Posts tagged ‘St.Columba’

Nov 26, 2021

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