Thursday, December 10, 2009

Celtic Psalter, Scotland's oldest book, goes on display

The oldest book in Scotland is going on public display for the first time in its history. The Celtic Psalter dates from the 11th Century and contains hand-written psalms in Latin, with Celtic and Pictish illustrations.

It has been kept under lock and key at the University of Edinburgh and has been available to only a few scholars. But for the next three months the public will have the chance to view the book at the university's library.

The psalter, which is thought to be almost 1,000 years old, has been described as Scotland's version of the famous Book of Kells in Dublin. It contains a handwritten copy of the Psalms of King David in Latin, and has ornate pictures of dragons and beasts.

Edinburgh University's rare book librarian Joseph Marshall said: "People have been reluctant to show it, but now we have a special display case, and really this is the book's first public outing in 1,000 years.

"The great thing about it is we think it is the oldest Scottish book still in Scotland, so it is one of our greatest national treasures, and people haven't really known about it. We are hoping people will recognise it for what it is – one of the most precious documents in the country."

The origin of the psalter is a mystery but experts believe it was probably produced by monks in Iona, who were also associated with the making of the Book of Kells. It is thought that the book was written for someone of major importance, with one possibility being St Margaret, who was Queen of Scotland around the time it was produced.

The 144-page medieval Psalter includes Pictish designs of colourful dragons, beasts and monsters, with images on almost every page.

Mr Marshall said: "You would think somebody had taken a felt tip pen to it, it's that bright. There is every colour you can imagine – green, purple, red, yellow. It really is a colourful and beautiful book.

"We are very excited about the book and hope lots of people will come and see it and ask us questions."

The Celtic Psalter is part of a new exhibition – Masterpieces 1 – in the exhibition room at Edinburgh University's main library. Among the other attractions at the exhibition will be the only copy in Scotland of the first book printed in any of the Gaelic languages. The publication, which is a translation into Scottish Gaelic of John Knox's Book of Common Order, was printed in Edinburgh in 1567.

Also featuring in the exhibition at the library on George Square will be the finest surviving copy of Scotland's first substantial printed book – the Aberdeen Breviary – which was commissioned by William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, and printed in 1509-10.

Other exhibits will include a copy of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet published during his lifetime, which was presented to Edinburgh University by the poet, William Drummond, in 1626.

A beautifully illuminated manuscript of the works of the Roman poet Virgil, which was produced in Paris during the first half of the 15th century, will also form part of the exhibition.

Masterpieces 1 will run until 14 March next year.