Book of Deer to return to North-east Scotland for the first time in a millennium

For the first time in more than 1000 years, the Book of Deer, possibly Scotland’s oldest surviving manuscript, will return to the North-east in 2022.

By Kevin McRoberts
Thursday, 2nd December 2021, 7:19 am
The Book of Deer contains the earliest surviving Gaelic writing from Scotland.
The Book of Deer contains the earliest surviving Gaelic writing from Scotland.

The community heritage group The Book of Deer Project, based in Aden Country Park, has secured £128,588 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to bring the 10th century text back to the area where it is believed to have originated.

It will be on loan from Cambridge University Library, where it has been since 1715, and will be exhibited at Aberdeen Art Gallery in summer 2022, during the Year of Scotland' s Stories.

The Book of Deer is a rare example of a pocket gospel book, and was produced for private use rather than for church services. It contains the oldest surviving example of written Scots Gaelic in the world within its margins.

The Book of Deer programme of community cultural events will include a further archaeological dig at the Abbey of Deer.

Plans to celebrate the temporary return of the Book of Deer are well underway and a series of cultural events will take place in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to celebrate the book and its heritage.

The programme will include a further archaeological dig at the Abbey of Deer, thought to be the site of the early mediaeval monastery where the Book of Deer was annotated with the earliest written Gaelic.

This community excavation will take place over 10 weeks in summer 2022, the longest excavation yet, hoping to find the Monastery of Deer following 11 years of searching. The project will engage with the community and schools in the area, allowing children, young people and others to be actively involved in the excavation.

The partnership project is led by the Book of Deer Project and includes Cambridge University Library, Aberdeen City Council / Aberdeen Art Gallery, Live Life Aberdeenshire, the sports and cultural service of Aberdeenshire Council, the University of Aberdeen and Cameron Archaeology Ltd.

The Book of Deer will be loaned from Cambridge University next year, and will be exhibited at Aberdeen Art Gallery.

Anne Simpson, chair of the Book of Deer Project, said: “We act as the catalyst for renewed interest, research, and community engagement surrounding the book in the north-east of Scotland and beyond. The central objective of our project is to celebrate the book and its heritage in a modern context.

“We’re delighted to be awarded £128,588 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund which has helped ensure the Book of Deer will be accessible to the wider public next summer, fittingly coinciding with the Year of Scotland’s Stories. Our strong partnership approach was key in securing the funding.

“In its decades of operations, the Book of Deer Project has created and maintained a range of activities within the local area and beyond, with members participating in our programmes and attending our excavations from across the world. We hope that the 2022 programme will enable us to develop and maintain the sense of community that comes from such heritage work.

“Ours is a small corner of the world, but it is an important one. The return of the Book of Deer and the exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery, along with the community dig and cultural programme, will allow us to celebrate the manuscript’s links with North-east Scotland in a manner it deserves.”

The Book of Deer Project has welcomed people from across the world to take part in previous excavations.

Dr Jessica Gardner, Cambridge University Librarian, added: “The Book of Deer is of supreme cultural importance to Scotland generally, and for the North-east of Scotland in particular, and this project has our strongest and warmest support.

“It offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect new audiences with heritage in an inspirational way that will leave a lasting legacy.”

The Book of Deer Project has been working to increase the profile of this internationally significant book for many years, and Councillor Anne Stirling, chair of Aberdeenshire Council's Communities Committee said the award of lottery funding was testament to all the hard work that’s gone in so far.

She added: “I’m really looking forward to seeing more details of the cultural programme which will help mark the return of the book and hopefully highlight the existence and importance of this text among many people who may never have heard of it until this point.

Cambridge University Library is the permanent home of the Book of Deer.

“Just imagine how exciting it would be if the community dig next summer was finally able to identify the site of the Monastery of Deer, adding further to the fascinating story of the Book of Deer and its legacy in the North-east.”

The University of Aberdeen is also delighted to be part of this project.

Dr Jenny Downes, Exhibitions & Public Programming Manager, said: “Artefacts like the Book of Deer, and the 200,000 plus rare books and unique manuscripts the University holds in its own collections, are invaluable in shining a light on our past.”

Ali Cameron, from Cameron Archaeology Ltd, explained the grant would fund one of the largest excavations of an early mediaeval site and the mapping of all the features uncovered.

“This will allow us to make plans of the remains of the buildings that we know are under the ground in the field west of Deer Abbey,” said Ali. “We know that we have an early mediaeval site but the layout of the buildings, the finds and the dating will help us determine whether it was the monastery where the Scots Gaelic was written in the margins of the Book of Deer, or another important Pictish site.

“Whatever happens we have discovered a very exciting site and our students and volunteers are ready to come along and help with this dig.”