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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 01/07/2022

2022 was Scotland’s Year of Stories. It spotlighted, celebrated and promoted the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. Each month we heard from people with a passion for stories and got an insight into their work.

We spoke to Ali Cameron, the Book of Deer archaeologist, ahead of the 10th century manuscript going on display at Aberdeen Art Gallery.

What sparked off your interest in archaeology?

I wanted to be an archaeologist from an early age. I have a careers interview form from when I was 15 where the teacher has given me guidance on how to get involved before applying to University. I went on a train from Yorkshire to John O’Groats after ‘A’ levels, on a small boat to Orkney and on a dig for 2 months at Brough of Birsay (a tidal island). I loved every minute and never looked back.

Can you tell us about your job and what it involves?

I have a small archaeology company and we do archaeological work for developers before housing estates and other sites are developed as well as building surveys if buildings are being demolished or altered. I also do what we call research excavations like the one I am doing at Deer Abbey this year. Research digs are where we get money (in this case NLHF) to research a certain site and we have help from a lot of volunteers on these digs as well as students and schoolchildren. These are great digs as they bring together people of all ages and from different backgrounds who are interested in history and archaeology. I love seeing groups of people who do not know each other, chatting, trowelling and digging and getting to know each other. Many of my volunteers have been working with me for well over 20 years.

Ali Cameron, archaeological trenching in Aberdeenshire
Ali Cameron, archaeological trenching in Aberdeenshire
Image credit Cameron Archaeology

Can you tell us about your involvement with the Book of Deer and how it came to be on display at Aberdeen Art Gallery'?

I have been the Book of Deer archaeologist since 2014. I run an annual archaeological excavation looking for the Monastery of Deer. This is the monastery where the earliest Scots Gaelic was written within the pocket gospel called The Book of Deer. The Gaelic texts include a foundation document which talks about the setting up of the monastery and also includes land grants mentioning places like Deer and Aden. But there is no information about what the Monastery looked like or where it was. We have done many digs around the Aden and Old Deer area and are working on this site in the field immediately to the west of Deer Abbey since 2017. We have uncovered an early medieval site – with holes for wooden posts dating back as far as 650-750 AD but we have yet to prove that this was (or was not!) the Monastery. Bringing the Book of Deer to Aberdeen was part of the NLHF application and it is a fantastic accompaniment to the excavation works.

What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?

Apart from the Book of Deer excavations I have also been working at Aden Country Park where we have uncovered a Neolithic enclosure which was not known about before we started digging. It was an area which had been surrounded by wooden posts up to 5500 years ago. At Aden we also uncovered a post-Reformation chapel which was just lumps and bumps in the ground prior to the dig. I’ve been lucky to be involved in hundreds of amazing archaeological discoveries since I moved here from Yorkshire in 1985.

You’re exploring the past, but what part does technology play in your work?

Technology does play a huge part in archaeology now. I’m a bit of a Luddite and still like paper for writing and drawing and tape measures for measuring. But I employ people who bring their technology with them. So we hire a machine (and archaeologist) to create very accurate and detailed plans of everything we find on digs with a box of electronics. We also use drones a lot now and again I do not fly them myself but employ people who have all the certificates and can safely fly without damaging the site or neighbouring properties!

We used geophysical survey methods prior to the current Deer dig starting. Rose Geophysics from Orkney came down with resistivity and ground radar machines and surveyed the whole area. Resistivity puts an electric current through the ground and the readings tell the experts whether there is something solid like a wall, or soft like a pit, under the ground. Ground radar (which looked like a lawn mower) records slices of the ground and by beaming radar into the ground can give a really clear picture of what is under the ground.

Ali Cameron excavating a very large post-hole, Elgin 2020
Ali Cameron excavating a very large post-hole, Elgin 2020
Image credit Cameron Archaeology

Why do you think stories are so important?

Archaeology is all about stories. We take the evidence from an excavation, survey or other fieldwork and try to create a story which follows the evidence. Sometimes this is very tricky either when the evidence is slight or when we are talking about thousands of years ago. But the technology we talked about above is helping us to collect more accurate data on which to hang the stories of peoples in the past.  We tell stories about what we think is happening on a dig and this engages people of all ages – this is a job where you meticulously scrape away soil but the story of the site does not need to be dry and dull.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I love being outside and I particularly like the excavation work on developer sites where I am regularly uncovering exciting new sites such as a Bronze Age cremation cemetery recently excavated including one burial with a jet and amber necklace. Also on the research digs I love meeting lots of interesting people and really getting to know an area well. During the last few weeks at Deer we have not only uncovered some exciting archaeological remains but one lunchtime we watched an osprey with a fish being bombed by buzzards and crows. Only when you spend weeks in a place do you get to know the archaeology and the natural history. It's fascinating to think that if this is the site of the Monastery we have found, the monks may have watched ospreys and buzzards fighting for fish from the river running beside the site.

The Book of Deer at Aberdeen Art Gallery

To learn more about the Book of Deer exhibition and wider programme of events, we spoke to Margaret Sweetnam, Marketing Manager for Aberdeen City Council’s Archives, Gallery & Museums service.

Aberdeen Art Gallery
Aberdeen Art Gallery
Image credit Visit Aberdeenshire/Damian Shields

What makes Aberdeen Art Gallery a good venue to display the Book of Deer and what will people experience if they visit the exhibition?

Aberdeen Art Gallery is a wonderful civic space in the heart of the city centre. It’s open every day, everyone is welcome, and admission to the Gallery and to this exhibition is free. The Art Gallery underwent a once-in-a-lifetime redevelopment which was completed in 2019. The project took one of Aberdeen’s finest granite buildings and made it more accessible, more welcoming and more sustainable. It was voted Scotland’s Building of the Year in 2021.

There’s always so much to see on a visit to the Art Gallery and this summer the Book of Deer will be a particular highlight. The Book of Deer is thought to be Scotland’s oldest surviving manuscript. It’s an example of a pocket gospel book and was for private use rather than for church services and although it’s quite small it’s one of Scotland’s greatest treasures. This is a rare opportunity for visitors to see the Book on display in the North-east, where is thought to have originated. It’s the first time it's returned to the area in almost 1,000 years.

The margins of the Book contain the earliest written examples of Scots Gaelic. The language is an integral part of Scotland’s heritage and cultural identity to celebrate the Book’s temporary return we’re presenting the exhibition text for the first time in both English and Gaelic.

Alongside the Book of Deer, visitors can also see illustrations from Aberdeen’s medieval burgh records, the oldest and most complete collection in Scotland, dating back to 1398. The records are recognised by UNESCO as being of outstanding historical importance to the United Kingdom.

How can people get involved in the wider programme of events?

The archaeological dig at Old Deer and the cultural programme which is taking place at the Art Gallery and across Aberdeenshire this summer celebrate this remarkable little 10th century book. The archaeological dig hopes to find the site of the Monastery of Deer, believed to be where the Book of Deer originated and where it was annotated with the first example of written Gaelic.

The rich cultural programme is an integral part of the Book of Deer Project 2022. Expert talks will consider what the Book of Deer can tell us about political and religious developments in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, explore Aberdeen’s medieval records and treasures for the collections of the University of Aberdeen. There will be specially-commissioned music with the Book of Deer Suite, storytelling and fun family trails at Aden Country Park, creative workshops exploring language, illustration and jewellery making, a community banner making project and, of course, the unmissable exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery.

We are thrilled to have worked in partnership with the Book of Deer Project, Cambridge University Library, Live Life Aberdeenshire and Aberdeenshire Council, Aberdeen University and Cameron Archaeology, all supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to make the exhibition and the cultural programme a reality in 2022, during the Year of Stories.

The Book of Deer was on display at Aberdeen Art Gallery from 9 July to 9 October 2022. 

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