The inside story of Scotland's oldest book

It is almost 1,000 years old and illustrated in vivid reds, green, purple and gold.

Friday, 7th July 2017, 6:29 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:50 am
Detail from a page of the Celtic Psalter which dates to the 11th Century. PIC: Edinburgh University Library.

The Celtic Psalter is considered to be the oldest surviving Scottish book that still remains in the country.

Perhaps the greatest treasure of the Edinburgh University library, the book, which dates to the early 11th Century, is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.

Experts believe it may have been held by a saint or a member of the Royal Family, with the book dating to the reign of St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland.

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Despite its age, it remains in extraordinarily good condition.

An event at Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer will unravel the techniques of how the book may have been made in Medieval Scotland.

It will look at the everything from the ingredients of the ink used in the script to the dyes found in the illustrations with a discussion likely on how many animals were killed to make the parchment.

Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence, assistant librarian of rare books at Edinburgh University Library, said: “We don’t know when exactly it was made or who exactly made it, but as far as we know it is the oldest book made in Scotland that is still in Scotland.

“It is the pride of our collection and it was acquired by the university in the 17th Century.

“We don’t know where it’s been before then.”

Mrs Quarmby Lawrence said the good condition of the book, which contains 150 psalms written in Latin, may give some clue as to who owned it.

She added: “It was certainly not an everyday thing. Books all through the Middle Ages were quite rare and expensive things. This book is hand coloured all the way through.

“It’s got little ornaments throughout and decorated with little animals. Letters at the beginning of each psalm are coloured.

“It is a very expensive item so this is a book that was used by someone rather special or elite.

“It may have been associated with someone important, such as a saint or a member of the Royal Family. We think there may have been some other story as to why it was protected and survived so well, but if there was a story, it’s been lost.”

While the ingredients of the ink used in the Celtic Psalter are not known, Mrs Quarmby Lawrence said it was common for oak galls, a growth on the tree, to be used in medieval ink making,

Rich in tannins once soaked, they would sometimes be mixed with iron compounds to help turn the ink black. Sometimes rusty iron would be used.

Mrs Quarmby Lawrence added: “The ink in this book is good ink. It is very stable and it has lasted a very long time.

“The Book of Kells had an awful lot of use and a lot of wear. A lot of the colour has faded. Ours is very bright and very unused.”

The book was possibly made in a monastery, which were centres of book production in the Middle Ages, the book expert said.

Making a Book in Medieval Scotland will be held on Monday, August 21 at 3pm. The event, which is part of Edinburgh University Library’s first book festival programme, is now sold out