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Issue 16 - Rosslyn Chapel and The Da Vinci Code

Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Rosslyn Chapel and The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code is one of the year's most talked about books. Mark Oxbrow looks at the mystery and the link with the Rosslyn Chapel

Everyone loves a good mystery, which is why The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown hit number one in the New York Times bestseller list and become a multimillion-selling blockbuster in the United States.

Its exciting mix of thriller and historical mystery took America by storm with Columbia Pictures snapping up the film rights.

The Da Vinci Code is an intricate tale; full of intrigue, secret societies and puzzles, eventually leading the reader to Scotland, to Rosslyn Chapel and on the quest for the Holy Grail.

Rosslyn Chapel, a few miles south of Edinburgh, has become world famous over the last decade. It lies in the sleepy village of Roslin which hit the headlines with the cloning of Dolly the Sheep at the Roslin Institute. The chapel itself has become the unlikely centre of international attention as the supposed last resting place of the fabled Holy Grail.

Numerous alternative history books have tried to connect Rosslyn with the Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant, the origins of Freemasonry and even the embalmed head of Christ. Every year tens of thousands of visitors gaze in awe at the chapel’s intricate stone carvings and wonder if some fabulous treasure lies buried beneath their feet.

The Da Vinci Code wove these extraordinary theories within a contemporary thriller and states that the Knights Templar built Rosslyn Chapel as a home for the mystery of the Grail. The truth is, however, stranger than the fiction.

Rosslyn Chapel was founded by Sir William St Clair, Earl of Rosslyn and Orkney, in 1446 as ‘the Collegiate College of St Matthew the Apostle’. Before Columbus set foot in America Sir William was imagining a grand design to build an immense cathedral which would become a centre for learning. Rosslyn Chapel is a tiny fraction of his initial vision.

It is said that stone masons were brought from ‘foreign lands’ to bring William’s dream to life. The village of Rosslyn was created to house the builders as, for the next 40 years, the chapel gradually took shape.

‘Rosslyn’ is the older form of the modern Roslin. It does not derive from the fanciful ‘Rose Line meridian’ or a ‘Rose bloodline.’ Its roots lie simply in the Scots words ‘Ross’ – hill and ‘Lyn’ – water. Rosslyn, the hill in the water, is well named as the South Esk River winds gracefully around the hill of solid rock on which Rosslyn castle is built.

Rosslyn Castle was constructed by the St Clairs as a defendable fortress during the Wars of Independence. In 1303 the Scots and English armies came face to face at the Battle of Rosslyn. Eight thousand Scots, under the leadership of Fraser, Comyn and William Wallace, defeated an English force more than three times its size.

At that bloody battle was the young Scots knight, William St Clair, (whose descendant and namesake would found Rosslyn Chapel 143 years later) who went on to fight at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. In time he accompanied the Good Sir James Douglas on their fateful crusade to take King Robert the Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land.

We find a fatal flaw in the Templar theories of Rosslyn with this William St Clair. Alternative historians have theorised that, in 1307, when the Knights Templar faced arrest and trial for heresy in Europe a small group of fugitive Templars escaped France and sailed to Scotland to be warmly welcomed by young William St Clair at Rosslyn.

These knights carried with them the legendary Templar treasure.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Historical documents in the British Library prove that William St Clair had no love at all for the Templars. In 1309, when the Knights Templar came to trial in Scotland, William testified against them.

William gave evidence that the Templars “were not willing to offer hospitality to the poor”, were “very anxious to acquire the property of others for their Order, by fair means or foul” and said that “if the Templars had been faithful Christians they would in no way have lost the Holy Land.”

The Templars did not build Rosslyn Chapel; their order died out over a century before the chapel was founded.

By 1446 the age of chivalry had given way to the brutal realities of war. Knights fell to bowmen’s arrows and were slaughtered by infantry. Sir William St Clair had a passion for chivalry and the ideals of knighthood.

He was known as the ‘Prince of Orkney’ and ruled his vast lands as though they were a kingdom. Rosslyn castle was decked in fine tapestries; it boasted lavish feasts, hunts, hawking and minstrelsy.

William’s life read like a tale of King Arthur and the splendour of Camelot.

Rosslyn Chapel is a medieval treasure house.

When you step inside you travel back in time 500 years into the medieval mind.

Thousands of tiny carved stone faces stare out at you; Angels baring scrolls, books and hearts, Saints, Apostles and Biblical scenes, folk devils with ass’s ears and goat’s horns crawl from medieval mouths of Hell. Fantastical creatures including unicorns, dragons, griffins, mermen and gargoyles share space with exotic beasts such as lions, camels, crocodiles and monkeys.

At first the effect is overwhelming. Gothic windows and the unique stone barrel vaulted roof seem to be held up by ornate pillars like the tiers of a wedding cake.

Everywhere are flowers and foliage with hundreds of magical green men grinning out with mouthfuls of leaves and vines. From the highest point on the roof to the vaults below, every nook and cranny is filled with wonders.

Staring up you find a stone sky full of stars and flowers, the sun and moon, the dove baring an olive bough and Christ looking down from heaven, his hand raised in blessing. You may also notice patches of green lichen where damp rots the stonework after centuries of neglect.

The St Clairs’ fortunes turned with the fall of Catholicism. The family held fast to their old faith and the chapel was attacked, its altars smashed and carvings defaced by an angry mob. Rosslyn Castle was later devastated by cannon and in time the chapel was abandoned and forgotten.

But the Grail has the ability to restore life. ‘The Chapel amid the Woods’ was resurrected by the hard work of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik.

The chapel and castle became a favourite haunt of poets and painters. Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Byron and Turner all found inspiration amid the romantic and picturesque ruins.

A decade ago the chapel ceiling was green with damp. Today a metal roof and elaborate scaffolding encase the chapel in an attempt to let the stonework dry out.

A steel walkway offers a unique opportunity to view the outside of the building, to step amid its elegant spires and grotesque gargoyles.

But what of the Holy Grail; could this mystical relic really lie hidden beneath Rosslyn Chapel? The Holy Grail appeared in a vision to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Some legends say the Grail is the cup of Christ, filled with His blood as he suffered on the cross. It is said it has the power to heal and grant immortality.

Others say it is the emerald that was lost from the crown of Lucifer as he fell from heaven while today the quest for the grail is seen by some as an inner journey to find meaning and wisdom.

Sir William St Clair grew up hearing tales of King Arthur and the exploits of his Knights. Storytelling, literature and poetry flourished in Scotland in the 15th century.

Scots writers recounted the adventures of Sir Gawain, the first printing press in Edinburgh reproduced the Arthurian legends and Sir William was inspired to name one of his children ‘Arthur’.

Rosslyn Chapel was created as a house of God and yet it has Arthurian carvings. Beside scenes from the crucifixion and resurrection we find red and white dragons fighting tooth and claw from early legends of the wizard Merlin.

The Arthurian romances tell that the grail was borne by a fair damsel, beautifully adorned. At Rosslyn there is a legend of a fair maiden; a white lady, who haunts the castle ruins and holds the secret to a hidden treasure worth countless millions.

The Holy Grail may or may not be a real object at all but in essence it symbolises the quest for purity, perfection and divinity.

At Rosslyn Chapel you find a living place of worship, resurrected from a fallen ruin, which still has the magical ability to inspire and enchant anyone who visit is it more than 500 years after its creation.

Further Information
Mark Oxbrow, author of Halloween and co-author of the forthcoming Legends of Rosslyn, has a Rosslyn image gallery at:

The official Rosslyn Chapel website is:

How to get there

To find Rosslyn Chapel from Edinburgh: take the A701 south towards Penicuik/Peebles. At Bilston village follow the sign for Roslin. Once in Roslin Village the Chapel is signposted.