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The Pictish man’s skeleton. (NOSAS)

Medieval Murder Victim in Scotland may have been a Pictish Royal


Researchers in Scotland believe that they are closer to understanding a man who was brutally killed 1,400 years ago. His body was placed in a most unusual position in a cave and investigators believe that the skeleton, whose skull was smashed, was probably a member of the Pictish elite – possibly even a royal.

In 2016 a team of investigators from the Rosemarkie Caves Project were exploring caves along the coast of the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. In the recesses of a cave, they made a grisly discovery. They found a burial with an intact skeleton whose skull had a gaping hole. This discovery caused a sensation in Scotland.

The Skull was Smashed

The Rosemarkie Caves Project, working with other researchers, established that the man had suffered a brutal death some 1,400 years ago. The Sun reports that a forensic examination established that ‘’he died with five severe fractures to his head that may have been caused by being repeatedly hit with a weapon’’.

The dead man’s teeth were smashed, and his jaw was dislocated. Based on the nature of one of the wounds it appears that a sharp weapon was driven through the front of the man’s skull as he was lying on the ground.

According to Newsweek,  experts ‘dated the remains to between 430 and 630 AD. The man was about 30 when he died and was roughly 5 feet 6 inches (1.7 meters) tall. The researchers found his skeleton ‘’in a cross-legged position, with stones holding his limbs in place,’’ reports Newsweek.

Simon Gunn, the founder of the Rosemarkie Caves project, told STV  the ‘’cave burial could have been a way to place his body at an "entrance to the underworld" as part of a ritual’’. Curiously, the animal bones were found near his remains, which may indicate a feast.

A Pictish Man

It is believed that the dead man was a Pict, a member of a society of fierce warrior people who often went into battle naked. The Romans referred to them as the ‘’Picti, which means 'painted people'’, and this was the origin of their name, reports The Sun.

They dominated the north of Scotland from the Iron Age to the coming of the Vikings. It appears that the Picts merged with other groups and disappeared from history. They left no written records and all that is known about them is derived from other societies records and archaeology.

According to STV, the victim has become known as '’Rosemarkie man'’. Gunn told the BBC that the slain man, when alive "was a big, strong fella - built like a rugby player - very heavily built above the waist’’. There were no other wounds found on his body, which indicates that he was not a warrior and it does not seem that he lived a life of hard physical labor. In 2017, experts from the University of Dundee digitally recreated his face.

In 2017, experts from the University of Dundee digitally recreated his face. (NOSAS)

In 2017, experts from the University of Dundee digitally recreated his face. (NOSAS)

A Chieftain or a King?

The Rosemarkie Caves Project was able to establish by examining his bones that he had eaten a high-protein diet. This was not very common at the time and indicates that he ate a lot of meat. Gunn is quoted by LiveScience as stating it was almost as if he spent his days "eating nothing but suckling pigs’’. A diet that was rich in meat would indicate that the man was wealthy. This, together with the careful way he was buried, may indicate the high status of the individual.

It appears that the man who died so violently was a member of the elite, possibly a chieftain. There is also the real possibility that he was a member of a Pictish royal family. The scant sources indicate that the Picts had many kings and sub-kings. Only a member of the highest levels of Pictish society could have eaten a high-protein diet in the Dark Ages in Scotland.

Two close ups of the skull. Bottom image by Bob Jones. (NOSAS)

Two close ups of the skull. Bottom image by Bob Jones. (NOSAS)

The Rosemarkie Caves Project continues to explore the Black Isle coast and hopes to find more evidence in relation to the man brutally killed some 1,400 years ago. This may throw some light as to why the man was slain. If this mysterious killing is solved it could offer a unique insight into the Picts and their culture.

Top image: The Pictish man’s skeleton. (NOSAS)

By Ed Whelan



I don’t know if this has been suggested already: the body looks as though the victim was already in a cross-legged position on the floor when he was first struck, and then fell backwards before being struck again. If this is the case, then the place he was sitting is interesting, as its shape would provide a comfortable seat. The rock-face on the left of it seems to be smoother than the  rest of the face (though not much is visible). Was this person a permanent resident there?




Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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