Nine-day search sought to find or evidence an ancient Pictish monastery
Tenth dig in ten years uncovered finds that could date to the monastic period (when the monastery was said to have existed)
Charcoal found in one of the trenches has been dated by radiocarbon dating to the years 1147-1260
Never before has anything as as close as this to the date of the monastery where the Book of Deer – the first written evidence of Scottish Gaelic that exists – been found
Produced by Midas Media for BBC ALBA, airs 10 Jan at 9pm
TEN years and ten digs later, a group of archaeologists and volunteers in Aberdeenshire have made a significant find that impacts not only local history, but also the history of Scotland and the Scottish Gaelic language.
In a field in the north east of Scotland, near Old Deer, 30 miles north of Aberdeen, a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers spent nine days digging and sifting through soil to see if they could find an ancient Pictish monastery that disappeared over 1,000 years ago.
This monastery was the birthplace of one of the most important texts in the Scottish Gaelic language: The Book of Deer – a gospel book written in Latin by the Aberdeenshire monks around the tenth century.
Material for writing on was so scarce that the monks used the blank spaces and margins of the gospel book to record land transactions and other notes in Gaelic, around the middle of the 12th century.
Not only is this the first written evidence of Scottish Gaelic that exists, but it is also writing about the everyday lives of ordinary people in the area. It provides an unique insight into the early church, culture and society of this period, making the Book of Deer a rare and precious document.
Dr Michelle MacLeod, senior lecturer in Gaelic, University of Aberdeen, said: “The Book of Deer is a tiny book but it has left a huge legacy for us, not only in the north-east but for the whole of Scotland. We had to wait another 200-300 years after the Book of Deer to find any more evidence of written Scottish Gaelic.”
The book itself has been housed in Cambridge University Library for the last 300 years.
Over the last decade, the Book of Deer Project, a small charity based in Aberdeenshire and dedicated to raising awareness of the book, has commissioned and paid for archaeological digs, which for the last four years have been carried out by Cameron Archaeology Ltd, led by Ali Cameron.
This dig was the tenth dig and the first to uncover finds that could date to the monastic period. Charcoal found in one of the trenches has been dated by radiocarbon dating to the years 1147-1260. Previous digs have unearthed much older or much newer finds, but nothing as close as this to the date of the monastery where the Book of Deer was written.
Bruce Mann, archaeologist for Aberdeenshire Council, speaking about the Book of Deer Project said:
“This project has for many years worked hard to identify the location of the lost monastic site. These latest discoveries may at last hint that the mystery has finally been solved. More work obviously has to happen, but regardless of what this finally turns out to be, it is a significant find for not only Old Deer, but Aberdeenshire and beyond too.”
There is great hope and excitement amongst all those involved, as this is the strongest clue yet. The Book of Deer Project is already raising funds to commission a further dig in the same area in June 2018 to see if they can find conclusive evidence of the site of the lost monastery of Deer.
Produced by Midas Media for BBC ALBA, ‘Air Tòir Manachainn Dhèir (The Lost Monastery of Deer)’ is on BBC ALBA at Wednesday 10 January, 9.00pm.
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