Rosslyn Chapel is a small building from the outside, but don’t let appearances fool you – inside you will find extraordinary carvings, telling fascinating stories, and the church has a long, rich, complex history to uncover. So, what are you waiting for?
Establishing the Chapel
Rosslyn Chapel was founded by the St Clair family, whose history can be traced back even further than the buildings! The family were Normans, who came over from France in the 11th century. The first William St Clair aided the Scottish Royal Family, and was gifted the Barony of Rosslyn, to help ward off English invaders – why can’t anyone gift me a barony? They built and lived in Rosslyn Castle – sometimes spelled ‘Roslin’, as the village is known today. However, the castle we see today dates from the early 14th century, having presumably replaced an older one. It has its own long, dramatic history!
It was centuries later, when Sir William St Clair, the 11th Baron, founded Rosslyn Chapel. He intended it to be the private chapel for his family to worship in. Work began in 1446, although by the time he died in 1484, it was only partially built. Built in the late Gothic style, and with its thousands of stone carvings, the design is complicated, requiring great attention to detail, so progress was slow. Construction stopped after his death, and it’s thought the original plan was for a much bigger building than what we see now. Sir William was buried underneath it, and the Sinclair (Anglicised version of the name) family continued to worship there throughout the 16th century. Officially, it is called the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, and served as a Catholic Church.
The Scottish Reformation
It was Catholic, that is, until the Reformation. This was a dramatic time in Scotland’s history, when John Knox began preaching Protestantism from Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral. Parliament officially declared Scotland a Protestant country, forcing people to choose between the two faiths – though both are still Christian! Many other Catholic churches and cathedrals around the country were abandoned or had to be converted to Protestant churches.
Later, during the English Civil War – part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms – in the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell’s forces sacked Rosslyn Castle. Fortunately, they left the chapel unharmed, since they used it to stable their horses! Then, in 1688, a Protestant mob came from Edinburgh, causing further damage to the castle and chapel – Rosslyn just couldn’t catch a break!
Throughout all this though, the Sinclair family were actually still Roman Catholics. They refused to convert. However, they were not able to publicly worship in the chapel, so it was abandoned and soon fell into disrepair. Instead, they worshipped privately, almost in secret. They were not alone, as many other Catholics across Scotland also refused to convert, which often resulted in their persecution. For centuries, religious turmoil rocked the British Isles, war raging, until tolerance was finally established.
Rosslyn Chapel Restored
After almost two centuries of disuse, the chapel was finally saved. In 1736, Sir James Sinclair decided it was time to restore his family’s church. One of the most important changes, he installed glazed windows in the building for the first time. He also relaid the floor and the roof, all of which finally made the building weather proof. What didn’t change though, was the greenery. Plant life had already made its way into the chapel, and grown over the stone carvings, coating everything in a layer of green. This would prove difficult to remove!
Over the next few centuries, many notable people visited and wrote about Rosslyn Chapel. These included the poets Robert Burns and William Wordsworth, and later, even Queen Victoria herself! More restoration work continued, and eventually in 1862, it was fit for public use. The chapel was dedicated as an Episcopal church, and public Sunday services started up again – these continue today!
In the 1950s, major work took place. They removed the plant life inside, and applied a protective coating to the carvings and roof covering. Sadly though, it didn’t have the intended effect! It caused water to become trapped, and green mould grew on everything! In 1995, the Rosslyn Chapel Trust was formed, and work began once more. A canopy was put up to allow the stone to dry out naturally. The Trust then received almost £5 million in funding in 2007, to build the visitor centre, and continue the restoration. As you can imagine, it is a slow and delicate process to preserve these intricate carvings, without causing further damage!
The Knights Templar and The Da Vinci Code
Rosslyn reached new heights of fame in 2003, when Dan Brown published ‘The Da Vinci Code’. The chapel is a crucial location in the plot of the novel, and the climactic scenes even take place here. When they were filming the movie adaptation in 2006, scenes were shot on location at the chapel.
So what is this about? It starts with The Knights Templar, founded in the 12th century by the Catholic church. They were a group of elite warriors, exempt from all local laws. They fought in the Crusades, where they retrieved holy relics from the Temple of Solomon. After, they held on to their power throughout Europe for a time. However, eventually, the Order was dissolved in 1307, when they were put to trial in France for heresy. Yet, some have suggested that Knights secretly fled to Scotland, where the heritage lived on amongst noble families. ‘The Da Vinci Code’ claims that their relic was the Holy Grail itself, which was then hidden within Rosslyn Chapel. Many believe that the carvings of the chapel contain Templar meanings and symbolism, strengthening the idea.
Others have said that the carvings also contain images of Freemasonry. This is a fraternal society, started among stonemason guilds, with its own rights and rituals. The earliest official Masonic Lodge dates to 1717, but it is assumed that the practice started earlier than that. Several of the Sinclairs served as Grand Master of the Scottish Masons.
However, there is little historic proof to confirm these claims. Many more books have been published in more recent years, debunking such connections. Nevertheless, the possibility of it, and the many hidden symbols of the carvings continue to draw visitors to Rosslyn.
The Stonework of the Chapel
From the outside, Rosslyn looks like a picturesque little chapel, with gargoyles and flying buttresses and the like. But stepping inside, it reaches a whole other level of intricacy. The walls and ceilings, every inch, is covered in stunning, detailed carvings. You could spend weeks poring over them all and still not see everything. Helpfully, some are pointed out and explained on signs around the inside now.
Many of them contain religious imagery of course; in many cases, the same symbol can be interpreted differently from a Christian, Templar, or Masonic point of view. You will find images of Jesus, of the Star of Bethlehem, and the Nativity. Angels are everywhere, many of them playing different musical instruments, including the bagpipes; this is Scotland, after all. There are ‘musical cubes’ carved with lines and dots, which are thought to be a coded musical score. Some carvings also tell moral stories and lessons, such as the Seven Deadly Sins and the Dance of Death. Imagery from other cultures appears too, such as the Scandinavian dragons of Neilfelheim, evidence of the Viking influence on Scotland!
There is an abundance of natural and plant imagery as well. One of the most unusual though, is the corn or maize you see, native to America, not Scotland. Yet, Rosslyn was built 50 years before Columbus sailed to America… so how did it appear here? There are also over 100 ‘Green Man’ faces throughout the chapel, each one a face with foliage emerging from the mouth. It symbolises fertility, growth, and the richness of nature. Art historians believe the symbol could even trace back to Scotland’s early Celtic origins, with the Picts, two thousand years ago!
The Apprentice’s Pillar
There are three pillars around the chapel, which together can be viewed as symbols of Freemasonry. But the most famous is the Apprentice’s Pillar, and the story that goes along with it. It’s also been suggested that the Apprentice’s Pillar is where the Holy Grail is hidden!
Anyways, besides the point. Legend goes, that the master mason carved his pillar first, at the front left of the chapel, spending months on the design. It’s a stunning piece, and Sir William was delighted with it. He asked for the opposite pillar to be just as beautiful, if not more so, but different to the first. Struggling for ideas, the master mason set out on a journey to Europe, to seek inspiration from other chapels around the continent.
While he was away, his apprentice fell asleep in Rosslyn Chapel, and had a dream about a pillar design. When he awoke, he was so inspired, he immediately set to work carving the second pillar. His work didn’t just match his master’s; it surpassed it. The design spirals around the pillar, in a helix formation, even more intricate than the first. But when the master mason returned, he wasn’t impressed by the work. In fact, he was so jealous and enraged, that he threw his mallet at his apprentice’s head, killing him instantly.
Now, at the other end of the chapel, you can find three faces carved high above. One is the apprentice, with the scar over his eye where the mallet hit him, and nearby is his crying, grieving mother. Across from them, is the face of the master mason, who, as punishment, must now stare at his apprentice’s work forever. No one knows if the story is true, but the legend has been told for years.
Roslin & the Surrounding Area
While Rosslyn Chapel is beautiful, and a definite highlight of a day trip to Roslin village, it’s not the only thing to see in the area! Venture over to the remains of Rosslyn Castle, the ancestral home of the St Clair family, and even older than the chapel! It’s assumed that the castle we see now actually replaced an even older one, though the current one is plenty old anyways, dating to the 14th century. It towers high over the glen, with an arched bridge connecting to the path that leads from the chapel. Parts were built by Sir Henry St Clair, around 1390, then it was enlarged by his son, Sir William, the same one who built the chapel.
Unfortunately, much of it was damaged in a fire in the 15th century, then it was attacked and burned again in the 16th century. The family worked to repair it, but the final blow came when Cromwell’s troops attacked in 1650, and it has never recovered since. It isn’t lived in today, nor is it open to the public, but part has been restored and is now let out as a holiday rental.
It’s also worth spending some time exploring Roslin Glen, the woodland area surrounding the castle. The River North Esk runs through the trees and there are lots of picturesque walking paths to explore. Much of this is considered ‘ancient woodland’, thousands of years old, so it is carefully preserved now.
Entry price: Adults £9, Concessions £7, Children free
Opening hours: The chapel is open at 9.30am every day from Monday-Saturday, and closes at 5.00pm in winter and 6.00pm in summer. On Sundays, there is a morning service, and then it opens to the public from 12.00pm – 4.45pm. It is closed on 24-25th December, and 31st Dec-1st January.
The entrance to the chapel is through the visitor centre, which has its own shop and café, as well as displays on the history and ongoing conservation of the building. Be aware, that no photography or video is allowed inside the chapel, but you can take photos of the exterior. Free daily talks about the chapel take place inside, lasting around 20 minutes, usually on each hour – check the website or visitor centre to confirm.
The easiest way to reach Roslin village is by taking a bus from Edinburgh city centre, only taking about half an hour. It’s a small area, so the chapel is within walking distance, as is the castle and the glen if you plan to visit all of them. You can also drive there, with parking available next to the chapel and the glen.
Have you been to Rosslyn Chapel before? Leave a comment about your experience!