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MS 56: Celtic Psalter, c 1000

Identifier: MS 56

Scope and Contents

The manuscript is a very fine Psalter from around 1000CE that was probably written in Scotland. This particular manuscript features the Hebrew version of the Psalter.

The Psalter (Hebrew version) starts on f.1v. This folio is perhaps not original; it is possible that an original decorated page was removed at an early date.

There is a prayer inserted in a 13th or 14th-century hand, beginning Domine Jhesu Christe qui in hunc mundum. It starts on f.48v and ends on f.49v. This prayer seems to have been written by/for a male supplicant; if a woman had requested the addition of this prayer it would almost certainly have been written in the feminine form.


The script is Irish minuscule, probably written in Scotland. Professor W. M. Lindsay has assigned it to the 11th century, whereas Principal Laurie's study of the illumination, with special reference to materials used, leads him to assign a still earlier date; more recent analysis of the pigment suggests manufacture around 1000CE (see the bibliography and the 'Illumination' section). The script is a very fine example of its kind.


The text written by the original hand ends at Psalm 148:14.


The ornament consists of large and small initials, line-endings, and a few scrolls in the lower margins, with two complete pages of illumination.

The verse initials have their centres coloured purple, green, blue, yellow, or red. Psalm initials show a considerable variety of fine interlaced work, the terminals being frequently animal heads. All the letters are surrounded by a single line of red dots. The colours used are purple, blue, green, red, and yellow. One initial, on f. 21v, is in the form of a fish, a somewhat unusual convention in such manuscripts.

In addition to spiral or triangular scroll line-endings touched with colour, a number of the leaves have in the lower margin a curious elongated grotesque animal form, which seems to resemble the convention known as the elephant symbol found on Pictish stones in Scotland. The frequent occurrence of this form of ornament, together with the fish, which is also found on these stones, may eventually be discovered, in Mr. Ludovic Mann's opinion, to have some significance as connecting the book with Pictland.

As in most Celtic Psalters, there has been the triple division, marked by more elaborate illumination at Psalm 1, 51, and 101. Unfortunately, however, the first page of the Psalter is missing, and the first leaf of Psalm 101 is left blank, so that only one of the more elaborate illuminations remains, namely at at the beginning of Psalm 51 (f.50r). Here there are two pages of illuminations, the second of which (f.50v) remains as it was originally written, showing the second verse of the Psalm written in six lines of half-uncials on a yellow ground, divided horizontally by narrow bands of purple, blue, and red, a seventh line being rilled with the familiar triangular scroll pattern, and the twhole surrounded by a good interlaced border.

The recto of this leaf has originally been similarly treated, for the outer edge of an interlaced border can still be seen, but over it has been superimposed a late imitation of English 11th century work. Quid gloriaris is written in capitals, the rest of the verse in minuscules, in gold upon a dark background of blue-grey clouds framed in double lines of gold. The date of this insertion is difficult to determine. It may not improbably belong to the same period as the prayer inserted before it, that is, to the 14th century.

Unfortunately the margins are badly cropped, all catchwords having disappeared, and a few of the initials have been partially mutilated.

A.P. Laurie has also noted the following features: There are distinct indications that, while the early decorations are Celtic in character, the original decorator had not completed his work, and that additional decorations were done at a later date. There is one page on which gold appears, which is never found on Celtic manuscripts, and this gold is of a remarkable character. It is not gold leaf, but seems to be finely-sifted gold dust obtained from river washings. The use of gold dust of this character is to be found on a Canterbury Gospel supposed to be of the late 8th century, and on King Edgar’s Charter to Winchester of 966, and again on a Canterbury Psalter of between 1012 and 1023. Laurie has never noticed this river-washed gold dust at a later date, and therefore its presence on the Celtic manuscript already referred to suggests that at some time it has been in the possession of an English monastery, and that its date is probably very early in, or even earlier than, the 11th century, as suggested by Lindsay (see below for a more exact dating). This date means this manuscript is probably the latest example that we have of river-washed gold dust. Of course, there may have been quite a short interval of time between the work done by the original Celtic monk and the decoration of this particular page in the English monastery, but whatever the real history of this manuscript may be, the presence of this rare form of decoration, and the fact that it is never found after the 11th century, help to confirm the conclusion come to by Professor Lindsay, that it is certainly not later than that date. (See also Laurie's work in the 'Bibliography'.)

Analysis of the pigment in this manuscript suggest manufacture somewhere around 1000CE, but no later. The blue is all lapis lazuli, the yellow orpiment, the red is red lead, and properly manufactured.


  • Creation: c 1000

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open to all. The manuscripts can be consulted in the Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Main Library.


1 bound MS volume

Custodial History

It is very difficult to determine the provenance of this manuscript with any accuracy. It has neither Kalendar nor Litany, nor any mark of ownership earlier than the 16th century when it was in Aberdeen. The usual Canticles are not now found, though they may originally have been included at the end of the Psalter, which is now missing.

The only definite mark of ownership is the inscription on f. 143v: Liber magister [sic] Johannis Reyd Cancellarii Aberdonensis. John Reid was Chancellor in 1537 and following years (see Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis, Spalding Club, vol. 2, p. 112). He may have added the missing verses at the beginning and end of the Psalter. The book must have been in the Library before 1636, as it is mentioned in a catalogue of that date.

There is also an erased inscription on f.1r.

Previous title

Title given to the manuscript in Catherine Borland's catalogue: Psalter (Celtic)

Previous reference



Finlayson, Charles P. Celtic Psalter: Edinburgh University Library Ms. 56. North-Holland Publishing, 1962.
Laurie, A.P. The Pigments and Mediums of the Old Masters. Macmillan, 1914. See p. 74.
Lindsay, W.M. Notes on the script of the Celtic Psalter. Appendix III in Borland, Catherine. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Medieval Manuscripts in Edinburgh University Library. Edinburgh, 1916. See pp. 327-328.
McNamara, M. The Psalms in the Early Irish Church. Sheffield, 2000. See pp.74-76.

Physical Facet

Material: Vellum

Binding: Rebound by W. H. Smith, Letchworth, 1914, in full morocco with plaited thongs.

Collation: a12, b14-d14, e15, f14-i14, k16, l2=143.


13.02 cm x 7.94 cm


Secundo folio: et erit tanquam

Foliation and number of lines to a page: ff. 143, 19 lines to a page.

Repository Details

Part of the University of Edinburgh Library Heritage Collections Repository

Centre for Research Collections
University of Edinburgh Main Library
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