Just a day at home before flying to Morpeth to stay with friend Julia and Allan, and then on to Edinburgh to stay with Katherine and Nasar, before coming back to Morpeth and then on to Cornwall. Who arranges these schedules?! In Edinburgh we had the delightful company of Nasar’s elder sister Khalda, but our focus was as always on doing things with Aiisha whenever possible.
However one morning the adults (minus Nasar) went on the local bus to Rosslyn Chapel, an amazing ride all through the suburbs and into the beautiful countryside for only £1.60 (our bus passes don’t work in Scotland).
What is absolutely incredible about Edinburgh is how the ashlar facing of the houses, even when bungalows, is maintained all the way to the outer rim of the city. No other place so large can be so ‘complete’ as this in the building stone presented. Anyway, to Rosslyn…….
Everyone of course now knows of Rosslyn Chapel from the Dan Brown stories, but it is a magnificent building, and in the ownership of the Rosslyn family since its foundation in 1446, and still used today as a place of worship. “Undiscovered Scotland’ gives a useful summary of its history..
‘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 cruciform 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. In December 1688 locals attacked the “popish” chapel during the “Glorious Revolution” that led to the accession to the crowns of England and Scotland of William and Mary(see our Historical Timeline).
Restoration of the chapel was begun in 1736 by James St Clair, 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 chapel continues to this day to be a working church, and is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church, a member of the world-wide Anglican Communion which traces its history back to St Columba and the early days of Christianity in Scotland.
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.
The free standing roof was finally removed in 2010, after the 1950s work had been undone and the roof made weathertight. The freestanding roof had the disadvantage of dominating external views of the chapel, and it also deprived the interior of much of the natural light that would otherwise have flooded in through the windows. On the other hand, a walkway below the roof did allow close-up views of the upper parts of the outside of the chapel that literally added another dimension to the appreciation of the building.
Today’s visitor starts their visit to Rosslyn Chapel in a second beautiful piece of architecture, the visitor centre that opened to the public in 2011. This is a suitably remarkable building that seems to hover above its site, and which looks wonderfully insubstantial when viewed from some angles. Quite a trick, given that it is actually quite a large building offering reception facilities and background information about the chapel; plus a shop selling tastefully appropriate merchandise, and a cafe with a superb view over the glen behind.
After emerging from the visitor centre you approach the chapel from the north. When you enter Rosslyn Chapel for the first time you finally begin to understand why it has exerted such a powerful influence for over five centuries over many 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. You get the real sense that the people who worked here really enjoyed showing off their skills for the benefit of future generations. There is virtually no surface in any part of the chapel that has not been painstakingly worked on, with magnificent results.
One element stands out as worthy of particular mention. 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 placed high up in the west end of the choir, supporting structures that once housed statues. The “apprentice” has a dent in his head, and the mason is placed so that, as a punishment for his crime, he must forever gaze diagonally across the chapel to the apprentice pillar that so offended his professional pride.
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 which certainly look as if they depict Indian corn, supposedly unknown in Europe at the time of the building of the chapel.
There are other legends which link Rosslyn Chapel with the Knights Templar and the Masons. Sealed burial vaults below the chapel are said to contain the remains of ten Barons of Rosslyn in their full armour. And some people believe that 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. Meanwhile the chapel’s alleged 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 this wonderful place.
The legends surrounding Rosslyn Chapel found a point of focus when the chapel served as the setting for the climactic closing scenes of Dan Brown’s hugely popular novel “The Da Vinci Code” published in 2003, and the Ron Howard film of the same name released in 2006. Dan Brown has succeeded in bringing Rosslyn Chapel to an even wider audience and visitor numbers have increased dramatically as a result. It is a wonderful place at any time, but as it is open all year round, we’d recommend you pick the most off-season moment possible, as you only really begin to appreciate the magic of the chapel to the full if you are fortunate enough to find yourself visiting on a quiet day……..’
Remarkably, the whole chapel is built of stone with no wooden structures, and every possible surface seems to be carved, making it a truly unique building. Even the roof is an explosion of carving.
Rosslyn Chapel Trust is also responsible for the conservation and care of Rosslyn Castle, the ancestral home of the St Clair family, which is just a short walk from the Chapel. The Castle, which is category A listed, is not open to visitors but is available to rent as holiday accommodation through The Landmark Trust.
Rosslyn Castle has evolved over centuries and this Castle probably replaced an even earlier one, situated nearby. The oldest part of the Castle is the remains of the ‘lantern’ or ‘lamp tower’ by the bridge and this was probably built around 1304, after the Battle of Roslin.
A round keep was built on the south-west corner around 1390 by Sir Henry St Clair, the second Prince of Orkney. His son, Sir William, succeeded to the estate in 1417 and was responsible for the building of Rosslyn Chapel.
He enlarged and strengthened the Castle and, as he had travelled extensively in France, he introduced a number of French influences such as the round buttresses, the remains of which can still be seen.
In his work the ‘Genealogie of the Saint Clairs’, Father Hay wrote that Sir William and his Princess, Lady Elizabeth Douglas, had the ‘halls and chamber richly hung with embroidered hangings’ and were ‘royally served in gold and silver vessels, in most princely manner.’
Not long after the improvements were completed, a fire destroyed part of the building although this was subsequently repaired.
The Castle was attacked and set on fire again in 1544 at the time known as the ‘rough wooing’ when several other nearby castles suffered the same fate.
In 1580, the estate passed to another Sir William St Clair who created the vaults and ‘great turnpike of Rosslyn’ – the impressive four feet wide staircase which leads from the basement up through the present Castle – and added more buildings including the clock tower in 1596 and the Great Hall over the vaults.
The fireplace from the Great Hall still exists today, inscribed with the date of 1596.
His son, also Sir William, finished the building over the vaults and his initials ‘S.W.S (for Sir William St Clair) 1622’ are inscribed above the door of the present Castle.
The vaults below the present building provided the kitchen, bakehouse and dungeon. Sir William’s son, Sir John, tried to resist the attack on the Castle in 1650 by Cromwell’s troops, led by General Monk, but much damage was caused and the Castle never recovered.
In 1788, the Castle was described as ‘haggard and utterly dilapidated’. For much of the 20th century, it was occupied by Miss Leech, a tenant, followed by a period of restoration, which was instigated by the Earl and Countess of Rosslyn and completed in 1984. The Castle’s change in use to holiday accommodation took effect in 1985.
Our visit was in ‘Scottish’ weather as can be seen, otherwise we would have descended to the magnificent glen over which the castle is built.
All in all a day of great interest, and one I would certainly repeat…
With Aiisha we spent a terrific day at Dalkeith Country Park which gets a 10/10 score
from me. The setting, in the grounds of Dalkeith Palace, (currently leased to the University of Wisconsin!) is incomparable. The first ‘adventure’ undertaken by the intrepid Aiisha was one which I wouldn’t undergo in a hundred years, snaking through a wire mesh tube which was suspended from a bridge high over the river below and totally exposed. Good on her is what I say!
Other happenings were just as exciting…
The food was very good too in a high-class restaurant. We sat outside and enjoyed the sun…
and if the meal got a little boring the river was steps away,
and there was a horse to befriend..
One morning was spent at the National Museum of Scotland (terrific in its own right) at their major exhibition on The Jacobites. This featured a splendid collection of paintings
and artefacts from a lot of sources. The whole story of the Jacobites was related sometimes in panels sometimes in video clips, and it was thoroughly absorbing. We must have spent 3 hours there but I could easily have stayed much longer. Of course in the timeline more emphasis was given to the Romantic hero (if you are of my ilk) the Bonnie Prince himself here depicted in a typical portrait from the Royal collection (the present Royals seem to have a fascination with their Stuart line).
Here is an elaborate set of travelling cutlery and two wine beakers brought with him to Scotland in 1745. He always lived in some style.
and here a back sword presented to him in 1740 by the Duke of Perth.
Of course, in the end, the story was a tragedy culminating in the butchery of Culloden, a last hurrah for the brave folk who supported Charles against the odds…..that’s how I like to see it anyhow.
I think it was the same afternoon we picked up Aiisha from nursery and took her to the dinosaur exhibition at the Ocean Terminal. With animatronics the dinosaurs moved and roared, and an exciting time was had by all. There was even a play pit with hidden dinosaur bones…
and a coffee at one of the eateries enabled us to look at the ships moored outside including the Royal Britannia (which we had visited on a previous occasion).