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10th-century Book of Deer goes on show in Aberdeen

By David Porter

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Book of Deer at Aberdeen Art Gallery
Book of Deer at Aberdeen Art Gallery

For the first time in hundreds of years, the 10th-century Book of Deer has returned to the north-east, where it may have originated.

The rare example of a pocket gospel will be on display at Aberdeen Art Gallery, on loan from Cambridge University Library.

The exhibition is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and runs from Saturday, July 9 through to Sunday, October 2 and is free to visit.

The Book of Deer is of enormous cultural importance to Scotland and has particularly strong links to the north-east.

Written primarily in Latin, it dates from between the years 850 and 1000 and is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland.

Its 86 vellum folios contain the New Testament accounts of Christ’s life and teachings written by his followers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Unlike richly-decorated large-scale ceremonial manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book’s small size (it measures 157mm x 108mm) and modest decoration indicate that it is intended for private reading and prayer.

The Book contains a series of captivating illustrations: formal full and half-page depictions of what are believed to be the authors of the four gospels, and a series of later additions in the margins of the second half of the Book, showing human figures, animals, birds and shapes.

While the identity of the scribe is unknown, the Book ends with a request from them directly to the reader: “Be it on the conscience of anyone who reads this splendid little book that they say a prayer for the soul of the wretch who wrote it.”

But it is the Book’s Gaelic notes which are truly remarkable.

Digital displays show the text from inside the book.
Digital displays show the text from inside the book.

These notes, or marginalia, were later additions, dating from the 1100s and are the earliest known surviving examples of written Gaelic.

They refer to the monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire, and other places such as Pitfour and Ellon.

They tell how St Columba and his follower Drostan travelled to the area from Iona and were given the land by a local leader after his son recovered from a serious illness thanks to Columba’s prayers.

Columba gave the land to Drostan to found a church.

As part of the Book of Deer Project 2022 the latest in a series of archaeological digs is underway which hopes to find the site of the early medieval monastery.

Alongside the Book of Deer, four volumes from the medieval Aberdeen Burgh Registers which also contain illustrations will be on display. Starting in an unbroken run in 1398, Aberdeen has the oldest and most complete civic archive in Scotland, with the earliest eight volumes spanning 1398 to 1511 recognised by UNESCO as being of outstanding historical importance to the nation.

Four volumes from the medieval Aberdeen Burgh Registers which also contain illustrations will be on display.
Four volumes from the medieval Aberdeen Burgh Registers which also contain illustrations will be on display.

The exhibition is part of a wider programme in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire delivered by The Book of Deer Project and its partners, supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund to celebrate the Book of Deer’s temporary return.

It includes talks and tours, storytelling, creative writing, illustration and textile workshops, family trails and a special Gallery Late event at Aberdeen Art Gallery on September 30 which invites revellers to ‘party like it’s 1399’ and solve a medieval murder mystery.

Aberdeen City Provost David Cameron with the Book of Deer.
Aberdeen City Provost David Cameron with the Book of Deer.

The Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Councillor David Cameron, said: “I congratulate all the partners who have worked together to bring the Book of Deer ‘home’ to the north-east for the first time in hundreds of years.

"There can be no doubt that the ‘splendid little book’ is one of Scotland’s greatest treasures.

“Visitors to the Art Gallery will have a rare opportunity to see it up close, as well as the chance to learn more about its significance and what it can tell us about this fascinating period in Scotland’s history through the associated programme of talk and activities.

“The Book contains the earliest examples of Scots Gaelic in its margins and to highlight the importance of the Gaelic language in Scottish culture the exhibition text is available in both Gaelic and English – a first for an exhibition at the Art Gallery.”

Anne Simpson, Chair of the Book of Deer Project, said: “The Book of Deer Project is delighted to realise its long-term ambition to have this precious wee book exhibited in the north-east of Scotland where it can be seen by the many visitors to Aberdeen Art Gallery.

"It’s such an important part of Scotland’s history and culture, that’s perhaps not as well-known as it should be.

"This exhibition provides an opportunity for it to be better known and appreciated and is the cumulation of years of work to bring it to the north-east again."

Dr Jessica Gardner, University Librarian and Director of Library Services, Cambridge University Library, said: “The Book of Deer is of supreme cultural importance to Scotland generally, and to the north-east of Scotland in particular.

“We are delighted to be a partner in this project, which offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect new audiences with heritage in an inspirational way that will leave a lasting legacy.”

Caroline Clark, The National Lottery Heritage Fund Director for Scotland, said: " The Book of Deer may be a small book but it is a huge piece of history.

"Thanks to the marginalia it also has a very human and personal connection to a chapter in the story of Scotland from 1000 years ago.

"Those notes in the margins even let one individual speak to us, as readers, across the centuries.

“Thanks to National Lottery players the Heritage Fund has been able to support this project to bring the Book back to the north-east for public display. I have no doubt there will be of huge amount of interest in seeing this genuinely unique little book.”

Visit https://www.aberdeencity.gov.uk/sites/default/files/2022-06/Book%20of%20Deer%20FINAL.pdf for details of associated events in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

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