22/04/2013
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An expert guide to the Breviary of Aberdeen - Scotland's first printed book

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Alan McQuarrie introduces Scotland's first printed book, the Breviary of Aberdeen.

The Breviary of Aberdeen, published in Edinburgh in 1510, was Scotland’s first printed book. As such, it looks both forward and back. It looks forward in that it harnessed for the first time the new technology of printing with moveable type, enabling books to be produced in multiple copies without laborious copying by hand; and it looks back in that it is in Latin, and is the accumulation of centuries of legend and tradition about the early Scottish church.

A treasure-trove of information

Local historians, folklorists, archaeologists, genealogists, place-name scholars, and others, have long known that this book is a treasure-trove of information about early Christian traditions in Scotland. But it has not been well used, because it has been locked away in a fairly rare ‘facsimile’ edition which is very difficult to use, and which has no introduction, translation, notes, or index.

The original is full of mistakes and misprints, and making sense of the Latin is sometimes impossible without radical emendation and supplying many missing words. 

The ‘facsimile’ edition of 1854 silently corrects many mistakes, but leaves many others uncorrected. This edition is based on the small number of original copies which now survive in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and at Glamis Castle. Even here there were problems, because none of the surviving copies is entirely complete and bound in the correct order.

In these readings we enter into the strange world of hagiography, the ‘writing about saints’, in which fact and legend, the mundane and the supernatural, are curiously blended.

The saints of old are heroes, miracle-workers, magicians and prophets, and can be very dangerous when crossed. 

They can raise the dead and heal the sick, but they can also curse their enemies with devastating effect.  Saints pray, fast, and mortify the flesh on a heroic scale. They recite the entire Psalter while plunged up to the neck in an icy torrent, then go to bed in a stone coffin. They battle against dragons and demons with supernatural weapons provided by angelic supporters. They mutilate themselves to avoid sin.

When they die, after unnaturally long lifespans, they patiently endure torments and sickness which would discourage the most steadfast of ordinary men. Their stories were intended to edify and terrify, to encourage visits to shrines, veneration of relics, respect for rights and property, and the giving of alms; they were also intended to entertain.

The saints were heroes, but they were local heroes: all of their stories are firmly rooted in the land from which they came. They tell the origins of the churches that they founded, and details about the places and landmarks that they visited. So this book has a great deal of information which will be of use to local historians. It is a very wide-ranging source. Among those featured are:

  • Adomnán of Iona
  • Baldred of Tynninghame
  • Baya of Little Cumbrae, Blane
  • Boniface of Rosemarkie 
  • Duthac of Tain
  • Ethernan or Adrian of the Isle of May
  • Machar of Aberdeen
  • Ninian of Whithorn (pictured opposite)
  • Teneu of Glasgow
  • Triduana of Restalrig
  • Winnin of Kilwinning;

They are all represented, and many others besides.  I hope that all readers will find much interest and enjoyment here.

Legends of Scottish Saints: Readings, Hymns and Prayers for the Commemoration of Scottish Saints in the Aberdeen Breviary, ed. Alan Macquarrie with Rachel Butter (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2012): pp. lvii + 461.  £50.00.

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