During Crimbo-Limbo (that frivolous term referring to those ‘what shall we do?’ days between Christmas and New Year), we took a short run out of the city to visit Rosslyn Chapel. Formally known as the Chapel of St Matthew, it dates from the 15th-century and is located in the village of Roslin (yes, two different spellings) in Midlothian, about half an hour’s drive from Edinburgh. Despite being a long-term resident of Edinburgh, A. had never been before; put off by the 14 years the chapel spent under a steel canopy protecting it from the elements during major refurbishment. Over the years the chapel had become ruined and overgrown, and more jackdaws than people sought refuge there. It had become as sodden as soldiers’ boots in the Ypres trenches and the ornate stonework was crumbling like buttery Scottish shortbread. So, in the mid-1990’s, a long-term project was embarked upon to save it from certain and literal dissolution. The two things the building seemed to suck up most effectively were water and money. While the scaffolding was still up, and the outside of the chapel totally obscured, visitors still trickled in – around 30,000 each year. Then, in 2003, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (Dan Brown) was published, featuring the spectacle of Rosslyn and annual visitor numbers shot up to 170,000, the phenomenon fortuitously swelling its restoration fund.
It is stunning: as grandiose as a cathedral, but on a much-reduced scale. From the outside it is supported by flying buttresses, an array of gargoyle carvings – some looking blood-thirsty, others more benign – and gothic spires. I’ve learned that the term ‘gothic’ in architecture originated as a pejorative description, as a style synonymous with everything that was barbarous and rude. Whilst the inside of Rosslyn is breath taking, I can understand this interpretation, for Rosslyn Chapel could easily be seen as excessive madness, someone’s vanity project (in this case William Sinclair, the 1st Earl of Caithness) run riot. The craftsmanship and beauty – every square inch of wall and ceiling inside is covered with fantastic, varied, dizzying stone carvings – makes some of the stories associated with it quite believable. The chapel stands on fourteen intricately carved pillars and the most ornate of these is called ‘The Apprentice Pillar’. According to legend, the master stonemason was away on his travels and upon his return found that his apprentice had fashioned a more elaborate and exquisite pillar than he could imagine, not least accomplish. He flew into a jealous rage and did his apprentice in with a club hammer. And all for the glory of God!
Since visiting Rosslyn Chapel, I have come across another less famous spiritual aspect to the village. It is a community that one Father Roland Walls established there in 1965 when he bought the old miner’s institute in the village – a wooden-framed building clad with corrugated iron sheeting (the parallel with the chapel under refurbishment made me smile). Walls established an ecumenical movement known as the ‘Community of the Transfiguration’. It was a simple retreat centre, hermitage, place of prayer; somewhere to go for spiritual counsel, for vocational direction or to simply cry about the state of one’s life. They shunned all trappings of grandeur and comfort, for the first 35 years the community had no phone or television and Walls’ monastic habit was said to have be made from a grey ex-army blanket. Each member the community (I think they started with three and it grew to five – a life of hardship is not for the faint hearted) had a small garden hut at the back of the house with a bed, a desk and a stool where they could study, pray and sleep. Their chapel was two garden sheds fixed end-to-end. Passers-by, religious or otherwise, were said to have been welcomed to their plain wooden kitchen table for a simple meal, everyone treated the same. Walls died in 2011 at the age of 93. It was a rule in their community never to seek publicity, or join causes or campaigns. And there they were, all that time, living next door to Rosslyn Chapel. It’s a funny old world.