Towns / Cities Visited: 128
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 13,026
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We had not been able to visit Rosslyn Chapel two days previous, but given its close proximity to Edinburgh, in the small town of Roslin, we had decided to get up a little earlier and make the trip out before continuing with the rest of the day’s activities. A short, twenty minute drive later, and we were pulling up into the car park and heading into the visitor centre. Grabbing our tickets we stepped out the doors and were suddenly faced with the church we had come all of this way to see.
Now, most people know of this place because of its mention in Dan Brown’s famous book ‘The Da Vinci Code’, and its subsequent use as a filming location in the adapted movie starring Tom Hanks. This aside though, Rosslyn Chapel has a unique and fascinating history from long before it was written into a fictional novel. This small but striking gothic church was built in the mid 15th century by order of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, as a place of private prayer for his family. He’d had grand plans of this being a large cathedral, however, after his death, his son only had the small section that was standing completed before building ceased. Thus it was left as it was, with only the choir and the lady chapel being completed, and the rest of its cruciform structure being abandoned. It was originally a Catholic place of worship, and as such, in 1592, after the reformation, it was abandoned. Luckily though, unlike many other Catholic churches of the time, it was not destroyed except for its altar. The Sinclair’s remained Catholic until well into the 18th century, although they chose to worship in private to avoid persecution. By the 1800’s the chapel was overgrown with vines and moss, and was a favourite place for painters and poets to come and draw inspiration. It remained closed until its fate changed after a visit by Queen Victoria in 1942, when she expressed an interest in having it restored. By 1862, restoration work was underway, and it was reopened for Sunday services in April of the same year as a Scottish Episcopal Church. A trust was established in 1995 to continue ongoing conservation, although the building remains privately owned by Peter St Clair-Erskine, 7th Earl of Rosslyn.
Before entering, we took the opportunity to wander the exterior, admiring the delicate carvings, including a series of pedestals on the outer arches, obviously intended to hold statues of saints, but which sit empty; another unfinished addition to a life’s work abandoned. It is not completely void of decoration out here though, and above the doors sit pairs of carved gargoyles, looking down over all who enter. Near the visitor centre also stands a series of stone blocks at different stages of carving, as to give visitors an insight into how such stunning artworks come into existence. Just beside the chapel also sits the intricate memorial to Sir Francis Robert St Clair Erskine and his wife.
The exterior may be beautiful, but it is what’s inside which is truly breathtaking. Photography may be forbidden here, hence the photos on this blog being from other sources, but there is something unforgettable about this place which will remain imprinted in my internal gallery for some time yet. It is as though every square inch of the walls and ceiling were considered canvases for the mason’s handiwork, and it is unsurprising to learn that all of this art took around 40 years to complete. Even the arches meet at stunningly etched pendant keystones. As you enter you are provided with a booklet with points out many of the most notable figures around the room, and with a touch of good luck we happened to arrive just in time to hear one of the employees here give a talk about the otherworldly interior. There is much mystery and speculation around many of the carvings, but the most amusing story is that of the apprentice pillar, a stunningly carved twisted column, with dragons nesting at its base. The legend goes that the master mason had completed a column, and his apprentice had wanted to complete the one adjacent with a design he had been inspired by in a dream. The master mason had gone away on a sabbatical and came back to find the apprentice had carved the pillar. Finding it to be more stunning than his own work, he hit the apprentice over the head with his mallet in a jealous rage, killing him. At the other end of the chapel, nestled in a corner facing the pillar now sits a figure said to be a representation of the master mason, fated to stare at his apprentice’s work for all eternity.
There are countless other fascinating additions which beg speculation, like a series of carved cubes which protrude from one of the arches and are thought to be keys to a secret code or musical score. There are also many plant carvings, including one thought to be maize, despite the fact that maize is native to North America, a country which, according to history, was not discovered until Columbus arrived in 1492; some 50 years after the chapel was finished. This seems to feed into the theory, by some, that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, discovered the Americas long before Columbus. On the other hand, many just believe that it is a stylised carving which just happens to resemble maize. Many of the other carvings are less vague, including one hundred and ten green men; a pendant depicting the star of Bethlehem and carvings of the virgin and child, the manger, the three wise men, and three shepherds; an angel playing bagpipes; and an ensnared Lucifer.
Before leaving, of course, we wandered through the equally as embellished Lady chapel, and down into the Sacristy, which served as a workshop during the construction of the chapel. Despite all of the stunning carving being created in this space, it is still its feature in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ finale which remains in the minds off all Dan Brown fans. There has been speculation about a connection between the chapel, the Knights Templar, and the freemasons since the 1980’s, and some of this was fed by the fact that William Sinclair was buried in the vaults below the chapel, which were later sealed off and the entrance to them has not been discovered since. This led to the legend that beneath the chapel sits an extensive series of vaults which hold treasures of the knights, including the mummified head of Jesus and the holy grail. There is also speculation that the original Crown Jewels of Scotland reside there, but, in the end, it is all just rumours, none of which are based on any measure of fact.
With all of our gawking out of the way, we paused briefly in the cafe of the visitor centre for a spot of tea, and a scone, before driving back into Edinburgh. Parking the car, we were soon on our way to our second attraction for the day; The Palace of Holyroodhouse. If you are interested, as I was, it derives its name from Holyrood Abbey, which now stands in ruins on the grounds of the palace and which we would visit later. The Abbey was, in turn, built in 1128 by order of King David I, and is said to take its name from a vision the king had of the Cross, or alternatively from the relic of the True Cross (also known as the Holy Rood; and believed to be a fragment of the cross Jesus was crucified on) which had belonged to his mother, Queen Margaret. Although the first palace was constructed here in 1501 by James IV for himself and his wife Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, the palace as it stands today was built between 1671 and 1678, aside from the northwest tower which dates from the 16th century and was built by James V. It has, since its construction, been used as a royal residence. Queen Elizabeth spends one week here at the beginning of every summer, but whenever members of the royal family are not in residence, the palace is open to the public. It seems a most grand place to only visit for a singular week each year, but what do I know.
Buying our tickets and heading in through the fortified front gate, we were sad to see that, yet again, the picture perfectness of yet another attraction was marred by the all too familiar addition of scaffolding, and fencing surrounding the now empty fountain. Not to be deterred though, we placed on the headphones of our audioguide and made our way onwards into the inner courtyard. Despite its age, it appears well maintained; although I’ll take a wager at the fact that this is probably thanks to the use of the scaffolding providing access to the conservation team.
Nipping round the corner, we were soon heading inside to yet another unphotographable attraction, so I will do my best to describe things and find a few photos from the annals of the internet to show you what I mean. Moving through the rooms, they have the amount of luxurious spaciousness you would expect of a royal residence, and yet they are somehow more subdued, darker and yet more homely; think more rich woods, and a lot less gilding. As you can imagine, the walls are adorned with ageing tapestries, the beds stand perfectly made and draped with their stereotypically elaborate drapery, the ceilings hang heavy with chandeliers, the drawing rooms sit scattered with priceless embroidered chairs, the great gallery hung with a series of portraits depicting both real and legendary Kings of Scotland, and the throne room…well the throne room is somehow one of the least climactic in its understated decor.
There are countless rooms, and almost as many stories to go with them, however, the most dramatic of these stories took place in the oldest rooms of the palace, located in the northwest tower. These rooms served as Mary Queen of Scots chambers and it was from her tiny supper room that she witnessed the murder of her dear friend and confidant. On 9 March 1566, her Private Secretary David Rizzio was slain by her jealous second husband Lord Darnley and a group of powerful Scottish lords who believed Rizzio to have too much control over the Queen. They allegedly stabbed him 57 times, and he died on the floor of the outer chamber. It is said that his blood still stains the floor where he died, but in truth the stain could be from any number of things. Still, there was something unnerving about standing in a room which was the backdrop for such a gruesome and bloody murder. It makes some of the plot lines of Game of Thrones seem almost PC at this point.
With enough gaud and gore in our systems, we finally made our way out into the calm and sanctuary of the palace grounds. First stop though, was the haunting remains of the ruined abbey which lends its name to this royal residence. The abbey was used as a place of worship until the 17th century, and has been ruined since the 18th. As the story goes, King David I was hunting in the forests to the east of Edinburgh during the Feast of the Cross when he was thrown from his horse after it was startled by a stag. It is said that the king was saved from being gored by the stag when it was itself startled by a holy cross descending from the skies. In order to show his thanks to God for his protection he founded the abbey on the site. Whether there is any truth to that legend is inconsequential, the abbey, or what remains of it at least, stand as testament to a deeply religious king. It was the location for three royal weddings, and holds the remains of a number of Scottish royals, including King David II, King James V, and even Lord Darnley, despite his alleged crimes. Although neither the roof nor the floor of this house of God remain, the walls and windowless tracery still manage to inspire a feeling of being part of something bigger than oneself. The empty coffins, and crumbling memorials built into the stonework remain you of those past, and yet the trees beyond reinforce the knowledge that we ourselves are still alive.
From here, we took a little time to wander the small stony path which winds its way through the landscaped garden to the rear of the palace, and in which the Queen often holds garden parties during her stay. The delicate flowers, and rustling foliage almost make you forget the bloody history of places such as this, but as you make your way along, glimpses of the abbey and the palace peak through, reminding you of their constant presence. Even amongst the pristine green lawns can be spotted the foundations of the cloister of the abbey which has long since disappeared; a scar which will remain for many a century yet I imagine.
With a taste for the outdoors sparked in our hearts, we scurried off to our final activity for the day; Arthur’s Seat. Now, despite its interior sounding name, it is, however, an extinct volcano which constitutes the main peak of a group of hills which cover much of Holyrood Park, and offers an impressive view over the city below. It is also, if you are wont to believe myths and legends, believed to possibly be the site of Camelot; the fabled home of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The path to the summit, although easy to traverse, is steep in places and, with the sun peaking out from behind the clouds more often than not on our ascent, its safe to say there was a point about halfway up, where we were peeling off layers of clothing and generally heaving, that the words ‘We’re so unfit!’ were panted at each other. That being said, there were a few fairly fit looking people in activewear similarly out of breath, so perhaps its wasn’t so much a measure of our unfitness, but rather of the speed were were trying to climb the damn thing. The journey, although mildly exhausting, was beautiful, and we stopped a few times to look at the crumbling remains of an Iron Age hill fort which used to stand on this peak. As we finally scrambled over the rocks at the apex of Arthur’s Seat, some 250 metres above the sprawling city below, we quickly found ourselves donning our jackets once more, as we were met with such a fierce headwind that left only three options: lean into it, sit down, or risk being blown off the sheer edge. Thus, amongst what seemed to be a rather rowdy American school group, be bunkered down betwixt a few boulders and admired the view; through watering, wind whipped eyes, of course.
Our tolerance for being pummelled by the elements grew thin quickly, and we were soon taking a much more leisurely stroll back down to the car. A relaxed night of home cooked food, and a little television catch up, and we were tucking ourselves into bed. Tomorrow would see us bid a temporary farewell to Scotland, and head back into the embrace of the English countryside.
As my mind flitted back into the ageing rooms of Holyrood Palace, I found myself standing in the outer chamber of Queen Mary’s apartments once more, contemplating the heinous crime committed within those four walls, and the questions it sparked within me. If they could talk, would the walls retell the scene played out before them on this now playerless stage? If the floor could, would it spew forth the blood of a felled man which once soaked its boards; tracing the woodgrain of trees long since felled themselves? Does the bay window harbour echos of the screams of a heavily pregnant queen with a gun trained on her belly as her close friend and confidant was dragged into the outer chamber by blade wielding nobles partaking in a far from noble act? Do those posed in the portraits relive the trauma of the encounter in the quiet of the evenings, or would they admit that, amongst the chaos, they closed their painted eyes, while all living were locked on the fifty-seven stab wounds which stole a man’s life? Beneath the wood panelling does the smell of blood, jealousy, and abandoned dinner linger? If we could find the same wood to ignite, would the fireplace enlighten us with the truth of who orchestrated the crime? In the shadows of the ceiling’s carved embellishment, do dark intentions remain? Do events such as these mark a place with an eternal timestamp; do the scars of violent acts endure in spite of centuries past?