Rosslyn Chapel

Famous in our generation for featuring in the film the Da Vinci Code, but famous for many other historical reasons in generations gone by. Rosslyn Chapel took over 40 years to complete, and its foundations dates back to the 15th century.


Clan Sinclair

Known both as Sinclair and St Clair, have french origins which prove very similar to the origins of other clans. William of St Clair (a place in ancient France) would take his family to England to fight for William the Conqueror in around 1060. William the Conqueror had invaded England and would become the King of England in 1066. Subsequently the family led by William, now known as William of St Clair, would set up home in the new Normandy England.

This would only last for a few years as they would be sent with Margaret (daughter of Edward) to Scotland were she would marry Malcolm II and become Queen. Margaret was the daughter of the English prince Edward the Exile– who had fled to Hungry as a child following the Danish occupation of England from 1015. Margaret was born there (in Hungry) but returned to England following their regaining of independence in 1045- with father Edward the Exile becoming a candidate for the crown. Today she is known as Saint Margaret of Scotland, following her marriage to Malcolm II in 1070. The St Clair family were rewarded for their efforts for the crown with lands in Roslin (Rosslyn), and later an unofficial barony of Roslin.

The clan of St Clair later spread to the Highlands and Islands where they would eventually settle in Orkney and become the Earls of Orkney under the Norwegian King Haakon VI (Norway partially owned Orkney at this point). The now Sinclair’s would take the peerage of the Earl of Caithness from the Stewart Clan, via William Sinclair- who would become the 1st earl in 1464. The new 1st earl had spent time as Lord Chancellor of Scotland and was a close associate of King James I. It was this William Sinclair that would build Rossyln Chapel, on the lands still owned by the clan in Midlothian.

The Sinclair Clan would maintain the close relations with the crown for the centuries to come, and were subsequently heavily involved in several Royal battles. During King James IV invasion of England in the early 16th century, the King would be supported by almost the entire Sinclair Clan at the Battle of Flooden in September 1513. The army of King James IV would be defeated in the subsequent battle, and the Sinclair’s in particular were devastated- losing several hundred fighters.

The Sinclair’s went on for the following centuries to enjoy mixed relations with the Jacobites. Long time supporters for long periods, participating in the uprisings of 1715 and in particular the Battle of Sheriffmuir, they would find themselves switching alliances for the key battle. The battle in question was the Battle of Culloden- were Sir James Sinclair, son of the then Lord Sinclair Henry, would act as commander of the Royal Scots regiment- loyal to the British crown. This would bring much shame to the Sinclair’s who considered themselves to be strongly Jacobite. Destroyed and shamed, little more would be heard from the Sinclair’s as the clan system was soon brought to an end.

In terms of the surname, the use of both St Clair and Sinclair has generally been an individual preference- with the majority favouring the much inherited Sinclair, though there was a few rebels that continued with the use of St Clair.


Commit thy work to God.

Clan Sinclair Motto


Rosslyn Chapel

The seat of the old Sinclair clan was long Roslin Castle, near the village of Roslin (around 8miles from Edinburgh). It was in 1444 that Sir William Sinclair, the 1st Earl of Caithness (and Baron of Roslin), began putting together the construction of a church near the castle (around 500 metres away), which he had originally named the Collegiate Church of St Matthew. However, Sir Williams was an great architecture enthusiast and was continuing to spent alot of time abroad, where he was a great admirer of European Renaissance and gothic architecture in particular. The earl was heavily involved in the building and design of the church, and began looking for much more than originally planned- soon he was claiming he was going to develop a “glorious and curious house for gods service”. And that he did.

The chapel is said have taken more than 40 years to complete, though there was a ten year gap from the time Sir William was awarded a charter from Rome, the holy authority required to build a collegiate chapel, in 1446 to when the series construction of the chapel got underway. This may have something to do with Sir William clearly pursuing other interests- serving as chancellor during this period.

Rosslyn Chapel is considered an architectural masterpiece. Sir William took a great liking to catholic cathedrals and athough he did not wish to create one himself, he would use the cathedrals as the basis in which he would build the chapel upon. Sir William was said to often show ambition to create a chapel even more spectacular than the best of cathedrals, subsequently what was eventually created was a unique blend of gothic church and italian influenced art.

As for the structure, Collegiate is a branch of Catholicism (though not catholic as such), thus there is catholic traditions present in the making of the chapel. The countless carvings are found largely within the most notable compound of the Lady Chapel- with the famous lower chapel (known as the crypt/vault). There is a second vault under the chapel, though this has been reserved for members of the sinclair family, including founder Sir William, alongwith some of the masons and leaders of the church over the years.

Though spectacular, the Chapel is widely considered to be an unfinished project. In 1484 Sir William Sinclair died and left the project to his son, also called William (who became 2nd earl, and was amongst the many Sinclair’s to perish at Flooden)). William Snr had previously been inspired to create the chapel due to his love of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals. St Clair had hoped that the finished chapel would be like one of these cathedrals, and although his son did some roofing work on the building, it was never completed. Tributes to the founder can be found in the chapel- most notably the letters “WLSFYCYZOGMiii1L” are carved into the wall of the interior of the chapel’s north hall entrance. It is an acronym that means ‘Williams Lord St Clair Fundit Yis College Ye Zeir Of God MCCCCL’. Its unclear what the last part means (MCCCCL), possibly a number of years.

The 1st earl was also a well known Freemason, and there are many freemasony references in the chapels artwork. This bringing about the long connection between the chapel and freemasonry. However the connection go little further in reality, and the Scottish Episcopal Church are the ones associated with it today- largely as they still actively worship here, and have been since the 1860s. .

Elsewhere, there is many other mystifying symbols, carvings and general artwork found all over the chapel. They all seem to have some sort of meaning or story- alot of different tradesman worked on the project over the years, and would have came from various cultures supporting various spiritual groups, and it seems they have left some of their traditions behind.

Rosslyn Carvings

(chapel interior photos courtesy of RosslynChapel and hecultheculturetrip)


The Green Man

Amongst the mystery is carvings of the Greenman. Known as a pagan God in the Roman era, he is of Celtic origin. Worshipped for various purposes over time, he is considered by the Romans to be a God of the Woods, and is associated with nature. As a Celtic God, the Greenman targets the trier. Old followers believed that the god would bring them the extra energy, to go the distance- when otherwise struggling. He comes at times of failure, or potential forthcoming failure, and pushes the individual to continue.

In other western cultures the greenman is making a return, and is to be considered the male equivalent of Mother Nature. Many have speculated and debated whether the lack of male equivalent in nature. to honour, has been responsible for a lack of respect for nature from males in particular. The figure of Mother Nature, they say, is influential in female cultures. The idea would be for the Greenman to become a connecting figure between the man and nature- Father Nature effectively. Its a thoughtful idea, but given its never developed by now- it most likely never will.

It was during the Roman era that the Greenman began its fame as a sculpture, appearing in both architecture and trees. Aswell as in chapels such as Rosslyn, the Greenman can often be found today carved into buildings and trees all over the world- usually in notable religious centres and forests. The name ‘greenhouse’, in gardening, is believed to have come from reference to the Greenman mythology.


Slayed Apprentice

One of the most famous tales of Rosslyn Chapel is that of the slayed apprentice. When the building was in construction, the master mason got a bit stuck on a particular pillar and decided to go to Rome for architectural inspiration. The master mason had worked on the design of the pillar for months, but had become frustrated at certain aspects of it. Heading for Rome, he leaves his apprentice in charge of affairs. The apprentice finds the masters original plan for the pillar- and reckons if he built it himself, that the grateful master would be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps looking for a promotion.

As the master mason keenly explores in Rome, taking in the glory of the inspired architecture, the apprentice is working around-the-clock back at the chapel on the intricate pillar. Several weeks later and the master mason returns from Rome, but to his shock the pillar has been built to his original design, and better too. After questioning a few workers on who dared undergo his masterpiece, in which he had just spend considerable time away in dedication to perfecting, he soon discovered that it was his very own apprentice that had dared to build the pillar in his absence. As the apprentice awaited his expected reward and gratitude, the master mason instead let rip in a rage of anger- he was furious tge opportunity for his planned price re resiestauncre had been taking from his grasp. The master mason lets rip in a fit of rage- striking and killing the apprentice, with a mallet.

The story itself is engraved into the history of Rosslyn Chapel, as that very pillar, now known as the Apprentice Pillar, still stands today. To further the legend of the apprentice, there is a carving on the wall of a young-looking lad with a cut on his eye, leading many to believe that this is the mason rebel.


The Rosslyn Motet

Many people who come to Rosslyn chapel will spend hours trying to figure out some of the stories behind the carvings. For one father and son, this took more than a few hours- around 27 years to be more exact. Thomas Mitchell, a 75-year-old ex army codebreaker, and his musician son, Stuart Mitchell, became fascinated by the unique geometry upon a visit in 1989. They subsequently began nearly three decades of work in trying to crack the code.

The father and son duo had a breakthrough in their lengthy pursuit of the sculptures secrets when they spotted what appeared to be a set of angels playing instruments. The angels were surrounded by more than 200 geometric cube carvings, and the duo would discover a breathtaking piece of mason genius. The patterns on the cubes correlated to whats known as Chladni Patterns. So this is a pattern sand and liquid makes when certain tones are played, though it must be on a flat surface. At certain frequencies, the sand will tend to form unique and intricate geometric patterns- very similar to the patterns formed by the cube carvings.

Father Thomas J Mitchell was the main man behind the Mitchell Masterpiece, however its all a bit questionable. For a start It doesn’t match any particular song (hence why it has its own name), despite Mitchell claiming it to be an old Celtic number. While the predominant supporting evidence is that there is an “Orchestra of Angels” in which the cubes surround.

It can all be very confusing, so in conclusion it effectively looks like the Mitchell father and son team have come to believe there is a choir of angels among the decorated walls- and their belting out an old Celtic classic. The music can be recovered by studying the symbols on the 200+ cubes, which they did for 27 years. They have now recreated the sound, and have called it The Rosslyn Motet.


William the Chapel Cat

The chapel is also a home-from-home for a local cat- William the Chapel Cat. Named after the chapel founder, Sir William, throughout the day the cat will often be seen around the chapel- including inside the chapel. Known as the guardian of the chapel, the black and white meower lives with the local Smith family, and has featured in a fictional book- William the Cat and the Rescue of Rosslyn Chapel, written by Helen Countess.

With witches widespread in nearby Edinburgh back in the 17th century, could it be that the cat is some sort of product of this witchcraft- the cats itself could well be a old Knight Templar, looking after the stolen memorabilia of Jesus. Or maybe the Slayed Apprentice has returned, looking to avenge his untimely demise. Questionable activities of William during the dark of the night have also raised suspicions he may have access to the secret chamber.

So the question might then be asked- is William the Chapel Cat the key to the Holy Grail?

William (photo courtesy of Rosslyn Chapel)

In Popular Culture

It was 2003 when a book, the Da Vinci Code, hit the shelves around the world. Written by Dan Brown, Rosslyn Chapel was one of the featuring locations of the story- with Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu (the characters) being led here, suspecting it as a potential hiding place for the supposed Holy Grail. Although the chapel received increased tourism following the release of the book, it wasn’t until the 2006 film adaption that Rosslyn Chapel was launched into international prominence. Many will come here seeking hidden secrets the Holy Grail, which is believed by most to be a cup used at the last supper (which may have special powers).

A secret sealed off vault inside of the chapel, which was used by the Templar’s around 800 years ago, has led much to the imagination. Various sources will claim it to be various different things. Most stories originate around these Knight Templar’s having Jesus memorabilia in their possession. Claims of what is inside the chamber can vary wildly. Some examples of potential finds suggested in the chamber include a fragment of the crucifixion cross, sacred scrolls, a simple gold bowl full, treasure, and even some say the head of Jesus (maybe in the bowl), aswell as the Holy Grail itself.

An iconic and popular place then, it is open all year round and today welcomes nearly 150,000 annual visitors. This is quite the feat, and a sign of the power of film, as the chapel was abandoned in the mid-17th century, and although it would undergo some repairs in the 1850s (courtesy of capital architect David Bryce), it would not be until the establishment of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust in 1995 that the chapel would be restored to its former glory. The trust would open the chapel to the public in 1997, with a visitor centre following in 2011 after a influx of tourism.


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