with the help of the king’s Norman vassals. Fiachna supported his lord and is noted as leading an effective contingent of archers and pikemen in this conflict (read: Broken Brank). Fergus, furious with the King’s use of Norman “interlopers” to suppress the rebellion, rebelled again, and Malcolm needed three expeditions into Galloway to defeat him. Finally beaten, Fergus gave his kingdom to his sons and became a monk; he died the next year. (14) Then, his sons Gilbert and Uhtred began a reign of terror among themselves and the ruling families of Galloway.
A fragment of letter restored in Girvan indicates that Fiachna had watched Fergus slowly become more Anglicized, and passing the throne directly to his sons was a final affront to the Pictish tradition Fergus had once represented to Fiachna (though Fiachna continued to claim he loved Fergus like a father). It seems the stage was set for the next changes in Fiachna’s life and allegiances.
During the transition after Fergus’ abdication and death, Fiachna served as a chief official in Galloway (read: Meridian Kingdom Seneschal), likely hoping to keep the turmoil of the rebellions and the succession in check. Although he was successful on many levels (read: Order of the Bough), he failed to stem the overall tide of change, and with the births of his second son, Rogan, and of his daughter, Siúsaidh, he left office and retreated to the highlands of Carrick near the Water of Girvan, where he had been born. By 1165, Fiachna, now forty-five, had been mostly absent from court service for three years. With his part in Fergus’ rebellions and his strained relations with the sons of Fergus, his influence and prestige waned and his lands were in jeopardy. He is recorded ceding some property to the Lord of Galloway, but how much and for what reasons is unknown. However, his family remained safe from the turmoil in the Gallowegian court.
Gilbert had Uhtred killed in 1174, but was himself too weak to stave off the anglicizing of Galloway. Disgusted, Fiachna joined a band of outlaws and other disenfranchised folk. He rose to a position of leadership among them and limited their depredations to Anglo-Normans and those Scots and Gallowegians who took too readily to the invading culture.
At this point Fiachna’s old title reappeared as a name among the men sent to catch him, as well as most everyone in the area. Theodend ‘translator’ was melded to theoftyn ‘(roughly) instructor of thieves’ or threotan ‘to vex or confound’. The three terms became intermingled in common speech, and the most common spelling of the result is Theahtyn.
Gilbert died in 1185, and according to the Pictish tradition of tanistry, (15) Uhtred’s son Lachlan (also called Roland) became Lord of Galloway. In 1190 Lachlan made his cousin Duncan mac Gilbert Earl of Carrick, probably to maintain power without fighting for his life. Sadly, during Lachlan’s reign several Anglo-Norman bishops held the bishopric at Whithern, and Pictish traditions vanished.
During the decades from Gilbert to Lachlan, Theahtyn tried vainly to revive the traditions of his Pictish ancestors, but he could muster only a small following. He became known as Theahtyn of Girvan and Theahtyn the Pict. Sometime before 1200, he and his group disappear from all records, and his fate is unknown. One Gallowegian legend states that Theahtyn trafficked with the faeries and eventually joined them, perhaps to return and trouble another age (but haven’t we heard that before).
You can see that after 1165 the specifics of Fiachna’s career and life become more vague. This vagueness reflects the parallels I draw between my mundane, SCA, and persona lives. I am only certain of what happens to Fiachna through age forty-four, at least for now.
(1) My mundane paternal grandfather’s name was Herbert Francis Gareis. Extrapolating from the naming practices of my family, I made my great-grandfather Francis and invented him as the unrecorded grandfather to Fergus, Lord of Galloway (?-1160). Everyone listed on the family tree is an actual mundane aunt, uncle, parent, sibling, or nephew of mine, but most names have been converted to Gælic.
(2) Unless otherwise indicated, all actual history surrounding Fiachna’s story comes from research I did in the early 1980’s. The primary text was a series of three massive volumes in the UGA library known as Celtic Scotland. I used primarily volume one.
(3) My mundane great uncle George was a monseigneur in the Catholic Church. Since no record remains of a bishop in Whithern during the early 1100’s, I made my great uncle Bishop of Whithern from 1111 to 1131. Three years later, the historical record names Gilalden as bishop in Whithern (1134-1186), placed there by Thurstan, archbishop of York; note the Anglo-Saxon names and suzerainty.
(4) I originally wanted to name my persona Fineachta. Historically, from 556-569 Galloway was ruled by Fineachta, son of Udrust. He is noted in the one of the Pictish king lists for both returning to the old beliefs and associating with the Angles for the peace of his people. However, SCA naming practice does not allow the use of Pictish kings’ names since they are not found in non-kingly circulation.
(5) All Anglo-Saxon terms are from J. R. Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1984.
(6) This represents the start of my SCA fighting career. I made my chain hauberk and coif, and my earliest fighting style was with a coffin shield and short stabbing sword. I was not very good. Throughout the narrative you will see shifts in my SCA fighting and certain stages of my armor construction added into the story.
(7) A Pictish stone at St. Vigeans museum in eastern Scotland depicts a man with a crossbow designed for hunting. Picts, by Anna Ritchie, 1989, p 45.
(8) This brief paragraph marks the end of my first eight years in the SCA and why I sometimes comment that I have spent the second eight years living down the first. Most of the events depicted are based on mundane happenings, so please do not look for SCA parallels.
(9) Fiachna is a Gælic name meaning Araven@; Karasu is the Japanese equivalent. The Shimazu clan provided military governors for the absentee landowners of Satsuma province during the period. In later centuries they would come to rule most of Kyushu. Kyushu is the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands, and Satsuma is its southernmost province. Encyclopedia of Japan, Dorothy Perkins, 1991, p. 294.
(10) Fiachna journeyed across Scandinavia, into Russia down the Dnieper river to the Black Sea, across Asia to the steppes, into Korea, and then to Japan. He had been searching for a people who were consistent, honorable, and noble. He thought he found this in Japan, but left when he learned enough to realize that people were the same there as everywhere.
(11) Satsuma province is where satsuma-imo (yams) were introduced to Japan from the South Pacific. Shochu is an alcoholic drink distilled from yams. Encyclopedia of Japan, Dorothy Perkins, 1991, p. 336.
(12) Although her persona is primarily Saxon, the Lady Myrte is mundanely decended from the MacAlpin clan, a clan with documentable Pictish ancestry (am I envious or what!). Her Scottish forebearers were kicked out of Scotland for sheep thievery.
(13) Yes, Lord Malcolm Fergus Blacksleeve (Fiachna’s dog) is named after Malcolm IV. Similarly, his predecessor Fergus Œngus MacDonald was named after the Gallowegian Fergus.
(14) Monarchs of Scotland, Stewart Ross, 1990, p. 55.
(15) Tanistry is a system of succession where brothers and nephews succeed a ruler. It was a system used in Dalriada (the kingdom in western Scotland where the Scots first established a foothold on the island). That the Picts used tanistry or that they followed a matrilinear tradition relies on questionable reports by the Venerable Bede and Irish sources. The Picts and the Scots, Lloyd and Jenny Lang, 1993, p 59. Fiachna chose to believe these early sources.