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When it comes to early art from Scotland, most attention is usually turned either to the enigmatic Pictish carvings, or the glorious Book of Kells, which was started on Iona before probably being finished at Kells in Ireland. Usually overlooked is the glorious Book of Deer.
Dating to the tenth century, this book is a Latin gospel and is tiny – roughly the size of a modern pocket diary, 16cm by 11cm. There are two things that mark this out as very special. The first is that it contains the first written Gaelic texts from Scotland. Added to margins and edges of the book in the twelfth century, these record a history of the founding of the Abbey of Deer, along with land charters granted to it.
The second special thing about it is the wonderful illuminations.
These are part of broader fashions of the ‘Insular’ art of its day, but due to the confines of the size of the book are executed in a very distinctive and unforgettable way. At once they seem childish and familiar, while also somewhat alien and almost psychedelic. We love them, and hope you do too, which is why we had the design team make up a pin, and we’ve a couple more on the way.
It is unknown when the book left Scotland, and it eventually found its was to Cambridge University.
The Abbey of Deer referred to in the text was near the town of Peterhead in the North East. Although a later monastery was founded here, it is thought that this earlier foundation was elsewhere, although exactly where is unknown. There is currently an ambitious community group, the Book of Deer Project, conducting some archaeological investigations to solve this mystery.
If you want to have a look though the entire original Book of Deer, you can do so here.
There is also a facsimile edition with introduction and notes here. The illustration on this page is taken from here.