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I am a reader of Lorna Corall Dey’s blog Lena the Hyena and a tremendous admirer of it. Lorna is an author, a historian and a general tub-thumper for Aberdeenshire, whose history she often blogs expertly about. She also writes from a Scottish nationalist perspective and, for those such as myself who feel the nostalgia very keenly, her blog is a rare, surviving fragment of the indyref blogosphere from 2014.

I recently learned about the Book of Deer on the Hyena’s blog and I have since fallen into musing upon it. The Book of Deer is not a guide to the larger land animals of Aberdeenshire, but rather a handwritten manuscript that is linked to a monastery that was once located at Deer, about thirty miles north of Aberdeen. The Book of Deer had first sprouted between 850-1000 AD and it is now widely held to be the oldest manuscript to be produced in Scotland. It contains the Gospel of St John, written out in Latin, along with various illustrations, extracts from the other gospels, and a small treasury of secular documents (e.g. land grants, a history of the monastery) that had been added in vernacular Gaelic.

It is an obviously charismatic object, with its eerie, stylish illustrations, and part of its appeal is the mystery that chuckles over it. The book’s vellum pages are the last speck that remains of the monastic buildings at Deer, or at least they were until 2018, when some archaeologists had disturbed what looks likely to be a titbit of the site. Moreover, until the Book of Deer had come into the possession of the Bishop of Ely during the seventeenth century, it is impossible to account for its journey around the island of Great Britain. Whether it was first written at Deer or elsewhere, and the circumstances in which it had departed Deer, are all up for speculation.

Two questions have lately arisen about the Book of Deer: (a) where should it be kept and (b) where can it be said to “belong”? Note that these are subtly different questions.

If there is any reason to visit Aberdeen next summer, it is to get a hot ticket to the Book of Deer, which will be exhibited in the Aberdeen Art Gallery. It is on loan from the Cambridge University Library and over £120,000 has been secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to promote the book’s appearance. Yet the Hyena argues that the book should be permanently “repatriated.” She writes that “surely there is a strong case for it to stay in Scotland where it belongs and from where it should never have left.”

One might think that a one-way ticket for the Book of Deer would be a fine cultural expression of the UK government’s “levelling up” agenda, in which funding and resources are reallocated to regions that are otherwise down on their luck. What’s more, modern technology has suddenly sapped a lot of the urgency from questions about the right to access the Book of Deer.

Once, to consign the Book of Deer to Aberdeen would have been unreasonable, in raising research costs for scholars and removing the book from a cultural centre where it could be studied alongside other manuscripts. Today, however, the Cambridge University Library has issued a free, high-quality, online facsimile of the Book of Deer, one that can be reproduced infinitely and that can potentially materialise on any screen anywhere. In this respect, the question of where the book “should be kept” has been answered already: “on your phone.”

Yet one might inquire whether the Book of Deer has been devalued not by the normal processes of mechanical reproduction (as Walter Benjamin might worry) but more through transforming it from an object of intellectual appreciation and exploration into a largely hollow, totemic item. Next summer, the book will be exhibited in an art gallery instead of being studied in a library. Although it is claimed that “the book” will be returning to Scotland, in reality only two pages of it are. Unless the Aberdeen Art Gallery invests in sensitive robotic hands that can tenderly turn the book’s pages for visitors – or unless visitors are willing to come back and forth to the gallery in accordance with some scheduled turning of the pages – then it will be literally a book that nobody can read.

Perhaps the Book of Deer can be only practically “at home” or “belong” to Aberdeen in this annihilated sense. This raises the question of whether the Book of Deer can be said to really belong to this city. Certainly the Book of Deer Project, the community heritage project that is supervising the book’s return, appears to think so. The Project “focuses on the historic connections between the area and the Book of Deer” and it will embark upon “a series of community cultural events will take place in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire to celebrate the book and its heritage.” It will “engage with the community and schools in the local area.”

It is hard not to like the Book of Deer Project. It is a grassroots organisation that actually has an enjoyable treasure hunt on its hands, in inviting the people of Aberdeenshire to join it in a search for the lost monastery. Whilst wishing them the best of luck with the digging, I would still quibble over the nature of the relationship that they have forged with the Book of Deer.

The creators of the Book of Deer would have defined themselves first as Christians and they would have regarded their book as a tribute to Christianity. Might it not be more accurate, therefore, to decide that this book is more naturally at home in a place of Christian worship? The Hyena foremostly values the book’s secular marginalia, because they are written in Gaelic. We might grow slightly frightened by the perversity of believing that some land deeds can have greater implications for identity and belonging than the book’s core expression of religious faith.

Meanwhile, the people who have discovered the Book of Deer, reckoned with it, ascertained its significance and processed it for our consumption today are all scholars of the medieval period. Does not the book then more rightfully belong to this community and would it not be most comfortable at the Cambridge University Library?

There are clearly competing layers of ownership and belonging here. It nonetheless seems to devalue the Book of Deer by reducing the question of its ownership to one of mere geography. There is the practical peril for Aberdeenshire that the book might still turn out to have been created in Ireland or by an Irish writer. But the Book of Deer is also much more than just a tribal property; it is not akin to a standing stone or something that is fixed rigidly on the landscape.

The Hyena limits her demands to “repatriation.” One might take from this that the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh should curate the book and showcase it to as large and as wide an audience as possible, as part of today’s familiarly corporate Scottishness. At this hint, one of her readers kicks back:

Well …. yes to it coming back permanently to Scotland but don’t see why National Museums in Edinburgh should automatically have it. There’s too much centralisation there already, I think… There’s plenty to see in Edinburgh and surely objects should be displayed close to where they were found or originated so that folk – locals as well as visitors – can see them, benefitting not only the local economy but giving local people a real connection to the folk that went before.

Running through all of this is the somewhat paranoid assumption that when Scotland’s absentee treasures are kept in England or elsewhere, they have been “looted” and exploited and not authentically appreciated. An alternative view might be that Scotland’s art has visited other places and enriched other cultures, inspiring an extra interest in Scotland and firing sparks that are unique to the precise act of cultural displacement.

If Cambridge University Library willingly agreed to donate the book to Aberdeen on the basis of its culturally superior claim, then the matter would be settled. In the meantime, the Hyena never ventures into detail about how exactly the book could remain in Scotland. Presumably we are not returning to the politics of Sir Francis Drake and just seizing a coveted desirable item for the state, through bald piracy. For one thing, such a seizure would jeopardise many future attempts to stage exhibitions of historical artefacts that are in private ownership. Why would the Getty Centre ever send the Northumberland Bestiary (which is now worth around $20 million) to be exhibited and celebrated in Newcastle, if they were worried that they might never see it again?  

The Book of Deer could be probably auctioned at Christies for well over a million pounds. If this book was to be sold to the Scottish government then the library at Cambridge might reasonably think that they could do a lot of good, in staging exhibitions and promoting scholarship, with the money that was forthcoming from Scottish taxpayers. Scottish taxpayers, on the other hand, might wonder why they were spending a king’s ransom on an item that is available already as a free e-book.