Archaeologists in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, have unearthed the long-lost site of a 10th-century monastery associated with the Book of Deer, believed to be the oldest surviving Scottish manuscript.
The monastery, previously considered “missing,” has been located under a field adjacent to Deer Abbey in Buchan, which dates back to the 13th century. The excavation, detailed in the BBC Alba documentary titled “The Missing Monastery,” reveals how artifacts predating the abbey led archaeologists to uncover rubble believed to be from the ancient religious site.
The Book of Deer, a 10th-century manuscript containing Gaelic notes added by monks as late as the 12th century, is renowned for being the earliest surviving written record of the Scottish Gaelic language. Lead archaeologist Ali Cameron, from Cameron Archaeology Ltd, emphasized the significance of this discovery: “We found the monastery.”
The book, currently housed at Cambridge University, was temporarily on display at Aberdeen Art Gallery last year, coinciding with the 2022 archaeological dig. Gaelic-speaking archaeology graduate Mairead Morgan highlighted the importance of the Book of Deer, stating, “It is also the earliest evidence that exists of written Scottish Gaelic by a good 200 to 300 years, which easily makes the Book of Deer one of the most important manuscripts in Scotland.”
The excavation involved extensive efforts to reach the earliest layers of the site, with Ali Cameron leading a team of students and volunteers in opening large trenches for optimal chances of finding early medieval features. Weeks of excavating later materials, including stone and demolition debris, preceded the discovery of the monastery’s remains.
After processing samples at the University of Aberdeen, supervised by Dr. Gordon Noble, the team sent charcoal for dating to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) in East Kilbride. The subsequent three-month wait for results concluded with the stunning revelation of the monastery’s confirmed existence.
Alice Jaspars, an archaeologist and PhD student involved in the dig, recounted the excitement of discovering the monastery on the last day of excavation, stating, “We had a feeling about it. We had this horrible but exciting sense of anticipation, waiting to see if you have actually found what you think you have found.”
The location of the monastery, just 80 meters from Deer Abbey, aligns with the writings in the Book of Deer’s margins, affirming the significance of the find. Dr. Michelle Macleod, a Gaelic lecturer at Aberdeen University, explained the importance of the manuscript in an article published in The National: “There are some deviations in the language from the shared common Gaelic of Scotland and Ireland which had been used in earlier manuscripts. These deviations… are the first written indication that the languages are separating.”
The discovery of the monastery not only solves a longstanding archaeological mystery but also provides a crucial piece of Scotland’s linguistic and religious history.