Rosslyn Chapel Revealed

Rosslyn Chapel Revealed

by Michael T.R.B. Turnbull


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For those who wish to understand the famed 15th century Scottish Chapel, now restored and re-dedicated, and the many myths which have attached themselves to its unforgettable splendor, this guide uncovers Rosslyn Chapel’s true iconic value and profound spiritual significance. The Chapel has for centuries been the subject of ingenious speculation. It was designed by Sir William Sinclair in the 1440s.

Funds were put in place to support a priest and clergy whose task was to celebrate mass regularly and pray for Sir William and his family in perpetuity. In 1560, however, the Scottish Reformation intervened and the chapel declined. Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code brought it back into the public eye.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750944823
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 796,909
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.70(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael Turnball has published a number of books on Scottish history, including Buildings and Landmarks of Edinburgh, Curious Edinburgh, The Edinburgh Graveyard Guide, and an outstanding biography of the Scottish opera singer Mary Garden.

Read an Excerpt

Rosslyn Chapel Revealed

By Michael T.R.B. Turnbull

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Michael T. R. B. Turnbull
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8978-0


The Landscape of Midlothian

Misconceptions and Preconceptions

All over the world the words 'Rosslyn Chapel' conjure up visions of conspiracies and an undercurrent of mystery. Instinctively, we imagine secrets lost in a bewildering tangle of symbols like some spiritual Sudoku to which someone might eventually provide the illuminating answer, if only the puzzle could be solved. But the true attraction of Rosslyn Chapel and its story lies in the insight it offers into the political, cultural and ecological development of medieval Scotland and the deeper answers it provides to contemporary society's hunger for meaning. As the Revd Michael Fass, Episcopal priest in charge at Rosslyn (1997–2006), observes in a bulletin displayed inside the chapel: 'our prayer ministry is about turning the curiosity which surrounds the place into wonder at God's loving purpose for all His people by responding to the deep longings for meaning, for peace and for comfort which visitors express in the prayer requests that they leave with us.'

If only, like the Rosslyn Chapel Trust (which in the early twenty-first century is engaged in removing the white cementitious paint well-meaningly but unfortunately applied to the interior of the chapel in the 1950s), we could succeed in unpeeling the layers of beguiling conjecture that still cling to its venerable stones, we might find the true story of Rosslyn to be more compelling than fiction.

Today, Rosslyn Chapel stands naked before the visitor. Thanks to the public gangway that runs under the temporary protective canopy, visitors are able to peer in close focus at the building's most intimate and elevated areas normally accessible only to surveyors or steeplejacks. While there have been those who, in pursuit of the Holy Grail or other legendary but largely undefined lost treasures, may have seriously contemplated splitting open the Prince's (Apprentice) Pillar with a sledgehammer, bulldozing the ancient foundations of the chapel or even drilling deep into the sand-covered vaults far below, the venerable chapel still remains what it always was – a fifteenth-century Christian church, extravagantly decorated, it is true, but none-theless essentially a cherished and living place of communal worship and not merely a museum displaying a bewildering cornucopia of dead symbols.

The pages that follow explore the landscape in which the chapel was built; we see how and why it was constructed and view the chapel itself in detail. In later chapters the persuasive but often over-imaginative theories that successive authors have developed to explain the structure and symbolism of the chapel are examined. We visit some of the unique institutions and communities in and around Roslin, before examining the landscape and features around Rosslyn Castle, Roslin Glen and in the Pentlands. Finally, we focus on the astonishing explosion of tourism at and around Rosslyn Chapel and Castle.

Topography and Environment

Wrapped tightly around Rosslyn Chapel, the picturesque and leafy Roslin Glen is a time capsule of natural beauty in mid-southern Scotland where the visitor can encounter the strangely familiar and the curiously unexpected. Midlothian, which once also included the City of Edinburgh, still constitutes an oft-forgotten southern flank of the capital. Dominated to the west by the rolling Pentland Hills beloved of writers and poets, with large swathes of open country, farmland and abandoned coal mines, Midlothian is a place of hidden valleys – a land of surprises. As one might expect, authors both popular and academic have argued over the purposes for which Rosslyn Chapel was built and the reasons for its location, but there is little doubt that the surrounding landscape, and Roslin Glen in particular, were key factors.

One vital ingredient of the chapel's mystery is the quality of its constantly renewed environment. According to a 1998 Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) management plan for Roslin Glen Wildlife Reserve (which extends for 114.6 acres), the area in which Rosslyn Chapel stands is one of a series of related and unique environments. Over the centuries the steep sides of Midlothian's river valleys prevented widespread woodland clearance, and, although there have been a number of later but limited attempts to manage the area, Roslin Glen today is 'a remnant of the woodland cover which was once the principal vegetation type of lowland Scotland'.

Roslin Glen retains the greatest number of ancient, semi-natural woodlands in the Lothians. Moreover, the glen is special in that it offers the most varied mixed deciduous woodland of oak, ash and elm in the district and is a unique habitat, stocked as it is with plants now increasingly difficult to find elsewhere in Scotland. In addition, some 50 species of birds have been recorded in the reserve as well as 218 species of ground flora, among them great woodrush, wood sorrel, dog's mercury, ramsons and opposite-leaved golden saxifrage and including the rarer rough horsetail, great horsetail, wood sedge, pendulous sedge and wood melick.

The SWT reserve also falls within the Roslin Glen Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), formerly so designated principally for geological reasons, but which today includes all the most important woodland habitats of the valley of the North Esk River, managed by Scottish Natural Heritage.

Without doubt, the craggy landscape from which Rosslyn Chapel emerged – with the North Esk River running through a rugged and sloping channel, surrounded by natural springs – is a natural time capsule, its identity preserved over the centuries by the inaccessible nature of its glacial-fluvial valleys, carved out by the melt waters during the latter part of the Ice Age. The inviolability of its steep and rugged valleys has meant that timber extraction was always difficult and, moreover, that the larger farm and domesticated animals were also actively discouraged by fencing from straying there, potentially to their deaths.

It was the geology of the area, however, that was crucial for the building of the chapel, with freestone widely available for intricate carving and sturdy construction. And there were other deposits in plenty – with the North Esk River flowing almost at its centre, a seam of coal runs south-west to north-east across the whole county from Carlops to Musselburgh.

Indeed, Midlothian coal was a feature remarked upon by the Italian diplomat and man of letters Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (the future Pope Pius II), who came to Scotland in 1435, some nine years before the construction of Rosslyn Chapel began. An Italian scholar and diplomat, Piccolomini (then still a layman) was sent to Scotland by Cardinal Nicholas Albergati in the autumn of 1435 on an undercover mission to persuade James I of Scotland to launch an attack on England and so help end them Hundred Years War with France.

Fruitlessly as far as his principal mission was concerned, Piccolomini spent the winter of 1435–6 in Scotland but noticed with incredulity (among the other strange features of what he regarded as a barbarous country) that priests outside the local churches handed out black stones to the poor, who burned them for cooking and heating.

Midlothian stone was a consistent feature of local construction. In his General View of the Agriculture of the County of Mid-Lothian (1795), George Robertson (c. 1750–1832) commented that 'Limestone is ... abundant', adding that 'Freestone is also had in great plenty', 'Granite, whinstone, etc are to be had in every parish in the county, and are applied to building as well as paving of streets ... Millstones are produced in the parish of Penicuik, likewise petrifactions (fossils), and beautiful specimens of marble.'

Key to the eventual construction of Rosslyn Chapel was the local abundance of sandstone, especially freestone – a highly versatile sandstone because of its density. Describing the Roslin sandstone series (millstone grit) of the Mid-Lothian Basin, The Geological Survey (1910) notes: 'On the south side of the Sherrifhall fault they strike along the valley of the North Esk by Lasswade to Hawthornden and Roslin, where the massive coarse red sandstones in the upper portion of the series are almost horizontal and form picturesque cliffs on each side of the river.' Geology not only determined construction methods and materials but would also, over the following centuries, prove a valuable scenic attraction for the development of tourism.

Laid down in layered deposits, these sandstones were widely available for building purposes, but it was the availability of compacted freestone, a tightly grained sandstone with no layering that could be cut in any direction, that would enable the squads of stonemasons at Rosslyn Chapel to indulge their creative skills so spectacularly, skills that were placed at the service of the passionate religiosity of the chapel's founder, Sir William Sinclair.

There is a venerable literary tradition that records how, when a member of the St Clair family dies, a curious phenomenon takes place in Rosslyn Chapel – the outside of the building seems to be on fire. This may be a characteristic of the red freestone used in its construction. Heat affects the luminosity of stone, and so the red Rosslyn freestone, much of it already stained by rust from the nodules of iron oxide that the freestone so liberally contains, would tend to glow in sunshine, whether early in the morning or late at night, in summer and in winter.

Hence, the lines of the archaeologist and academic Sir Daniel Wilson (1816–92) taken from his poem 'The Queen's Choir' (1853), with their biblical comparisons, may not be completely the product of poetic licence:

Roslin chapel, tipped with living fire
Seen through the foliage, seemed like that divine
Vision, when Horeb desert's leafy shrine
Was with the visible gaze of God illumed
And the bush burned with fire.

In his 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel' (1805) Sir Walter Scott, almost fifty years earlier, had written 'Seemed all on fire that Chapel proud'. It was a tradition well known to Scott, as he had lived only 3 miles away at Lasswade and would often have seen the chapel for himself and heard its history.

In his massive four-volume folio The Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (1845), Robert W. Billings has the most vivid and personal description of the phenomenon:

It happened to the present writer, one clear evening, to be walking in the neighbourhood of Rosslyn, when he was startled from thinking of other things by the appearance, through the branches of the trees, of what seemed a row of bright-red smokeless furnaces. It was a fine setting sun shining straight through the double windows of the chapel; while otherwise, from the particular point of view, its influence on the horizon was scarcely perceptible. The phenomenon had a powerful effect on the vision; but it was more that of ignition than of sunlight, from the rich red which often attends Scottish sunsets. Though the setting sun doubtless pierces through many other double ranges of windows, yet perhaps there were few which, a couple of centuries ago in Scotland, could have rendered it with the same remarkable effect. It may be observed that the position of the building is the most appropriate that could be chosen, had the builder desired to produce that effect.

From earliest times, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its scenic beauty, the pressures on the landscape around Roslin Glen and its ecosystem were considerable. From around the year 1400, the forests in Scotland were systematically denuded. Over the next two hundred years timber was ruthlessly felled to build houses, to make furniture, tools, carts, yokes and trestles, as well as to supply fuel for domestic heating in the form of charcoal, which was also a vital ingredient for smelting metal and making gunpowder.

In one respect, Roslin Glen's picturesque scenery was preserved by its having been at one time protected as part of a royal hunting-ground where the sport of kings enjoyed a privileged, if savage status. In one of his historical works recording the complex and important history of the St Clair family, Fr Richard Augustine Hay, writing in the late seventeenth century, notes that before 1153 Roslin was 'a great Forrest as also the Pentland Hills and a great part of the country about, so that there did abound in those parts a great number of harts, hynds, deer and roe with other wild beasts'.

Around the same period, protection of the land was also a consequence of the development of feudalism achieved by the introduction of 'sherriffdoms', first seen in the Lothians between 1151 and 1200. Hay tells us that, in the reign of King William the Lion, Sir William Saintclair was Sheriff of Lothian.

While the name 'Midlothian' seems to have first been recorded in the fifteenth century, the terms 'East', 'West' and 'Mid' were used in a general way to refer to loosely defined areas of the Lothians. According to a number of nineteenth-century maps as well as the Statistical Account (1845), the 'County of Edinburgh' was also, confusingly, known as 'Midlothian'. Moreover, 'Midlothianshire' was the term used for a collection of parishes, of which there were some thirty-seven during the eighteenth century. The 1801 Census of Midlothian also numbered several parishes, such as Penicuik, Stow, Temple and Inveresk, not included today in the county borders as established by the 1947 Local Government Act, which gave the county authority the right to use the name 'Midlothian'. For many years afterwards the administrative headquarters of the County of Midlothian was located in an imposing building in Edinburgh at the corner of the High Street and George Iv Bridge, which can still be seen to this day.

However, in the early medieval period it was the Church, principally through its strategically situated monastic foundations, that brought not only industrious order to the landscape and culture to its inhabitants, but also social stability and leadership in some key aspects of technological innovation, such as improved drainage and the introduction of more effective agricultural machinery such as the heavy mouldboard plough. A mere 6 miles from Roslin, Newbattle Abbey was part of an extensive network of monastic farming and mining enterprises that exploited the land and its resources through lead and coal mines (Newbattle Abbey being reputedly the first coal mine in Scotland), salt-panning, wool production and tree planting; the abbey itself would be periodically endowed by the St Clair family.

Located just south of the important market town of Dalkeith, Newbattle Abbey was founded in 1140 by King David I (1124–53) and his son Prince Henry (d. 1153), with the first monks arriving there from King David's earlier foundation at Melrose. Although there must have been immediate provision for temporary structures, construction of the abbey church and its associated permanent subsidiary buildings did not start until almost half a century later. The abbey church itself was finally dedicated on 13 March 1233.

At Rosslyn Castle, the Saintclair family appreciated the contribution that the monks made to the local economy and to society in general; and Sir William, the founder of Rosslyn Chapel, would also have taken note of the architecture of the ecclesiastical buildings, and in particular the fact that the roof of the choir was high, while the side aisle roofs were low so as to allow light to penetrate through the clerestory – a feature of the architectural design at Rosslyn Chapel.

An important legislative change in the status of Roslin took place in 1456, when King James II granted a charter to elevate Roslin into a burgh, giving it the right to erect a mercat cross and to hold Saturday markets and an annual fair every 8 October (St Jude's and St Simon's Day). Recognition as a burgh meant that trading could lawfully take place from open stalls set up in designated parts of the town, with the sale of each type of commodity being separated – the sale of linen was allocated a pitch away from that of fish, and that of meat away from salt, for example.

The land around Roslin Glen was also quickly developed into sections for different activities, with enclosed areas, and there was even some evidence of early industrialisation. By 1476, when Sir William Saintclair drew up an agreement with his son oliver, we learn that Roslin had not only a castle, a chapel and a burgh but parks, woods, stanks (ponds) for fish and mills.

In the century following the start of the construction of Rosslyn Chapel (1440s), Midlothian as a whole continued to grow in importance. In his Britannia, the English historian and anthropologist William Camden (1551–1623) writes that what was known as 'The Sherriffdom of Edinburgh, commonly called Midlothian' had become

the principal Shire of the Kingdom; and is in length 20 or 21 miles; the breadth of it is different according to the several parts, in some 16 or 17 miles, in others not above 5 or 6. On the south it is bounded with the Sheriffdom of Haddington for 13 miles together; on the east with the Baillery of Lauderdale for about four; on the south with the Sheriffdom of Twededale for 13 miles; on the southwest with the Sheriffdom of Lanerick for 6 or 7 miles, and on the west for two miles by the said Sheriffdom; on the north-west with the Sheriffdom of Linlithgow for 14 miles; and on the north with the Firth of Forth for the space of 8 miles.


Excerpted from Rosslyn Chapel Revealed by Michael T.R.B. Turnbull. Copyright © 2012 Michael T. R. B. Turnbull. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xi

1 The Landscape of Midlothian 1

2 The History of Rosslyn Chapel 47

3 Visiting Rosslyn Chapel 92

4 Varieties of Speculation 131

5 Contemporary Attitudes 156

6 Castles and Houses 172

Epilogue 218

Appendix I Episcopal Priests Charge 221

Appendix II Useful Addresses 222

Notes 226

Index 236

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