Cracking the Da Vinci Code: a Visit to Rosslyn Chapel, Scotland

Rosslyn Chapel’s exterior belies its interior

You surely know all about Rosslyn Chapel: you’ve read The Da Vinci Code and if you haven’t, you must have seen the film. So have I, but for some strange reason I don’t seem able to recall exactly where the chapel comes into it. Not that that’s a problem because as I stand and stare at this treasury in stone I have with me every travel writer’s essential encyclopaedia of popular culture – a teenage boy.

“Um,” he says, under questioning. “Not sure. I’ve read and it was really good. But um…it came in at the end, I think. I’d need to read it again.”

So much for that. But in actual fact it doesn’t really matter how much he or I can remember about Dan Brown’s magnum opus, because a visit to Rosslyn Chapel isn’t about the book. Or at least, not that one.

In Your Bucket Because:

  • You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film. Now see what it’s really like.
  • Though small, the chapel is spectacular and unique in Scotland if not much further beyond, for its extraordinary carvings.
  • Links with the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail make it fascinating for conspiracy theorists.

Rosslyn Chapel and the Knights Templar

Arriving through the visitor centre I’m surprised at how unassuming the place looks (possibly because at the time of my visit it’s partly encased in scaffolding). It’s crouched behind a stone wall on the edge of the rather downbeat village of Roslin, in a country park popular with dogwalkers and local strollers who, I feel, rather take their local gem for granted.

In the early fifteenth century Sir William St Clair, a Templar knight, set out to build a magnificent cathedral. Rosslyn Chapel is the apse and altar, all he managed to construct. Go inside, however, and it’s difficult not to succumb to an overwhelming sense of awe. With its intricate lacing of complex carvings on the roof, the many pillars and the walls, Rosslyn is jaw-droppingly unlike any church I’ve ever been in in my life.

The Lady Chapel at Rosslyn (Photo courtesy of The Rosslyn Chapel Trust)

I could stand and stare all day, but I don’t. We’re encouraged to sit in the pews while one of the guides gives us a half-hour talk on the site’s complex history. It’s been famous for its association with the Knights Templar for much longer than it’s been a film location: there’s even a school of thought that the Holy Grail is concealed inside the chapel’s Apprentice Pillar.

So far, you might think, so dry. But as she chats to her secular congregation the guide reveals a history as dense as the carvings and also very amusing (there’s laughter when she wonders aloud why Sir William’s heir, nicknamed ‘the Waster,’ was disinherited). And I’m surprised to learn that despite the attentions of the Reformation and the Puritans, Rosslyn continues to be a functioning church with services every Sunday.

The Bible in Stone

And so to the book. Rosslyn, our guide tells us, is “the Bible in stone.” She uses a laser pointer to illustrate the fact and she certainly isn’t short of examples. Photography is forbidden inside and that’s probably a good thing because any photo I take certainly won’t do justice to the extraordinary complexity and richness of the carvings. The story of the Nativity hangs from the arches of the Lady Chapel, near a depiction of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden; not far away, whimsical stone angels play bagpipes.

Nor is it just about the Bible. Other curiosities abound, many of them with their own mysteries. Templar symbols are mixed with representations of the pagan fertility symbol, the Green Man; a depiction of North American maize dates from before the plant’s first recorded appearance in Britain; and carvings on an arch are said to represent musical notes which will summon the devil, if anyone can successfully decode the melody.

Rosslyn and Dan Brown

Its heyday may have been the Middle Ages but it’s mass-market literature and film that have turned Rosslyn into a must-see. The publication of that book (in which the chapel features as the place where Mary Magdalen’s remains are found) and more particularly the release of the film, which was partly shot inside the building, led to an increase in visitor numbers from an already-respectable 30,000 in 1996 to 176,000 the following year.

The iconic Apprentice Pillar (Photo courtesy of The Rosslyn Chapel Trust)

That’s why there’s a new visitor centre and why the place is so busy that we don’t get much of a chance to study the carvings in detail, though we do manage to compare the two pillars of the Master and the Apprentice. The latter outstrips the former and, according to legend, led to the apprentice’s death at the hands of his jealous master (master and apprentice, along with the apprentice’s grieving mother, are also represented in stone).

When I first came to Rosslyn long before either the book or the film, it was closed for a concert rehearsal and I didn’t get in; back then, even in August, very few people seemed to be interested in it. Today we drift past the caretaker’s house (which I definitely remember featuring in the book), vowing to come back for a second look. “But in the winter,” pleads my daughter, dodging a party of chattering tourists, “when it’s quiet.” Though actually, I can’t imagine it will ever be quiet again. Thanks a lot, Dan Brown….

Practicalities

  • The chapel is in the village of Roslin a few miles south of Edinburgh. It’s doable by bus (a 45 minute journey, hourly, from the city centre) but easier by car.
  • There’s a charge for admission (under 18s free) and there’s a visitor centre and café.
  • There’s so much to take in that it’s worth buying the guide book, which gives you all the information on decoding the many carvings you’ll see.
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Comments

  1. says

    This is very interesting! I was thinking of going there when I was in Edinburgh in June, but learned that it ws encased in scaffolding at the time, so decided to wait for my next trip. Now I know I should definitely do that. One more reason to go back to Scotland.

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