The Book of Deer

A short essay by Andrew Kellock (Project worker) giving the historical timeline of The Book of Deer, followed by “THE BOOK OF DEER – CULTURAL INFLUENCES – 800 TO 1199AD.

The Book of Deer is a 10th Century Gospel Book belonging to the category of Irish Pocket Gospel Books , produced for private use rather than church services. The book is rather small, measuring 154mm x 107mm (approx. 6in x4in) and comprises 86 folios. It is written on vellum in brown ink in a form of Latin known as the Vulgate.

It is currently housed in the University of Cambridge ‘s Library, which is a matter of some controversy as there are those who would prefer it to be returned to its area of origin. It was apparently in the possession of the early Pictish monastery at Old Deer in Aberdeenshire in the 11th Century. This monastery has left no trace of its existence. A Cistercian Abbey was founded nearby in 1219.

This small book is famous for having the earliest surviving Gaelic literature within its covers and it may be the oldest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland . The content of the Gaelic texts inserted in blank spaces and margins at a later date than the Latin texts, gives the manuscript a clear association with Deer.

The manuscript was presented to Cambridge University Library in 1715 by King George 1 who had purchased the library of John Moore, Bishop of Norwich and Ely. How it moved from Aberdeenshire to England is not known. One theory is that it was looted during the Wars of Scottish Independence. (1295 – 1320).The Cambridge University Library did not realise its importance until 1860, when it was discovered by the then librarian, Henry Bradshaw

The main part of the Book is scribed in a miniscule Irish text —the opening parts of the Gospel of St. Matthew and St. Mark followed by the final section of an office for the Anointing of the Sick. Then comes the opening part of the Gospel of St. Luke, and the complete text of St. John followed by the Apostles Creed. The whole thing is rounded off by a colophon in Old Irish—

Which roughly translates to:

“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.”

The Latin texts appear to have been scribed in the same hand and are embellished by artistry and illuminations including decorated initials, arabesques and full page illustrations of the Evangelists. There are small decorated initial letters throughout the text and in ten pages in the second half of the book there are drawings of men, animals and simple doodles. There is debate about the quality of the artwork as to some eyes it may appear to be primitive.

Perhaps what is of greater interest to many are the six Gaelic texts and one Latin Charter of David the First, written in spaces and margins on some of the pages, and inserted towards the middle of the twelfth century. The first narrates the origin of the Columban Monastery said to have been passed on to Drostan by Columba, who had been given the land from Bede, a Pictish ruler. The following four entries record later land grants to the Monastery, and the sixth records that the landowner relinquishes his rights to dues on certain lands given to the Monastery. They record the landholding customs, ecclesiastical and legal terms of the period, and contain place names which can still be identified to this day. These insertions are believed to be in five different hands and indicate the value the Celtic clerics attached to formal deeds.

David’s Latin Charter bestows on the monks of Deer a general immunity from all lay service and improper exaction. David reigned in Scotland from 1124 to 1153 and his generosity to the Church earned him the epithet of sair sanct for the croon.

The entire book has now been digitised and the images can be examined by visiting the website Projects Website and following the link to Cambridge University Library’s digital collection. The Gaelic Notes and their translation are on the University of Cork Website ; then type Book of Deer in the search panel.