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The intricately carved chapel, one of Lothian’s most mysterious and thought-provoking buildings, was, they claim, built as an interstellar gateway.
As the spotlight falls on the world famous place of worship, owned by the St Clair family, again next week as the stage production of The Da Vinci Code spins at the King’s, an analysis of the history books suggests that even if small green beings are surely the fruit of overexcited imaginations, the chapel closely guards all the secrets and mysteries it can shelter.
Even before Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, such a plot drew 30,000 visitors a year to the Roslin monument, drawn by tales of the medieval order of the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, which some say was placed in a secret underground chamber, and of the Pillar of Apprentices, which bears within it a murderous legend. Of course, none of these stories can be proven.
What we do know is that the family chapel was founded in 1446. As the building was still unfinished when its founder, Sir William St Clair, died in 1484, his son, Sir Oliver St Clair, covered the chancel with his vault stone but did not. complete his father’s original design. Following the Reformation, the chapel fell into ruin.
In 1650, while attacking Rosslyn Castle, Cromwell’s troops even put their horses there. After a period of repair and restoration in Victorian times, the chapel was rededicated in 1862 when weekly services resumed. In 1954, the masonry, in poor condition, was covered with a “cement grout” in an attempt to preserve it. A major conservation project was undertaken after a new report in 1995.
Following the publication of the Da Vinci Code novel in 2003, annual visitor numbers more than doubled while the film’s release in 2006 saw annual visitor numbers reach 176,000, hence a price tag of 4.9 million of pounds sterling. from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland a year later came just in time to facilitate important conservation work and the development of a visitor centre.
Ian Gardner, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, explains: “The building was completed in 1484 and has been attracting visitors ever since, so it really has been a popular destination for generations, but when The Da Vinci Code is released, it had a huge impact.
Watch: How the worldwide success of The Da Vinci Code brought the world into the mystery of Roslin…
The sudden influx of visitors and growing interest in the site took those working at the chapel by surprise, he admits: “At the time, no one knew that Dan Brown had included the chapel in the book, so person. knew this increase was coming. It was a bit of a surprise to us but one of the great things that happened is that all these visitors helped us as a charity to take care of the building and we hope it will be now here again several hundred years to come, always inspiring stories and intriguing people with its history.
While the novel drew more than 70,000 visitors a year, after Hollywood and Tim Hanks descended on the chapel in 2006, sparking great interest among locals and visitors alike, all eager to catch a glimpse of the star, the number of visitors exploded.
Ian continues: “What was nice was that Tom Hanks wrote afterwards that filming locations don’t often live up to expectations, but Roslyn Chapel was everything he could have hoped for. I think people often come hoping to find all sorts of things… we only show the Holy Grail to certain people, not everyone,” he jokes, adding, “The whole building is shrouded in mystery. it was built so richly in the first place, for example. As a mystery, I don’t want it to be solved. I’d rather people wonder and be puzzled and come see it for themselves.
“Visitors, whether local or halfway around the world, often come with questions…they usually leave with many more and very few answers.”
A regular visitor to the site is author Gordon Rutter, organizer of the Edinburgh Fortean Society. He recalls: “I first went to Rosslyn Chapel in the mid-1990s. I had heard it was an unfinished Templar church with mysterious carvings related to, well, pretty much everything. When we arrived it was an impressive sight and even more so when we went inside, the only visitors at that time. The number of sculptures was phenomenal and all beautifully done.
“Fast forward to 2003 and a book by Dan Brown popped up and interest in Rosslyn went through the roof – a very different experience to my first time when I had the place all to myself.” Between visits I had been to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, lured by the promise of reproductions of some of Rosslyn’s sculptures. The London copies are easier to see because the real ones are covered in a wash of cement as part of a misguided 1950s restoration attempt. “I have visited mystics, one of whom even claimed a ship was buried under the chapel. Do I believe the Dan Brown/Templar hype? No. “The engravings can all be explained conventionally, we don’t need to go with surviving secret societies after their documented end… So why do I keep going back? Pure beauty, pure and simple.
Visit Rosslyn Chapel here
Tickets for The Da Vinci Code at King’s are here