My Old Uncle and New Deer Abbey

When my great Uncle Jim died, approxiamately 12 years ago, my mum and her sisters were left with the task of clearing the house that he had shared with his brother, Tom, in Old Deer, Aberdeenshire. As they slowly emptied the house into black bin liners my mum came across a book she had heard Tom talking about with her mum many, many years before. It turns out Uncle Tom was the Custodian of New Deer Abbey and it was being closed to the public. What she had overheard was Tom telling his sister he had taken a book for safekeeping as, like the Abbey, it would go to rack and ruin if left unattended. The book he had been talking about was a 1st Edition of A Book of The Parish of Deir dated 1896.

My mum, obviously, spared the book from the bin bag and it’s been on her bookshelf and her IMAG0001conscience ever since. Inside the book was a newspaper cutting with a story, “He looks after historic ruins”, and a photo of Uncle Tom  tending to the grounds of the Abbey. The newspaper was dated 1962.

This weekend, OH (other half) and I were intending to head west for a weekend of camping but as Sean Batty was forecasting a very wet Tayvallich we decided instead, to head north to a hotel, The Saplinbrae Hotel in Mintlaw. The hotel is very close to New Deer Abbey so I mentioned this and the book to my mum who jumped at the chance of finding a new home for the book.

When we arrived at the hotel I explained about our dilemma and was told that although the Abbey was once more open to the public, no-one actually ‘manned’ it. I was also advised to go to the farming museum in Aden Country Park and if I couldn’t find someone to talk to about the book there, the chap who does the pat tests for the hotel was a historian and they could contact him for me if needs be. I think they were just as eager as my mum was to find a new home for the book.

OH and I went first to the Abbey and had a IMG_20180811_163530_231look round. It was easy to work out where my great uncle had stood in the newspaper photograph since nothing had changed since 1962 but not so easy to picture the Cistercian monks as they wandered around what would have been an amazing abbey in 1219.

As no-one else was around we headed off to Aden Country Park and the farming museum. In there we looked at old pieces of farming equipment and black and white photographs of people who used to live in the area. Disappointingly, I saw none that could have been relatives of mine. In the Horseman’s House, where you could see how people used to live in the 1830s, one of the museum curators chatted to us about the difficulties of living in a house with no electricity, running water or indoor toilet (I was immediately reminded, and thankful, I wasn’t camping) and whilst chatting I decided to share the book with her. She was in awe. She told me she should be wearing gloves but this did not stop her fanning the book open and gasping at the photos inside it. She then radioed her Supervisor, Pam, and asked her to come and see the book. Pam was entranced by the book and said she could sit and read it all day. She asked if my mum would want to donate it to the museum and then went onto explain that we would need to go through the proper channels and take the book to HQ and get a receipt for it. With no other plans I said that would be fine. We then went back to reception and she phoned HQ.  It turned out it was only admin on site and the woman who would normally deal with donations doesn’t work Saturdays.  Pam then wrote down all the woman’s details and asked me to phone her on Monday. Basically this meant taking the book back home, making a phone call and then having to post the book back up. Due to red tape I could not simply leave the book at the museum.  IMAG9988

Pam then asked if she could photocopy the newspaper cutting of my great uncle and the front of the book. She explained she wanted to have something to share the story with the public as the book would possibly sit in HQ and her and her staff would have to make appointments to go and see it in HQ after I had posted it up.

She then took me into the back room where the photocopier was stored. As we waited on it heating up she told me she was just back from Colonsay where her and her husband had been on holiday. Her husband was a minister so he had taken the sermon and she had written the address for the children. She said although the walk up to the church had been covered in sheep poo she was surprised to find 30 people in the congregation as well as 2 dogs plus her own. She said the atmoshpere was amazing.

As she looked through the book, picking things to photocopy, she showed me a picture of her house in the book and told me other interesting anecdotes. I could tell she loved it.

Copies made, we said our goodbyes and I walked away with the book under my arm. As I spoke to OH I told him about my conversation. How she had completely appreciated the book and how much hassle taking the book back home was going to be. We both knew what we were going to do. We turned round.

I went back in to reception and said, “I’ve been thinking. My mum would want this book to go to a good home, to someone who appreciates it so I want to gift this book personally to you Pam.”

Pam looked stunned but really happy. “Do you want to donate it to the farming museum?”

“No, personally to you and then you can do whatever you like with it. If you then want to donate it to the museum that is up to you but I am giving it to you.”

She made me sign a piece of paper saying I was gifting it to her and got her colleagues to witness it to ensure everything was above board. She said she was going to share the book with her staff and the woman who was in charge of The Book of Deer Project and she could not have looked happier.

I left feeling like I had done the right thing, it felt great.

My mum now also feels really good, knowing the book is now going to be appreciated and not hidden from view but most of all because her conscience is now clear.

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