The Abbey of St Mary of Deer

Abridged and edited from Pratt (1858)

A view of the Abbey of Deer

William Comyn arranged for an abbey to be founded on the estate he acquired on his marriage to Margaret, or Marjory, only child and heiress of Fergus, the Earl of Buchan. The foundations of the abbey were laid in 1218 or 1219. The Abbey Church was huge: the total length of nave and chancel was 150 feet. It was built on a cruciform plan and there was probably a central tower or spire.

The monastery, and the other buildings nearby were plainly built, with roundheaded arches, visible today in the ruins. Nothing remains of the abbey church but a few courses of masonry that allow the outline of the building to be made out.

Pratt, quoting the Statistical Account published in 1843 notes

John Knox and the Reformers are usually charged with the destruction of all the churches and ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland; but this is scarcely fair. They certainly began the work, and raised a spirit in the kingdom which exulted in its execution; but the disgrace attending the demolition of those noble monuments of antiquity rests chiefly with the proprietors and tenants of more recent times.

It is certainly true that the ruins of the abbey were plundered for building materials from 16th to the 19th century.

At the reformation the abbey passed into the ownership of the Fergusons of Pitfour, having fallen into disrepair and having been partly taken down about 1590. In 1809 the ruins were cleared of rubbish by James Ferguson of Pitfour, and according to one source until that time the buildings of the abbey, though dilapidated, were still largely standing, and some were significantly repaired at this time, but in 1854, Admiral Ferguson built a mausoleum on the site and destroyed most of the standing buildings at that time.

Pratt (1858) noted

He [Mr James Ferguson of Pitfour] also, with laudable respect for this monument of the piety of former generations, carefully preserved the ruin, during his time, from further destruction. By carefully clearing away the rubbish, the several parts of the monastery became clearly distinguishable—portions of the walls from twelve to eighteen feet high, still remaining. The church had become more dilapidated, but its outline could be disinctly traced. The foundations of the nave, chancel, and transepts, and the bases of most of the pillars which divided the aisle from the nave, with a considerable portion of the walls, remained. Till very lately the ruin continued much in the same state; and it is deeply to be regretted that these carefully-treasured remains of a beautiful and imposing structure, should have been sacrificed even to a sacred domestic feeling—a regret greatly enhanced by the ill-judged substitution of an erection which cannot even claim to be of Christian origin.

The sacred domestic feeling entailed the building, by Admiral Ferguson, of a massive granite mausoleum in the classical style, supported on doric columns. It is believed that the imposing porch through which the visitor passes is part of the dismantled mausoleum.

The Roman Catholic Church bought the site from the Ferguson family in 1930, removed the mausoleum and laid out the ruins much as they are currently.

(Revision date: Saturday 7th April 2012)