Popular throughout Europe from the late thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Books of Hours were prayer books intended not for the clergy but for devout lay folk who wanted to follow the Church's programme of daily devotions. They always included a series of prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary but varied considerably in the choice of other saints venerated and in the number, size and quality of illustrations. People could either buy a readymade Book of Hours or commission one specially tailored to their own circumstances and interests.
The manuscript now generally known as the Rossdhu Book of Hours was produced by a workshop in the Southern Netherlands, probably in Bruges, during the last quarter of the fifteenth century. Its first owner is thought to have been the Scottish noblewoman, Elizabeth Dunbar, Countess of Moray, who lived with her third husband, the laird Sir John Colquhoun, at Rossdhu, near the village of Luss on Loch Lomond. The date of the dedication of the chapel at St Mary of Rossdhu (6 April 1469) is recorded in the manuscript's calendar, which also includes brief obituaries, erased but just decipherable under ultra-violet light, for Elizabeth's father, who was killed in August 1429, and her son James, who died in March 1493.
The Latin text is written on vellum, mainly in dark brown ink, but with the titles of prayers, chapter headings and instructions in red. The first letters of words at the beginnings of verses are usually in burnished gold or blue. On important pages these initials become quite ornate, spreading across several lines and incorporating foliage designs and sometimes small pictures that relate to the surrounding text. Many pages also have decorative borders of acanthus leaves, flowers and fruit. Larger illustrations portray the Passion of Christ, the saints, the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the ascent of souls into heaven. There is no attempt at historical accuracy; the figures depicted all wear fifteenth-century attire.
The Rossdhu Book of Hours was one of several medieval manuscripts that Sir George Grey purchased in 1863 from the London booksellers Thomas and William Boone. It was among the first consignment of precious books that he donated to the Library in 1887.