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Issue 53 - Chapel of secrets

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010


This article is 8 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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Chapel of secrets

For more than six years now I have had the privilege of being associated with the small fifteenth century Rosslyn Chapel, one of Scotland’s greatest treasures. When I published my book Secrets of Rosslyn in 2006, it was following the release of the Hollywood film of The Da Vinci Code, which was based on the bestselling novel by Dan Brown. Since then, Secrets of Rosslynhas gone into four reprints, not exactly reaching the 80 million sales of The Da Vinci Code, but hopefully providing an equally intriguing overview of this very special place.

Those familiar with the plot of The Da Vinci Codewill know all about the Sans Graal, or bloodline of Jesus, which finds its ultimate spiritual home in Rosslyn Chapel. In essence, of course, this is a work of pure fiction, but the consequence has been that visitor numbers have recently been running at over 1,000 a day, a daunting prospect for a fragile five hundred year old and exquisitely crafted building which is also a working ecumenical church.

However, the good news is that the £9 million restoration project is progressing well. The steel protective canopy erected fourteen years ago has now come down. This structure was necessitated by the state of the roof, the stone having absorbed decades of water after an unsuccessful repair scheme undertaken during the 1950s.

Incidentally, computer graphics which showed the exterior without scaffolding were used to illustrate the Chapel for The Da Vinci Code film.

By next spring, there will be a state-of-the-art visitor centre and the Chapel’s stained-glass windows and organ will have been fully restored, along with the installation of improved heating and lighting equipment.

The current conservation work is ongoing to 2012 by which time all of the magnificent stonework both inside and outside of the building will have been lovingly repaired. In the meantime, visitors can witness first hand the very same craft skills that were in use six centuries ago.

All of this has naturally required an enormous financial outlay. Happily, entrance fees combined with generous financial support from many institutions and individuals have made this possible, but the cost of wear and tear is nevertheless ongoing. There is still £1/2 million to be raised, so if there are readers out there who might be inclined to support a unique part of Scotland’s history, please let me know.

There are certain places in this world where the passage of time becomes irrelevant; where the deeds of the past lurk evasively in the shadows waiting for somebody with the imagination to bring them to life. Such a place is Rosslyn Chapel on its plateau above a thickly wooded gorge barely seven miles from the centre of Edinburgh.

I should confess that I first began exploring this glen as a teenager. Below the Chapel is a footpath which leads under the walls of the semi-ruinous, but still inhabited Gothic castle. On numerous occasions have I scrambled down the slopes to the River South Esk in search of Wallace’s Cave, where Scotland’s great resistance leader is said to have hidden the night before the Battle of Rosslyn in 1303.

In all seasons, a curiously compelling atmosphere envelopes the surrounding landscape, a supernatural presence which invades the senses and moves invisibly through the trees. Try and spot the hoof prints of the Devil’s horse where Satan is said to have ridden up the castle walls.

On a summer’s day you might easily catch a glimpse of the long ago bands of gypsies or “Egyptians”, as they were known, who made this their summer home. Anyone who has walked in these woods will fully understand why poets such as William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Robert Burns, and the painters Alexander Naysmith and JMW Turner were so bewitched by the place. It is no wonder Dan Brown chose it for the climax of his indulgent fantasy.

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