Meet the man behind Rosslyn Chapel’s renaissance

Nicolas Boyes, the man behind Rosslyn Chapel's restoration. Picture: Dan Phillips
Nicolas Boyes, the man behind Rosslyn Chapel's restoration. Picture: Dan Phillips
Have your say

WITH work to restore Rosslyn Chapel almost complete, the head of the project to repair centuries of damage, Nicolas Boyes, tells Alice Wyllie how much the job has fascinated him and his team

WHEN stone conservator Nicolas Boyes first walked into Rosslyn Chapel in February 1999, he was struck by just how cold and damp the building was. “It was a truly, truly cold place to be,” he says. “The relative humidity was so high that it just got into your bones. It was snowing and we would go outside just to warm up before going back in.”

Restoration work on the Chapel's roof and exterior stone work is nearing completion

Restoration work on the Chapel's roof and exterior stone work is nearing completion

Today, as we stand inside the chapel more than three years after Boyes came on site as part of a mammoth conservation project, he remarks at the contrast. Outside, temperatures are biting. In here, we’re warm, dry and protected from the elements.

So, too, is the chapel itself which has been exposed to everything the Scottish climate could throw at it for more than 550 years. No wonder, then, that William, a local cat who wanders into the chapel from time to time, is curled up snugly on a pew while the wind howls outside.

For the first time since it was founded by Sir William Sinclair in 1446, it now has a roof that keeps the weather out, made of metal. For the first time in half a millennium, there is no daily incremental damage being done to the intricate stone carvings by chronic leaks.

Work to reverse the damage began 15 years ago when a steel canopy was erected over the roof to prevent further rain damage and allow the structure to dry out properly. In June 2009, Boyes and his team joined the project to mastermind the restoration and tackle the extensive damage that had occurred over centuries, which fell under three categories: defects, damage and decay.

A close-up of the Chapel's interior

A close-up of the Chapel's interior

The £13 million project (which includes a new visitor centre opened in October last year) is now winding up, and the scaffolding will be removed this month. Funded principally by Historic Scotland, Heritage Lottery Fund and the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, it is the biggest conservation project of its kind in Scotland and has been carried out while the Chapel has continued to be used for services every Sunday. It has also remained open to visitors, with up to 1000 coming every day in the summer. Ten years on from the publication of the Da Vinci Code, in which the Chapel featured as the setting for part of the novel, the building remains a strong draw for fans of the Dan Brown best-seller.

Today, however, is a cold, quiet morning, and Boyes is giving me a tour of the completed works, pointing out favourite stones and highlighting areas he’s particularly proud of. The chapel was built from sandstone quarried just two miles away, and there has never been any provision for rainwater management, so water damage has been extensive. The fact the Chapel remains a working church hasn’t helped.

Understandably, given the cold, damp atmosphere, it was heated during services then would cool down rapidly when it was unoccupied, with water condensing back on to the windows and stonework.

However, conservators have also had to step in where 15th century stonemasons had taken shortcuts. Boyes points out one example, a stone suffering from delamination.

“There are very clear rules as to which way you orientate stone when you’re carving it,” he explains. “What the stonemason did in this example where we’ve got delamination is got the cheapest slice of stone – so it wasn’t very tall in terms of bed height but it had a good width – carved it and tipped it up. For three to four hundred years it was fine, but 550 years later we can see it beginning to show.” In short, with the ‘grain’ of the stone running vertically, the carving has flaked off in layers.

He points out another example of a shortcut, of sorts. The chapel is made from different colours of sandstone and the stonemasons appear to have favoured red stone. “It had a fine grain and perhaps it was a delight to carve,” says Boyes. “But we call it ‘hand grenade stone’ because, while it doesn’t go off quite as quickly as a hand grenade, it sure goes off. The qualities that it had that attracted the masons to use it in the first place also turn out to be the qualities that cause the fairly extreme decay 500 years later.”

Sure enough, many of the red stones appear more worn and weathered than their yellow or grey counterparts. Nevertheless, many of these damaged stones have been left in place. In fact, only six stones have been replaced by Boyes’ masons on the building. The goal was to preserve, not restore, and Boyes was “particularly aware of Sir William Sinclair looking over my shoulder”.

Various attempts have been made to preserve the building over the last couple of centuries, some more successful than others. Boyes and his team are acutely aware that conservators learn from some of the mistakes made in the past, and he knows that future generations could look back on today’s conservation in a similar way. As such his goal has been to make his interventions as lightly as possible and make his work reversible. He had his work cut out for him, though. The building was never finished, so areas that were never meant to be exposed to the elements have had 550 years of rain to contend with. Pinnacles had blown off and plants and algae had made the chapel their home. An asphalt roof, installed in the 1950s had split and shrunk, and dribbles of asphalt were left on the building.

“That episode was well-recorded,” says Boyes. “The earl of the day wrote a fairly unpleasant letter to the Trinidad Asphalt Company Ltd because it seems that they were doing their work in a fairly uncaring way, tossing hot barrels of bitumen off the building. As they were doing so they caused some damage to some of the pinnacles.”

In addition to removing the bitumen roof and mapping the damage, the team have had to rake out joints and retouch the bitumen spills. Stones at risk of falling have been secured, and an acrylic resin solution has been used on cracks.

The team worked in a similar way to the masons who built the chapel, in that they began at the east end and worked bay by bay towards the west end. Boyes likes to think of them as “pathologists for the building” and they faced a number of unexpected challenges. He points to one pinnacle with a delicate stone flower carved on its side.

“We came to this pinnacle and it was leaning over by five degrees. What was amazing was that all of these pinnacles would appear to sparkle because there was daylight between the construction joints. So, effectively, you could see through the construction.”

Taken apart piece by piece in order to put them back together securely, the team made an unexpected and delightful discovery. “We found a void created specifically for colonising bees,” says Boyes with a smile. “We know that to keep bees was to be Godly and this is what Sir William Sinclair’s intention was, to provide a space for the colonisation of bees.” The stone flower, as it turns out, has a small hole in the middle of it for the bees to enter. And they still use it today.

Further examination found that all the pinnacles contained a similar void. One also had stone hearts carved on the inside, visible to no-one, but a way for the mason who created them to ingratiate himself to God. The discovery of the hearts is a favourite memory for Boyes, who has fallen in love with the building and jokes that “even when they stop paying us to be here you’ll find me behind this buttress. I don’t want to leave.”

His work here might not be done yet, however. In 1952, the Ministry of Works (now Historic Scotland) were concerned with the blotchy appearance left on the interior of the building by big areas of biological material.

“They took the view that it detracted from the original designer’s intent – which it did – so their response to that was to apply a lime wash to the internal stonework. They also used a material of the day, a stone hardener, in order to protect the stonework against the ingress of water.”

The result is an even grey finish, and while the approach was in line with conservation theory at the time, the lime wash has acted with the stone hardener to trap moisture inside the stone. Boyes and his team have done patch tests on the stone, using various techniques to remove the surface material, and have found a way of safely lifting it off.

That may yet be a project for the future. For now, however, Rosslyn Chapel is warm, dry and watertight. Most importantly however, it has been safeguarded for future generations. Centuries of damage has been halted and, in places, reversed. The project has been long, painstaking and very, very cold. But for Boyes, his team and no doubt for the Chapel’s hundreds of thousands of visitors, it’s been worth it.