Archaeologists come closer to uncovering the long-lost medieval ‘Book of Deer’ monastery

archaeology-lost-book-of-deer-monastery_2Credit: The Book of Deer Project

Historically, the 10th century Book of Deer (Leabhar Dhèir in Gaelic) is known for featuring the earliest surviving Gaelic writing from Scotland, and as such the manuscript in itself is one of the oldest surviving specimens found in the region. And while over the years, historians have presumed that the manuscript was made at Deer, Aberdeenshire, the associated monastery was seemingly lost to rigors of time. That is until now, with recent excavations (conducted by researchers at the Book of Deer Project) bringing the archaeologists closer to identifying the 1,000-year old lost Pictish Christian site.


Portrait of Luke, Folio 29 verso from the Book of Deer. Source: Wikimedia Commons

To that end, during the tenth excavation made by the research team, the experts were able to uncover a hearth along with a thick layer of charcoal – with both dating from circa 1147 – 1260 AD, a time period that does coincide with the late monastic period. And interestingly enough, the archaeologists also came across the remnants of a stone layer and post holes, which indicate that the site did boast a substantial structure (probably still buried underground from a millennium of accumulated dirt and vegetation). Bruce Mann, an archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council, said –

This project has for many years worked hard to identify the location of the lost monastic site. These latest discoveries may at last hint that the mystery has finally been solved. More work obviously has to happen, but regardless of what this finally turns out to be, it is a significant find for not only Old Deer, but Aberdeenshire and beyond too.

Quite intriguingly, the identification of the few of these structural remnants was only made possible because the researchers shifted their focus from the nearby village fields to the area around the proximate Deer Abbey – the early 13th-century church that was constructed after the monastery was abandoned. As the leader of the excavation project, Ali Cameron, of Cameron Archaeology, said –

This is a site that we don’t know anything about. The possibility of locating one building and perhaps more nearby would be of national importance. The team are very excited about this.


Credit: Cameron Archaeology

And while the current excavations are expected to lead to the long-lost ‘Book of Deer’ monastery, the Aberdeen University is also in talks with the Cambridge University to bring back the fascinating pocket-sized medieval Gaelic manuscript for a year-long exhibition. This, in essence, alludes to the historical legacy of the region, with the Book of Deer itself containing notes in its margins (written by the medieval Scottish monks) about the various aspects of 10th-century local life. Dr. Michelle Macleod, lecturer in Gaelic at Aberdeen University, described –

The Gaelic notes in the book are the first written examples of Scottish Gaelic. There are some deviations in the language from the shared common Gaelic of Scotland and Ireland which had been used in earlier manuscripts. These deviations, of which there are several, are the first written indication that the languages are separating and would be an indication of what people were likely saying. The Book of Deer is a tiny book but it has left a huge legacy for us, not only in the north-east but for the whole of Scotland. We had to wait another 200-300 years after the Book of Deer to find any more evidence of written Scottish Gaelic.

Anne Simpson, chair of the Book of Deer Project, further added –

The book is as significant as the Book of Kells in Dublin but it is still amazing how even people locally don’t know about it. We have been looking for the monastery for a long time, so there is a great deal of excitement about the discoveries.


Credit: Cameron Archaeology

Source: The Scotsman / Image Credits (except Featured Image): Cameron Archaeology