The World of Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn without scaffold

I can’t believe the holidays are upon us already. Where did autumn go to? It seems that the festive time of year always manages to creep up on us.

And that’s a good thing! It certainly is time for a bit of a break, some good cheer, and a few helpings of my homemade wassail.

I hope you enjoyed the wonderful posts from my fellow authors during the Holiday Historical Fiction Blowout event from December 1-8th. It was a very busy eight days, but we had a great time, met some new readers, and picked up some great books!

I hope many of you were able to take advantage of the fantastic .99 cent deals.

Time for a new blog post.

During this time of year, with the run-up to Christmas, talk of yule logs, wassail (drink and carols), I always tend to gravitate toward my Medieval interests.

Summer makes me think of ancient Greece and Rome, but the time of the Winter Solstice sets me firmly in the Middle Ages. Perhaps it’s the songs I imagine being sung in soaring cathedrals, or the glow of bees’ wax candles among fresh strands of cedar and pine. I have a bit more time at home, and it becomes my castle, a place where I can sit, read one of my antiquarian books of Arthurian tales, and think back on the year with gratitude.

After digging up the Christmas ornaments last weekend, I was going through one of many boxes of old photos that I have from my studies and travels, and came upon a packet of prints from a visit to a truly amazing place – Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel covered in scaffolding during my first visit there in 2000

Rosslyn Chapel covered in scaffolding during my first visit there in 2000

Having lived in St. Andrews, Scotland for a couple of years, I had the opportunity to visit new and interesting sites all of the time, from Melrose and the Roman fort at Trimontium in the Scottish borders, to Inverness and Eilean Donan castle, and everything in between. It was something new every weekend. You can visit prehistoric sites, Pictish hill forts and Roman remains, of which there are many.

The great thing about living in Britain is that there are more medieval sites to visit than you can possible see in a lifetime.

One of the most interesting sites that I did visit during my time in St. Andrews was Rosslyn Chapel.

I was fortunate enough to have done this in the pre-Da Vinci Code days of publishing after which, I am certain, hordes of eager tourists turned the quiet chapel into a virtual marketplace of symbology. I’m not trashing that as I’m sure the major influx of funds helped Rosslyn Chapel to complete the restoration which finished in 2013. When I visited the chapel, there was scaffold everywhere, along with piles of stone that were to be used in the work.

But oh, what a place! And what a treat for me and my three friends to have it all to ourselves at the time.

North Aisle of Chapel

North Aisle of Chapel – picture from the site guide book

Rosslyn Chapel lies just south of Edinburgh and has been known as many things throughout its history – the Chapel of the Grail, a key to the secrets and treasures of the Templar Knights, the survivors of which were absorbed, some say, into the Masonic order. Certainly, many authors and historians have contributed to theories that go beyond the boundaries of conventional academia. And why not? It makes for fascinating fiction as well as some perfectly viable historical theories. A few book mentions later on.

Carving of a Knight

Carving of a Knight

Rosslyn Chapel  was founded in 1446 (a few years after the founding of St. Andrews University in 1410, my alma mater) by Sir William St. Clair, the last St. Clair Prince of Orkney, who was buried in the chapel. It took some forty years to build what remains today and even that was not what was intended, for the original plan called for a larger structure. Evidence of this was found in an early excavation when the archaeologists discovered foundation walls that went well beyond the existing walls. Not everyone perceived Rosslyn as a sanctuary, a work of art, or marvel of mysticism. Many, especially protestants, labelled Rosslyn as a house of idolatry, no doubt disconcerted by the images staring at them from every corner of the intensely ornate chapel.

The St. Clair crest with 'engrailed' cross

The St. Clair crest with ‘engrailed’ cross

I will not go into the long history of Rosslyn Chapel here as this is more of a short pictorial tease. However, this place was not awarded the respect that was due to such a work of art. In 1650, during the Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell’s troops were besieging St. Clair Castle (only about 100 meters away), the English horses were stabled in the chapel. In 1688, pro-Protestant villagers from Roslin entered and damaged the chapel because it was “Popish and idolatrous”.

It was abandoned until 1736 when James St. Clair repaired the windows, roof and floors. If you have read a great deal about Rosslyn, the Templars and/or Masons, you will know that the name of St. Clair (or Sinclair) figures prominently.

In April of 1862, Rosslyn Chapel was rededicated as a place for worship and has undergone various stages of repair over the years, including when I visited in 2000.

Outer wall of Rosslyn Castle

Outer wall of Rosslyn Castle

It is, unfortunately, easy to get taken up with picture taking in such a place. I know that at first, I certainly did, but once I ran out of film (yes, before digital was common!) I was able to sit quietly in that place and admire it for a while. I remember it being very quiet, and there certainly was a feeling of constantly being watched (and not by CCTV cameras!). No, there was definitely a feeling to the place, unlike any other.

Yes, you do have some of the usual religious iconography and stained glass, but there is more of the unusual and mysterious. Questions certainly abound. For instance, the appearance of American vegetation such as aloe or Indian corn! There is a plethora of mythical creatures, dragons especially, of unusual angels such as the one playing the bag pipes, or another carrying the heart of Robert the Bruce (could it be the Black Douglas who was to take the Bruce’s heart to Jerusalem?).

Angel holding heart of Robert the Bruce

Angel holding heart of Robert the Bruce

One of the most famous works in the chapel is the Apprentice Pillar. This twisted pillar, based with eight coiled dragons, is a true masterpiece and the story goes that when the master mason was away, his apprentice continued to work and created something that far surpassed that of the master. The master mason was so enraged with jealousy that he killed the apprentice with his mallet.

The Apprentice Pillar

The Apprentice Pillar

I think however, that the most striking thing for me was the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel. At one point, you look up and there above is an intricate pattern of alternating daisies, lilies, flowers, Roses and stars.

Numerous books have been written about this place, countless pictures published on-line, but there is no substitute for actually visiting it and interacting with it.

Barrel-vaulted Ceiling

Barrel-vaulted Ceiling

Rosslyn has quite a story to tell, no matter what your perspective. You can gaze at it for hours and not see it all.

Here are a few recommended reads that touch on Rosslyn, but also on the Templars and Masons. If fiction is your thing, check out Jack Whyte’s Templar Trilogy in which the St. Clairs make an appearance. Oh, and why not check out Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – it may not be literary fiction, but it is highy entertaining and has caused millions of people to pick up a book and read who might not otherwise have done so. Besides, he fictionalizes some quite interesting theories put forward by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh as well as other alternative historian/detectives.

Lucifer - the fallen angel

Lucifer – the fallen angel

A couple of non-fiction recommendations that I have are Rosslyn, Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins and secondly, The Sword and the Grail by Andrew Sinclair. The latter is a very interesting exploration into the Templars and the possibility that they travelled to North America more than ninety years before Columbus’s journey of discovery. I know, it sounds mad, but it’s truly fascinating and besides, the Vikings discovered Newfoundland some five hundred or so years before Columbus! For you alternative history buffs out there, you’ll already have made the link to the carvings of Indian corn and aloe on the walls or Rosslyn Chapel.

Bag Pipe-playing angel

Bag Pipe-playing angel

Well, that’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Be sure to check out the Rosslyn Chapel website for more information.

As ever, thank you for reading.

Also, do check out this 4-part BBC documentary on Rosslyn Chapel hosted by art historian, Helen Rosslyn – yes, the chapel has been in her family for hundreds of years!



6 thoughts on “The World of Rosslyn Chapel

  1. The story of the Templars, the Holy Grail has always been an interest. I enjoy the mystery and mystique of the back stories 😀

    • It is very fascinating (and controversial!), and despite what many people say, there are some really plausible theories out there, among the over-the-top theories. One of the great mysteries of history 😉

  2. Among Rosslyn’s many intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes or “boxes” protruding from pillars and arches with a selection of patterns on them. It is unknown if these patterns have any particular meaning attached to them. Many people have attempted to find information coded into them, but no interpretation has yet proven conclusive. Unfortunately, many of these ‘boxes’ are not original, having been replaced in the 19th century after erosion damage.

    • Rosslyn is certainly a place of many mysteries, most of which likely won’t be solved but will continue to fascinate us. #lovehistory !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *