A team of archaeologists, co-led by a researcher at the University of Southampton, has announced a significant discovery—the potential location of the lost Monastery of Deer in Northeast Scotland. This monastery is believed to be where the earliest written Scots Gaelic originated in the late 11th and early 12th century. The invaluable texts, Gaelic land grants, were inscribed in the margins of the Book of Deer, a pocket gospel book originally penned between 850AD and 1000AD.
The scholarly community has long speculated that these additions, known as ‘addenda,' were incorporated while the book was housed in the monastery. Now, archaeologists assert that they may have found the physical remains of this historic building just 80 meters from the ruins of Deer Abbey, which was founded in 1219. The site is situated near the village of Mintlaw in Aberdeenshire.
Leading the archaeological investigations is Alice Jaspars, a Ph.D. researcher from the Archaeology department at the University of Southampton, in collaboration with Site Director Ali Cameron of Cameron Archaeology. Their findings will be presented in a lecture to the Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland on November 23. Moreover, the discoveries will be featured in a documentary for BBC Alba scheduled to air on November 20 at 9 pm.
Alice Jaspars emphasizes the historical significance of the Book of Deer, stating, “As home to the earliest surviving Scots Gaelic, the Book of Deer is a vital manuscript in Scottish history. While it is not known where the book itself was written, it is believed that the Gaelic in its margins was added in the formerly lost Monastery of Deer.”
The addenda in the Book of Deer include references to the foundation of the monastery and other land grants in Northeast Scotland. Based on their 2022 excavations, the archaeologists now believe that they have discovered the lost monastery where these entries were written. The research was made possible by the efforts of volunteers and the financial support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
During the excavations, the team carbon-dated materials associated with post holes near the abbey, matching the same time period as the addenda in the book. They also unearthed medieval pottery, glass fragments, a stylus (a pointed writing implement), and hnefatafl boards—a chess-like game popular until the Middle Ages. These artifacts, along with others, suggest the presence of a monastery complex.
The Book of Deer Project, supporting investigations since 2009, has seen several significant excavations over the past eight years. The latest, in 2022, focused on the area near the abbey ruins and coincided with the Book of Deer's return to Northeast Scotland for the first time in a thousand years. The book was displayed in Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums on loan from Cambridge University Library.
Alice Jaspars underscores the importance of such discoveries, stating, “The material record of monasteries from this period is so poor that finds such as these can really help to inform our overall academic understanding. This also adds to the ongoing discussion regarding where the Book of Deer is cared for in the future.”
The researchers plan to publish their results in an academic journal in the coming months, contributing valuable insights to the historical narrative of this significant site and its role in preserving early Scots Gaelic texts.
Source: University of Southampton