…O'er Roslin all that dreary night A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam; 'Twas broader than the watch-fire light, And redder than the bright moon-beam… Seemed all on fire that chapel proud, Where Roslin's chiefs uncoffined lie; Each Baron, for a sable shroud, Sheathed in his iron panoply. Seemed all on fire within, around, Both vaulted crypt and altar's pale; Shone every pillar foliage-bound, And glimmered all the dead-men's mail. Blazed battlement and pinnet high, Blazed every rose-carved buttress fair— So still they blaze when fate is nigh The lordly line of high St. Clair. There are twenty of Roslin's barons bold Lie buried within that proud chapelle; Each one the holy vault doth hold— But the sea holds lovely Rosabelle! And each St. Clair was buried there, With candle, with book, and with knell; But the Kelpy rung, and the Mermaid sung, The dirge of lovely Rosabelle.
-Sir Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel
Recently, on a most magnificent, sunny morning, we headed out on a explore and discover trip to Rosslyn Chapel to gather research about the legendary church and its surrounding area. Located just several miles south of Edinburgh, the Chapel can be found in the quaint village of Roslin (despite the different ways they are spelled- both the chapel and village derive from the same name). It rests as a beacon of beauty on the hillside overlooking the picturesque Roslin Glen.
Rosslyn Chapel: Tourism Destination Across the Centuries
Rosslyn Chapel (originally known as the Collegiate Church of St Matthew) has been a source of inspiration for writers, poets, artists, and visitors from around the world for centuries. Its majesty is breathtaking and leaves most visitors in awe.
The Chapel has been a tourist destination for hundreds of years and has had many famous visitors including our old friends, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott (discussed below). Of course, Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, brought the Chapel to the forefront of popular culture and introduced it to a whole new, larger audience, when it was published in 2003. Attendance numbers greatly increased after the book was published, and even more so after the Chapel was featured in the film based on the book.
The Chapel and grounds started doing a conservation project in the mid-1990s when the Rosslyn Chapel Trust was formed. However, the revenue from increased visitors due to the stunning success of The Da Vinci Code helped to make much larger renovations possible. Additionally, in 2007, Rosslyn Chapel was awarded £4.9 million in funding from The Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland. This allowed for major renovations of the Chapel to finally take place as well as new visitor facilities to be built.
Logistically, it is much easier to visit Rosslyn Chapel now as there is plenty of parking and the Visitor Centre has a nice gift shop and café to accommodate the large number of guests that come from around the world. It is also easily accessible from Edinburgh city centre via the Lothian bus system; the bus stop is in the village with only about a 5-minute walk to the Chapel grounds.
Once you exit the Visitor Centre, you immediately enter the churchyard. On this particular day, the morning sun was beaming through the exquisite stained glass. The stone crunched loudly underfoot as it was a very quiet morning.
The calm and tranquil setting lulled me into a relaxed state of mind; the magnificence of the Chapel invited me to sit on a bench in the sun and take in all its splendour. The ancient stones show a chapel that has survived centuries despite so much that has changed all around it. It has gone from new, to decay, to renovation success, and now has a new life once again.
The St Clair family has a very interesting lineage and they are descended from the Earls of Norway- including the famous Viking Chieftain, Rollo, who was also the first Duke of Normandy. This is also where the St Clair name comes from as Rollo signed a peace treaty with King Charles of France at St Clair-sur-Epte.
According to the informational plaques outside the Chapel, Sir William St Clair decided to build a chapel in 1446 that would ‘ensure his place in heaven’ and be a place for he and his family to say mass. His intention was to build a much larger church than the one that stands there today. Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing the various Gothic cathedrals in France will immediately see the resemblance when they visit Rosslyn. Gothic cathedrals were quite popular in France at the time and Sir William certainly would have wanted something similar in Scotland. In fact, one of the informational boards aptly describes the Chapel as a ‘French design with a Scottish accent’.
Unfortunately, he died in 1484, and his son, Sir Oliver St Clair, did not finish the building according to his father’s design plans. The only part that was completed was the choir, but the nave and transept were never built (the baptistery at the end of the building was not built until 1880). The speculation is that Sir Oliver ran out of money or didn’t want to spend any more of his inheritance on the expensive project.
The graves in the churchyard stand for all to honour and observe the family members who have lived and spent time here. One grave that stood out to me was the Hon. Peter Alexander George St Clair Erskine- younger brother of the 6th Earl of Rosslyn- who died in active service on 8 September 1939.
After taking my time to walk around the outside of the chapel, I turn my attention to the wonderful task of exploring the interior. An important heads up for visitors- understandably, photos and video and are not allowed inside Rosslyn Chapel. Therefore, unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the interior. However, you can always check out the official website for the Chapel or, of course, visit in person. Until then, let us continue our journey…
Inside Rosslyn Chapel: Majestic and Enigmatic
As soon as you cross the threshold into the chapel, the tranquillity of the chapel envelopes you. Looking around it quickly becomes clear that this chapel is quite unique in its interior design for most of the surfaces are covered in intricate carvings.
As you walk around the perimeter of the room, it’s important to look carefully at the carvings because they are all quite fascinating and some are even mysterious (more on that to come). Starting in the North Aisle, there is an information board discussing our old friend Sir Walter Scott who was a nearby resident and inspired by Rosslyn to write the poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel- the excerpt from it is at the beginning of this article. It pays homage to a couple of myths that surround Rosslyn Chapel. First, the description of a fire is referring to an idea that has Norse origins. The story says that when a Rosslyn baron passed away, the Chapel appeared to be on fire and engulfed in flames. Afterwards, upon examination, it appeared that the Chapel was left untouched and unscathed.
The poem then references that there are twenty of Roslin’s barons buried beneath the Chapel in the vaults. The vault was sealed up long ago and the entrance is now unknown. Therefore, experts don’t know for sure how many barons are buried there, and the fact that no records have survived regarding the vault’s contents has only led to wild speculation. It has even fuelled the infamous myths regarding the Knights Templar. There are a few, but the most popular being that the Knights Templar buried their treasures there including the Holy Grail. Of course, this is easily disproved by credible historians, but the conspiracies persist. The Knights Templar myths have been around for hundreds of years, but the conspiracy stories went into high gear with the publication of The Da Vinci Code.
Continuing along the North Aisle, there is one engraved slab that stands out for me as a person who has two dog family members (one of them being Sawyer- our famous Golden Retriever tour guide). The carved slab is on the floor and is called ‘Knight with dog’. It’s a carved image of a knight with a dog at his feet. No one knows for sure who the knight is supposed to be, but it might represent Sir Alexander Sutherland- the founder’s father-in-law and grandson of Robert the Bruce.
We then move along to the Lady Chapel at the head of the chapel. There is so much to take in in this section, but I’ll highlight a few carvings that are particularly fascinating. Looking up, you can see the carvings called, ‘Dance of Death’. There are 16 carved skeletons representing death. If you look closely you will see that the skeletons are pushing and pulling the people ‘to their fate’- quite macabre.
Following a similar theme, nearby is another carving entitled, ‘Fallen Angel’- a carved angel bound with rope and upside down. As its name implies, this carving is supposed to represent Lucifer and is also a Masonic carving. In this same area, is a very Scottish carving- an angel playing the bagpipes. What is especially important about this angel is that it’s one of the earliest images of the bagpipes.
In the Lady Chapel you also find one of Rosslyn’s most famous residents- the ‘Green Man’; there are over 100 of these carvings scattered throughout the Chapel. This image has been around since pagan times, is a sign of fertility, and illustrates the unity between mankind and nature (a male counterpart to Mother Earth).
One of the most celebrated and mysterious carvings in Rosslyn Chapel is the ‘Apprentice Pillar’. It flanks the front of Lady Chapel and is a feast for the eyes. It was created by an apprentice mason who was ‘inspired by a dream in his master’s absence’ on how to build the pillar. When the master mason returned, he was overcome with jealousy when he saw the apprentice’s pillar, flew into a fit of rage, struck the apprentice, and killed him.
There are eight dragons carved at the base of the Apprentice Pillar and this is theorised to be part of Norse mythology. The myth says that eight dragons live at the roots of the Yggdrasiltree, an ash tree which bound together heaven, earth, and hell with its branches. There is speculation that perhaps the purpose of this carving relates to the St Clair family’s Norse roots.
Another mysterious aspect of this area is part of the lintel joining the Apprentice Pillar to the wall. There is a Latin inscription on the lintel that is one of my favourites. It reads, “Wine is strong. The king is stronger. Women are stronger still; but truth conquers all”. A quote whose wise words we should all heed.
Before we go down and explore the crypt, there is perhaps one of the most enigmatic carvings in all of Rosslyn Chapel. Stop at the top of the steps to the Crypt, look up to your right, and you will see what looks like a carving of maize. Now what is very strange about this is that Rosslyn Chapel predates Christopher Columbus- so how did the architects of Rosslyn know about maize?! One possibility is that it is believed that in 1398, a group of knights reached North America and Sir Henry St Clair might have been on that voyage. He was the grandfather of William St Clair who founded the Chapel and it’s theorised that he passed along his knowledge of his North American voyage. No one knows for sure, but, nevertheless, it is certainly a mysterious and thought-provoking carving to ponder.
We now continue our journey into the Crypt or Sacristy. The Crypt is the oldest part of Rosslyn Chapel and is one of my favourite parts. As you descend the stairs, the cold surrounds you and, as you look around, you really start to get a sense of how old the Chapel is. This was used as a workshop while the Chapel was being built. On the wall there is a mysterious carving that was originally thought to be a stonemason’s template for the roof pinnacles. However, the angles do not match any of the pinnacles. Some scholars who have studied it say that the angles and arrangement of the carving perfectly matches a Viking sea chart. Furthermore, it is said that it is a map that matches the Norse discoveries in North America. This doesn’t seem so far fetched when we think of the previously mentioned story of the maize carving. Just add it to the list of mysteries.
Roslin Castle & Glen
We enjoyed our time exploring the Chapel but were happy to get back out in the sunshine and take a trek down into Roslin Glen for an exploration of the Castle and its ruins. If you visit the Chapel, we highly recommend that you take the time to go explore more of the area including the Glen. On our last trip to the Chapel we didn’t have time to go down to the Castle, so I was very excited to go see it this time around.
As you walk along the path to the Castle, like so many places in Scotland, it transports you back in time. It is an incredibly solemn place where, on this day, it was piercingly quiet except for a few birds singing their songs. Walking around the bend, the Castle ruins come into view and it takes your breath away. You can access Roslin Castle via a bridge. There has been a castle at this site since the early 14th century. Unfortunately, much of it was destroyed by the English during the War of the Rough Wooing in 1544. It was rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries including the East Range that is still there today (with renovations done in the 1980s). It is now leased by the Earl of Rosslyn to the Landmark Trust and can be rented as a holiday accommodation.
Even though there isn’t much left except ruins, we decided to go down to the base of the Castle and see what was to be found. Roslin Glen is a favourite of residents and we came across one happy pup who, even in the winter, had taken a little swim as he was quite wet but happy as he and his owner enjoyed their walk through the woods. I can’t imagine what it must be like for children to be able to grow up in such a magical setting. As we walked around the base of the Castle ruins, my imagination ran wild thinking about the legends of treasure and secret tunnels that are said to have existed between the Chapel and Castle. I know I was inspired on this trip into Roslin Glen, and I can’t wait to go back and visit in the spring and summer when the foliage will be at its best.
Rosslyn Chapel and its grounds has it all- enigmatic carvings, tales of knights, mysterious myths, legends of treasure, and fascinating family history. There is no doubt as to why this beautiful church, castle ruins, and ancient glen have inspired generations of visitors. There is so much that can be said about this topic, but I hope that this article has provided you with a little glimpse into some of what it has to offer. If you visit Scotland, make sure to take the time to visit Rosslyn Chapel and say hello to William the cat who keeps a watchful eye over his beloved home. While you are in Edinburgh, don’t forget to check us out, and book a wee walk so we can show you around the city we call home.
Until next time- Explore & Discover