Posted in Churches and Chapels

Rosslyn Chapel

In the heart of Midlothian, Scotland, on a hill overlooking what is claimed to be one of the largest remaining areas of ancient woodland known as Roslin Glen, is a lovely little collegiate church referred to as Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel has suffered the effects of the Reformation and been the inspiration of many writers and painters.  It played a prominent part in the best-selling book by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code and went on to be featured in the movie inspired by said book. Filled with a delicious assortment of mysterious stonework and surrounded by a plethora of (sometimes inaccurate) history, the chapel houses over 500 years of inspiration and enlightenment. 

The interior of Rosslyn Chapel, looking toward the altar.
South Aisle of interior

A Worthy Endeavor

Construction on Rosslyn began in 1446. It was commissioned by William St. Clair, Earl of Orkney and Caithness, with the intentions that it would be used to offer prayers for his ancestors and descendants and provide a place of worship for generations to come. It was also to aid in the spread of intellectual and spiritual knowledge. Referring to Sir William’s idea for Rosslyn, Father Richard Hay, author of A Genealogie of the Saintclaires of Rosslyn said, “It came into his mind to build a house for God’s service, of most curious work, the which that it might be done with greater glory and splendor…”

When St. Clair died in 1484 construction on the chapel was halted. Sir William was buried under the unfinished choir section and the chapel was left as it was. Sir William’s son, Oliver, either didn’t want to spend the money, or lost interest in the chapel construction, for he simply put a roof over the choir section and that became what we now know as Rosslyn Chapel. The larger portion of the building that was planned was never finished.

A hundred years later the winds of Reformation would blow through Scotland wreaking havoc on Catholic chapels such as Rosslyn. Another Oliver St. Clair would be commanded to tear down the altars within the chapel as it was reputed as a “house and monument of idolatry.” After the altars were destroyed the chapel was left to ruin.

There are over 100 carvings of the Green Man at Rosslyn Chapel. Some claim the Green Man is pagan in origin as the sprouting vines that protrude from the figure’s mouth represent nature’s growth and fertility. Others claim this is a good representation of the Christian’s belief in the rebirth.

The Mystery and Symbolism of the Stonework

According to Father Hay, when Sir William St. Clair began the building of the Rosslyn, “he caused artificers to be brought from other regions and foreign kingdoms and caused daily to be abundance of all kinds of workmen present as masons, carpenters, smiths, barrowmen and quarriers…”

Rosslyn is filled with symbols cut into the stonework of the interior. The result of many artisans, most are of a Biblical nature (it is a church after all). However, not all the Biblical carvings are saintly, as there are several symbols of the devil, fallen angels, sin and death. There are other symbols that have no apparent Biblical reference, and some appear to refer to objects that were not even known to Scotland at the time of the construction. Some stonework and etchings refer to the St. Clair family, and others appear to be practically pagan in nature. 

The Knights Templar Connection

Although Rosslyn Chapel plays a role in Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code, some historians claim that there really are no connections with the Knights Templar to Rosslyn Chapel. The chapel was not built by the Knights Templar and although many of the men in the St. Clair family were known to be knights, they were not Templar Knights.  According to Rosslyn historian, Michael Turnbull, Templar Knights took a vow of poverty, chastity, and loyalty to their order. The St. Clair family knights were men of wealth, married and had children and were loyal to their king.

The St. Clair family had roots that grew deep in religious and royal loyalty. Several of Sir William’s ancestors were friends of Robert the Bruce. Two of his ancestors, brothers by the names of William and John were chosen to accompany Sir Robert Douglas to carry the heart of Bruce to Jerusalem. All three of these men were killed in one final service to their dead king.  (You can read more about that story here.)  Robert the Bruce was said to have been aided by the Knights Templar during the Battle of Bannockburn. Since the St. Clair family were closely associated with Bruce, some historians believe there has been some confusion pertaining to the St. Clair family and the Knights Templar.

Although the Knights Templar were disbanded over 100 years earlier, other researchers tend to believe that the four altars on the east wall of the Lady Chapel are a symbolic reference to the four final Templars who had been tried after the dissolution of the Knights Templar. They would be Jacques de Molay (Grand Master of the Order), Geoffrey de Charney (Grand Commander of Normandy), Geoffrey of Goneville (Grand Commander of Aquitaine, & Poitou), and Hugh Peraud (Grand Commander of the Isle de France). Just as one of the altars is elevated higher than the other three, could these altars represent the four Tempars, one (the Grand Master) ranked higher than the other three (Grand Commanders)? The details behind this connection are too in depth to go into here, therefore I will leave that to the reader to take on further research on the subject. (

Knight with dog
This knight etched into the stone floor slab could represent Sir Alexander Sutherland, father-in-law of William St Clair who founded Rosslyn Chapel.

The Freemason Connection

It is a common belief that with the abolishment of the Knights Templar came the birth of the Freemasons. In keeping with the Templar/Freemason connection there is one very intriguing story about the Rosslyn stonework which pertains to two intricately carved columns within the chapel. These are known as the Mason’s Pillar and the Apprentice Pillar. Legend says that while the master mason was away researching the design that had been requested for the pillar, his apprentice had a dream in which it was revealed to him what the design of the pillar should be. Upon the master’s return, he found that his apprentice had finished the beautiful carving of the pillar. In a fit of jealousy, the master flew into a rage and struck the apprentice over the head with a hammer, killing him.

Both men are forever commemorated within the walls of the chapel. One head carved into the stone with a gash on its forehead, looking across the way at another, the head of his master and killer.

This story closely resembles the murder of Hiram Abif, the master mason involved in the building of Solomon’s Temple. The Freemasons, who have ties with these ancient stonemasons view this event as symbolic and tie them to the construction of Rosslyn Chapel.

Left-Mason’s Pillar, Right-Apprentice Pillar

According to Freemason historian and scholar, Dr. Albert Mackie, Sir William St. Clair, the Earl of Orkney and Caithness was appointed the title of Patron and Protector of the Freemasons of Scotland in 1441 by King James II. This became a hereditary title that would be passed down through the St. Clair generations.  However, when King James VI failed to exercise his prerogative of nominating office-bearers, the Freemasons found themselves without a Protector. Therefore, the Freemasons themselves appointed William St. Clair of Roslin (too many Williamses! Lol) as their Protector around 1600. Then, in 1630, a second charter was granted, giving William’s son, Sir William St. Clair the same power his father had been given. He was given the title the first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. St. Clair assumed the administrative role and the office continued to be passed down for more than 100 years, until the final Saint Clair, recognizing he would have no heir, offered to let the office be appointed by election. (

Some of the imagery carved into Rosslyn is said to have hints of Masonic rites. However, in spite of the Freemasons’ claims on the founder of Rosslyn Chapel, the New World Encyclopedia claims that the earliest records of Freemasonic lodges date back only to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. ( Thus, we are left to wonder if the images we see carved in stone were pieces to a Masonic puzzle, or are people only seeing what they want to see?

The Heart of Inspiration

The setting of Rosslyn Chapel next to Roslin Glen, and the mere beauty of the intricate stonework, both inside and out, have cast Rosslyn Chapel into a rather romantic light. Its loveliness has been praised by author and painter alike, and many have found inspiration in its splendor.

Sir Walter Scott not only wrote a poem of Rosslyn called The Lay of the Last Minstrel, but he also drew inspiration for his Chapel of the Hermit Engaddi in The Talisman, from the beautiful stonework of Rosslyn Chapel.

Robert Burns, inspired by the reddish hues of the glowing sunrise hitting Rosslyn Chapel is said to have scratched the following poem, Epigram at Roslin Inn, onto a pewter plate at Roslin Inn afterward:

My blessings on ye, honest wife! I ne’er was here before; Ye’ve wealth o’ gear for spoon and knife- Heart could not wish for more. Heav’n keep you clear o’ sturt and strife, Till far ayont fourscore, And while I toddle on thro’ life, I’ll ne’er gae by your door!

Painter David Roberts sketched and painted several works pertaining to Rosslyn Chapel. His artistry capures the intricacies of the carved stonework that make Rosslyn so special. Below are two of his three oil paintings honoring the Chapel.

Royal Intervention

Queen Victoria visited Rosslyn Chapel in 1842. When she saw the unkept condition and  overgrown state of the chapel she expressed a desire to have the chapel reinstated to its former glory that it might be “preserved for the country.” Within 20 years the chapel had been restored and opened for worshipers, this time as an Episcopalian house of worship.

William the Cat (2017)-resident mouser. Locals claim he is the reincarnation of the original Sir William St Clair, come to watch over Rosslyn Chapel.

Posted in Historic Characters

The Heart of a King

Robert the Bruce-King of Scotland

Robert the Bruce (also known as Robert I) is one of the most celebrated and respected kings of Scottish history. Even to this day, 700 years later, monuments and statues are still being erected in his honor, books are still written about him, and movies are still being made.

Monument to Robert the Bruce~Stirling, Scotland / photo: Tonya U. Brown, 2017

A Little Back History

In the late thirteenth century, Scotland was plunged into a period of political turmoil. The seven-year-old heir to the Scottish throne, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, had died before her coronation, leaving the throne empty and thirteen men vying for the position.

However, the King of England, Edward I had other plans. He exerted a feudal superiority, treating Scotland like a vassal of England. Edward appointed John de Balliol to take the Scottish throne. John was heavily influenced by Edward, putting him out of favor with the Scottish nobility.

The nobles deposed John and set up a council to rule instead. This, of course, angered Edward and goaded him to invade Scotland, starting the Wars for Scottish Independence. When Scotland was defeated in 1296, John abdicated, leaving Scotland without a king once more.

Enter Robert the Bruce

Robert was one of the many men who claimed a right to the Scottish throne. He was known to have led supporters of the rebel, William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) during the Wars for Scottish Independence. However, he was also known to be in good graces with the English king from time to time as well. But any goodwill that might have been shown to him by Edward came to an end in 1306, when Robert killed the cousin of the appointed Scottish king, John.

1797 painting of Robert the Bruce by unknown artist~The Granger Collection, New York

Questionable Actions

When Robert’s loyalty to Edward was called into question, he went right to the traitorous source: the cousin of John de Balliol, John (“The Red”) Comyn. Adamant opposer to English Rule, and another rightful heir to the Scottish throne, Comyn may have tired of Robert’s vacillations between English rule and Scottish rights. He met with Robert at a church at Dumfries on February 10, 1306. An argument broke out when Robert confronted Comyn on his reports to King Edward about Robert’s possible betrayal.

Here is where history gets a little cloudy. Some say Robert met John Comyn with all intentions of killing him. Other historians think that an argument broke out, and in a fit of passion Bruce struck Comyn, taking him down. When he asked after Comyn’s wellbeing afterward, one of Bruce’s supporters decided to take it upon himself to make sure the job was done.

The difference in that time period is comparable to our current U.S. laws differentiating between murder and manslaughter.  Was it cold-blooded premeditated murder, or a hot-blooded lashing out that resulted in someone’s death?  Opinions vary and depending on which way you look at it could determine Robert’s popularity among the people, or lack thereof.

Either way, one thing remained: he had taken someone’s life within the walls of a holy sanctuary. This caused him to be excommunicated from the church and may have tormented Robert for the rest of his life.

Death of a Warrior

Many years later, the man who is most famous for breaking the English hold over Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn, died at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton.  His body was buried in the Dumfermline Abbey, but his sternum was cut open and his heart removed so that it might be buried elsewhere. Some historians say that it was Robert’s one unfulfilled wish to go on a crusade. For this reason, his heart was put into a metal casket and borne about the neck of his close friend, Sir James Douglas as he set off for a crusade to Jerusalem.  However, the crusade never came to fruition and instead Bruce’s men were sidetracked to Spain where Alfonso XI of Castile was instigating a campaign against the Moors of Granada. There, Douglas was killed, and Sir William Keith brought Robert’s heart back to Scotland. It was buried at Melrose Abbey, (a place repaired several times throughout Robert’s reign and with his funding),  according to his wishes.  

Other tradition holds that Bruce wanted his heart to be buried at Jerusalem. The reason for this wish could lead back to his excommunication from the church. Local tradition believes that Robert the Bruce wanted his heart buried in Jerusalem to atone for the sin of his murder of John Comyn at the Franciscan church 23 years earlier.

Whatever the reason, we know that his heart unfortunately did not make it to Jerusalem (unless you believe some conspiracy theories that hold that it was actually smuggled into Jerusalem hundreds of years later). However, what we do not know for sure is whether the small casket unearthed at Melrose Abbey in 1920, reburied, then unearthed again in 1996 are the actual remains of Robert the Bruce.

The heart was reburied again in 1998 and a marker has been set at the new burial place. For the most part people accept that it truly is Robert’s heart. Although it may have been Bruce’s wish to have his heart buried at Jerusalem, no one can deny that the rightful place for the heart of this beloved Scottish hero belongs in the soil of his hard-won land.

The heart of Robert the Bruce, buried at Melrose Abbey in Roxburghshire, Scotland / photo: Tonya U. Brown , 2017

The above inscription on the stone comes from a long, narrative poem by John Barbour called The Brus. It is a historic account of Robert the Bruce’s heroic deeds during the Scottish Wars for Independence. In Early Scots it reads: “A noble hart may have no ease, gif freedom failye” In English it is translated as: “A noble heart cannot be at peace if freedom is lacking”. Notice how the heart is entwined with the Saltire, the symbol used on the Scottish flag.

Here are a few more pictures I took at Melrose Abbey. You can click on the picture to open and expand for a bigger, better view. I hope you enjoy!

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