Scotland’s Oldest Book

Edinburgh’s Celtic Psalter

By The University of Edinburgh

A story from the Centre for Research Collections

Celtic Psalter (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

This beautiful hand-held book is possibly the oldest book made in Scotland which has never left her homeland.   

Celtic Psalter (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The Celtic Psalter’s enigmatic tale of survival across 1,000 years is still being teased out by 21st century specialists.    

Celtic Psalter (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

A book for Saint Margaret of Scotland

It is rumoured that this manuscript, or ‘hand-written book’, was commissioned as a love token by Malcom III, King of Scotland, for his pious English wife, Margaret.  

The Celtic Psalter, as its name suggests, contains the Book of Psalms, and is small enough to fit into the pocket of a devout female reader. 

Celtic Psalter ff. 57v-58r (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The detailed decoration throughout the book hints at the rich material culture of the Scottish court and is similar to other books made in Scottish and Irish monasteries of the same period. 

Spirals transform into ears, eyes, and snouts in a style similar to early Celtic designs from the Iron Age. Twisting and biting one another they join to form letters like this ‘A’. 

The use of dotting, knotwork and the close interaction of text and image are common features in Insular art, or art produced in the British Isles during the Medieval Period. In this book, fantastic interlaced beasts pose as decorated initials in a dazzling array of red, purple, gold and green, often surrounded by red dots.

The Snettisham Great Torc, -150/-50, From the collection of: British Museum
Celtic Psalter ff. 57v-58r, Unknown, 1050, From the collection of: The University of Edinburgh
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Celtic Psalter (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Changing tastes

Some of the book’s decorations have not always been there. These show the changing tastes of its different owners.   

Not long after its creation, an artist repainted the two pages around Psalm 51 to mimic the more popular English style of impressionistic decoration.​  

All that survives of the original decoration on these pages are the four knots at the  corners and the display script on this page.  

Celtic Psalter (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

Later additions​

Not much is known about how this book survived the Middle Ages, however we do know that at some point the Celtic Psalter lost the decorated openings of Psalms 1 and 101.  

New pages were added to the book in the 1530s when it was owned by John Reid, Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen. Reid added the missing text of Psalm 1 himself and he employed a trained scribe to add the ornate initial ‘B’.  ​  

Handwritten University of Edinburgh Library catalogue (1636) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

On the University’s shelves​

We don't know how or when the Psalter travelled from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, but we do know that it was in the University collection when the first surviving Library shelf-list was made in 1636.  ​  

Celtic Revival

Celtic design was revived in the 19th and 20th centuries inspired by those discovered in archaeological sites, and interlace knotwork found in ancient manuscripts, such as the Celtic Psalter.

Panel Entitled "Peacock and Dragon", William Morris (English, 1834–1896), designer; produced by Morris & Company (1875–1940); woven at Queen Square or Merton Abbey Works, 1878, produced 1878/1940, From the collection of: The Art Institute of Chicago
Celtic Psalter front cover​, Unknown, 1050, From the collection of: The University of Edinburgh
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Celtic Psalter front cover​ (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The Celtic Psalter had many bindings during its 1000-year lifespan. Douglas Cockerell added this Celtic style binding in 1914.  

Trained under T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, an associate of William Morris, his work reflects the Arts and Crafts movement of the time.  

Celtic Psalter f.118v (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

21st century secrets​

21st-century advances in manuscript research have made it possible to uncover even more of the Psalter’s hidden secrets.  ​  

Team Pigment from the Universities of Durham and Northumbria recently analysed the Celtic Psalter. Using new non-invasive technologies, their findings were surprising.  ​  

Celtic Psalter f.62r (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The blue pigment in most Insular manuscripts comes from the woad plant. This includes the famous Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels.    

The blue in the Celtic Psalter, instead, is from lapis lazuli – a precious import and one of the most expensive pigments of the middle ages. ​  

Celtic Psalter (1050) by UnknownThe University of Edinburgh

The Celtic Psalter continues to slowly reveal its secret history to researchers today. This tiny, enigmatic book that has survived for a millennium still has many stories left to tell. ​  

You can discover more of the Celtic Psalter's secrets by viewing our complete digital copy.

Credits: Story

Story by Dr Heather Pulliam (Senior Lecturer, Edinburgh College of Art), Elizabeth Quarmby Lawrence (Rare Books Librarian) and Daryl Green (Head of Special Collections).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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