As The Da Vinci Code comes to Edinburgh King’s, will Rosslyn Chapel ever give up the mysterious secrets of its past
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The intricately carved chapel, one of Lothian's most thought-provoking and mysterious buildings was, they claim, built as an interstellar star gate.
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 tours to The King's, a scan of the history books suggests that while little green beings are surely figments of over excited imaginations, the chapel closely guards whatever secrets and mysteries it may house.
Even before Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, such intrigue brought 30,000 visitors a year to the Roslin landmark, enticed by tales of the medieval order of the Knights Templar and of the Holy Grail, which some believe was placed in a secret underground chamber, and of the Apprentice Pillar, which brings with it a murderous legend. Of course, none of these tales can be proved.
What we do know is that the family chapel was founded in 1446. With the building still unfinished when its founder, Sir William St Clair, died in 1484, his son, Sir Oliver St Clair, roofed the choir with its stone vault but did not complete his father’s original design. Following the Reformation, the chapel fell into disrepair.
In 1650, while attacking Rosslyn Castle, Cromwell’s troops even stabled their horses in there. After a period of Victorian repair and restoration, the chapel was rededicated in 1862 when weekly services resumed.In 1954 the stonework, in poor condition, was covered with a 'cementitious slurry' in an attempt to preserve it. A major conservation project was undertaken after a further report in 1995.
Following the publication of The Da Vinci Code novel in 2003, annual visitor numbers more that doubled while the release of the the movie in 2006 saw the annual visitor count hit 176,000, consequently, an award of £4.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland a year later came just in time to facilitate major conservation work and the development of a visitor centre.
Ian Gardner, Director Rosslyn Chapel Trust, explains, “The building was finished in 1484 and has attracted visitors ever since, so really it has been a popular destination for generations ever since, but when The Da Vinci Code came out it had a huge impact.”
The sudden influx of visitors and soaring interest in the site caught those working at the Chapel by surprise, he admits, “At the time, nobody knew Dan Brown had included the chapel in the book so no one knew that this increase was going to happen. That was a bit of a surprise for us, but one of the great things that happened was that all these visitors helped us, as a charity, look after the building and we hope it will now be here many more hundreds of years to come, still inspiring stories and intriguing people with its history.”
If the novel brought in more than 70,000 visitors a year, after Hollywood and Tim Hanks had descended on the chapel in 2006, creating much interest amongst locals and visitors alike, all keen to get a glimpse of the star, visitor numbers rocketed.
Ian continues, “What was nice was that Tom Hanks wrote afterwards that film locations don't often match expectations but Roslyn Chapel was all he could have hoped for. I think people often come hoping to find all sorts of things… we only show the Holy Grail to some people, not everyone," he jokes, adding, "The whole building is shrouded in mystery. Why it was built so ornately in the first place, for example. As a mystery, I don't want it to be solved. I would rather people wondered and puzzled and came to see it for themselves.
“Visitors, whether local or from the other side of the world, often come with questions... they usually go away with many more and very few answers.”
One regular visitor to the site is author Gordon Rutter, organiser of the Edinburgh Fortean Society.He recalls, “I first went to Rosslyn Chapel in the mid 1990s. I’d heard it was an unfinished Templar Church with mysterious carvings linked to, well pretty much everything. When we arrived it was an impressive sight and more so when we got inside, the only visitors at that time. The number of carvings was phenomenal and all beautifully done.
“Fast forward to 2003 and a book by Dan Brown appeared and interest in Rosslyn shot through the roof – a very different experience to my first time when I had the place to myself.“In between visits I had been to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, lured by the promise of reproductions of some of the Rosslyn carvings. The London copies are easier to see details on as the actual ones are covered in a cement wash as part of a misguided 1950’s restoration attempt.“I’ve visited with mystics, one of whom even claimed there was a ship buried under the chapel. Do I believe the Dan Brown/Templar hype? No.“The carvings can all be explained conventionally, we don’t need to go with secret societies surviving after their documented end… So why do I keep going back? The sheer beauty, pure and simple.”
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