A Pict Song

(notes by Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe)



This poem was first published in Puck of Pook’s Hill in 1906, in association with the story “The Winged Hats”, and reprinted in numerous subsequent editions of that collection. (See Richards p. 176).

The poem is also later collected in:

  • Songs from Books (1913)
  • Inclusive Verse (1919)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex and Burwash editions

There is a musical rendition of this by Billy Bragg here.

The theme

In “On the Great Wall” and “The Winged Hats”, the Picts are the people beyond the Great Wall. Parnesius and Pertinax, the two young men who become Captains of the Wall, make friends with Allo, a Pictish elder, hunt with him, and learn that the best way to deal with the Picts is by kindness and restraint. In Kipling’s account, the real enemies are the “Winged Hats” the Saxon pirates from across the northern seas.

In the poem the Picts are described as a small secret people, ‘little folk’, overborne by the weight of Roman power, but resenting it, and quietly working to undermine it. From Kipling, marked by his experience of British rule in India, it is a powerful evocation of the feelings of conquered peoples, and of the need for empire-builders to beware of their potential for subversion.

Notes on the text

[Title] A Pict Song: The Picts were one of the ancient peoples of Scotland, mainly from Northern and Eastern Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. In the tale they are the tribesmen of Southern Scotland and what is now Northumberland, north of Hadrian’s Wall, which was built early in the second century A.D.  and at the time of Kipling’s tale (the late fourth century) marked the northern boundary of the Empire.

Little is known of the Picts, who are thought to have been a pre-Celtic people, apart from their
decorated standing stones, and the remains of massive forts. Together with the Celtic Scots, who came from Ireland, and were dominant in the south and west, they were never in fact pacified or conquered for very long by the Romans, and for hundreds of years raided into Roman Britain. The name comes from the Latin chroniclers, and means “the painted people” (from picti), because they were heavily tattooed.

In “On the Great Wall”, the previous story in Puck of Pook’s Hill, p. 179 line 13, Allo is ‘painted blue, green, and red from his forehead to his ankles.’

[Verse 4] We are not strong, But we know Peoples that are: The Northmen, “The Winged Hats” in the story of that name which is linked to this poem in Puck of Pook’s Hill, were formidable warriors.


© Philip Holberton and John Radcliffe 2012 All rights reserved