The Book of Deer – is it coming home?

I was vaguely aware of The Book of Deer but then I recently read an article on The Scotsman site called “Pictish-era book that features earliest example of written Gaelic to come home“; it’s by Alison Campsie and is dated 28 August.  It got my attention because it seemed to marry two of my recent themes: Gaelic and the return of heritage items.  (See previous posts: “Gaelic was never spoken here!”   and also Bringing them all back home Part 1   and Bringing them all back home Part 2.)

Anyway, Leabhar Dheir as it’s known in Gaelic dates from between the 8th and 10th century CE and contains the earliest known example of written Gaelic, 200 to 300 years older than anything else we have.  It’s primarily an illustrated religious text in Latin which was produced by monks at the nearby monastery but in the margins and on blank pages there are later notes in Gaelic about local land transactions.  I was intrigued by the fact that it’s been in the possession of Cambridge University since 1715 when it was gifted to them by George I; the Book of Deer Project have been in talks with the university for “many years”, according to the Scotsman article, and they have “now agreed that it can go on loan”.  Not before time I would say.  The article also considered where the book should go on display – in Old Deer itself or in the library of Aberdeen University.  I’m for Old Deer.

The origin of the placename Deer is interesting.  In the same way that Gleneagles has nothing to do with eagles, Deer has nothing to do with deer.  George Mackay in his Scottish Place Names attributes it to the Gaelic word doire meaning a small grove of oak trees but I’ve also seen it more fancifully described online as from the Gaelic for teardrop deur because of the tears shed by St Drostan when he parted from St Columba at the monastery there.

How and why the book left Old Deer is now not known but the newspaper article suggested it was taken south by Edward I and this is certainly the belief of Derek Jennings, the leader of the Book of Deer Project whom I saw on a BBC Alba programme.  He believes it was a “powerful local symbol” and Edward stole it so he could “hold sway over the local people”.  Mr Jennings concedes though that this is just a theory and that nobody now knows.

The University of Cambridge Digital Library site records former owners as Thomas Gale (1635 – 1702), John Moore (1646 – 1714) and George I.  The origin place is recorded as “Scotland ?”  –  which made me snort  –  and their text hedges their bets: “scholars have tended to argue for a Scottish origin” …… “association with Deer” …… “reasonable to assume that the manuscript was at Deer” when the Gaelic or Middle Irish additions were made.  One of these land transactions actually names David I so I’d have thought that was pretty conclusive.  Wikipedia is bolder, saying it was “looted during the Wars of Scottish Independence”.

An article on the Ancient Origins site by a Kristen C tells us it was ‘discovered’ by a Cambridge University librarian called Henry Bradshaw around 1860 and that how it got from Aberdeenshire into England “remains a mystery”.  She says of the Gaelic writings that their “credibility has been called into question by some, others argue the writing is completely authentic.”  Well, no surprises there.

I sat down to watch the BBC Alba programme Air Toir Manachainn Dheir about the search for the lost monastery at Deer with some excitement but oh my, it was neither fish nor fowl.  If you like to watch folk digging in a field, this is a programme for you; of its 59 minutes, I’d say a good 40 are concerned with moving earth from one place to another but gripping it was not.  There were some interesting moments however and I learned a few new things about the book and about the monastery where it was written but these were scattered through the programme, maybe deliberately so.

The margins of the book were used to record the land transactions as writing materials were scarce.  The book was “a gem in the history of Scotland”.  Deer Abbey, now a ruin, was built in the 13th century, at least 500 years after the monastery.  Derek Jennings, the project leader, had been looking for the site of the monastery for 9 years – the programme was first shown in January 2018 and the dig took place in July 2017.

There were two sections of interview with Michelle Macleod from the Gaelic Department at Aberdeen University.  She spoke about the book’s place in the linguistic history of Scotland and in the life of the local people; it showed that Gaelic was then the language of business and of the law in the north east which gave the lie to the often-used expression “Gaelic was never spoken here”.  Indeed!  This point was also made by one of the excavators, a Gaelic speaker herself who knew that Gaelic had been present in the north east for a long time.

After the strimming, the de-turfing, the digging, the trowelling, the sieving, the measuring and the recording, the finds themselves came near the end of the programme: the remains of a fireplace, probably used for metalworking and the site of another building with the remains of stone structures and of post holes from a previously unknown settlement.  The most important artefacts  –  a piece of handmade pottery and charcoal from the hearth  –  were dated to the 13 / 14th and to the 12 / 13th centuries respectively so the chief archaeologist was not downhearted.

Neither was the redoubtable Mr Jennings and his search for the actual site of the monastery goes on.  He’s certainly had a victory in persuading Cambridge University to loan The Book of Deer and I look forward to much wider publicity when it finally comes home to the north east.  I also hope that BBC Alba are planning another programme about the book itself and its pride of place in our cultural and linguistic history.

(This is the first post I’ve done since WordPress changed its layout and it’s been a truly ghastly experience trying to escape from the Block Editor.  I have felt myself age in the process and had to take a healing walk in the garden.  I couldn’t get a picture of the book which was not copyrighted which was maybe just as well as trying to add it could have tipped me over the edge.  I will need to gather my forces before attempting another post.)


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