The Latin term Picti was first used by Eumenius in 297 AD to describe people living somewhere beyond the northern frontier of Roman Britain. It is unknown whether this word was originally derived from a native name. Fourth-century commentators provide slightly more information: Ammianus Marcellinus stated that the Picti were divided into two peoples – Dicalydones and Verturiones – and another author wrote about ” Calidones and other Picti .” At least one of these names, Calidones , has been preserved in a number of place-names, including Dunkeld (fort of the Caledonians) and Schiehallion (fairy hill of the Caledonians).

Early references to contacts between Picts and Gaels indicate that an interpreter was needed. It is generally thought this may have been necessary because Pictish was a P-Celtic language whereas Gaelic is a Q-Celtic language. While the Pictish language has been lost, some words of Pictish origin have been preserved in modern Scottish Gaelic and in place-names. Probably the most important of these words is the prefix Pit- (or Pett-), indicating a portion of land. Place- names of this type can be found near Old Deer, for example Pitsligo, and others are contained in the Gaelic notes written into the Book of Deer.

Very little is known about the Picts before the seventh century although a royal fortress belonging to an important late-sixth-century king, Brude mac Maelchon, was probably located near the river Ness, in Inverness-shire. Between c.600 AD and c.800 AD the Gaelic annals of Ulster and Tigernach contain a number of references to kings of Pictland and to wars between Picts, Britons, Gaels,and Anglo-Saxons. In probably one of the most significant battles during this period, king Ecgfrith of Northumbria was defeated by the Picts at Nechtanesmere, near Forfar, in 685 AD. Thereafter, it is possible that Picts ruled in eastern Scotland until 848 AD when Cináed mac Alpín (Kenneth I) gained the undisputed kingship of both Pictland and Dál Riata, possibly with help from the Norse. This assumption of Pictish kingship by a Gael did not mean the kingdom of the Picts came to an end. Both Cináed and his descendants continued to be described as kings of Picts in Gaelic annals until the end of the ninth century when the name of the kingdom changed from Pictland to Alba.

The Pictish people are probably best known for their enigmatic symbol stones which can be found throughout much of mainland Scotland (north of the Forth-Clyde line) and the Islands . The stones are divided into three categories: Class I, Class II and Class III. Class I stones are typically un-dressed slabs or rough boulders which display only incised Pictish animal and abstract symbols. Class II stones usually consist of shaped slabs carved in relief with Pictish symbols on one side and a Christian cross on the reverse. Class III stones are again dressed and carved in relief although they display no Pictish symbols. One of these stones, six feet in height but now lost, was located in the grounds of the Cistercian Abbey of Deer until the nineteenth century and probably belonged to Class I even though a cross was carved on the opposite side of the slab from the symbols (the cross was inverted in relation to the Pictish symbols, which might suggest that the original stone had been turned upside-down before the cross was added). Other Class I stones in Banff and Buchan have been found at Fetterangus, Tirie, Turriff and Fyvie.