Sarah Coles


2023 Late April in Edinburgh

67 bus stop at North Bridge, then nearly an hour on the 67 to Pencuik. winding through  suburbs with the prim little houses (based on crofts?), warehouses and shopping centres of south Edinburgh, and sometimes glimpsing the Pentland Hills.  Thank heavens builders don’t put houses on hills unless they have to, they want it flat, leaving jagged country gloriously free.   A few fields and then – sorry Scotland – a typical mean Scotch village, Rosslyn.  The driver calls, and several of us get out.

A fancy visitors centre, crowded, lies at the end of a lane.  £7.50 to go in.   So amazed as I enter the chapel that other visitors do not matter.  I gawp.  Like entering a massive cave festooned with stalactites, and the barrel roof studded with stars and roses, lilies and leaves.  What piece of stone have they not carved into lace, angels, mottos, roses, you name it?  Lucifer trussed in ropes as he falls.  Green men galore.  (Later, I watch the origin (supposed?) of the green man myth – Seth, son of Adam, placed seeds inside Adam’s mouth on burying him, and in due course out sprang leafy  shoots, making the green Adam symbol of nature’s eternal renewal).  An angel plays bagpipes.  Emblems of the Knights Templar and freemasons.  Here are the seven Virtues, and nestling among them Greed.  Greed?  A mistake surely.   It should be with the deadly sins on the other side!  Or, a reminder that greed is also practised by the virtuous?  (Thinking of wealthy X, charming, kind, helpful, empathetic and more, but never disgorging a penny to needy offspring …)

No photos allowed, so the interior pix here are from the guide book, and actually, everywhere is so photogenic that otherwise the place would be crammed with cameras.

This chapel like a wedding cake turned inside out was founded in 1446 by William St Clair, last St Clair Prince of Orkney.  Was he was descended from knight templars,  crusaders and freemasons, and did they retrieve the Holy Grail from Jerusalem, and bring it here to worship, hiding it beneath these stones?  Impossible.  The place is swathed in legends.  The Holy Grail, the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper – or did it hold his Sang Real, Royal Blood, collected at the crucifixion?  The holy grail, an impossible goal or sacred vision.  What a name, St Clair, holy light.  Anyway, this St Clair built the chapel, and on his death it stayed, neglected, as part of the St Clair estate.  On the stones is an engrailed cross, emblem of the St Clairs, earls of Rosslyn, a cross indented with little curves.  Engrailed, lovely word.

So – A decent square pillar, carved by a master mason, who went on pilgrimage to Rome and came back to find a circular pillar nearby, resting on dragons and the roots of the exquisite foliage spiralling round it.  This had been carved by his apprentice in his absence.  (Maybe roots and dragons come from Norse legends of Yggdrasil, the world ash tree?).  Filled with envy and enraged by its beauty, he slew the apprentice on the spot.  Up on the roof we can see bosses of the apprentice with a gash on his temple, his grieving mother and the killer mason, who was hanged.

An architrave of Lombardic characters  reading Forte est vinu, Fortior est rex, Fortiores est mulieres, sup om vincit Mulieres.  (Wine is strong, the king is stronger, women are still stronger, but truth is strongest of all.)  Strange.

The place became damp wet and rotting, and Dorothy Wordsworth saw it with the ceiling green with mildew.  When Queen Victoria visited she insisted it be restored for worship, and so it was.  It was still in a bad way when Dan Brown wrote his Da Vinci Code, but this runaway best seller featuring the chapel has ensured a daily flock of visitors.  According to Brian, one of the two guides, it’s the best thing that happened, bringing in cash for chapel maintenance.

Outside, more green men and a mass of gargoyles..

After soup and a scone, I wander off to find Rosslyn castle.  The woods are filled with what look like white bluebells, beautiful but wider bells, yet I can find no mention in my flower book.  A wood of white bluebells!  Has anyone seen one before?  Can’t proceed far, because the bridge to the castle is blocked by massive building works and KEEP OUTs.  So back on the bus to Edinburgh, happy, with a single white bluebell.


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