We spent last week enjoying some ‘R&R’ at Rosslyn Castle, just outside Edinburgh. This is a Landmark Trust property, and regular readers of this blog will know that I/we are big fans of Landmarks, having notched up fifteen of them to date; indeed, I’ll be off to another one in just a few weeks time, to brainstorm the plot of ‘Quinton 7’ and some exciting new fiction ideas. But Rosslyn Castle is a bit unusual for the Landmark Trust in that they don’t actually own the property. Instead, they manage it on behalf of its owner, the seventh Earl of Rosslyn, who still retains it as a family home – hence the fact that family photos and memorabilia adorn the castle’s splendid (if rather chilly) rooms. These bear witness to the long-standing connections between the St Clair-Erskines of Rosslyn on the one hand and the British royal family on the other. The current Earl’s grandmother, a glamorous Australian described in one of the castle’s artworks as ‘impossible Sheila’, and who eventually ended up married to a Russian prince, was friendly with both the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI. Moreover, the seventh Earl, a career policeman,* was until recently the head of the Royal Protection Squad, and was allegedly ‘the Queen’s favourite policeman’. He’s since taken up a new post as head of the Prince of Wales’ household – an organisation supposedly so full of politicking and back-stabbing that it was recently described as a modern ‘Wolf Hall’, so the appointment might be regarded as something of a poisoned chalice.
But then, if anybody ought to know how to deal with a dodgy chalice, it should be a St Clair of Rosslyn. This, after all, is a family that can prove descent from Rognvald the Viking, that went on crusade (taking the heart of King Robert the Bruce along on one occasion), that might or might not have discovered America (of which more anon), and which once possessed royal status themselves, as Princes of Orkney. And, of course, if you believe Dan Brown and any number of the esoteric ‘non-fiction’ tomes about the Holy Grail, the history of Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, this was the family that might have brought the Grail itself, and/or the Ark of the Covenant, and/or the Holy Lance, back to Scotland from the Holy Land, and hid it/them within the astonishing chapel they had built just up the hill from their castle. I’d been to Rosslyn Chapel before, some fifteen years ago, when the whole place was concealed beneath an ugly protective metal structure and the interior was literally green from many years of neglect and rampant damp. It was great to see it in its full glory both externally and internally – or at least, as much of the full glory as hadn’t been destroyed by Cromwell’s men, catastrophically inappropriate 1950s ‘restoration’ techniques, and the various other travails that have beset the chapel over the centuries. It was also good to have missed the height of the chapel’s Da Vinci Code phase, when it was being invaded by four or five times the normal number of visitors per annum, at least a few of whom were taking it all far too seriously – including the one who turned up with an axe, intent on smashing open the famous ‘Apprentice Pillar’ in the belief that this (all too obviously load-bearing) structure was hollow and was actually the hiding place of the Holy Grail.
In fact, there’s more than enough mystery at Rosslyn without entering into Dan Brown / Indiana Jones crossover territory and conspiracy theories centred on some of the stranger aspects of Scottish, Masonic and western religious history. (Not that I’m entirely disparaging of any of the latter, given some of the frankly astonishing evidence and connections I came across while writing Blood of Kings.) Why, for example, does this chapel, built in the mid-fifteenth century, perhaps contain both Templar symbolism, when the Templars had been proscribed over a century before, and what might be carvings of maize, made some forty years before Columbus sailed? Legend has it that Henry St Clair, Earl of Orkney, sailed to north America at the end of the fourteenth century and made contact with the Mi’kmaq people. While, for a Welshman, any such tale inevitably sounds suspiciously similar to the story of Prince Madoc’s ‘voyage’, the number of discoveries of pre-Columbian relics in north America probably suggests that such legends shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed out of hand, either.
It’s easy to see why the crazy symbolism present throughout Rosslyn Chapel gives rise to such stories: when you have portrayals in stone of angels with bagpipes and over a hundred ‘green men’, pretty much anything goes. But to give credit to those currently responsible for the chapel, they make very certain that the building’s true purpose doesn’t get entirely subsumed beneath all the myth. Every day at twelve, visitors are invited to stop, sit, and join in a brief service of prayers. It’s both revealing and sad that, the first time we visited during our recent trip, most of those in the chapel chose to sidle out, somewhat embarrassed, rather than listen to the words for which the entire edifice was built. After all, how dare these nasty believers in some sort of mythical spirituality disturb tourists who’ve paid quite hefty admission fees and are intent on seeing the crypt where Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou uncovered the, umm, fictional truth about, umm, pretty much that exact same mythical spirituality? But that is Rosslyn’s mystery in a nutshell: it’s truly a place where the worlds of history, spirituality, myth and fiction collide, presenting us with the question of where each of those worlds begins, and where it ends.
Finally – ‘the throne of doom’? Well, all Landmark Trust properties have log books, in which each party of visitors can record their experiences or pass on advice to their successors. At Rosslyn Castle, the consistently Arctic downstairs loo has been christened ‘the throne of doom’, and thoroughly deserves the moniker. Trust me – if you ever want first hand experience of what it was like to be in a castle garderobe in winter in the Middle Ages, this is the place to get it.
(* There’s a reasonably substantial tradition of aristocrats serving in the police: the ninth Earl Nelson, descendant of the admiral’s brother, also served with the ‘boys in blue’, as have a number of others over the years. So the fictional Earl of Asherton, who’s the hero of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries in print and on TV, isn’t too far removed from the truth.)