Rosslyn Castle can’t seem to make up its mind how it wants to be spelt. It appears as both Roslin and Rosslyn – clearly the same name; the nearby village is Roslin and the infamous Chapel is invariably Rosslyn.
In any event, Rosslyn Castle is often overlooked by those making a pilgrimage to the better-known Chapel; which, when you think about it, is a curious reversal of fortunes. Unlike the Chapel, the Castle is not a tourist attraction, open to the public. But if you follow the path south of the Chapel between the graveyards, you’ll see the remains of the medieval fortifications at the end – and they are well worth the short walk. The ruins loom at you from across a stone bridge spanning beautiful Roslin Glen, plunging 55 feet below – which is also an alternative approach, if you fancy a longer walk. Rosslyn Castle is an unexpected, and dramatic, sight. But once across the bridge – which replaced a medieval wooden drawbridge – your journey comes to an abrupt end – unless you plan to stay the night, which you can do, if you want – provided you book (see below).
It is possible that a fortress of some sort stood on the same site in the mists of time, but the earliest remaining building now is the ruined tower by the bridge. This was part of the great castle of the St Clairs, barons of Rosslyn since the 11th century, thought to be constructed by Henry St Clair in the early 14th century just after the Battle of Roslin, which took place nearby on 24th February 1303.
The Battle of Roslin puzzles me. It was fought between the Scots and English during the Wars of Scottish Independence and was a Scottish victory, but it does not figure in many history books and few people have even heard of it. Most of the accounts I have read smack of hysterical exaggeration and historical inaccuracy. The gist of the popular story is that an English army of 30,000 (an improbably large force) set out from Carlisle under the command of a Sir John de Segrave. Segrave was an experienced commander and veteran of the Scottish Wars, but was apparently more motivated on this occasion by his jealous desire for the elusive, and gorgeous, Lady Margaret Ramsay of Dalhousie, who had become betrothed to the handsome Sir Henry St Clair. Segrave, full of English arrogance as well being a cad and a bounder, divided his army into three. The plucky Scots, having hastily but heroically gathered together an army of 8,000, and with superior knowledge of the terrain, picked off the English in three separate engagements in the area and achieved great slaughter. Local names such as the Killburn and Shinbanes Field (where cartloads of bones were apparently unearthed in the 19th century) allegedly attest to the carnage. In some accounts, only 2,000 English survived. Segrave was captured in the first battle, but was later rescued. The tale has everything – romance, heroism and the defeat of an oppressive foe – except the ring of credibility. Why don’t we know more about this event? Still, it is the stuff of myth and legend – and perhaps that’s exactly what it is. Perhaps the Battle of Roslin was no more than a successful skirmish, or skirmishes, won by the Scots as they carried out guerrilla warfare against the English. Perhaps the Battle of Roslin isn’t mentioned in history books because the Scots were commanded by John ‘Red’ Comyn and Simon Fraser; Comyn was a great rival of Robert the Bruce, claimant to the Scottish throne, who stabbed Comyn to death in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306 and who, ultimately, as King Robert I, went on to decisively defeat the English at Bannockburn in 1314. Could Bruce, or anyone else, have air-brushed such a fantastic tale from the records? It seems unlikely, even if history is often written by the victors. Anyway, a memorial to the battle, erected in 1994, lies a mile or so to the north-east of Rosslyn, close to Dryden Farm (Dryden, naturally, is supposed to be derived from dreadful den).
Back to Rosslyn Castle. At its height, as the Rosslyn Chapel website points out, the halls and chambers of the Castle would have been richly hung with embroidered hangings and were “royally served in gold and silver vessels”. Unfortunately, the building was seriously damaged by fire in 1447, which allegedly broke out when bedclothes caught light from a candle held by a lady in waiting who was searching for a dog under a bed. As you do. The damage was repaired, but the castle was largely destroyed just a hundred years later in 1544, when an English army under the Earl of Hertford besieged it. This episode was part of the English King Henry VIII’s so-called ‘rough wooing’ – an attempt to control his threatening northern neighbour, by forcing the infant Princess Mary (later Queen of Scots) to marry his son, Edward. The attempt failed. Mary, however, did apparently stay at the castle in a more peaceful moment in 1563, when she was in her early twenties.
Following the Scots’ defeat by Cromwell’s army at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, the by this time largely rebuilt Rosslyn Castle was completely battered by an English Parliamentary force under the command of General Monck. Monck laid siege using four artillery pieces and a mortar, whilst stabling his horses in the chapel. The Castle never recovered its previous glory; only the faintly Gallic-looking east range, built by one of the Sir William Sinclairs between 1582 and 1597, remained habitable. That too was plundered by a Protestant mob in 1688.
Rosslyn fell into decay, a subject for romantic paining and musings, though the Castle had a tenant, a Miss Leech, for much of the 20th century. It was restored in the 1980s and, as previously suggested, it is one of many ancient and unusual places in Britain where you can have a holiday. Visit the website of the Landmark Trust, which cares for the property.
Before you do, I should add that, perhaps inevitably, Rosslyn Castle has its own share of mysteries. Given its 700-year, often violent, history – and that of its neighbour, the Chapel – you’d expect no less, would you? It seems a peaceful spot now, but the Castle’s enigmas include a sleeping lady who knows where treasure is hidden, ghosts of a black knight, and a dog (or is it a black dog, once owned by an English knight slain in the glen?) – and a curious story about the removal of ancient documents from their hiding place, to be lost forever or kept secretly in the Vatican. Which brings me almost neatly to the film of the Da Vinci Code; scenes near the end of the movie, where Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) discovers her extraordinary lineage – assisted by the intrepid Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) – were shot outside the Castle.
I’ve stayed at the castle several times with friends. And always encounter spooky happenings. Taps in the small backstairs toilet continually switching on by themselves. Bathroom on 1st floor seemingly occupied during the night, only to be found empty….eventually. A dog heard growling on the main stairwell and, most terrifying of all, heard by my husband when alone…a door shaking violently at the end of the dungeon level when everyone else was accounted for and upstairs. ??