Tapestry in Stone

Rosslyn Chapel is a true work of art, a tapestry in stone!

Rosslyn Chapel

Rosslyn Chapel

A few years ago my parents and I visited Edinburgh, it was my parents wedding anniversary and it seemed fitting to return to the place where they had their honeymoon. Mum insisted that we had to take a detour and go to Rosslyn Chapel after having read several books about it, but at the time I was 15 and not especially interested in the religious history that gripped this nation, to be fair, not overly interested in anything… as most 15 year olds seem to be. However when we arrived the building blew me away. Only a small chapel which was covered from roof to floor in scaffolding whilst we were there, but beautiful nonetheless. I can honestly say it is one of the most spectacular displays of stone masonry that I can recall, even Queen Victoria expressed a desire for the Chapel to be ‘preserved for the country‘ on her visit in 1842.

Rosslyn_ChapelThe history is not overly convoluted, the chapel was founded in the mid 15th century by William Sinclair who was the 1st Earl of Caithness from the Scoto-Norman Sinclair family. The chapel is situated in the village of Roslin, near to Roslin Castle, the home of the Sinclair family which is now a ruin, Rosslyn Chapel was one of three places of worship the Sinclair family established. Construction began in September 1456, it’s primary use was for breviary, mass and prayers for the dead, typically for this time it was a Roman Catholic institute. The Scottish Reformation occurred in 1560, which saw the alters destroyed and the chapel closed to public worship (although the specific date of the closure is unknown). The Sinclair family, as many Scots in Tudor times continued as Roman Catholics until the early 18th century. In 1650 Oliver Cromwell’s troops ransacked Roslin Castle but the chapel was spared, only because it provided suitable stabling for his troops horses. In 1861 it was opened again as a place of worship hosting Sunday services according to the rites of the Scottish Episcopal Church, between 1840 and the reopening extensive restoration work was carried out by architect David Bryce on behalf of the 3rd Earl of Rosslyn.


Flying buttresses are one of my favourite things in architecture. Elegant and sweeping, they are normally in conjunction with gothic ecclesiastical architecture.

Recently there has been speculation of strong links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, especially in consideration of the publication and film adaptation of Dan Browns Da Vinci Code. Since then there has been many other publications speculating similar such stories most featuring the carving of two riders on one horse. Robert L. D. Cooper, curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library, in 2003, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERApublished a 12th edition of the 1892 Illustrated Guide to Rosslyn Chapel with the intention of countering the “nonsense published about Rosslyn Chapel over the last 15 years or so”. Another claim that Rosslyn Chapel echoes Solomon’s Temple was discussed in Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertsons’ book: Rosslyn and the Grail, stating that the chapel bears no more resemblance to Solomon’s Temple than a house brick does to a paperback book.

Floor Plan of Chapel

Floor Plan of Chapel

The original plans for Rosslyn chapel have never been found, or perhaps were never recorded, which leaves the architecture open to much interpretation.  Only the Choir/Lady Chapel was constructed, which was built upon the site of the earlier crypt (thought to be part of an earlier castle on this site). However it is suggested by the foundations excavated in the 19th C. that the original building was to be cruciform in shape, yet it was never completed. The excavations show that the nave and transepts stretched a distance of 90 feet west of today’s boundaries.Yet after the founder’s death, construction of the planned nave and transepts were abandoned, either from lack of funds, lack of interest or a change in liturgical fashion.

Artists impression of what the chapel would have looked like if finished.

Artists impression of what the chapel would have looked like if finished.

The crypt acted as a burial place for several generations of the Sinclairs, it was once accessible from a descending stair at the rear of the chapel but was sealed shut on an unknown date. In 1837 when the 2nd Earl of Rosslyn died, his wish was to be buried in the original vault; exhaustive searches over the period of a week were made, but no entrances to the vault were found and he was buried beside his wife in the Lady Chapel. The foundations, building and carvings took approximately 40 years to complete, possibly even longer, and the village of Roslin grew to house the workers.

Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel

Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel

If you visit the Chapel today, you can see a series of shields high up along the north wall of the Chapel displaying the letters: W L S F Y C Y Z O G M C C C C L which stand for: ‘William Lord Sinclair Fundit Yis College Ye Zeir Of God MCCCCL’ (marking the founder and date, 1450). Other carvings include a Green Man who happens to be one of the best preserved Green Men in Europe, they are a common pagan figure, often with vines spouting from the mouth to represent fertility and natures growth. Also the fallen angel Lucifer hanging upside down surrounded by rope, plus other angles playing musical instruments, including a set of bagpipes.


Surrounding one of the windows is Maize or possibly Indian Corn, this is fascinating because not only is it an exotic plant but Maize originates from North America, a country discovered 50 years after Rosslyn Chapel was built…..

The Apprentice Pillar

The Apprentice Pillar. On the architrave joining the pillar there is the inscription Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas: “Wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all”.

The apprentice pillar, is one of the most elaborately decorated pieces in the whole chapel, and named so due to a legend. The master mason did not believe that his apprentice could perform the complicated task of carving the column without seeing that which formed the inspiration for the design. The master mason had traveled to see the original himself, but upon his return was enraged to find that the upstart apprentice had completed the column anyway. In a fit of jealous anger the mason took up his mallet and struck the apprentice on the head, killing him. It is unknown if this is true or pure myth but it is said that  the Bishop of St Andrew may have obtained the popes permission to delay the consecration of the buildings because a violent deed had taken place.

When walking around this chapel, it was the exquisite carvings that I fell in love with, and not so much the history. It is incredible that such stone-masonry survives. The architecture is considered some of the finest in Scotland, perhaps in Europe. From 1995 a trust was established for the conservation and in 1997 a steel canopy was erected over the chapel to allow for the stone work to dry out, thus helping the conservation, but it also allowed you to climb to the height of the roof, allowing for inspection of the carvings over the elevation (the canopy was removed last year). The pinnacles on the rooftop have been subject to much interest during renovation work in 2010. Nesting birds had made the pinnacles unstable and as such had to be dismantled brick by brick revealing the existence of a chamber specifically made by the stonemasons to harbour bees. The hive, now abandoned, has been sent to local bee keepers to identify. Other conservation work carried out by the trust occurred on the roof, the carvings, the stained glass windows and the organ, the restoration work in total cost £13 million.

The dance of death

This carving is a string of figures in the dance of death, each character is different and each character is accompanied by a skeleton. The dance comes from the skeletons, or death pushing and pulling the reluctant people off to their fate. Symbolising deaths triumph over life.

Musical Cubes

These cubes are carved into the arches of the Lady Chapel, and each one is unique made up of lines and dots, it is thought perhaps they are musical notes. Some theories suggest they are a secret code, perhaps linked to the Knights Templar.


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