Rosslyn Chapel unveiled after 16 years of work

Rosslyn Chapel in all its glory. Picture: Greg Macvean

Rosslyn Chapel in all its glory. Picture: Greg Macvean

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Landmark revealed in all its glory for the first time since conservation work began back in 1997.

The results of landmark conservation work at Rosslyn Chapel have finally been unveiled – with the legendary religious monument scaffold-free and visible in all its glory for the first time since 1997.

Although fans of Dan Brown’s international bestseller may be disappointed, there was no sign of the Holy Grail uncovered during the 
£9.3 million project. Experts said visitors now had access to a wealth of architectural and historical treasures after a series of “transformative” finds.

Exquisite stonework depicting plants and animals, secret devotional carvings worked into hidden corners and centuries-old bee hives built into the chapel’s distinctive pinnacles were among ground-breaking discoveries made during long years of painstaking work aimed at preserving the fragile building for future generations.

Ian Gardner, director of Rosslyn Chapel Trust, which cares for the building on behalf of the Earl of Rosslyn, says: “So many people will have an image in their heads of the Rosslyn Chapel completely covered in scaffolding. For most, I think the 
reaction will be simple amazement that a building dating back to the 15th century is looking so good.

“For the first time since 1997, visitors can now enjoy a clear and uninterrupted view of the exterior of the building, which, like the rest of the chapel, is rich in carvings and ­details.”

But experts behind the daring and radical conservation project – which came to an end today after the last piece of scaffolding was taken away – said it could all have been very ­different.

In 1995, an examination of the chapel, which is located on a hill above Midlothian’s Roslin Glen, ­revealed it was being eaten away by damp and decay.

Conservation specialists said the damage which had built up was so extensive that parts of the structure, including the roof’s magnificent crowning pinnacles, were literally rocking in the wind, leaving the monument perilously close to suffering irreversible damage which could have shut it – and the mysteries contained within its walls – for good.

It was a desperate state of affairs for one of the world’s most significant religious buildings – dedicated in 1450 by William St Clair as the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew and reputed to be a resting place for, among other things, the Holy Grail and Robert the Bruce’s heart.

A multi-million-pound rescue bid swung into action with a free-standing steel structure erected to cover the building and allow the stone roof to dry out naturally.

Since then, stone and mortar ­repairs to the Chapel’s external walls have been carried out, the roof made watertight, the stained glass windows preserved and a new sustainable heating system installed.

Restoration of the chapel organ, a revamp of the internal lighting and the opening of a new visitor centre are among the other improvements delivered to ensure the building lasts another 600 years.

Conservation leaders and stonemasons say their satisfaction and pride was based as much on discoveries made during the work, as on the project’s success.

Nicolas Boyes, founder and ­director of Edinburgh-based Nicolas Boyes Stone Conservation, whose 18-strong team led much of the work on the chapel, says one find would rank among the most memorable of his career.

“We were removing metal fixings found within the roof pinnacles and replacing them with stainless steel,” he recalls. “The first pinnacle we took apart to rebuild was leaning to one side and had lost mortar from its construction joints.

“To our amazement, we discovered an internal space carved inside the pinnacle designed specifically to ­accommodate bees.

“In the 15th century, bee-keeping was godly and even now, lots of monasteries keep bees. After we built that pinnacle back up, we did the same with every other pinnacle and every single one had been offered to the collection of bees.

“And amazingly, once we completed the work, the bees gradually began to return. It was a spine-tingling ­moment.”

For Nicolas, the experience – one of many discoveries made during improvement work at Rosslyn – confirms the chapel’s mysteries are far from being explained.

“We don’t get involved in the Holy Grail speculation or anything like that. But as part of our work, we’ve encountered codes left by the original carvers. Some are easy to read but some are still a mystery.

“We’ve applied treatments to every square centimetre of the outside of the building, strengthened decaying stone work, removed environmental pollution using lasers – but there’s still so much to learn.”

As the monument gears up to welcome hordes of tourists ready to pile through its restored entrance, leaders of the funding and heritage bodies which helped finance conservation work have lined up to hail the project’s success.

Colin McLean, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, says there is no doubt the chapel will continue to captivate visitors from all over the world.

“The craftsmanship of its stonework is as fascinating as the mysteries its designs hold.

“We are delighted to have been able to support the meticulous conservation of its medieval fabric so that visitors can continue to be impressed and inspired by this 
remarkable piece of Scotland’s 
heritage.”

Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, was set to attend the unveiling today.

“Rosslyn Chapel is utterly unique and is of international significance in terms of both its architecture and cultural heritage,” she says.

“I am delighted that Historic Scotland has been able to contribute £1.6m towards this worthwhile project which has safeguarded the future of Rosslyn Chapel. The conservation work carried out on the structure over the past two decades has been extensive and painstaking.

“It is to the credit of everyone involved that the finished project – complete with an impressive new visitor centre – has not only conserved Rosslyn Chapel for future generations to enjoy, but allows us to see it in a whole new 
light.”

550 years of weathering Scots climate

THE Rosslyn Chapel restoration project comes after 550 years during which the grade A listed building has taken a beating from everything the Scottish climate could throw at it.

But thanks to the injection of £9.3 million by Rosslyn Chapel Trust and supporters, including the National Lottery, Historic Scotland and WREN, the monument’s future as a world-leading heritage attraction looks far more secure.

For the first time since it was founded by Sir William St Clair in 1446, it has a metal roof that keeps the weather out. And for the first time in half a millennium, there is no daily damage being done to the intricate stone carvings by chronic leaks. Work to reverse the damage began 16 years ago when a steel canopy was erected over the roof to prevent further rain damage and allow the structure to dry out properly.

In June 2009, Nicolas Boyes and his team joined the project to mastermind the restoration and tackle extensive structural problems which fell under three categories – defects, damage and decay.

It is the biggest conservation project of its kind in Scotland and has been carried out while the chapel has continued to be used for services every Sunday. And the chapel has also remained open to visitors – 1000 a day during summer.