Rosslyn Chapel

Trip 42 Day 6

May 1, 2023

A bank holiday today meant a number of the shops were closed, but we had plans to travel out to see Rosslyn Chapel, a 577 year old chapel about 7 miles outside Edinburgh. We took a Lothian (regional) bus from Princes Street. Although only 7 miles, because it it takes almost an hour. We purchased online tickets for the Chapel for today, the previous evening , as it’s a major attraction in the area. There were three tour buses there by the time we left. Due to the inclusion of the Chapel as background for scenes in the DaVinci Code and the Knights Templar , pre-Covid, there were 200,000 visitors a year, so it’s a very popular place.

Founded by Sir William St. Clair in 1446 (whose descendants transferred their ownership to a Trust to care for the Chapel only in 1995), it was intended to be much larger than its final form, but at the death of Sir William, those plans were not completed and the Chapel as it stood then is what we see today. Sir William Sinclair of Rosslyn died at the Battle of Dunbar. He is believed to be the last knight buried in full armour in the vault below the Chapel, said to be the family custom. The construction of the Chapel is remarkable, with virtually every structural piece being carved, whether it’s the columns, the gargoyles, the figurines. More here and here about the design and construction.

Interior layout of the Chapel and some of the carvings.

An interesting story revolves around two columns- The Mason’s Pilar and the Apprentice Pillar. You’ll notice the Apprentice pillar is much more intricately carved. When the Mason, who was away, came back to find his apprentice had vastly outdone his own work, he chased him into the woods and killed him. The Mason in turn was killed for this act and there is a figure of the Mason placed at the opposite side of the Chapel, so that he will forever look upon the superior work of the apprentice.

The gothic Chapel uses flying buttresses and a barrel vaulted roof in it’s construction. When the Earl commissioned the construction, he also built the nearby village for the various craftsmen so they’d have a place to live while they worked. The construction of the Chapel in its current form took 40 years.

Interior shot of the barrel vaulted ceiling
The Mason’s column (foreground) and the Apprentice’ column (behind)

At the time of its founding, Sir William established the Chapel in the Catholic faith, but the Protestant (religious) Reformation, began as a political affair in 1527 when King Henry VII requested an annulment of his marriage from the Pope. The Pope refused and Reformation Parliament, under direction from the King, passed laws abolishing the papal authority in England and declared Henry to be head of the Church of England (and of course he annulled the marriage he sought since he was now head of the Church). You cannot separate the symbolism of the physical church and the political and religious upheaval of the Reformation which took its toll on these symbols and Oliver Cromwell , probably the central figure in the English Reformation, and his troops sacked the Castle (not open to the public) and the Chapel. Although the Chapel itself was spared, it was used for stabling the troop’s horses and in the succeeding years, the Chapel fell into disrepair.

Following a period of Victorian repair and restoration, the Chapel was rededicated in 1862 and weekly services began again.
A report in 1954 highlighted the poor condition of the stonework and the thinking of the time was to cover the historic stonework with a cementitious slurry. Unfortunately, a later report confirmed that the slurry, rather than stabilizing conditions, contributed to the high humidity in the Chapel. Because the building is made of sandstone, there was a time when the interior was covered in green mold and the St Clair family was told it might have to be demolished. The first order of business in 1997 was to erect a metal cover over the entire building- the cover was removed in 2010.
Restoration began in 1997 and took 14 years.

Rosslyn Chapel
Gargoyles guarding the door

Back to Edinburgh and a return bus ride. Edinburgh doesn’t have subways, so their mass transit consists of the trams and buses that run to/from the airport, regional buses (Lothian), City buses and intercity buses (for example between Glasgow and Edinburgh).

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