Rosslyn Chapel is surely Britain’s most extraordinary building, with a richly carved stone interior of such barbaric splendour that, if you were shown pictures of it without any clue as to location, you might guess it to be somewhere completely alien – Moldavia, perhaps, or Transylvania. In fact, the chapel is located in the prosaic hinterland of Edinburgh’s bypass: to reach it you must run the gauntlet of car dealers, Ikea and other temples of modern consumerism, until you turn into the lane leading to the village of Roslin.
Whether spelt Roslin – as the village and its neighbouring glen are – or Rosslyn, as the chapel and ruined castle are, the name derives from the Celtic ross (promontory) and lynn (waterfall) that are such picturesque features of the glen; although those of New Age mystical bent hold that the chapel lies on the Rose Line, a major European ley line.
The chapel’s roof is currently shrouded by a canopy on scaffolding to allow its stones to dry out very gradually. Ironically, the building has suffered more from Ministry of Works “conservation” measures in the 1950s than from five-and-a-half centuries of Scottish weather. The stones were coated, inside and out, with an impermeable magnesium fluoride solution, thus trapping water containing salts and pollutants inside them. A walkway in the scaffolding allows visitors to look at the roof close up; and the shrouded exterior only adds to the visual impact of entering Rosslyn’s astonishing interior.
Scarcely a square foot of stone remains uncarved – and, doors apart, the entire building is of stone. I have never seen elsewhere a church roof without supporting timbers, but Rosslyn’s is of solid stone, barrel-vaulted and divided by ribs into five compartments, each decorated with carved flowers or stars. Another idiosyncratic feature is that although the choir is lined with Gothic arches, set apart from the medieval norm only by their curious carvings, the aisles to either side have horizontal transoms, as used in Babylon and Egypt before the arch was invented. In fact, these apparently structural crosspieces are merely decorative, masking conventional arches: clearly, an intentionally backward-looking style statement by the chapel’s 15th-century builder, the third and last St Clair Prince of Orkney.
Also more prosaically known as Sir William from his Scottish barony, St Clair was essentially buying his way into heaven – or rather, shortening his time in purgatory – by building a church, as many of his contemporaries among the Scottish nobility did when they began to feel death approaching.
Rosslyn Chapel, as it stands, is only a fraction of Sir William’s intended collegiate church, designed to be a secular foundation for the propagation of learning. The building was to have been cruciform, with a tower at its centre, and the existing chapel is merely its choir (with a baptistery added in 1880-81).
The foundation stone was laid in 1446 and work continued for 38 years until Sir William died, but by that time the choir was still unroofed and only the foundations for the nave had been laid. Sir William’s perfectionism made its completion in his lifetime unrealistic. His masons were handsomely paid (£40 a year for the master mason) and were given purpose-built houses (thus founding the village of Roslin), but in return they had to work from carpenters’ carvings, submitted for personal approval by Sir William, before work could begin on carving any of the chapel’s thousands of figures, bas-reliefs and motifs. The masons nonetheless managed to introduce one major mistake into the decoration of the south aisle: charity appears among the seven deadly sins on one architrave, while avarice is among the seven virtues on the other.
The bizarre nature of many of the carvings makes it worth peering closely to find every piece. However, you can hardly miss the green men, because there are 103 of them. It is not uncommon to find one green man in a medieval church, but according to Mike Harding’s book on the subject, Rosslyn Chapel is unique in having so many.
At Rosslyn Chapel, even the Judaeo-Christian imagery may seem strange to modern eyes: Moses, for example, sports a large pair of horns. This is attributed in the guide booklet to a mistranslation of the Hebrew queren, which “can mean either horn or ray of light”, but I am not sure that such a distinction is necessary – my Holman’s Bible Dictionary says simply that for the ancient Jews, the horn was an “emblem of power, honour or glory” (Michelangelo’s Moses in the Vatican is also, albeit more discreetly, horned). Other carvings to look out for include the Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre, pairing people of all degrees with their skeletons; and Lucifer, upside-down and heavily bound.
There is a hoary legend attached to Rosslyn’s most famous piece of carving, the apprentice pillar: when the master mason was confronted with the design, he felt the need to improve his knowledge of carving by travelling to Rome. While he was away, his apprentice dreamt that he had completed the carving himself, and on waking, set to work. The master mason arrived home to find the pillar completed, and was so inflamed with jealousy of his apprentice’s skill that he killed him with a mallet blow to the head. This tale strikes me as a classic reworking of an earlier legend: the murder, by a blow to the head, of the master mason in Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem.
The pillar’s swirling vines emanate from the mouths of eight dragons around its base – probably the eight dragons of Neifelheim, which supported Yggdrasil, the great tree binding heaven, earth and hell, in Nordic myth. There are also motifs associated with the Templars, and by extension (though this strikes me as anachronistic) with modern “speculative” freemasonry, which was founded in the early 18th century.
Most intriguing to me are the “Indian corn” (maize) motifs around one window in the south aisle. Maize is an American plant, unknown in 15th-century Britain, so is there truth in the story that Henry, first Prince of Orkney, sailed to Nova Scotia in 1398 with Antonio Zeno, the Venetian navigator, as claimed by Zeno’s great-great-great grandson in 1558? According to the younger Zeno’s book, Prince Henry and his comrades spent a winter with the Micmac Indians before setting sail again and being blown by storms to the Massachusetts shore.
A Micmac legend of the man-god Glooscap, who came from the east in a ship and taught them to fish with nets, is still current (present-day Micmac make pilgrimages to Rosslyn Chapel). There are two curious pieces of corroborating physical evidence to support it: a canon, identified as 14th-century Venetian, dredged up in 1849 from Louisburg harbour on Cape Breton island, Nova Scotia; and a rock carving at Westford, Massachusetts, accurately depicting a 14th-century armoured knight – whose shield device matches that of Prince Henry’s shipmate, Sir James Gunn of Clyth, who allegedly died there.
Rosslyn Chapel underwent centuries of neglect after its creator died; his son merely roofed over the chapel as it stood and buried his father within, but the stone structure survived even Cromwellian troops’ use of it as a stable.
The 18th-century vogue for “sublime” scenery, particularly when filled with romantic ruins, brought artists, poets and even royalty to visit Roslin Glen, its chapel and castle. The roll-call of visitors includes Dr Johnson, Wordsworth, Robert Burns, Turner and Queen Victoria. Rosslyn Chapel today remains the burial place of Sir William’s family, who became earls of Rosslyn in 1801, and the present (7th) earl created a charitable trust in 1996 to oversee and fund the ongoing restoration.
Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian (0131 440 2159 http://www.rosslyn-chapel.com). Open: Monday-Saturday, 10am- 5pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. Candlelit services: Sunday, 10.30am and 5pm. Refreshments; gift shop (Roslin Rambles leaflet is recommended for exploring Roslin Glen).
Adjacent to the chapel grounds is College Hill, originally built as an inn for visitors to the chapel and now a Landmark Trust property sleeping six, which makes a charming base for exploring the Lothians, Border country and Edinburgh. Three-night weekend breaks, midweek breaks and full-week bookings available (01628 825925, http://www.landmarktrust.co.uk).
By Anne Campbell Dixon in http://www.telegraph.co.uk