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Cistercian Abbeys: DEER

Name: DEER Location: nr Old Deer County: Aberdeen
Foundation: 1219 Mother house: Kinloss
Relocation: None Founder: William Comyn, earl of Buchan
Secularised: 1587 Prominent members:
Access: Historic Scotland – open to the public

Deer Abbey from the north
© Stuart Harrison
<click to enlarge>
Deer Abbey from the north

Deer abbey was founded in 1219 by William Comyn, earl of Buchan. Plans were put in motion in 1214 when William petitioned the General Chapter to inquire into the suitability of the proposed site and the sufficiency of the endowment. According to Celtic legend, a monastery had already been established at this site some centuries earlier. It is thought that in the last quarter of the sixth century St. Columcille, his disciple Drostan, and others went from Hy (lona) into Buchan and established an important missionary centre at Deer on the banks of the Ugie on lands given him by the chief of the district. Columcille soon after left the site to continue on his missionary journeys and left Drostan as abbot of Deer. Drostan remained at the monastery until his death in c. 606. This monastery is also associated with the ninth-century gospel book, known as the ‘Book of Deer’, now in the University Library at Cambridge. The author was probably a monk at Deer, living some time during the eighth century. There was still a community of some sort at the site when William made his own foundation, two miles westward of Columcille’s abbey of Old Deer. The Normans had little sympathy with the Celtic institutions so it is not surprising to find that William granted the Cistercian monks a portion of the lands of Old Deer, while the rest were appropriated for the maintenance of a parochial church. A small group of monks may have been present at the site before the convent arrived from Kinloss in 1219, and it is possible that some of them had earlier been members of the community at Old Deer.

During the mid-sixteenth century the abbey had a community of between eleven and thirteen monks. In 1561 the annual income of the abbey was valued at £2300, a fairly average figure when compared to the other Cistercian houses in Scotland. The last abbot, John Innes, resigned in 1543. The following year Robert Keith, brother of the fourth Earl of Marischal, became titular abbot of Deer, holding the lands in ‘commendam’. After his death in 1551 the commendatorship passed to Robert Keith, son of William, the fourth Earl of Marischal. Keith retained his office over the Reformation period and in 1587 the abbey was erected into a temporal lordship for him, when he took the title of Lord Altrie. In the following years the abbey fell into decline with much of the stonework being carried away for use as building materials. In 1809 the owner, James Ferguson, excavated the site and laid out the ruins. However, much of his work was undone when Admiral Ferguson built a mausoleum within the area of the church in 1854. In 1930 the site was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church and three years later was transferred into state care. Excavations re-established the plan of the church and the conventional buildings. Today the property is managed by Historic Scotland and includes the reconstructed footings of the church and the lower parts of the claustral ranges. The site is open to the public at regular times throughout the year.