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Edinburgh’s Not-So Hidden Gem: Rosslyn Chapel

Updated: May 11, 2022

Sophie Hutton: Tour Research, Development and Admin Assistant

Rosslyn Chapel is situated in The Village of Roslin, Midlothian, located seven miles from Edinburgh Princes Street and accessible by the Lothian Bus Service 37 (£1.80 for a single ticket).

Construction of the chapel (officially titled St Matthews Collegiate Chapel) began in 1446 under the instruction of William St. Clair, the first Earl of Caithness. Construction was halted in 1484, following the death of St. Clair (in thirty eight years, only the choir had been constructed) altering St Clair’s vision of a cruciform shaped chapel. For £9.50 (it is recommended you book in advance) you are allocated a ninety minute time slot to view the chapel and grounds. Though Rosslyn Chapel stands modestly at twelve metres in height and twenty one metres in length, the enigmatic and eccentric nature of the structure justifies the influx of people who come here.

Rosslyn Chapel side view, at dusk.
Rosslyn Chapel. Source: Max Pixel

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, follows protagonists Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu in their efforts to locate the ‘holy grail’ and concludes in Rosslyn Chapel, ‘neath the rose’. The movie adaption (2006) starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, was filmed on location. Consequently, Rosslyn Chapel's annual viewership increased from forty thousand ticket sales to one hundred and seventy five thousand and it became the object of speculation as theorists linked the chapel to Freemasons and The Knights Templar, insinuating that several knights were buried under the chapel vaults. However, this theory has since been debunked!

Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks pose together as Sophie Neveu and Robert Langdon in a poster for The Da Vinci Code.
Audrey Tatou and Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code. Source: Flickr

The intricacy of the craftsmanship inside the Lady Chapel is simply exquisite. However, photography is not permitted inside the chapel (only the exterior) so I’ll discuss some of the must-sees to look for during your visit. You might have to look very hard!

An image of the apprentice pillar, lit from below.
The Apprentice Pillar. Source: Flickr

The Apprentice Pillar, located on the south east of the choir, is aesthetically appealing: coiled spirals encircle the pillar in the form of a double helix of DNA. The anecdote of the apprentice pillar follows Rosslyn’s master mason, who received instructions from his patron concerning the design of a pillar but was hesitant to begin construction until he had visited Rome for inspiration. Whilst the master mason was in Rome, an apprentice set about the work. When the master mason returned, he was so consumed with envy that he murdered the apprentice in a fit of rage, with a blow to the head.

The Dance of Death is a carving that depicts characters accompanied by skeletons. The skeletons pull the reluctant characters ‘out of the dance’ to meet their fate, a sombre reminder of death’s inevitable triumph over life.

There are over one hundred Green Man carvings inside the chapel. The Green Man is a pagan figure, often depicted with vines sprouting from his mouth to represent nature’s growth and fertility. Green Men are a paradox of the inherently Christian themes found elsewhere in the chapel which include the Birth of Christ, the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. An image of (what appears to be) maize or corn can be located in the south aisle. The presence of maize (a crop that originated in North America, which was considered to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492) is odd, given that Rosslyn Chapel was designed and constructed fifty years prior to Columbus allegedly discovering the New World.

If you still aren’t convinced to visit Rosslyn, the visitor centre offers touch-screen technology to guide you through the construction process of the chapel, a gift shop and a café overlooking the beautiful vista of Roslin Glen.

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