This weekend the Academic’s parents were visiting and – being as they are a sometimes exhausting combination of extremely cultured and extremely active – we were stretched to find things to do with them that would entertain. Perhaps the best trip by far was to Rosslyn Chapel, a small sixteenth-century church in the village of Roslin (don’t ask me the reason for the dissonant spelling, I never quite got to the bottom of it).
The chapel features pivotally in Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE and the subsequent Hollywood adaptationstarring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, and that wealth of sweet, sweet La La Land location money can be seen everywhere: in the shiny visitor centre that stands at its entrance, the multiple layers of interactive displays, and a level of protection much greater than you’d imagine for an attraction of this size.
On approaching the chapel – once you’ve got past the reception desk, the tea room, the gift shop and out into the walled-off courtyard in which it stands – you find it surprisingly small. It is, in fact, a minor part of what was planned to be a much larger cross-shaped cathedral: the chapel as we see today was merely supposed to be the eastern-most tip. Despite, perhaps because of, its size, the chapel is actually quite lovely: compact, well-proportioned and with a certain architectural panache you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a small church in this out of the way place. It is also – again, one imagines thanks to Hollywood’s location rights bounty – extremely well conserved.
It was not always so. Built in the fifteenth century by William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, even at its inception money for its construction was short. It then suffered under the Reformation (unoccupied plinths where saints once stood still line its walls) as well as at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in its suppression of Scotland in the 1650s. By the 1700s it had pretty much fallen into ruin.
It was then, at its lowest ebb, that the chapel came into its own. Windowless, overgrown, it became something of a pilgrimage site for the Romantics, including Robbie Burns, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Ruskin. Sir Walter Scottperhaps captured the feel of the place back then best in his poem Rosabelle, in which he wrote about the myth that the chapel appeared as though on fire whenever one of its family died.
Seem'd all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Roslin's chiefs uncoffin'd lie,
Each Baron, for a sable shroud,
Sheathed in his iron panoply...
One can imagine the optical trick Scott experienced. The stone from which the chapel is made swirls with fiery colours, reds, yellows, greens, blues that, when we looked on at it as the sun set, did seem a little as though it were ablaze.