Archaeologists believe they have located the site of the long-lost Monastery of Deer in Northeast Scotland. The site is not only significant in its own right but is also important for the history of Scots Gaelic.
It is thought that the earliest examples of this form of Celtic language were produced at this monastery in the 11th and 12th centuries CE. These texts were Gaelic land grants, which were subsequently placed in the Book of Deer, a pocket gospel book that was originally written between 850 and 1000 CE.
For a long time, academics have speculated that these entries – which represent possession of land – were added to the book when it was in the monastery. Now, archaeologists believe they have found the building’s remains around 80 meters (262.5 feet) from the ruins of Deer Abbey, close to the village of Mintlaw in Aberdeenshire.
“As home to the earliest surviving Scots Gaelic, the Book of Deer is a vital manuscript in Scottish history,” Alice Jaspars, PhD researcher from the Archaeology department at the University of Southampton who co-led the archaeological investigations, said in a statement.
“It is now our belief that in our 2022 excavation, we found the lost monastery where these were written.”
Jaspars and colleagues carbon-dated material associated with the post holes they found during their excavations near the abbey, which match the time when the land grants, known as “addenda”, were added to the book. The team also recovered medieval pottery, fragments of glass, a stylus (implement used for writing), and hnefatafl boards (sometimes referred to as Viking chess).
All this evidence, the team argues, points to a monastic complex at this site.
Investigations have been carried out here since 2009, with the help of the Book of Deer Project. Jaspar’s and her colleagues' work since 2022 has largely been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported by a group of volunteers.
“This would not have been possible without the extensive work of our volunteers, and the financial backing of the National Lottery Heritage Fund”, Japsars added.
The 2022 research coincided with the Book of Deer’s return to the Scottish highlands for the first time in 1,000 years. During this time, it was displayed in Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums while on loan from Cambridge University Library.
“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,” said Jaspars.
The team plan to publish their results in an academic journal in the near future.