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  • Writer's pictureGreg Stewart

The Phantom Monk of Deer Abbey

In the Aberdeenshire countryside, close to the village of Old Deer, lie the remains of Deer Abbey. The abbey is easy to miss, the ruins are mostly hidden behind a tall, stone wall with only the portico entrance giving an idea that something grand lies behind. One you pass through the entrance, the true size of the site and former abbey become visible.

Deer Abbey was established in 1219 after William Comyn, Earl of Buchan, invited Cistercian monks from Kinloss Abbey to set up a new abbey. The chosen site is, however, believed to have been close to the location for a much earlier monastery dating back to the 6th century and dedicated to St Drostan, although no trace of this remains today.

Up to 15 monks lived and worshipped at Deer Abbey, experiencing a peaceful and spiritual life, until the Protestant Reformation swept Scotland and, by1560, is was largely abandoned. Prior to the reformation, after the resignation of the last abbot in 1543, the abbey had been placed in the custody of Robert Keith. With no religious authority, he became the abbot in title only and remained the custodian through the reformation, which perhaps helped save the buildings from destruction.

Unfortunately, by the late 16th century sections of the abbey had began to fall into a state of disrepair with the stones being quarried for the construction of buildings in the surrounding area. The property later passed to the Fergusons of Pitfour and in 1809, James Ferguson of Pitfour had the site cleared. Most of the remaining buildings were dismantled to provide stones for the construction of the boundary walls which remain today and the land was used as a walled garden. In 1854, Admiral Ferguson however remodelled much of this work to construct a large family mausoleum and a pool in which he is said to have kept his pet alligators! The mausoleum has since been demolished but it is believed to have inspired the now grand entrance. In 1926, the abbey was purchased by the Roman Catholic Church, and it is now in the care of Historic Environment Scotland.

The abbey today is best known for its connection with the Book of Deer, an ancient religious manuscript and one of the only written documents dating back to the Pictish era, giving a rare insight into the country during the early establishment of the Christian church in Scotland. The book was, however, never at the abbey but is connected to the earlier Monastery of Old Deer, mentioned earlier. Side notes written in the book describe the establishment of this monastery indicating it was being held in the area at the time of its construction. The Book of Deer is now held by Cambridge University.

The abbey is a hidden gem, meaning that often when visiting you have the place to yourself, yet many visitors still report a sensation of being watched as they wander through the ancient ruins. A lonely figure wearing a dark robe with his face hidden by a hood is also seen roaming though the remains of the buildings, with the phantom vanishing almost as soon as it is glimpsed. This is believed to be one of the former monks, continuing to carry out their duties as they did in life in a residual type haunting.

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