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Issue 57 - Out of the Shadows

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011


This article is 7 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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Out of the Shadows

Charles Douglas visits Rosslyn Castle at Roslin, Midlothian

With all of the publicity surrounding the publication of the book and subsequent film of The Da Vinci Code, visitors to Rosslyn Chapel on the outskirts of Edinburgh are often unaware of the semi-ruined but still inhabited Rosslyn Castle in the adjacent Roslin Glen.
Yet it is more or less certain that the original castle, erected two centuries before the now world famous Chapel was built, stood on the same site. It was only after the now largely forgotten Battle of Roslin Glen in 1303 that a captured English prisoner generously suggested that a far less vulnerable spot for the seventh Lord of Rosslyn to have his stronghold would be on a rock promontory situated below.
Now this might sound a bit odd given that the recommended location was on lower ground, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that in the 14th century, the water level in the gorge of Roslin Glen was of sufficient height to have formed a lochan, and therefore, by building on the proposed rock, the castle would have been surrounded by water.
As the centuries passed, it seems that this expanse of water must have steadily dropped to the current level of the River North Esk, the frothy stream which rushes through the gorge from its source in the Pentland Hills. Certainly, the low lying marshy land to the north-west of the castle is still known locally as The Stanks (which means “Stagnant Pool”), and it encloses a small hillock known as The Goose’s Mound.
Given the design of the castle - the five levels, the steep drop into the glen on all sides, and the high arched drawbridge- this would all make perfect sense.
The story of the Viking-Norman-Anglo-Scots St Clairs of Rosslyn remains at the core of Scotland’s history. It began in 1068 with the arrival of a young Norman knight known as William “The Seemly”, so called for his blond good looks and blue eyes. This William “The Seemly” had accompanied the Saxon princess Margaret Atheling in her escape from their mutual cousin William the Conqueror. When she married Malcolm III, King of Scots, in 1069, William “The Seemly” was rewarded with a knighthood and the lands of Rosslyn which, then as now, guard the southern frontal approaches to Edinburgh.
In the generations that followed, his descendants prospered with his sons acquiring the lands of Pentland, and Herdmanstone in East Lothian. Through a series of lucrative marriages, the St Clair Lords of Rosslyn and Pentland also became Princes of Orkney and Earls of Caithness and Strathearn, the latter, a title which subsequently passed to the Royal House of Stewart and which has now been gifted by Her Majesty the Queen to her grandson on his marriage to Kate Middleton. A later branch of the St Clair family later settled in the north of Scotland and founded Clan Sinclair.
But the ownership of such titles and territories was all about protecting the interests of the reigning monarch, and when it came to building a new castle in the glen, the St Clairs, with their Norman connections, knew exactly how to set about it. The availability of a large quantity of local sandstone was a bonus and most certainly came into its own when Edward III of England made incursions into Scotland between 1334 and 1337.
In 1369, a 25 year truce was negotiated between England and Scotland, but by then Henry, 9th Lord of Rosslyn, having become the Prince of Orkney (inherited through his mother), was becoming increasingly preoccupied with building Kirkwall Castle on Orkney. He therefore left the day-to-day running of Rosslyn to his son, another Henry, and it was he who constructed the great dungeon and situated the five-storeys-high entrance on the far side of the inner courtyard. It is these levels which give the castle its lofty, unassailable appearance.
In 1420, the succession of William, 11th Lord of Rosslyn and third and last St Clair Prince of Orkney, yet again breathed new life into the castle with a spate of renovation work which included the creation of a bridge under the castle, and further fortifications. The greater part of the north-west wall remains, with buttresses to strengthen the height, but of the other proportions only massive chunks survive.
And it was this same William St Clair who embarked upon the building of the Church of St Matthew, better known today as Rosslyn Chapel. A complex individual, this William’s lifespan encompassed the reigns of three Stewart monarchs: James I, James II and James III.
At the age of 21, he was made responsible for James I’s 12-year-old daughter when she was sent off to marry the 13-year-old Dauphin, later Louis XI of France, and it was on this trip that he must have seen the Gothic interiors of Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres Cathedral. It was these masterpieces of their time which undoubtedly inspired him.
The work, importing skilled masons from throughout Europe, began in 1446. The under croft of the old castle being already in existence, the site on the top of the hill was in many ways just waiting to be occupied. But at the same time, William was not only improving Rosslyn Castle, but Ravenscraig Castle in Fife, which he had exchanged with James II for his earldom of Orkney. Progress on all three projects was therefore slow, and it took almost 40 years before the Chapel that we see today was completed.
By his marriage to his first wife Margaret Douglas, a granddaughter of Robert II of Scotland, William had a son and four daughters. When Margaret died, he married Marjorie Sutherland of Dunbeath, a great-great granddaughter of Robert the Bruce, and had a further six sons and seven daughters. Thereafter he allegedly married for a third time and had further issue. One wonders when he found time to think about bricks and mortar?
And it is hardly surprising that by the time of his death in 1848, his funds were widely depleted. This, of course, left his son third son Oliver, the heir to Rosslyn, unable to complete his father’s vision of a great cathedral, and the work was abandoned. What we therefore see today is simply the exquisite and beautifully crafted artwork in stone which is today’s Rosslyn Chapel, but just think what a marvel it would have been had the project been completed.
But perhaps it was for the best because in the 17th century both Rosslyn Castle and its Chapel were threatened from another quarter. The St Clair’s were perceived as staunch Catholics and with the arrival of the Reformation, a mob from Edinburgh stormed the castle and destroyed much of its contents. Miraculously, despite the windows and alterages of the Chapel being decimated, the majority of the carvings survived.
In 1650, Rosslyn Castle once more came under siege when Oliver Cromwell, the self-styled Lord Protector of England, invaded Scotland. This time, the castle walls were relentlessly bombarded by the canons of General George Monck and, in the aftermath, Sir John, 17th Lord of Rosslyn, was imprisoned. Strapped for cash, the castle was half mortgaged, then sold, but fortuitously recovered by Sir John’s younger brother James, who succeeded him as 18th Lord.
In the generations that followed, the Rosslyn inheritance passed into the Wedderburn and Erskine families, the latter acquiring the earldom of Rosslyn in the early 19th century. From then onwards, the family’s principle place of residence was at Dysart in Fife.
When the 7th Earl of Rosslyn inherited the Rosslyn estate in 1977, he was preparing to embark upon a successful career in the Metropolitan Police Force. The maintenance of both castle and chapel, by then re-established as a working collegiate church, was naturally of major concern, especially when he found himself obliged to base himself in the south of England.
The solution was The Landmark Trust, a charity founded in 1965 to restore historic buildings, and turn them into holiday lettings.
In 2003, the spectacular success of Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code, its plot culminating in a visit to Rosslyn Chapel, created a sensation. Since then, a state-of-the-art visitor centre for the chapel has been opened, but if anything, the costs and pressures on the maintenance of such an ancient and fragile place have increased tenfold.
As for Rosslyn Castle, with its spectacular drawing room overlooking the gorge of Roslin Glen, its ornate dining room, and sleeping accommodation for seven, it has rapidly become an immensely popular holiday venue on the outskirts of Scotland’s Capital.
Now it must to be emphasised that the castle is NOT open to the general public and its privacy should be respected at all times. However, as part of a visit to Rosslyn Chapel, a most rewarding experience is to walk down the pathway to the castle drawbridge, then step down into Roslin Glen through the archway beneath, where the ancient castle rises steeply overhead to create a scene from a Gothic fantasy.
Is it any wonder that such luminaries as Queen Victoria, the poet William Wordsworth, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and the painter Alexander Nasmyth found such a place irresistible?