Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 80 - Rosslyn Chapel Revisited

Scotland Magazine Issue 80
April 2015


This article is 3 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.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Rosslyn Chapel Revisited

Life after The Da Vinci Code

For over 600 years, the Collegiate Church of St Matthew, also known as Rosslyn Chapel, has captivated the imaginations of generations. Created by an immensely wealthy Norman-Scottish-Scandinavian nobleman in the 15th Century, it sits below the village and above the Glen of Roslin on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Elegant, iconic and subtly distinctive, it was to have been part of a far greater project of cathedral proportions only its benefactor died before his vision could be completed.

Since then, Rosslyn Chapel, its interior carvings reflecting virtually every known spiritual influence, has survived murderous military bombardment, the Reformation, and the vicious ravages of an unpredictable climate to emerge as a 21st Century sleeping beauty.

Queen Victoria visited in 1843 and demanded its reinstatement for worship; poetic giants such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth celebrated its romance in verse. Then, in 2003, along came the American conspiracy novelist Dan Brown with the best selling
The Da Vinci Code. With a plot centred on the blood line of Jesus and culminating within the chapel walls, the astonishing success of The Da Vinci Code, and the subsequent Hollywood film starring Audrey Tautou, Tom Hanks and Sir Ian McKellan, almost overnight escalated the chapel's annual visitor figures to peak at 176,000.

In several ways this proved a mixed blessing. Without urgent action, the impact of high levels of dampness and humidity on the sandstone over many years would have been irreparable if not urgently addressed. At the same time, the unprecedented volume of footfall created by the publication of
The Da Vinci Code was only contributing to the wear and tear.

Happily, the visitor revenue generated, supplemented by funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund, WREN and Historic Scotland soon enabled a major conservation project. Part of this involved the creation of a steel canopy to allow the saturated stone to dry out prior to reinstatement. Only then could conservation work commence on the roof and exteriors, window surrounds, and gargoyles.

Meanwhile, it was critically important that Rosslyn Chapel, part of the Scottish Episcopal Church, should continue to operate as a place of worship and with the increased footfall during the week, it soon became apparent that an expanded visitor facility was required.

The steel canopy structure was finally removed in 2010 and, the following year, a capacious timber and glass-fronted Visitor Centre, designed by Glasgow architects Page & Park, was completed with an outdoor terrace overlooking Roslin Glen.

After the steel canopy was taken off, scaffolding was erected around the building to enable the conservation of the external stonework. This was finally removed in September 2013 allowing visitors an uninterrupted view of the outside of the Chapel for the first time in 16 years. Meanwhile, stained glass windows were taken to Glasgow for specialist conservation work and new interior lighting was installed.

“The lovely stage that we've got to now is that everything is working in harmony,” says the Countess of Rosslyn, who chairs the Rosslyn Chapel Trust. “Everybody who works here gets on well with each other which makes it a very happy place to be.”

You can sense this from the moment you arrive. After 15 years of setbacks and sleepless nights worrying over the escalating costs of the building works, Helen Rosslyn seemed wonderfully relaxed as we discussed the Trust's plans for the future.

She and Peter St Clair-Erskine, 7th Earl of Rosslyn, who inherited his title from his father in 1977, met when they were both at Bristol University. They were married in 1982 and they have two sons and two daughters.

In 1980, Lord Rosslyn joined the Metropolitan Police and, from 2003 to 2014, was head of the Royalty and Diplomatic Protection Department. More recently, he has been appointed Master of the Household to The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall at Clarence House.

Having trained as an art historian in the Prints and Drawings department of Christie's, the Countess has organised the London Original Print Fair at the Royal Academy of Arts since 1987. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The Rosslyn Chapel Trust was founded in 1995, and is a registered Charity with the Earl and Countess and their eldest son Lord Loughborough being Trustees on a voluntary basis.

In 2001, Helen curated Rosslyn: Country of Painter and Poet at the National Gallery of Scotland. Her book, written to accompany the exhibition, was shortlisted for the AXA exhibition catalogue of the year.

In 2005, Rosslyn Chapel was nominated for the Heart of Scotland Icon Award by the judging panel of
Scotland Magazine and the Countess attended the award ceremony held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. In more recent years she has embarked upon a career in television, in 2010 presenting the BBC4 documentary Rosslyn: A Treasure in Stone and, in 2013, the three-part series Bought with Love; The Secret History of British Art Collections. There are hopefully several more of these in the pipeline.

And in addition, she has written a book for children.
William the Cat and the Rescue of Rosslyn Chapel is based on the life of an existing cat who is often seen dozing on a pew. He has become a firm favourite with visitors and has even attracted comments on TripAdvisor! The book is illustrated by Rosie Wellesley, a graduate of the Royal Drawing School, and profits will go towards the Rosslyn Chapel Trust.

Now the repairs have been finished, and the sparkling Rosslyn Chapel Visitor Centre with its display area, shop and cafe has already proved to be an immense success, it is time to think about what happens next. To celebrate, Helen commissioned the musician Howard Goodall to write
The Rosslyn Psalm, based on Psalm 150 from The Scottish Psalter of 1650, and it was played on the now fully restored Rosslyn Chapel organ.

“It is so incredibly important to maintain the momentum,” she says. “Rosslyn Chapel is so much loved but for it to survive, we need always to think of the future.”

A programme of adult learning events for 2015 has been launched, while local school groups are invited to participate in the Chapel's various educational projects. This in turn has encouraged other schools to visit. The Rosslyn Chapel Trustees are currently considering the endowment of a scholarship for the craft of stonework and stone conservation.

Situated nearby, of course, is the nearby 15th Century Rosslyn Castle, which is leased out through the Landmark Trust. It accommodates seven, and there is also College Hill House, which sleeps six and is less than 100 yards from the Rosslyn Chapel Visitor Centre. Both provide a wonderful and romantic retreat into Midlothian's fascinating historic past.

Its mythology steeped in the traditions of the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, forgotten treasures, Freemasonry, stone masonry, and the 900 year old story of the remarkable St Clair / Sinclair family, it is easy to understand why Rosslyn Chapel should exercise such a persuasive hold over all of those who have discovered it.

“There are so many ways of interpreting this place,” explains Ian Gardner, Director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust. “It's so very difficult to prove or disprove any of the myths surrounding it. People will always draw their own conclusions and more often than not, go away with more questions than answers. That is part of the fascination and therefore it inevitably makes them want to return.”

* Roddy Martine is the author of
Secrets of Rosslyn (Birlinn).

Visitor Information
Rosslyn Chapel
Chapel Loan, Roslin, Midlothian EH25 9PU
Tel: +44 (0) 131 440 2159
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9.30am - 5pm; Sunday: 12pm – 4.45pm (between one and two hours are recommended for a visit).
For Rosslyn Castle and College Hill House, see:

Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue