Origin of the Legend of Deer

Origin legends were of considerable importance when individual churches laid claim to special privileges. Thus, in the early twelfth century, the monastery at Deer in Aberdeenshire inscribed its own origin legend in Gaelic in the margins of the Book of Deer, cleverly making the case for the intervention of Colum Cille (Columba) in the foundation of the monastery – ‘Columba and Drostán son of Coscrach, his disciple, came from Iona, as God guided them, to Aberdour; and Bede the Pict was mormaer 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.”‘

This – the first Gaelic Note in the Book of Deer – intermingles features of various literary genres which were commonly practised in early medieval Ireland and Scotland. Though he does not provide much detail, the writer was evidently aware of traditions relating to Colum Cille’s visits to Pictland, as described in Adomnán’s Life of the Saint, and he probably had some knowledge of the alleged existence of Columban monasteries in the area. Recognition of Colum Cille’s authority over secular and sacred rulers is also evident, and this reveals two contrasting dimensions of the Celtic Saint, namely his powers to heal and to curse. The saint’s curse is a weapon for the present, since it (allegedly) continues to affect ‘whoever should go against’ the monastery. These are features commonly mentioned in the Life of a Celtic Saint.

The names of Colum Cille and Drostán are well known, but that of Bede the Pict, mormaer of Buchan, is otherwise unrecorded. It may be Pictish, but it is also comparable with that of the celebrated Anglo-Saxon historian and hagiographer, Bede, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People c. 731 AD. It is thus possible that the writer of the origin legend is fabricating his material on the basis of his knowledge of some widely recognised names in Gaelic,Pictish and Anglo-Saxon tradition.

The writer concludes the section with a coda in the manner of ‘popular etymology’, purporting to describe how Colum Cille gave the monastery its name. The story serves to make an even closer connection between Colum Cille and Deer, and it is also used to underline the close relationship between Colum Cille and Drostán. This element of popular etymology reflects the medieval Gaelic tradition of dindshenchas (lore of famous places), which consisted of tales and stories about particular place-names, and often explained the origins of the names. It needs to be said, however, that this convention was by no means unique to the Gaelic world; it was common also in Wales, but it was equally common in Hebrew literature, as can be seen in the Old Testament, with its many accounts of how famous places were given their names.