"Why Roslin?” my 10-year-old, high on Harry Potter fervour after the Edinburgh Potter trail, asks me. Surrounded by the elegant Georgian buildings in New Town, I have my answer ready. “To find more magic!”
That’s all any Potterhead needs to hear.
The next morning, we set out for Roslin, about 11km south of Edinburgh. A 50-minute bus ride deposits us in the tiny village, near the north-west bank of the Lothian Esk river, that is home to barely 2,000 people. In recent times, two things have put the village on the world map: The Roslin Institute, where Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep, was created in 1997; and the mysterious, 15th century late- Gothic Rosslyn Chapel, which featured at the centre of a conspiracy theory in Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller, The Da Vinci Code.
The village has been celebrated, in fact, for centuries, attracting visitors like Sir Walter Scott, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner, William Drummond, Lord Byron and Robert Burns, the national poet of Scotland.
The name Roslin is said to derive from the Celtic words ross, a rocky projection, and lynn, a waterfall, both emblematic of the scenic surrounds. The chapel’s long association with the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order, and the Grail legend means there are many takers for the theory that the name is a corruption of Roseline, a medieval meridian supposedly passing through Paris and Rosslyn Chapel. Experts, however, diss the idea.
It’s a cold day and there’s no way we can disregard the aroma of coffee and freshly- baked bread as we walk towards the glen. A tearoom beckons, a picture of Dolly the Sheep inviting us in. Dolly’s Tea Room is chock-a-block with locals and tourists. Dolly (or, shall we say, her spirit, since she passed on in 2003) is everywhere—her myriad expressions beam down at us from the walls; the cups and plates are stamped with her likeness.
The tearoom is part of the Chapel Cross Guesthouse, also home to proprietors Richard and Amy and their daughters. “We opened in 2012 to bring this unused beautiful building back to life and along the way we have become a pit stop for village residents and tourists,” says Dorothy, one of the daughters.
The verdant green glen that’s the backdrop to the elaborately carved chapel is calling us. It is believed that Henry I Sinclair, earl of Orkney and lord of Roslin, enclosed land at Roslin for fallow and deer in 1400. In 1456, his son William St Clair (later Sinclair), a Knights Templar grand master, started building Rosslyn Chapel. He had big plans for the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew, aiming to make it the centre of an educational institution. A descendant of Norman knights who moved to Scotland when they fell out with William the Conqueror in the 11th century, his extensive travels ensured a strong French influence on the design, the guide taking us around the chapel tells us.
Sir William’s attention to detail was legendary. He reportedly considered hundreds of images modelled in wood for each carving; only then would he allow masons to carve in stone, says the guide. Rosslyn Chapel, 21m in length and up to 13m tall, is an exceptional piece of craftsmanship, with rich figurative sculptures that have earned it an unusual nickname: “a Bible in stone”.
Sir William’s original intent was to build a cruciform church, a tower looming at the centre. But only the choir and a section of the transepts, along with a retro-chapel, also known as the Lady Chapel, had been built till his death in 1484. His son stopped construction, converting the building into a smaller chapel. The vestry built on to the facade nearly 400 years later is the only subsequent addition.
Still, Rosslyn Chapel looms large over the village. It stands on 14 pillars that form an arcade of 12 pointed arches on three sides of the nave. The three pillars at the east end of the chapel are named the Master Pillar, the Journeyman Pillar and—the most famous—the Apprentice Pillar.
According to folklore, the master apprentice was away on a long journey, purportedly to view a model for his pillar, and on his return found that his apprentice had carved the pillar—and done a mighty fine job at that! Enraged, he picked up his mallet and killed the apprentice.
We look at the thick column of stone, profusely decorated with vines that snake up in a helix pattern. The top of the pillar showcases a variety of plant life; the bottom is home to eight small dragons. The pillar seems to represent the mythical Tree of Life, said to sustain all forms of life.
Carved faces are set in stone nearby— the angry master, the upstart apprentice, the desolate mother. Interestingly, the master’s face is placed so that he looks on the Apprentice Pillar for eternity—his punishment for the murder. The architrave joining the pillar bears the inscription Forte est vinum fortior est rex fortiores sunt mulieres super omnia vincit veritas (wine is strong, a king is stronger, women are stronger still, but truth conquers all).
A game intended to keep children busy and quiet inside the chapel turns into a treasure hunt. We look for a knight on horseback, an angel playing a bagpipe, an upside-down bound fallen angel, Lucifer, and the Star of Bethlehem and the Nativity. Around us, pagan fertility gods, biblical reliefs, gargoyles, canopies and supposed Masonic imagery abound.
Symbols of nature can be spotted easily—native and exotic flowers and plants, including aloe vera, curly kale, oak leaves and ferns. A carving of maize begs the question: Did Scottish knights find the continent first? For maize originates in North America, which was discovered by Columbus in 1492, decades after the chapel was built.
Each section of the ceiling features a different motif: stars, lilies, roses, simple flowers, daisies. The carvings include the dance of death, the seven virtues and the seven deadly sins. The chapel, closed to the public after the Scottish Reformation in 1560, reopened in accordance with Protestant rites of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1861.
My daughter enjoys counting the green men, said to be pagan symbols, foliage sprouting amply from their mouths. There are said to be 100 of these, representing nature’s growth and fertility.
In 1803, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, who were visiting Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most prolific writers, lost their heart to Rosslyn Chapel. In her recollections, she wrote: “The architecture within is exquisitely beautiful. The stone both of the roof and walls is sculptured with leaves and flowers, so delicately wrought that I could have admired them for hours, and the whole of their groundwork is stained by time with the softest colours...” Her brother, meanwhile, went on to pen a poem, Composed In Roslin Chapel During A Storm.
Sir Walter did his bit, taking one of the chapel’s legends and including it in his book, The Lay Of The Last Minstrel. But it was The Talisman, his novel about a Knight Templar, in which he used the interior of Rosslyn Chapel as inspiration for his chapel of the Hermit of Engaddi, that popularised the chapel.
Over the years, however, the structure slid into a state of disrepair. After the release of The Da Vinci Code, things changed. In 2019, more than 180,000 paying visitors made their way there.
After picking up a few souvenirs at the gift shop, including Scottish honey and Prince of Orkney gin, we head towards Rosslyn Castle, the ancestral home of the St Clair family. The earliest surviving section comprises a ruined tower said to have been built after the Battle of Rosslyn in 1303, in which the Scots won three battles against different English forces on the same day. A cairn, Scottish for a heap of stones, erected by the Roslin Heritage Society marks the site of the battle.
Now most of the castle, a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is dilapidated, save a part of the east wing, often rented out as holiday accommodation. All around, the landscape is green. The picturesque Roslin Glen, the largest surviving stretch of ancient woodland in Midlothian, is a haven for wildlife and is dotted with numerous walks and places of interest, including Hawthornden Castle and Wallace’s Cave.
We retire eventually to Ye Olde Original Rosslyn Inn, a family-run business that has hosted “well-kent folk” since 1837. Conversation veers to The Roslin Institute, which cloned two other sheep, Polly and Molly, a year after Dolly. But Roslin folk also hark back often to UFO sightings over Midlothian. The bartender, Nick, tells me I must head to Bonnybridge, a small town that reports nearly 300 UFO sightings every year and has been nicknamed the UFO capital of Scotland.
I, however, prefer to pause in the present in Roslin, where religion and science coalesce.
Most people take the bus or drive from Edinburgh. Take any of the three buses: Lothian Bus 37/N37 from Princes Street; Lothian Bus 140 (from Musselburgh); or Midlothian Explorer. A day ticket costs £4.50 (around ₹450) for an adult; £2.20 for a child. To drive from the Edinburgh city centre, follow signs to the Newington or Liberton areas, then continue along the A701, towards Penicuik. A taxi from Edinburgh will set you back about £50 one way.
WHAT TO SEE
Rosslyn Chapel (tickets, £9.50 for an adult; children, free with an adult ticket), Rosslyn Castle, Roslin Glen, Roslin War Memorial.
WHERE TO STAY
The Original Rosslyn Inn (£150-190 per night, double), The Laird & Dog Inn (£150 per night, double), Chapel Cross Guest House (£50 per night, single).
Teja Lele is an editor and writes on travel and lifestyle.