Book Review: 'The Secrets of Rosslyn'
The woefully hisdtorically illiterate novel 'The Da Vinci Code' raised the profile of the tiny Medieval gem that is Rosslyn Chapel, but not in a good way. The poor chapel has been linked to Knights Templars, Freemasons and all sorts of strange conspiracy theories. Readers of this blog will of course know that these theories are so much rubbish, thought up out of the imaginations of pseudo-historians. This book professes to give the truth about Rosslyn - truth that is so much more exciting than Dan Brown's fiction.
Roddy Martine, the author, is a journalist and expert in things Scottish. He writes in a clear, lucid way that this reader appreciated greatly. The book is built on facts, not speculation, and it tells the story of how Rosslyn castle came to be in the hands of the St. Clair family, how the chapel came to be built, and its history. The cover of the book itself illustrates the problem Martine faced - it is a Victorian painting showing an idealised view of the chapel in Medieval times, looking West. Except it isn't. For it shows the Chapel following Victorian repairs and alterations, with the Baptistery - a 19th century addition- in existence. The cloaked figures are Knights Templar - but no Templars had existed for a century when the Chapel was built. It is this tangled skein of myth and reality fuelled by the Romantic movement (William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and J.M.W Turner all visited Rosslyn) that Martine carefully and skillfully untangles. Myth after myth falls before his investigation. The Chapel's richness is no anomaly - it was built by Prince William Sinclair, 11th Baron of Rosslyn, 3rd and last St. Clair Earl of Orkney, Lord St. Clair, Lord Niddesdale, Lord Admiral of the Scottish Seas, Lord Chief Justice of Scotland, Lord Warden of the Three Marches, Knight of the Cockle and Knight of the Golden Fleece - to quote just some of the titles Martine gives on P. 65 - , a man who held more titles than most European monarchs of the period and a man with fingers in every political pie in Scotland in the period. A man with great experience of travel in Europe, he had seen first hand the great cathedrals of France and decided to built his own at Rosslyn.
The old story of the Master's and Prentice's pillars is dismissed as the fantasy that it is, and the Templar connection declared to be extremely unlikely. The legendary 'Templar Head' is identified as probably a head-reliquary, fairly normal things in the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, and the 'Priory of Sion' is dismissed as the hoax that it was. Rev. Michael Fass, current minister of Rosslyn, is quoted talking about the New Age intrusions into his chapel (Pp.137-8), and the trials of being the minister of a church with so many fanciful legends about it current.
The Christian reader should be aware that Martine is not a Christian and appears at times to give credence to stories of reincarnation (Pp.68-70). He expresses agnosticism (Pp. 112-3) about the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and his knowledge of things Biblical is generally poor. On these things he needs to be supplemented. He also mistakenly (P. 114) identifies the disciple in Leonardo's 'Last Supper' whom Brown misidentifies as Mary Magdalene as Peter when it should be John (Peter is depicted by Leonardo in the conventional manner, as is John, who is shown as a very young man because he is said to have died around 100 AD). These are however a small fraction of an otherwise excellent book. We would recommend it as a generally good popular treatement of a tiny part of Scotland's heritage and, what is more, a good read.
'The Secrets of Rosslyn' by Roddy Martine is published by Birlinn Limited in paperback and available for £9.99 from the publishers here