The Wandering Road to Rosslyn
‘So, why did you write a book about Rosslyn?’ This is the first question people ask when they find out that I’m the co-author of Rosslyn and the Grail. ‘Was it because of The Da Vinci Code?’ is the second. The answer to that is a simple ‘no’. I first visited Rosslyn about twenty years ago, and have been researching and lecturing on its legends and history for over a decade. Rosslyn and the Grail is the product of six years’ collaboration with my co-author, Ian Robertson. So how did I come to write a book about Rosslyn?
I grew up in a house full of books – I even learned to walk by pulling myself upright on bookcases. My family are book hoarders. Especially my grandfather, whose garage was full of odds and ends that ‘might come in useful someday’. I can vividly remember the day we built a bookcase. He had it was sketched out on the back of a brown envelope and he hummed and hawed as he sized up his motley materials – broken fruit crates, odd bits of pine and chunks of knotty two-by-four. My job was to work the vice on the bench and help saw the wood. I fetched jars of nails, poured them out and picked through for the straightest ones. He held the wood still, and I tried to hammer the nails in straight. Slowly the bookcase took shape – not a terribly accurate shape, more a slightly crooked and uneven shape. But by the end of the afternoon it was as finished as it was ever going to be. It may have been tall and wobbly, but it held every book I possessed.
On a high shelf in the living room, well out of my reach sat The Lord of the Rings, three imposing hardbacks, their dust jackets marked with the red eye of Sauron. But our paperback copy of The Hobbit was a cosy thing that lived at my level. It sat about on the floor and curled up in the comfy armchair by the fire. I read it until it fell to pieces. By then, Mirkwood, the Running River and the Lonely Mountain, had become part of my world. We lived beside an ancient drove road that wound from the fields and farms beyond the Pentland Hills to Edinburgh, plummeting downhill to meet the Braidburn River and follow it through the Hermitage. I could stand at the top of the hill in winter when the trees were bare, and trace the old path all the way to the castle.
All around my neighbourhood were curious buildings with heavy iron doors and no windows. These were well houses, which capped natural springs, but we children used to scare each other by saying they were full of man-eating goblins and trolls My primary school badge had the four birds and animals of the springs: the swan, the fox, the peewit and the hare, while local streets were named after ‘Swan Spring’ and ‘Fox Spring’. I later discovered that the seventeenth-century system that brought spring water from Comiston to the Royal Mile was devised by George Sinclair, the author of Satan’s Invisible World Discovered, in which his own interest in supernatural tales is plain: -he asks his readers for information about ‘Spirits, Witches, and Apparitions… Second Sight, Charms, Spells, Magic, and the like’. In years gone by, natural springs and wells were thought to be protected by goddesses and haunted by fairies and on the first morning of May, people would gather at these sacred places to wash in the healing waters; they would sometimes tie rags to nearby bushes in the belief that their malady would fade as the cloth rotted away.
My parents were both ecologists, and despite having a scientific tilt to my understanding of the natural world, I always felt drawn to its folklore. Science seeks to understand the universe by studying the evidence but you can’t weigh or measure the magic of things. From an early age I immersed myself in tales from the Highlands and Islands, Border ballads and Arthurian legends. Stevenson, Burns, Conan Doyle, Scott, Buchan, MacDonald and Lang introduced me to the underground stream of the supernatural that runs through Scottish literature. With my interest in Scottish History and folklore whetted by such masters, Rosslyn was an obsession waiting to happen.
I went there for the first time when I was sixteen, lured by a mention in an old gazetteer. As I walked down the lane towards the chapel the glen below was an autumnal tangle of gold, orange and brown. A murder of crows rose and swirled into the air above the chapel’s topmost pinnacles, which pointed like stone arrows to the sky.
A heavy wooden door in a high stone wall swung open and an old lady in a nice cardigan led me into the grounds. I seemed to be the only visitor. Talking quickly and quietly, she told me that the chapel was founded over five hundred years ago as the Collegiate Church of St Matthew the Evangelist. Its founder was Sir William St Clair, third and final St Clair Earl of Orkney and lord of Rosslyn. It had taken forty masons over fifty years to build it.
It had been raining, and now the gargoyles and hobgoblins on the north wall above us were spewing out water from the downpour. The guide beckoned and I followed her through a door, with no idea that I was about to enter a new chapter in my life.
The interior of the chapel teemed with life. Dragons, elephants, unicorns, green men, lions, griffons and monkeys – everywhere I turned, there were fabulous creatures and grotesques from medieval bestiaries. Angels and devils, saints and sinners, kings and queens. A heavenly host of medieval musicians. The pillars and arches were adorned with fruit and flowers and in the stone ceiling was a field of stars, the sun, and a crescent moon. The effect was overwhelming. Rosslyn Chapel was a Book of Hours set in stone.
The guide told me the story of the young man who had dreamed of carving a wonderful pillar. I stared at the dragons at the base of the Apprentice Pillar, tracing the foliate vines that spiralled like ribbons around a maypole. She told me about the master mason who struck his apprentice dead in a jealous rage. The carved heads of the murdered apprentice (with gashed forehead), his grieving mother and the master mason stared down at us. I learned that beneath the chapel was an ancient burial vault where generations of St Clair knights and lords lay buried, uncoffined, in suits of armour. She told me much more – of Robert the Bruce, of the carved piper, of how Dorothy and William Wordsworth had championed the restoration of the chapel when the found it falling into dereliction in the early nineteenth century. She held me completely wrapt. I had fallen under Rosslyn’s spell.
Over the years that followed, researching the history and traditional tales of Rosslyn became an increasingly engrossing pursuit. At the National Library of Scotland, I immersed myself in printed and manuscript accounts of the chapel. It was there that I found The Traditionary Tales of Roslin Castle and the History of Margaret Hawthorn, more generally known in the Lothians by the name of Camp Meg with poems and songs of the Glens by John Rigby of Rumbletyne Cottage, Hawthornden, 1860. The library’s copy was defective, with duplicate and missing pages, but Rigby’s gives perhaps the most extraordinary version of the story of the White Lady, a maiden of the St Clair line. When she spurned the advances of Lord Soulis, he made a pact with the devil and imprisoned her in a secret chamber beneath Rosslyn Castle, where she is said to sleep to this day, guarding the fabled treasure of the St Clairs, awaiting the brave knight who will free her from her spell. I read legends, ghost stories and traditional tales, collected accounts of black dogs, evil wizards and chivalrous knights. There was much to learn about the St Clair family, who fought in the Wars of Independence, signed the Declaration of Arbroath, allied themselves by marriage with the Douglas Clan and remained devoted servants of Mary Queen of Scots and the Catholic Faith. I devoured every new book about Rosslyn. Increasingly they reflected the murky world of conspiracy theory and speculative alternative history, with their theories about Templar knights, the embalmed head of Jesus and the Holy Grail. They often defied common sense and documented history. Some said that Rosslyn Chapel was not a Christian building. The St Clairs were supposed to have hidden the treasure of the Templars, they guarded the secrets of the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Perhaps they were descendants of Christ? The crypt held a terrible secret that would bring the Catholic Church crashing down. It was all rubbish. I had found a Latin transcription of the Trial of the Templars in Scotland. I had it translated into English for the first time. This shows that in 1309 the St Clairs of Rosslyn had publicly denounced the Templar Order. In reality the St Clairs had clung to their Catholic faith. Rosslyn Chapel had been built as a Catholic place of worship – and indeed, it was full of Christian imagery and Biblical scenes.
About ten years ago I met Ian Robertson, who shared my passionate interest in Rosslyn and we embarked on a collaboration to tell its real story. Writing Rosslyn and the Grail was an organic process; our book evolved into 300 pages of legends, history and secrets.
When I first found my way to Rosslyn Chapel, it seemed impossible that anyone would ever make sense of its thousands of carvings. They appeared random. But I came to realise they were nothing of the kind, and that the story they tell is clear. The carvings in Rosslyn Chapel can be ‘read’. Beginning with the carving of an angel holding an open book and ending with the one of the angel cradling a closed book – clockwise from east to south, south to west and west to north – the wall carvings tell the story of the birth, life, passion and resurrection of Christ and the stories of the Bible from the Garden of Eden to the Day of Judgement. In the east, birth, spring and the dawn; in the south, life, summer and the light; in the west, twilight and autumn; and in the north, death, winter and darkness – here is the cycle of the seasons set in stone. Why did it become such a mystery? Probably because the meaning, which would have been plain to medieval worshippers, was lost the way so much knowledge is lost – incrementally, through the passage of time. Released from distortions, its conception has a simplicity and purity that is stunningly beautiful in itself.
Since The Da Vinci Code, hundreds of thousands of people have visited the chapel and it has become a very busy place. Moments of solitude are few, but in those moments the most potent Rosslyn magic resides. I recall one frosty winter’s night not long ago, after making a television programme with the BBC. Leaving the chapel after the shoot, I was the last one out. As I turned off the electric lights, I looked back. Moonlight was pouring in, turning the sandstone a deep midnight blue, and a thousand tiny faces stared out of the shadows.
© Mark Oxbrow