Sooner or later, the curious traveller will end up at Rosslyn. Not far from Edinburgh, it is a magnet for mystics, myth-lovers, madmen, movie-goers and the mildly interested. It has been claimed that the chapel was built by the Knights Templar, on the site of a temple of Mithras, and modelled on Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Further, so the stories go, it sits astride a ‘rose line’, from which its name is derived, and which is either a north-west meridian connected to Glastonbury, the Isle of Avalon, King Arthur (and thence to the entire matter of Britain), or something to do with the lineage of Mary Magdalene (presumably known to her close friends as ‘Rose’). The St Clairs, or Sinclairs, who founded the chapel in 1446 and still own it, have been associated with freemasonry, the Priory of Sion and are, some claim, the descendents of Jesus Christ. Legend says that beneath the chapel lie the remains of the chiefs of the St Clairs; others say a subterranean chamber conceals the bodies of 12 (or is it 20?) Knights Templar, fully armoured, fresh as daisies and ready to rise up in time of need. Maybe the chiefs and the knights are the same thing. A tunnel, far underground, is said to connect the chapel with the romantic ruins of Roslin Castle 100 metres away. A recurring theme is that the chapel conceals buried treasure, or some great secret – such as the Holy Grail.
You can – possibly – be sure that most of the above is complete codswallop. But, even if you are not a conspiracy theorist, or prone to thinking that a Great Truth is concealed in every nook and cranny, you really should visit Rosslyn. Did I mention that Elvis Presley often lunches nearby and that the riddle of who killed JFK is hidden under the third stone from the right next to the boot scraper by the public toilets? Of course, such mysteries are only revealed to the truly pure when the moon descends through Uranus on the third Wednesday after Lent on alternate leap years…
That said, Rosslyn Chapel is beyond doubt an astonishing place, stuffed full of seemingly conflicting iconography. The best-selling novelist, Dan Brown, describes it as, “a shrine to all faiths” and suggests that the master masons commissioned to decorate Rosslyn left no stone ‘uncarved’. He may be right; even more surprising, then, that the chapel is just a fraction of what was originally planned – merely the chancel or choir of a much larger cruciform building that would have extended at least 90 feet (27 metres) beyond the existing west wall. You can see this from the photographs – the chapel looks truncated.
The founder of Rosslyn Chapel was Sir William St Clair, 11th Baron of Rosslyn and 3rd (and last) Prince of Orkney. The St Clairs trace their family tree back to the 9th century Norseman Rognvald the Mighty, Jarl of the Orkneys and of Moere and Romsdahal in Norway. Rognvald’s son, Rollo, was the 1st Duke of Normandy following a treaty signed with King Charles of France at Saint-Clair-sur-Epte – from which the St Clairs take their name. Rollo’s son William fought at the Battle of Hastings with his cousin, William the Conqueror, alongside eight other St Clair knights. Subsequently, William, the 1st Baron – known as ‘the Seemly’ – escorted the Saxon princess Margaret from Hungary to Scotland, to become King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland’s Queen.
So the St Clairs, like many other Norman families, have long been at the heart of European and Scottish history, and Rosslyn Chapel’s founder was a powerful man. No one knows why his project was never completed. Perhaps he simply ran out of cash. His son, Sir Oliver, roofed the chapel, but it seems that all original documents relating to the history of the chapel, and the family, mysteriously disappeared in the 18th or 19th centuries. The chapel did not fare well during the Reformation – the St Clairs were staunch Roman Catholics – and by the end of the 16th century the building had fallen into disrepair. It was used as a stable by General Monck’s Parliamentary troops attacking the Castle in 1650 and some damage was also caused by a Protestant mob in 1688. Abandoned until 1736, some repairs were undertaken then – including glazing the windows to keep out the worst of the weather. Further, extensive, repairs took place in the 19th century and in 1862 Sunday services recommenced. Unfortunately, the ravages of time, the Scottish climate and a lack of expert ‘TLC’ took their toll. Urgent conservation work undertaken in the 1950s, based on contemporary thinking, unhappily caused more problems than it solved by sealing in damp and pollutants, and in 1997 a massive project commenced to dry out the structure and carry out critical preservation and restoration work . For 13 years, the entire building was covered with a canopy. In 2012, a new visitor centre opened.
Following the restoration work, you can now see the interior of Rosslyn without the green algae that used to cover much of it and, probably, in the best shape that it’s been in for centuries. Descriptions such as ‘the Cathedral of Codes’, ‘a celebration in nature’ or, ‘the Bible in stone’ – which you may have heard – strike me as examples of excruciatingly gauche hyperbole, but it is certainly one of the fussiest and astounding little chapels you’ll have ever seen. The stunning stone roof, barrel-vaulted and without timber support (how did they build that?!), is divided into five compartments, each containing multiple carved flowers and stars. Every arch, every column and corner of the building, seems to have elaborate carvings – the seven deadly sins, an angel playing the bagpipes, a bound and inverted Lucifer (the fallen angel), a knight on horseback (a symbol of the Knights Templar), biblical scenes, a danse macabre – you could spend hours looking at (and for) these things. There are, apparently, more than 100 Green Men – ancient pagan symbols of rebirth. I assume that many of these works of art – because that is what they are – would once have been painted in rich colours. Even now, the effect is mind-boggling; there is almost too much to take in. Incidentally, at least one of my readers will want to be reminded that the seven deadly sins are: pride; gluttony; avarice; anger; envy; sloth and lust (not necessarily in that order).
On a window arch on the south aisle are carved representations of what is believed to be Indian corn, or maize, which might be considered odd, because it was unknown in Europe when the chapel was built.
On the south side of the Lady Chapel, behind the altar, is the elaborate, unique, Apprentice Pillar. The legend is that Rosslyn’s Master Mason travelled as far as Rome in order to see examples of the complex and exquisite designs he had been instructed to produce. Whilst he was away, his young apprentice dreamt he could do the work himself – and did so. The Master, enraged with envy when he returned and saw the beautiful completed work, struck his youthful trainee with a mallet, killing him outright. The Master was executed for the murder – and both individuals are represented in stone in the chapel. The vine that is entwined around the pillar emerges from the mouths of dragons at the base – thought to represent the eight dragons of Neifelheim (the Abode of Mist), said to rest at the foot of Yggdrasil, the great ash tree in the middle of Asgard which binds heaven, earth and hell. It would be interesting to know what these symbols of Norse mythology are doing in a Christian chapel – if that’s what it is.
So there is plenty at Rosslyn to captivate historian, conspiracy theorist, mystic and normal visitor. Clearly, some of the theories surrounding the place are fanciful, but there is so much that is intriguing. Most people believe that the name derives from Gaelic ros meaning ‘rocky outcrop’ and linn, or lynn, meaning ‘pool’, or ‘waterfall’ – features of the nearby glen and nothing to do with a mythical ‘rose line’. I am certainly no expert, but have seen no evidence to support the idea that there was a temple of Mithras on the site, and people who allegedly know what they’re talking about suggest that the building is more like St Giles’ in Edinburgh (or is it Glasgow Cathedral?) than the Temple of Solomon. There are links with the Knights Templar and freemasonry. Templar symbols are carved in the Chapel and the nearby village of Balentradoch, now Temple, was the Scottish base for the Knights Templar until the order was branded heretical and proscribed in the early 14th century. The Sinclairs have long Masonic associations – the 11th Baron and founder, William, was apparently granted the hereditary title of Grand Master Mason of Scotland by King James II in 1441, and subsequent earls have certainly been Grand Masters. Some of the mysteries may be solvable: there is tantalising evidence, for example, to suggest that Henry, 9th Baron and 1st Prince of Orkney, sailed to North America, landing in Newfoundland and Massachusetts, in 1398-99; if true, that might explain the corn on the cobs over the window.
All the claims and mysteries can do no harm to Rosslyn Chapel’s visitor figures. Apparently, these increased five-fold following the publication of Dan Brown’s book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and the subsequent 2006 film starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, which firmly put the place on the tourist map – if it wasn’t already there. Incidentally, movie-buffs may be disappointed to learn that the real chapel only partly resembles the fictional one – the crypt is nothing like as extensive as shown in the film, for a start; in fact, like the Chapel itself, it’s rather small. Actually, the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, which runs the place, might consider limiting the number of paying guests inside the Chapel at any one time. Our visit was reminiscent of a mob at a Black Friday sale, which did nothing for historic atmosphere, the ambience one might expect in a place of worship – or my good humour. Some of our fellow-visitors were particularly ill-mannered and arrogant, wielding very large, expensive and phallic-like cameras in defiance of the Chapel’s no photography policy. However, great sport was had politely but firmly assaulting these peasants and carrying out a little judicious photo-bombing. It was far too trivial a matter to warrant waking up the sleeping knights and asking for their help – but comforting to know back-up might be there if needed.
I am very grateful to the Rosslyn Chapel Trust for providing pictures of the Lady Chapel and Apprentice Pillar, which have been reproduced here.