The Book of Deer: so important to Scotland it should be repatriated

Leabhar Dhèir, the Book of Deer, is returning to Scotland, until next summer. In these times when questions are being asked about the ethics of artefacts held in museums and libraries outside of where they originated, often acquired through nefarious means, it is right that we question why one of Scotland’s most significant documents is not being retained in Scotland instead of being returned to England.

So what’s special about the Book of Deer? It is ancient, the earliest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland and unusual in the variety of its contents. What began life as an illuminated gospel book in the 10th century (between 800 and 900 AD) written in Latin and containing some fairly basic illustrations was a couple of centuries later used to record all sorts of information on pre-feudal life in Scotland. Those Latin texts of the liturgical manuscript gave way to vernacular Gaelic, early Celtic Gaelic, that was different from later forms of the language. In short, the Book of Deer provides us with a window into the world of Alba under the Picts and Celts and is a unique contemporary record of those times.   

Those times have long been written off by historians as – the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages when it was said nothing much happened between Roman domination and the Norman Conquests in England. Haverings, of course. One transformational event that occurred then was the Christianisation of the people of Alba with monasteries established across the north which were centres for spreading the Christian gospel – a monastery for each of the Pictish tribes sometimes covering extensive areas and very different from later local churches serving small parishes. One such monastery was at Deer in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire, founded by the missionary evangelist, St Columba and his disciples.  

The first monastery of Deer was probably set up in the seventh century and it is likely the Book of Deer was compiled by a scribe from the monastery. Perhaps the scribe also drew the manuscript’s illustrations. We shall probably never know. A later monastery run by Cistercians was built in the same area.

The Book of Deer

The Book of Deer is small, consisting of 86 parchment leaves,6 inches long and 4 ½ inches broad. In it the Gospel of St John is written out in full along with abridged fragments from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – all in Latin. Each initial letter of the gospels is enlarged and decorated with muted colour and the ends of the principal strokes of the letters terminate in dogs’ heads. As is usual with illuminated manuscripts page borders are also adorned – here mainly with interlaced ribbons and patterns.

The really interesting thing about the Book of Deer are its later additions; the vernacular Gaelic which makes this book hugely significant in historical terms for Scotland with its references to land grants and copy of a formal royal charter from King David I. This was a time in Scotland when agreements were verbal, verified by witnesses, a custom that was abolished by the incoming Queen Margaret from England.

Early Scotland or Alba was largely matriarchal and divided up into seven provinces. Leadership succession ran along lines of brothers not down through the generations of sons i.e. they followed through the female line and not through sons of a marriage. A woman’s husband could hold land through his relationship with his wife but was dependent on her and not through his superior male status. Each tribe or clan was ruled by a mormaer, chiefs or toisechs, brehons or judges and town lands had fixed boundaries and throughout all were rights and burdens.

The Book of Deer

How and when the Book of Deer was removed from Aberdeenshire is not known, as far as I can find out, but from the fourteenth century there was great demand from book collectors for illuminated manuscripts so it’s likely it found a buyer somewhere and by 1697 it was in England, in the collection of John Moore, Bishop of Norwich and Ely. Moore was an enthusiastic book and manuscript collector with an enviable library of very early works. When he died in 1714 his vast library was bought for 6,000 guineas by George I so it could be given to the University of Cambridge, which it was, in 1715. There in the university library it lay unnoticed for nearly 150 years until librarian Henry Bradshaw discovered this wee gem, in 1860.

The double life of the Book of Dee from traditional religious text to a record of 12th century Scotland makes it one of vital importance and surely there is a strong case for it to stay in Scotland where it belongs and from where it should never have left.

The Book of Deer

6 Responses to “The Book of Deer: so important to Scotland it should be repatriated”

  1. Well …. yes to it coming back permanently to Scotland but don’t see why National Museums in Edinburgh should automatically have it. There’s too much centralisation there already, I think.
    Why do they get the Galloway Hoard rather than it being permanently in Kirkcudbright Galleries? Why is the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure not on Shetland or the Migdale Hoard not at History Links in Dornoch? Why does Biggar Museum only have photographs of two torques and a carved stone ball found locally while the actual objects are in Edinburgh?
    There’s plenty to see in Edinburgh and surely objects should be displayed close to where they were found or originated so that folk – locals as well as visitors – can see them, benefitting not only the local economy but giving local people a real connection to the folk that went before.
    Sorry about rant but I’m turning into a hard-liner on this!

  2. Excellent article – and yes, it’s a disgrace that it’s just returning to Scotland on loan. It should be returned permanently to its homeland: to Old Deer or at least to Aberdeen.
    Derek Jennings, of the Book of Deer Project, thinks the book was taken by Edward 1 of England as it was a “powerful local symbol” though he concedes this is just a theory. George 1 gave it to Cambridge University in 1715 and they have a record of two previous owners in the17th century.
    Unsurprisingly, there was no information about how it got to Cambridge on the BBC news website article.
    And if I can put my tuppence worth in on the name Deer: George Mackay cites the Gaelic doire (a small grove of oak trees) as the original name but I’ve also read online that it could be from another Gaelic word deur (a teardrop) as St Drostan wept when he parted there from St Columba.

    • Thank you Bella. I did wonder if it was part of the items plundered by Edward I. I would be on favour of it being kept at the National Museums of Scotland, if not Aberdeen. It’s a no-brainer that it must come back to Scotland. L.

  3. Can you clarify the name of this book, please. It seems from its origins to be “The Book of Dee” but is the word “Deer” derivative of Dee?

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