Pictavia sheds light on the fierce but musical 'painted people' who gave Scotland's invaders so much trouble, says Esther Read.
Situated just off the A90 at Brechin in Angus, Pictavia invites you to step back into the dark, mysterious age of the Picts. Little is known about them or how long they were in Scotland before the Romans invaded in 79AD and began their conflicts with this enigmatic people.
As you cross the threshold of Pictavia Visitors' Centre, which opened last month, the only things visible through the gloom are oddly shaped symbols of light rotating under your feet and a legend on the wall giving the meaning of the Roman word picti - "the painted people".
Move forward into the next area and a silent video throws up scenes of blasted heathlands, rocks and streams, while from the distance strange sounds emanate - people crying out, horses' hooves and the clash of steel. This is the bloody Battle of Dunnichen, a triumph for the Picts in 685AD against the invading King of Northumberland. Scenes from the battle, presented as they might have been on Pictish stones, are illuminated in turn as the deafening noise continues.
It's a well-judged introduction to the main museum, reflecting the popular view of the Picts, who are known primarily for their curious symbols and their reputation for barbarism. In all other regards, these are truly a "lost people" as many teachers who have to investigate them as part of the environmental studies programme for 5 to 14-year-olds in Scotland will testify. Material on the Egyptians and Vikings abounds but on the Picts there is comparatively little.
The museum is now organised for school visits and a resource pack is being prepared. Local primary teachers - Jane Paton, Rhona Manzi and Sheila Ladbrook from Lochside, Beth Dow from Southesk, Susan Steel from Pitkennedy and Kim Walker from Lethnot, together with primary adviser Marlyn Preston - have been hard at work producing material to complement what's on offer at the centre.
They are enthusiastic about the facility even as they acknowledge its weaknesses: too much in the museum is text-based and therefore beyond the grasp of the younger age groups.
The timeline running across the top of the museum wall, for example, covers the years from 79AD, when the Romans first invaded Scotland, through 208AD when Herodian writes of these strange people given to body-painting, to 297AD when we find our first record of the word picti in a document by Eumenius. It ends in 900AD when Scotland emerged as the nation known as Alba. The line would be largely ignored by the children, if left to their own devices. However, as Rhona Manzi points out: "This is the sort of place you'd bring children as the culmination of a project. Once here they'd need to have lots of directed activities. " The touch-screen computers, by contrast, are an instant hit with pupils from Pitkennedy primary, who "Solve the Riddle of the Stones", a mainly pictorial activity in which clues help them identify the meaning of the symbols. Susan Steel says Pitkennedy pupils pass the stones at Aberlemno every day on their way to school. "They're part of the landscape but coming here allows them to put them in some kind of context."
The Tower of Sound at the heart of the museum - headphones and push-button controls - allows them to listen to the sorts of music the Picts might have danced to, used in worship, battle, or simply enjoyed as part of everyday life. Instruments used in the recordings, such as a harp, a drum and a bell, can be experimented with.
Pictavia Visitors Centre, Haughmuir, Brechin DD9 6RL. Tel: 01356 626813. Book in advance. Adults pound;2.75, schoolchildren pound;1.75