In the village of Roslin, just a couple of miles south of Edinburgh’s bypass, lies one of the most remarkable pieces of church architecture in Scotland. Since its construction began in 1446 Rosslyn Chapel has evoked wonder and surprise with the beauty and intricacy of its stonework. And it has consistently defied categorisation by those architectural historians who like nothing better than to attach labels to buildings
Possibly the most surprising thing about Rosslyn is that it is only a small part of what its founder had in mind. Sir William St Clair’s original intention in founding the Collegiate Church of St Matthew was to build a large cruxiform church with a tower at its centre. Quality took precedence over speed and by the time of Sir William’s death in 1484 only the walls of the choir of his church and parts of the east walls of the transepts had been built, together with the foundations of part of the nave. Sir William was buried in the incomplete choir which was subsequently roofed by his son and turned into a chapel, but work ceased on the rest of the church.
The chapel served as a family house of worship through most of the 1500s, though the St Clair’s continued Catholicism after the Reformation in 1560 led to considerable tensions with the Kirk. The altars were finally destroyed in August 1592 and the chapel fell into disuse. During their attack on nearby Rosslyn Castle in 1650, Cromwell’s troops used the chapel as stables, but left it otherwise unharmed. And in 1688 locals damaged the “popish” chapel following the accession of William and Mary. Restoration was begun by James St Clair in 1736, who reglazed the windows and made the building weatherproof once more. More repairs followed through the 1800s, and in 1861 the 3rd Earl of Rosslyn restarted Sunday services at the chapel. The baptistry and organ loft were added to the west end in 1881.
The 1900s were a story of ongoing restoration of the chapel, some with unwanted side-effects. Work in the 1950s to weatherproof the roof led to dampness throughout the structure and in 1997 a free-standing steel roof was erected over the chapel to protect it and allow it to dry out.
This will eventually be removed, once the 1950s work has been undone. In the meantime it does tend to dominate external views of the chapel, as the header image shows. Don’t let this put you off. The steel outer roof has no effect on the beauty of the chapel’s interior, which for most visitors has always been its real attraction. And there is an unexpected bonus. A walkway below the steel roof allows close-up views of the upper parts of the outside of the chapel which literally add another dimension to your appreciation of the building. When you enter Rosslyn Chapel you understand why it has exerted such a powerful influence for 500 years over generations of visitors including Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II. The beauty and detail and sheer extravagance of its carved stonework has to be seen to be believed.
One element particularly stands out. At the meeting of the South Aisle and the Lady Chapel is the stunningly carved pillar known as the apprentice pillar. It is said that the master mason was instructed by Sir William St Clair to build a pillar to match a drawing he had provided. The master mason went to Italy to study the original, and in his absence an apprentice produced the magnificent pillar on view today. The story does not have a happy ending: the master mason was so consumed with envy on his return that he killed the apprentice with a blow from his mallet. The mason and the apprentice are believed to have inspired two of the gargoyles in the chapel.
The exquisite carvings of Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland are among the best in Europe and portray scenes not found in any other 15th century chapel. Much of the mystery and intrigue surrounding this site is connected with the unique carvings.
If Rosslyn Chapel’s sheer beauty has served to attract visitors from around the world, so has the aura of mystery and legend that surrounds it. One popular story is that Sir William St Clair’s grandfather, Henry Sinclair, was part of an expedition which reached Nova Scotia in 1398, and this is supported by carvings in the chapel of Indian corn, unknown in Europe at the time of its building.
There are other legends associated with Rosslyn Chapel’s links with the Knights Templar and the Masons. Sealed burial vaults below the chapel are thought to contain the remains of ten Barons of Rosslyn in their full armour. But some believe these vaults, or other parts of the chapel, may also contain the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant, or part of the actual cross on which Christ was crucified. And the Masonic links are held by some to explain why Cromwell’s troops spared the chapel in 1650. Some of these theories are intriguing and some are attractive, while others veer towards the fanciful. But they certainly add to the atmosphere of your visit.
In the last 14 years, the deteriorating condition of the chapel and problems with the roof had left the chapel in a bit of a mess, especially for funding its renovvation and then a little miracle happened.
That miracle was Dan Brown and then Tom Hanks.
Visitor numbers rocketed from 34,000 in 2001 to 176,000 in 2006 – the year the film came out. Today numbers still stand at more than 150,000, sadly the 2020 Covid Pandemic paused the visitor numbers.
I stayed for several days in Collegehill house, the building next door to Rosslyn chapel. As such we were able to visit the chapel whenever we wished, free of charge. To open my curtains and look directly at the chapel was mesmerising.
Of course I visited the chapel on several occasions. This was pre Da Vinci Code days, so the chapel was significantly quieter than today. I am in no way religious. But sitting in the heart of the chapel, looking up to the magnificent architecture, I had what many have described as a religious experience. To me it was one of the most calm and serene moments of my life. I smiled from ear to ear and that smile took quite a while to fade.
Life has got in the way, but I keep promising a road trip and return to one of my favourite places in the world. And one I had, before it was cool!
You can learn more visit the Official Website for Rosslyn Chapel to learn lots more.