Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Where the Angels Play Bagpipes

Scotland is a magical wee country.  I don’t even mind the greyness and the drizzle, because it’s just so damn beautiful in any weather.  And I think I could quite happily live in Edinburgh — it’s not a big place (half a million or so), but it has a lot to offer, it’s very beautiful, and that gorgeous (wet) Scottish countryside is just a short trip away.  Moreover, I can happily listen to cute Scottish boys talk all day, I love the accent so much.

I’ve had a couple of days here to wander around, within the city itself and beyond.  Edinburgh Castle, of course, which I love — it has such a palpable sense of history, and the pedigree to boot (the oldest part of the Castle, glowering up there on its rocky perch, dates back to the 12th century).  Yesterday I had a wander in the countryside up to Pitlochry in the company of my ex-boyfriend-turned-friend (and chauffeur for the day); there’s a delightful pub which brews its own ales (the Ale of Atholl was delicious) and a cute wee loch nearby (Loch Faskally, about 1/1,000,000th the size of Lake Ontario — they don’t do big lakes here, but they certainly do lovely ones).

Today I caught a Lothian bus (for the princely sum of ₤1.10) out to the village of Roslin, home of the famous Rosslyn chapel.  The bus leaves from Princes Street in downtown Edinburgh and lets you off about 45 minutes later in front of the Roslin pub, from which you have a wee walk down the hill into the Glen of Roslin and to the site of the chapel.

The chapel is lovely and historic in its own right, dating back to 1446, and managed a few thousand visitors a year up to a few years ago.  Numbers exploded, however, when the Da Vinci Code was published, and in 2006 nearly 180,000 people trooped through the Chapel.

So I have to puncture the illusions of any Da Vinci Code conspiracy theorists out there first.  Roslin (Rosslyn) does not translate as “Rose Line”; it’s from the Gaelic meaning “rock pool”.  There’s no mysterious Egyptian symbols in the chapel, no Star of David (Hollywood filmmakers glued one up — without permission — for the making of the movie, which left a scar on the ancient stone), no boxes of ancient documents in the crypt itself, no Rose Line, no evidence of any Holy Grail whatsoever; Dan Brown never actually visited Rosslyn and made up those details. 

There are legends a-plenty, as the burial chamber under the church has been sealed for 300 years:  as well as the Holy Grail, many things from the Ark of the Covenant, to the mummified head of Jesus himself, to a piece of the “true Cross”, to Veronica’s veil, to more of the Dead Sea Scrolls have been rumoured to lie beneath.  But the family that still owns Rosslyn won`t permit the chamber to be opened:  of course, this only adds fuel to the legend’s fire.

But Hollywood nonsense and other speculation aside, the Chapel is breathtaking.  It was built over a span of about 40 years, but is still only a fraction of the much larger church that was originally planned by the then-Baron of Roslin.  Work stopped in 1484 when he died so the rest was never built, but what is there is still extraordinary.  The Chapel and the surrounding land are still own by his descendents more than 500 years later; the current owner, the 7th Earl of Rosslyn, is a policeman in London.  (Any readers of Elizabeth George will probably draw the immediate parallel that I did to her fictional detective!)

Every pillar, every arch, every window, every metre of the stone roof is covered with carvings.  (I'd show you, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos indoors.)   Some are whimsical, some are beautiful, some are serious, some are slyly humourous.  My favourites, perhaps, were the Apprentice’s Pillar and the carvings of the master mason’s and apprentice’s faces; the master mason, so the story goes, was so envious of his apprentice’s much finer work that he slew the boy on the spot with a mallet.  He was hanged for the offence and his face was carved on a pillar in the chapel, from which vantage point he looks upon the pillar for eternity.

But it’s hard to choose a favourite.  Quirky little pre-Christian pagan symbols of fertility share space with angels and demons and the Dance of Death (a reminder to all that mortality recognizes no rank or privilege, as Death the skeleton drags people of all strata of life off to their eternal fate); the seven Acts of Mercy lie side by side with the seven Deadly Sins (with a couple interchanged, whether deliberately or not).  High Gothic arches soar up to the heavy stone ceiling, elaborately decorated with flowers and stars.  Smiling stone angels play bagpipes as well as harps. (And beneath one of those angels lies a carved figure fast asleep, an unlikely occurrence if there ever was one!  Have you heard bagpipes lately?  I love them, but they’re loud.)

Oh, wait, I know what my favourite is.  It’s a saying carved across one of the stone arches, which translates from the Latin roughly as:  “Wine is strong; the king, stronger; women, stronger still.  But truth conquers all.”  (A medieval feminist or two must’ve had a job there.)

There are other mysteries as well, beyond the over-hyped Dan-Brown-fuelled Holy Grail mania.  There are carvings above one window that appear to be Indian maize (“corn”, to us nowadays); not surprising, perhaps, until you realize that the chapel was completed before Columbus set sail for North America — where corn was endemic then, not yet known in Europe or beyond.  One of the many rumours that swirl around Rosslyn is that Prince Henry of Orkney (grandfather of the Chapel`s founder) set sail to North America one hundred years before Columbus was even born, and spent a winter with the Micmacs in what is now Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.  (Take THAT, Spain and Italy, Scotland got there first after all!  Oh, wait, that`s still well after the Vikings, so never mind.)

The Chapel is being restored now, as 500 years have taken their toll; until about 9 weeks ago, it had spent 13 years living under a huge steel “umbrella” to keep the rain from leaking through the roof and to allow the sandstone inside to dry out.  Previous attempts to shore it up have been misguided, to say the least; a coating of cement was applied to all the stone in the interior in the 1950’s.  Not only did this cover the glorious pink and gold colour of the Scottish sandstone, it also sealed in the moisture that trickled down into the stone through the roof and caused the sandstone to begin to crumble away.

It’s still utterly lovely despite some decay.  I don’t claim to have had any mystical revelations about the meaning of life, despite the conflux of two energy lines that is also reputed to be found in the centre of the Chapel.  But it’s still magic.

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