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The Picts and the Martyrs is the eleventh book in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series of children's books. It was published in 1943 and set in early August 1932, at the very beginning of the summer holidays. This is the last completed book set at The Lake and features the Blackett sisters, the Amazons and the Callum siblings, the Ds. Ransome's most native character, the Great Aunt also features prominently as do many aspects of Lakeland life. The Dog's Home is based on a small stone hut built in the woods above Coniston Water close to Ransome's then residence.


Boats (etc)[]

Scarab, Amazon, the Houseboat, Rattletrap the Beckfoot car

Plot summary[]

The Ds have been invited to stay at Beckfoot at the start of the summer holidays while Mrs Blackett has gone on a cruise for her health (with her brother Jim Turner). However, when Great Aunt Maria finds out that the Blackett girls have been left at home, she decides to come and take care of them. She is unaware of the Ds' visit. Nancy Blackett insists that the Ds' holiday will not be spoiled and that they will learn to sail the Scarab, a dinghy their father has bought for them. So they move out to The Dog's Home, a small hut in the woods, and become secretive Picts while the Blacketts are martyrs to the Great Aunt.

Despite the Great Aunt's attempts to civilise the Amazon pirates, they manage to accomplish a number of adventures, although the Great Aunt suspects they are seeing the Swallows. Near the end of her visit, the Great Aunt goes missing and there is a hue and cry and search for her. The police and Tommy Jolys's firefighters take part. The Ds find her despite being the only people who shouldn't meet her. They deliver the GA back to Beckfoot in time to catch her train while Nancy manages to save the Great Aunt some embarrassment for which she gets praised in a letter to her mother.


Numbers are actual dates, in August (PM1,16) 1932; names are chapter titles. Dates and events in (parentheses) are described in the book but occur outside the book's timeline.

(Probably late July 1932): (Molly Blackett visits Nancy and Peggy at their school and tells them No wildnesses (PM1).
(earlier than 2 August 1932): (Departure of Molly Blackett and Jim Turner on a cruise around the Scandinavian coast - before 2 August as they are away for the first ten days of the holidays (PM1), they are actually absent at least the first eleven days)
(earlier during 2 August 1932): (Dorothea catches a train at Euston, Dick catches a different one near his school arriving 37min before Dorothea's train at Crewe, they meet on the through carriage which is presumably uncoupled from the main line train at Strickland Junction and coupled to the branch line train to Rio (PM2).
2 August 1932: Visitors Expected, The Visitors Arrive
3 August 1932: Out of the Blue, The Dog's Home, Transformation Scenes, "She's Here!"
4 August 1932: Secondhand News, Dealing With the Doctor, Harbour for the Scarab, Pigeons for Timothy
5 August 1932: "A Better Pict Than Either of Us", A Signal From the Lawn, Tickling Trout
6 August 1932: "They Can't Be Going to Sail...", Launching the Scarab, On Their Own
7 August 1932: Waiting for the Message, Visiting Seal
8 August 1932: "We've Never Been Burglars Before"
9 August 1932: Police!, As Others See Us
10 August 1932: Plans and Change of Plans
11 August 1932: Plans and Change of Plans, The Great Aunt Goes to See For Herself, Carefree Holiday, Totally Disappeared
12 August 1932: The Hunt is Up, The One Thing That Mustn't Happen, Three in a Boat, Great Aunt Maria Faces Her Pursuers, Reward of Virtue
(13 August 1932): (planned analysis of new copper samples on board the Houseboat ... to-morrow morning we'll get these done. Jim and Mrs Blackett can't be here till the afternoon (PM30); projected arrival of Mrs Blackett and Captain Flint at the Lake Mother comes back thirteenth (PM2); no adventures this time, not until Mother and Uncle Jim get back ... they'll be back in eleven days and after that the Swallows are coming (PM2); projected arrival of Miss Huskisson at Harrogate - You tell me your mother returns on the thirteenth. On that day I am expecting a friend whose visit I cannot defer (PM3).
(15 August 1932): (On this day Professor Callum would complete the exam marking which he had expected to take the first fortnight (PM1) of the holidays).
(16-18 August 1932): (projected arrival of the Swallows)
Described as coming in a fortnight's time on 2 August (PM1); and on 11 August as a further week away by Nancy who tells the Ds that she said to the GA "I wish they were (here now) but they aren't coming for another week. Later over supper the GA had another go, and Nancy says that she told her Not for another week, Aunt Maria" And she said "Ah!" (PM22). Nancy is probably not being deliberately deceptive here, but increases slightly the period before the Swallows arrive by rounding the time up to a week. On Scarab Dot tells the GA that the Walkers are coming next week or the week after, and the GA says Indeed ... So, I have been told. I fear I have done my nieces an injustice. Dot had not the smallest idea what the Great Aunt meant, but hopes that the GA will not ask if they know her nieces (PM28).
Mid-September: Return to school. Nancy says on Friday 12 August 1932 An awful ten days (but) five whole weeks of the holidays still to go (PM30) suggesting that the last day of the holidays is Friday 16 September.

Cross-references and chronology[]

References to other books in the Swallows and Amazons series place The Picts and the Martyrs after Pigeon Post:

  • And for nearly a year they (the Ds) had not been in the north and Peggy says they had never seen the mine since last summer (PM2).
  • The Amazons have spent the last two holidays breaking him (Timothy) in says Nancy (PM2).
  • They meet Cook who tell them that they'd grown since last year, and remind them of all the plates she had broken when, a year ago, he had startled her by making the homing pigeons ring a bell (PM2).
  • Dick looks at Colonel Jolys' notice by the phone just where it had been last year (PM2).
  • .... we made you (Timothy} and Uncle Jim walk the plank last summer (i.e. after Pigeon Post) says Nancy (PM2)
  • The GA sees Timothy, But Timothy was just like he was last year before he knew us says Peggy (PM8).
  • Dick was looking for the old pigeon cage he remembered from the mining expedition of last year and when they see the cage they see Sappho who took the message to Beckfoot that bought the firefighters just in time (PM10).
  • .... the new copper mine ... the result of their last summer's gold prospecting (PM20).
  • Mining expedition. Trek to the goldfields. As good as last year. Except that the Swallows aren't here, and Timothy's a partner instead of a hated rival (PM22).

Other references to earlier books are:

  • Cook says that the signal flag is what you had out of the window when your face was swollen up with mumps (in Winter Holiday) (PM1).
  • Dick makes a duck call to the Amazons as he remembered that owls were barred in daylight (PM22); referring to Captain Flint saying to chose blackbirds or jays instead of owl. Your Aunt Maria wants to write to the Natural History Museum .... she's never heard one at midday before .... The midday owl's put a weight on my conscience (SD24).
  • The Walkers were for ever making my nieces late for meals when I was staying at Beckfoot the summer before last (in Swallowdale) (PM23)
  • Dick had done it (picked something up from the water) in Titmouse when Tom and the Coots had been giving him lessons in sailing (in Coot Club) (PM28)


  • Picts or Ancient Britons. Prehistorics. Original inhabitants are first mentioned by Dorothea (PM3). She also talks of the real martyrs who despite the roaring lions the less they let Nero or anybody see they cared (PM13). When Timothy muttered Angels she says Martyrs, really .... You don't know what a dreadful time they've been having (PM21).
  • August is mentioned four times: the skull and crossbones poster out in the hot August sunshine (PM1); the warm August afternoon of their first sail (PM16); the warm August night of the burglary (PM19); and later the butcher's van driver says to the Great Aunt about rain and visitors coming together in August (PM23).
  • Dates in August are established by references to the Blackett’s return in Nancy’s telegram and the GA’s letter: Mother comes back thirteenth and your mother returns on the thirteenth PM1,3
  • Mrs Blackett had had influenza very badly, so Captain Flint had taken her off for a voyage and a cruise round the coasts of Scandinavia ... for the first ten days of the summer holidays (PM1).
  • The Callums live in London as they rejoiced that they had allowed to go north at once instead of having to waste the first fortnight of the holidays sweltering in London. Dot had been seen off by her mother at Euston (Euston Station, London). Dick, coming straight from school, had joined the train at Crewe (PM2). The most likely school therefore would be Shrewsbury.
  • Dick goes to the loft to find out if his bell is still working but nothing happened when he pushed his hand through. Nancy says It's not broken .... we undid the wire from the battery. We'll use it again this summer when Uncle Jim and Mother come back (PM2). But later when the Ds return from their first sail they were startled by the ringing of the bell and Dick says I ought to have reminded Nancy to take the tin tray of the bell to make it not so loud .... We ought to have cut the bell out together (PM16). Nancy says later if you heard it on the river you can guess what it was like in the house .... I tore the wire off the battery. Timothy in the houseboat has the pigeons to send messages to Beckfoot: Nancy says he's got to have the pigeons in case of anything urgent (PM8).
  • The Great Aunt is to arrive from Rio at 6pm (PM4)
  • The Swallows were coming in a fortnight's time to stay at Holly Howe (PM1). Nancy says They'll be here next week (PM24).
  • Nancy said of the GA: She was on a completely wrong tack. She'd somehow got it in her head that the Swallows were about and that we were meeting them (PM18), and that the GA was thinking that the Swallows were here when we'd told her they hadn't yet come (PM30). The GA asks Mary Swainson You have some children staying at the farm .... Not staying in the house , perhaps, but camping in tents .... they were for ever making my nieces late for meals ..... Walker, I think their name is. Mary replies No. We've seen nothing of them this year .... If the Walker children are back again, they'll be on the island most likely. They stay at Holly Howe on the other side (though) they had trouble with their boat that year (and were) camping up on the fell behind our house (PM23). When she is rescued from the houseboat the GA asks the Ds Do you know some children called Walker? ... Are they here now? and Dorothea replies Yes .... They stay at Holly Howe .... I believe they are coming next week or the week after. The GA replies Indeed .... I fear I have done my nieces an injustice (PM28).
  • There is a nice pun in the name of Chapter 17. See:
  • Dot's and Peggy's hoofmarks are the same size. Nancy says Jolly lucky Dot's got biggish hoofs for her size, so she is smaller than Peggy (PM21)
  • Sammy Lewthwaite and Billy Lewthwaite's mother, Mrs Lewthwaite, was Mrs Blackett's old nurse (PM21).
  • There are five whole weeks of the holidays to go after the story ends, and the Swallows coming, and Uncle Jim (PM30).
  • Dick is captain and Dorothea mate of Scarab.
  • The Ds go north to stay at Beckfoot as their father had to be busy for a fortnight in London correcting examination papers (PM1). In Mrs Callum’s first and third letters they are arriving later: hoping that the new boat was ready, and that they would presently be teaching her and their father how to sail (PM7) and their father was nearly through with his examination papers and looking forward to coming north and being given sailing lessons by the captain and mate of “Scarab” (PM26). In the second letter she says Do be careful. It would be a dreadful pity and most annoying for us if you both got drowned before you have had a chance of teaching us to sail. Father is still snowed under with examination papers, but he seems to spend quite a lot of time looking at a catalogue of boats for hire on the Broads and the red and blue pencils he uses for marking the examination papers are quite useful for putting crosses against the boats the look of which he likes. I think something may come of it. Presumably for a future Broads holiday as she repeats her warning at the end P.S. Mind! No getting drowned. We want to learn to sail. (PM14).
  • Mrs Barrable is in Horning, her brother Richard will be there and they will go sailing sometime in September (PM14).
  • The hardback Cape editions have dust jackets with black and white illustrations from the book on a coloured background; a different colour for each book. The Picts and the Martyrs has on the spine an illustration not in the book, showing the group on the wharf (including the old boatbuilder) launching Scarab (see for picture).
  • Arthur finished the book in August 1942. But Genia was "devasting" in her criticism of it as hopeless ..... the book as a whole is dead .... if the Swallows are not allowed to grow up .... the feeling of imitation and rehash. His mother liked the book; so Cape went ahead in December, though too late for Christmas when they had hoped to sell at least 20,000 copies (they had paper for 25,000) (Life, page 389). Arthur wrote on Genia's letter I stopped it for a year but in the end let Cape have it (they were glad to get it). Chambers commented that Genia's letter condemning the eleventh and penultimate novel in the series is often blamed for prematurely ending his career. She was his fiercest critic and deplored almost every book as it was written, only to praise it as his greatest effort to date when it was published (TLE, page 358).

Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series

Swallows and Amazons | 'Their Own Story' | Swallowdale | Peter Duck | Winter Holiday | Coot Club | Pigeon Post | We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea | The Big Six | Secret Water | Missee Lee | The Picts and the Martyrs | 'Coots in the North' | Great Northern?

This page uses content from Guide to Swallows and Amazons series by kind permission of Bill Wright.
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