A War Over Deerhounds

The Picts were a tribe of people who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval time (as an aside, the Picts may also have been the earliest documented link to tattooing in Europe since it was common for both sexes to be heavily tattooed). Many historians believe that their involvement in an epic battle may be the earliest mention of the Scottish Deerhound.

As the story goes, some young Pict warriors went on a deer hunt with the King of Scots of Crathinluth, each taking their own dogs along to help in the hunt. In hindsight, the Picts either should have stayed home, or left the dogs behind. The King’s Deerhounds were so vastly superior to the Picts’ dogs that, well, it was embarrassing.

As a kind gesture, the king gave some of his best males and females to the Picts they could breed their own Deerhounds. What did the King get in return?  Certainly not gratitude. The Picts stole the King’s favorite dog. One source says that the theft was a simple prank inspired by a night of heavy drinking. The young ruffs took the hound to the edge of the forest and hid it, but an experienced old warrior who had always been in charge of Crathinluth’s dogs figured out what had happened and tracked the dog down.

He was about to return to the King when the miscreants intercepted him. Talking trash only escalated already percolating tempers, and it didn’t take long for swords to be drawn.  Here, accounts vary as to what happened next. One source writes that one of the Picts pretended to attack the old warrior, but the stolen dog, quiet until now, leapt at the Pict in defense of his person. The dog was stabbed through the heart, and the dog’s keeper, in trying to protect the dog, was also struck down. Now they both lay dead.

In a different version, the Pict thieves were chased even before the dog was hidden, and a melee erupted just as they were about to be overtaken. One hundred Picts and sixty noble Scotsmen were killed, and when it was over, no one could remember why they started to fight in the first place. It didn’t keep survivors from either side from saying it was the other that had launched an unprovoked attack.  Parents will recognized this as the classic “S/he started it.”

Now things got really bad. King Crathinluth sent word to the Pictish courts that the perpetrators were to be handed over, and started to raise an army. The Picts saw his demand as an insult, and they, too, called together their warriors in preparation for a battle.  In the end, two thousand Picts and three thousand Scotsmen were killed, and it would be accurate to say it was over a Deerhound.

In the 1919 issue of National Geographic, Volumes 35-36 (dated around 1919),  it was written that in olden times, possession of a fine Deerhound was of sufficient consequence for tribes to go war.  The Picts proved it.

Image: Scottish Deerhound in various poses, a page from the Hutchinsons Encycopedia of Dogs published in 1934. Available now here.

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