On a lovely spring day my good friend Bob and I were rambling around exploring in the lands of Moray and Aberdeenshire. I was scouting Pictish stones as usual, and had popped into the grounds of Old Deer Old Kirk in search of one I had heard tales of - there was no sign of it, (nor has there been for a while according to Canmore) but I noted the plaque for the Book of Deer as we continued on. I saw the sign for Deer Abbey up ahead and asked Bob about it - he said he had driven by countless times over the years but never stopped. So stop we did, and what a surprise we found behind the nondescript high walls. You can’t see the abbey ruins from the road, so there is really nothing to prepare you for lovely grounds and expansive ruins that await you when you pass through the porticoed entrance (which doesn’t fit the abbey aesthetic you would expect but we’ll come back to that.)
You might be searching your brain to figure out why “Deer” is ringing a bell. I did the same thing. The Book of Deer/Deir is a 10th Century gospel very famous for its 12th century additions, which are treasured as the oldest surviving examples of written Gaelic in Scotland. These writings describe the founding of the early monastery by St Columba and his nephew St Drostan in about 580. They also say that Droston cried when Columba left and that his tears, or “déara”, gave the monastery it’s name. The Book of Deer was produced in Scotland as a Latin “pocket” Gospel book, intended for personal prayer as opposed to church services. It was written in 900, and the Gaelic notes were written in the margins 200 years later.
William Comyn, Earl of Buchan, founded the abbey in 1219, mostly likely near the site of the original monastery of Old Deer. The monks who lived there were Cistercian, a Roman Catholic order with French roots. They sought to live by the simplicity of the Rule of St Benedict, preferring to live a quiet, private and simple life. Chances are high you’re now feeling certain you know that name Comyn… and you’re right! The Comyns were the leading noble family in Scotland in the 1200s, and stood in opposition to Robert the Bruce - which would ultimately lead to their demise. In 1308 William’s grandson John was sent into exile by Robert the Bruce, who sent his men to wreak havoc on Buchan “fra end till end and sparyt nane.” (He later paid the abbey recompense for the war damage it suffered in the crossfire between himself and the Comyns.)
The Protestant Reformation of 1560 saw the end of religious activities at the abbey, which was disestablished. Around 1587, quite a few changes were made to accommodate various family lodgings and activities for the barony of Altrie, and over time most of the stones were robbed from the abbey to create other structures - a fate that has befallen many historic structures. And honestly, it’s hard to fault this practice - it’s a fairly modern concept for structures to be built quickly, and their materials sourced with ease. It was far easier for early monks to rob Roman structures for abbeys, for lords to rob abbeys to build castles, for estates to rob castles for newer homes, for farmers to use ruins, Pictish stones etc for dikes, houses, lintel stones, (I’ve even seen in a graveyard the worn face of a very large Pictish stone that was used as a bridge over a burn!) …it was a cycle out of necessity, and sometimes out of spite or to send a message. Whatever the reason, its all part of the fabric of history. But I am still glad it no longer happens and that we (and future generations) can enjoy what is left of such sites.
Back to the abbey - in 1854, the abbey’s current owner Admiral Ferguson, tore most of it down and built a mausoleum…to himself. Enter the Roman Catholic Church again, in 1926, (after about a 400 year break) and they tore THAT down. Well most of it - all that’s left is the classical portico which was left to serve as the current entrance to the abbey grounds.
Inside near the entrance is an enclosed area sheltering a collection of stones and a couple coffins. It is believed that the red sandstone head dates to the 1200s and may be that of the abbey’s founder, William Comyn. And if you look closely at the coffins you will notice a hole in the bottom - a practical feature to allow for the draining of, ahem, fluids and stuff, as the body decomposed. A fun feature to point out to the kids, so they can say ewwww in delight ;) While we are discussing dark things, you can also see a "man trap" mounted on the wall next to the entry stairs - you can read my post on the man trap here: (https://www.facebook.com/findherinthehighlands/posts/717387798700344)
The trees of Deer Abbey are also a marvel - copper beeches tower above the ruins, and along the inner entrance wall, fruit trees have been trained flat against the wall, which is a space saving and aesthetically cool way to grow fruit. I’ve just learned that the term for this ancient practice is “espalier” - so there you go, together, we’ve learned about the goings on in Old Deer, the naughty Comyns, and horticultural things. I’m signing off for now, I hope you are all having a fantastic day :)