Archaeologists return to site of ‘lost Pictish monastery’

Pages of The Book of Deer which shows the Latin gospel text and Scottish Gaelic written in the margin. PIC: Courtesy of The Book of Deer Project.
Pages of The Book of Deer which shows the Latin gospel text and Scottish Gaelic written in the margin. PIC: Courtesy of The Book of Deer Project.
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Archaeologists are to return to the potential site of a lost Pictish monastery where Scottish Gaelic was written down for the first time.

Archaeologist Alison Cameron and her team could be on the brink of making a discovery of national importance at land close to Old Deer in Aberdeenshire.

An artist's impression of metalworking at the site where charcoal deposits in a hearth were dated to 1147 to 1260. PIC: Jan Dunbar.

An artist's impression of metalworking at the site where charcoal deposits in a hearth were dated to 1147 to 1260. PIC: Jan Dunbar.

For 10 years, a search has been made for the monastery that dates from the sixth century but disappeared around 1,000 years ago. Some believe the Book of Deer, a richly decorated pocket-sized book of gospels was created here with Gaelic notes on local life later written in the margins by monks.

READ MORE: Video: 10 Gaelic phrases you can use everyday

Last year, Ms Cameron, director of Cameron Archaeology, switched the focus of the search to land near Deer Abbey and made a tantalising breakthrough when she discovered the remnants of a hearth and a previously undiscovered building below ground level.

She and her team will return to the site in June with a Crowfunding campaign now underway to finance the dig. Ms Cameron said: “I’m feeling a mixture of nervousness and excitement at the moment. We came so close to the buildings the last time and we will be able to go right in and sample what is there when we return to the site.

Students joing in with the dig at Old Deer with the search for the lost monastery now spanning 10 years. PIC: BBC Alba.

Students joing in with the dig at Old Deer with the search for the lost monastery now spanning 10 years. PIC: BBC Alba.

“We will definitely be able to say this year whether or not it is the monastery. I have thought about it a lot over the last year and we just don’t know which way it is going to go.

“If it is the monastery, it is going to be a major find. If it is not, it will be disappointing but at the end of the day we will have found another amazing site.”

Ms Cameron made the discoveries on her fourth excavation in the Old Deer area.

She found a hearth and a thick layer of charcoal, with carbon testing dating the objects to between 1147 and 1260, which chimes with the later monastic period.

The discovery of a layer of stone and post holes also indicate that remnants of a previously undiscovered building lie deep below the earth’s surface.

Layers will now be removed to date the structure which Ms Cameron believes fits with the medieval period.

She said: “It would be a big deal if we found the site of the monastery. For me personally, it would be a career highlight but it would mean an awful lot to a lot of people.

“I would love to find anything that related to book making, such as smoothing pebbles, as this would give us incredibly important information about the Book of Deer and help clarify whether it was made here or brought over from Ireland.”

Meanwhile, discussions are ongoing between the Book of Deer Project and Cambridge University, which has held the manuscript since the early 18th century, to bring the publication home to the northeast for a year-long exhibition at Aberdeen University.

Dr Michelle Macleod, lecturer in Gaelic at Aberdeen University, earlier described the Book of Deer as a “tiny book” with a “huge legacy”.

It showed for the first time deviations in Scottish and Irish Gaelic and illustrates how the languages separated over time.

Anne Simpson, chair of the Book of Deer Project, said the Book of Deer was as significant as the Book of Kells in Dublin.

It is hopes that discovery of the monastic site would raise the profile of this corner of Aberdeenshire.

More information on the crowdfunding campaign for the Old Deer dig can be found at www.justgiving.com