The religion of the Picts before their conversion is supposed by the majority of writers on this subject to have been that which prevailed in the rest of Britain and in Celtic Gaul, Druidism. The incredulous Burton, however, if we may judge from his History of Scotland, as well as from an article of his in the Edinburgh Review, seems to believe that the whole system of Druidism has been elaborated by the imaginations of modern historians. That the Picts previous to their conversion had a religion, and a religion with what may be called priests and religious services, cannot be doubted, if we may trust Tacitus and Adamnan, the biographer of Columba; the former of whom tells us that, previous to the battle of the Grampians, the union of the various tribes was ratified by solemn rites and sacrifices, and the latter, that Columba’s efforts at conversion were strenuously opposed by the diabolical arts and incantations of the Magi.
It appears from Adamnan that fountains were particularly objects of veneration; the superstitious awe with which many fountains and wells are regarded at the present day, being doubtless a remnant at the present day, being doubtless a remnant of the ancient Pictish religion. Tress, rivers, and lakes, as well as the heavenly bodies, appear also to have been objects of religious regard, and not a few of the customs which exist in Scotland at the present day have been inherited from our Pictish ancestors. Such are many of the rites performed on Hallow’en, Beltane, Midsummer, &c, and many every-day superstitions still prevalent in the country districts of Scotland.
“Druidism is said to have acknowledged a Supreme Being, whose name was synonymous with the Eastern Baal, and if so, was visibly represented by the sun; and such remnants of the ancient worship as are still traceable in the language of the people, would indicate its having been a species of sun-worship. To this day the four leading points of the compass bear, in the terms which designate them among the Gael, marks of this. The east is ear, like the Latin oriens, from the Gaelic eiridh, ‘to rise’; the west is iar, ‘after’, used also as a preposition; the south is deas, and the north tuath; and it is in the use of these terms that the reverence for the solar luminary chiefly appears. Deas, ‘the south’, is in all circumstances right; it is the right hand, which is easily intelligible, from the relation of that hand to the south when the face looks eastward; and it is expressive of whatever is otherwise right. Deas also means complete, trim, ready’ whatever is deas, or southerly, is just as it should be. Tuath, ‘north’, is the very opposite.
Tuathaisd is a ‘stupid fellow’; Tuathail is ‘wrong’ in every sense; south and north, then, as expresed in the words deiseal and tuathail, are, in the Gaelic language, the representatives of right and wrong. Thus everything that is to move prosperously among many of the Celts, must move sunwise: a boat going to sea must turn sunwise; a man or women immediately after marriage, must make a turn sunwise. There are relics of fire-worship too; certain days are named from fire-fighting; Beallteine, or ‘the first day of winter’, the former supposed to mean the fire of Baal or Bel, the latter closing the saimhre, or summer period of the year, and bringing in the geamhre, or winter period, are sufficient evidence of this. There are places in Scotland where within the memory of living men the teine eigin, or ‘forced fire’, was lighted once every year by the rubbing of two pieces of wood together, while every fire in the neighbourhood was extinguished in order that they might be lighted anew from this sacred source.
Many of the antiquities which are scattered over the north of Scotland, such as stone circles, monoliths, sculptured stones, rocking stones, &c, are very generally supposed to have been connected with religion. From the resemblance of the circles especially, to those which exist in South Britain and in France, it has been supposed that one religion prevailed over these countries. As Druidism is so commonly believed to have prevailed among the Picts as well as among the other inhabitants of Britain, we shall here give a brief account of that system, chiefly as we find it given by Caesar of the character and functions of the Druids:
“They attend to divine worship, perform public and private sacrifices, and expound matters of religion. A great number of youths are gathered round them for the sake of education, and they enjoy the highest honour in that nation; for nearly all public and private quarrels come under their jurisdiction; and when any crime has been committed, when a murder had been perpetrated, when a controversy arises about a legacy, or about landmarks, they are the judges too. They fix rewards and punishments; and should any one, whether a private individual or a public man, disobey their decrees, then they exclude him from the sacrifices. All these Druids have one chief, who enjoys the highest authority amongst them. When he dies, he is succeeded by the member of the order who is most prominent amongst the other, if there be any such single individual; if, however, there are several men equally distinguished, the successor is elected by the Druids. Sometimes they even go to war about this supremacy.
“The Druids take no part in warfare; nor do they pay taxes like the rest of the people; they are exempt from military service, and from all public burdens. Attracted by such rewards, many come to be instructed by their own choice, while others are sent by their parents. They are reported to learn in the school a great number of verses, so that some remain there twenty years. They think it an unhallowed thing to commit their lore to writing, though in the other public and private affairs of life they frequently make use of the Greek alphabet. Beyond all things, they are desirous to inspire a belief that men’s souls do not perish, but transmigrate after death from one individual to another; and besides, they hold discourses about the stars, about the size of the world and of various countries, about the nature of things, and about the power and might of the immortal gods”.
Among the objects of druidikal veneration the oak is said to have been particularly distinguished; for the Druids imagined that there was a supernatural virtue in the wood, in the leaves, in the fruit, and above all in the mistletoe. Hence the oak woods were the first places of their devotion; and the offices of their religion were there performed without any covering but the broad canopy of heaven. The part appropriated for worship was enclosed in a circle, with which was placed a pillar of stone set up under an oak, and sacrifices were offered thereon. The pillars which mark the sites of these places of worship are still to be seen; and so great is the superstitious veneration paid by the country people to those sacred stones, as they are considered, that few persons have ventured to remove them.
Besides the immunities before-mentioned enjoyed by the Druids, they also possessed both civil and criminal jurisdiction, they decided all controversies among states as well as among private persons; and whoever refused to submit to their awards was exposed to the most severe penalties. The sentence of excommunication was pronounced against him; he was debarred all intercourse with his fellow-citizens; his company was universally shunned as profane and dangerous; he was refused the protection of law; and death itself became an acceptable relief from the misery and infamy to which he was exposed.