Cambridge University Library will soon be asked to return Scotland’s oldest surviving manuscript.
SNP councillor Glen Reid plans to write to the university in the new year to “begin a dialogue” about getting the Book of Deer – which features the oldest surviving example of written Scots Gaelic – permanently returned to Scotland.
The 10th-century book contains the gospels in Latin, with Gaelic annotations in the margins added in the 12th century. The annotations related to the monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire, giving the book its name. In November, the exact location of the monastery was discovered during an archaeological dig.
Reid said that the book, which was used by monks, is “hugely significant to the Gaelic-speaking community” because it “proved that Gaelic was the common language” in Aberdeenshire. “There is a misconception that Gaelic was only spoken in the Highlands and Western Isles.”
Although it is not known when the text was taken from Scotland, it is believed that the book was stolen during the wars of Scottish independence, according to Scottish newspaper the National. It has been in the Cambridge University Library since 1715, except for a brief stint last year, when it was loaned to Aberdeen Art Gallery over the summer. It is only viewable by appointment.
“It’s the oldest surviving manuscript from Scotland and yet very little is known about it in the very area where it was written,” said Reid. There is little local knowledge because the book “sits 500 miles away, locked up and not on display. It returned on loan last year, drawing huge crowds, and we need to build on this and right this historical wrong,” he added.
Reid has twice submitted resolutions to the SNP conference asking that the Scottish government writes to the University of Cambridge to begin negotiations to transfer the manuscript back to Scotland, but they did not make the final agenda.
Reid is planning to re-submit the resolution to next year’s conference. “I will also raise this with our local MP and neighbouring authority to see if they can exert any influence,” he added.
“Last year, Cambridge University agreed to return 116 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria which were taken by British armed forces during the sacking of Benin City in 1897,” said Reid. “The Charity Commission concluded the university was ‘under a moral obligation’ to return the artefacts, and I am hopeful that a similar conclusion could be drawn about the Book of Deer.”
Reid said that he feels a “duty” to facilitate the book’s return. “There is a cultural reason, an educational reason, an economic reason and, most importantly, a moral reason”, he added.
Cambridge University Libraries did not respond to a request for comment.