FOR many Scottish people interested in history, the recent news that traces had been found of an ancient lost monastery in Aberdeenshire probably didn’t mean too much to them.

If confirmed, and the evidence is looking pretty good, then the lost monastery is close to ruined Deer Abbey in the ancient earldom of Buchan, just off the A950 close to the village of Old Deer and the Aden Country Park.

It would be a leap of faith, of course, but those searching for it could finally say with some certainty that they had found Deer Monastery, ancient home of the Book of Deer.

Any student of Scottish history worth their salt knows that the Book of Deer is probably the oldest extant Scottish manuscript and certainly the oldest to contain written Scots Gaelic. It gets its name from the fact that it was kept at the abbey and was possibly written at the monastery before that – as it contains Latin and words from both Irish and Scottish Gaelic, it might well have been written at various times and places, but the accepted version is that it was produced at Deer Monastery in the days before St Margaret and her beginning of the century-long “Romanisation” of Scottish Christianity.

It is definitely the only pre-Norman manuscript from this area which was formerly known as the land of the Picts before it became part of Alba.

The early writings were all made in Latin, but the 12-century additions are in Gaelic along with Celtic illuminations.

Aside from being the oldest pieces of Gaelic writing to have survived from early mediaeval Scotland, the Book of Deer also offers unique insight into the early church, culture and society of this period.

As regular readers will know, I tend to let the experts give their opinions on such matters as the importance of documents. Here’s what Dr Michelle MacLeod, lecturer in Gaelic at Aberdeen University, told The Scotsman yesterday: “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.”

So what happened to the monastery and to the book between it being written and turning up in England nearly 800 years later?

It has always been known that Deer Abbey was built by William Comyn, Lord of Badenoch and Earl of Buchan, for the Cistercian order in the years 1213 to 1219, after which the 600-year-old Deer Monastery fell into disuse and disrepair before vanishing from the records. Yet that old monastery bequeathed something magical to the abbey and to us.

The Book of Deer is hardly known in Scotland and that is a massive shame, because in a real sense it is our Book of Kells. It does not have the extraordinary illuminated text of Kells, and the calligraphy of Deer is plain compared to that of Kells, but both come from the same tradition of “pocket gospels” in Columban or “Celtic” Christianity that was the dominant religion in Scotland and Ireland in the latter part of the first millennium – Kells pre-dates Deer which was most probably written in the 10th century AD.

It is not the original writing which is the key to the Book of Deer, however. It is the notes made in margins and in breaks of text by the monks of Deer monastery that marks out the Book as utterly historic.

For those notes – seven of them, written by five different hands – are the first written examples of Scottish Gaelic to be found anywhere in the world. They include notes about the foundation of Deer Monastery by St Columba’s follower St Drostan around 600AD.

Legend has it that Drostan became the founding abbot of Deer when St Columba moved to the Buchan area on his mission to convert the Picts to Christianity. The local Pictish chief gave them land after Columba cured the illness of one of his sons, and Columba left Drostan, who had come over from Ireland with him, to run the new foundation.

We do not know when exactly the monks at Deer wrote the manuscript, but somewhere around 900 AD would fit the bill. They obviously knew the legend, and one of the monks clearly decided to make it written history, for the margin note about Columba translates as follows: “Columba and Drostán son of Coscrach, his disciple, came from Iona, as God guided them, to Aberdour; and Bede the Pict was mormaer (earl) of Buchan on their arrival; and it was he who bestowed on them that monastery, in freedom. till Doomsday from mormaer and toísech.

“They came after that to the other monastery [Deer], and it pleased Columba, for it was full of the grace of God. And he begged the mormaer, that is, Bede, that he should give it to them, and he did not. And a son of his took a sickness, after the clerics had been refused, and was all but dead. Thereupon the mormaer went to beseech the clerics that they should make a prayer on behalf of the boy, that health might come to him; and he gave them [land] as a grant from Cloch in Tiprat as far as Cloch Peitte Meic-Gartnait .

“They made the prayer, and health came to him. Thereupon Columba gave Drostán that monastery, and blessed it, and left the curse that whoever should go against it should not be full of years or success. Drostán’s tears [ déra ] came as he was parting from Columba. Columba said, ‘Let Deer be its name from this on.’”

IT follows, therefore, that finding the monastery’s exact location would be phenomenal as it would be a direct link to St Columba – and we have so very few of them outside Iona.

According to the BBC which will run a documentary on BBC Alba tomorrow night on the decade-long archaeological excavation of the site, the site of the lost-but-possibly-found Deer Monastery can actually be seen from the ruined Deer Abbey, which at one time played a vital role in the life of the north-east of Scotland before the Reformation put it out of action.

The Cistercian monks had to abandon Deer Abbey before or during the Reformation, and no one at all knew what happened to the ancient monastery which was presumably in ruins even then.

Did the Book of Deer go with them? Probably not, as the abbey had lost its final abbot in 1543 and was overseen by a dommendator, Robert Keith, after the Reformation when he and his family protected the property at first.

The abbey ruins survive, so has the monastery now turned up? The proximity of the finds near the remains of the abbey are very exciting for the archaeologists on the dig and also for the historians involved in the Deer Book Project, one of whose aims is to return the manuscript to Scotland for a year from its current home in Cambridge University Library.

You read that correctly – one of this country’s earliest and greatest treasures now resides in Cambridge University Library, which has owned the manuscript since 1715.

The bookofdeer website tells us how it got there: “The Book of Deer came into the ownership of Cambridge University Library in 1715, when the library of the Bishop of Ely and Norwich was presented to the former by George I. Before that, the Book of Deer may have been in the possession of Dr Gale, high master of St Paul’s School (1672-97).

“The stages by which it moved from the North East of Scotland to the South of England are by no means clear. Even Cambridge University Library was unaware of its significance until it was discovered in 1860 by Henry Bradshaw, the librarian at that time.”

The key figure in that provenance list is Dr Thomas Gale, a voracious collector of ancient manuscripts and other antiquities, a passion he instilled in his sons Roger and Samuel – it is no exaggeration to say that our knowledge of ancient British history, especially that of England, would have been very incomplete without their collecting habits.

Thomas Gale was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and left some of his books to the university library, including the Book of Deer.

How did he get hold of it? The likelihood is that Gale obtained it from the successful predations of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army in Scotland in the 1650s following the disastrous Battle of Dunbar.

It is known that many valuable items made their way south from Scotland along with General George Monck and his large retinue when they returned to England at the time of the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

It is all too easy to see that Monck or someone else from Cromwell’s army who had spent time in Aberdeenshire brought the Book of Deer with them and flogged it to a collector like Gale.

Should it be returned to Scotland? It’s the Elgin Marbles argument all over again, and don’t forget, he was a Scot who raided Athens for the eponymous treasures.

Cambridge University Library has indicated its willingness to loan the Book of Deer to the project for a year and that might have to satisfy us.

Other treasures such as the Bruce Scrolls and the Dunkeld Lectern are also south of the Border, but whether they need to be repatriated is a discussion for another day. I am sure there are others, too.

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