Rosslyn Chapel is the senile great-grandfather of some of Edinburgh’s most infamous architectural monstrosities; its genes prickle within the Scott Monument, the National Portrait Gallery, and many of the Scottish Baronial high-bourgeois mansions churned out by the Victorians. Indeed, the uninformed visitor to Rosslyn may assume that it was built in the mid-nineteenth century. The Victorians took the architecturally freakish Rossyln Chapel to their hearts – delighted, no doubt, by how its overblown Gothicism affirmed many of their ideas about pre-Enlightened history – and a similar sentiment may explain the presence of so many American tourists at Rosslyn today. The chapel stinks verily of the Old World, you can bet your bottom dollar that there’s nothing like this back in Alabama, and one wonders why the tiny Rosslyn cannot be slipped on to a cargo boat and sailed away to Disneyland, where it would fit in rather nicely.
Rosslyn Chapel is in effect a medieval art gallery, which presents a unique anthology of fifteenth-century stone carvings. William St Clair, the first Earl of Caithness, founded the chapel in 1456, and whilst the structure was never completed, St Clair’s craftsmen spent over forty years on the decorations. To put their labours into perspective, there are 109 carvings of the Green Man displayed in and around the chapel (I spotted only five), but this figure does not particularly stand out amidst the angels and dancers and skeletons who jostle soundlessly for attention. One could spend the Christian eternity poking around these carvings, although one is oddly hindered in trying to access them. So many display boards process the visitor’s encounter with Rosslyn, that unless they ignore all of these obstructions, they may feel like they are reading a book about the chapel rather than experiencing it for real.
Despite the beauty and detail of the chapel’s interior, it is still rather awful, and one feels faintly guilty in enjoying something so tasteless. At best, William St Clair was the medieval equivalent of those people who celebrate Christmas by covering their houses in fairy lights and plastic Santas. At worst, he was a madman. One imagines St Clair obsessively pouring over the interior of his chapel, searching for the next nook or cranny where his longsuffering workmen could install yet another cavorting figurine. The whole structure is rather stupid and impractical: outside, visitors have to climb up on to a metal walkway to admire the detail under the guttering (one presumes that this art was originally intended only for the swallows); whilst inside the door is shut too hard at one’s peril, for fear that a stone cabbage may be dislodged from that exquisite ceiling, to come hurtling down upon the congregation of tourists.
Who knows what demented God was once worshipped in Rosslyn Chapel, but the building is today the very magnetic North of silliness. Some think that the Holy Grail itself has been squirreled away into the structure of Rosslyn. Others have concluded that the mummified head of Christ is squinting somewhere down in the foundations. I would give anything to discover Christ’s preserved head, and it would feature very prominently in the subsequent atheist football match in Roslin Glen. It has been claimed that Rosslyn contains the original crown jewels of Scotland, and that its famous Apprentice Pillar reveals the structure of D.N.A. Some have contended that the image of sweetcorn is carved above a window in Rosslyn and, hence, that the St Clair family must have discovered America, in order to introduce sweetcorn to Scotland by the time of the chapel’s construction.
All of these yarns are variations upon the theme of secret knowledge, and they suggest that firstly the Knights Templars and that secondly the Freemasons (there is actually no established connection between the two) have revealed all of their secrets within the chapel’s stonemasonry. Rosslyn has often been termed a “Bible in stone,” which one takes to mean that it is a lot of nonsense which can be interpreted to justify all sorts of outlandish ideas.