The revelations of Rosslyn

Why visitors have inundated a small 15th-century chapel in southern Scotland

April 2006

An appreciation of symbolism is a unique feature of the human species, one that sets us apart even from our otherwise-intelligent Neanderthal cousins. Almost nowhere is this human talent better demonstrated than at Rosslyn Chapel, a which overlooks a thinly-forested valley on the edge of Roslin village, a few miles south of Edinburgh.

The chapel was founded by William St Clair, a 15th-century nobleman who spent forty years overseeing its construction, which remained unfinished after his death in 1484. The meaning and significance of the building's design, and of the thousands of carvings that adorn it, continue to fascinate and perplex historians half a millennium later. What St Clair and his masons created was not only a church, but a stone puzzle of mind-tangling intricacy.

The arched interior of Rosslyn Chapel resembles a mystical cave, dripping with imagery. The carvings that adorn every surface are not sharply defined, but have a dissolved look about them, faded and rounded like rock formations with the passage of time. There are Christian images, pagan images, Nordic images, Masonic images, and images that defy obvious explanation. Some themes recur throughout the building - the face of a 'Green Man' symbolising fertility appears in more than a hundred places - but others are unique. Some sculptures have stories behind them, such as the pillar completed by an apprentice who was murdered when his envious master saw the finished work.

There are features of the chapel whose meaning has only recently been deciphered: in 2005 a composer deduced that the complex pattern of cubes in the chapel's ceiling represents the musical score of a medieval tune. Most intriguing of all is a window frame outlined with what appear to be cobs of corn, a plant that is native to America, yet was depicted here in a Scottish building completed six years before Columbus set sail. Some point to this as evidence supporting the theory that a secretive party of European knights, led by William St Clair's grandfather, reached the New World a century before its official discovery.

Rosslyn Chapel
Rosslyn Chapel, underneath its protective metal roof

Rosslyn Chapel lies at the centre of numerous other legends; some even claim that the Holy Grail lies buried beneath the building. Such rumours have circulated among historians for centuries, but recently reached a mass audience with the publication of Dan Brown's thrilling novel The Da Vinci Code, which brought the chapel and its myths to the attention of over forty million readers across the world. Many of those readers are understandably keen to see Rosslyn Chapel for themselves.

Unfortunately, when hundreds of thousands of individually-harmless aficionados turn their focus simultaneously upon one small historical building, the result is a tourist swarm of twenty-first century proportions.

Visitor numbers at the chapel have trebled since Dan Brown's book became a bestseller, and can only increase further this year, thanks to the story's imminent release as a Hollywood movie and the efforts made by the Scottish tourist authorities to cash in on the Da Vinci phenomenon. Whilst the £7 (US$12) entrance fee paid by each visitor to the chapel provides welcome funds for restoration work, even the chapel's trustees concede that there is a limit to the number of visitors that the building can cope with. That limit may already have been reached.

I visited Rosslyn Chapel on a blustery Easter Monday, and found it packed like a theme park attraction. The sight that struck me as I entered was not mystical symbolism, but an elderly preacher bravely attempting to give a sermon while a claustrophobia-inducing crowd of tourists - which I was ashamed to be part of - jammed and edged their way around the aisles in strained silence, staring and flashing cameras at every corner of the small building. Not wishing to engage in the tussle of attempting to take unobstructed photos whilst trying not to obstruct other people's, I kept my own camera in my bag as I struggled and shuffled along.

The hordes of visitors are not the only ugly modern feature of Rosslyn Chapel. To protect against dampness until long-term restoration can be completed, a bare metal roof has been erected over the entire building, converting the exterior of the medieval church into something resembling an industrial cowshed. An elevated walkway runs under the eaves of the shelter, allowing visitors a unique view of the upper part of the building - which, like the rest of the chapel, is carved with intriguing images. However, this hardly compensates for the utter disfigurement imposed by the metalwork, which has reduced the chapel from a proud landmark to a museum specimen in a display case.

The Da Vinci craze marks the second time in a decade that the international spotlight has shone on Roslin, which made headlines in 1997 as the birthplace of Dolly the cloned sheep. I wonder whether or not the locals - now outnumbered a hundred to one by the tourists flocking annually through their village - welcome this new wave of attention. Some certainly do: a restaurant in the main street has been renamed "The Grail", and along the newly-tarmacked lane leading to the Chapel a horse owner with an admirable sense of humour has put bags of "Da Vinci manure" on sale for 50 pence each.

I left the crowds of Da Vinci worshippers behind in the chapel and wandered down the hill into Roslin Glen, where a cascading river cuts deeply into the Lothian countryside. A fierce wind sent shadows and sunbeams racing across the valley, adding natural drama to what would otherwise have been a gloomy Scottish afternoon. The smell of wild garlic pervaded the woodland. The glen was the site of a Braveheart-era battle in which the Scots defeated a much larger English army, and contains the castle in which the St Clair family resided. Medieval myths abound here: Roslin Glen is said to be haunted by the ghost of a Black Knight, perhaps slain during the battle, and by the baying of a phantom hound. A vicious April rain shower descended as I followed the muddy path back up to the village. The chapel, underneath its tin roof, looked more forlorn than ever.

In one corner of Rosslyn Chapel there is a book in which churchgoers are invited to write prayers for those in need. I was tempted to enter a prayer for the building itself, asking that it might be given strength to cope with the plague of people that literary fame has unleashed upon it.

Instead I confined my comments to a line in the visitors' book:

"This must have been a beautiful place once."



© Andrew Gray, 2006