Michael TRB Turnbull: Did Shakespeare beat Dan Brown to Rosslyn?
Sounds implausible? Well, there is some historical evidence to support this suggestion. Up to a year before the Scottish Reformation of 1560, the ever- popular Biblical morality plays were still being acted at Roslin by travelling actors. Could one of them have been Shakespeare? It's certainly possible.
The visits of these travelling actors, who were often confused with gypsies, are well established. In 1559, William St Clair, Lord Justice General under Mary Queen of Scots, is said to have saved a gypsy from a hanging on the green expanses of the Boroughmuir near Edinburgh and so, out of gratitude, the travelling people congregated annually at Roslin Glen.
As a result the St Clair family developed a longstanding relationship with the gypsies and, every May and June, they came to Roslin to present morality, mystery and other traditional religious plays. The actors were provided with accommodation in two of the Roslin Castle towers, appropriately named "Robin Hood" and "Little John", nicknames taken from one of the players' most popular plays.
There are further intriguing possibilities. In 1618 the English playwright Ben Jonson walked from London to Hawthornden Castle – just down the Esk River from Rosslyn Chapel and Roslin Castle – to visit the poet William Drummond and made a written record of their conversations which were discovered in the Advocates Library and published for the Shakespeare Society in 1842. Along with this well-documented visit, there is also a tradition that Shakespeare travelled to Scotland at the request of King James VI who, in 1599, had pleaded with Queen Elizabeth to send a company of players north of the Border to perform for him.
The actors – thought to have included Shakespeare – are said to have passed by Glamis Castle on their way to Aberdeen. Visiting that part of Scotland is said to have given Shakespeare the motive to write Macbeth. The Perth Kirk Session minutes detail the authorisation of one performance by Shakespeare's company, The King's Men. The company's manager is listed by the Aberdeen city records as Lawrence Fletcher, who was later to collaborate with Shakespeare in the construction of the Globe Theatre.
Another possibility is that Shakespeare may have come north in 1603 when the London theatres were shut during an outbreak of plague. Possibly, as Ben Jonson would do in 1618, he too called on William Drummond at Hawthornden.
Certainly, Drummond was well acquainted with the works of Shakespeare: in his later years, he donated around 500 books to his old university, Edinburgh, including several early printed editions of Shakespeare's plays.
Specifically, the text of Shakespeare's rural comedy As You Like It (1599) may reflect some awareness of Roslin Glen and its Arcadian landscape. The play is an attempt to satisfy London's popular taste for "Robin Hood" plays – such as were also annually presented by gypsies in the stanks, the marshy flood-plain of the North Esk river below Rosslyn Castle.
Central to the plot is a Duke who enjoys the calm and integrity which closeness to nature brings. Among the other main players is Rosalind – a name suspiciously close to Rosslyn – the love-sick heroine. In the play's song of Amiens, Under the Greenwood Tree, the beauty of Roslin Glen is suggested by Shakespeare's many references to the links between the human race and animals and plants.
Shakespeare may have celebrated the mysterious wildness of Roslin Glen, but in the following centuries Roslin's reputation as a unique location of enchanting beauty and mystery was to be celebrated by many poets.
On 13 June 1787, shortly before he left Edinburgh forever, Robert Burns and the painter Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), who had been working on a portrait of the poet, set off for the Pentland Hills after a session at an Edinburgh hostelry which lasted into the "wee, sma' hours". They had breakfast at Roslin Inn and Burns so enjoyed the meal that he took a pewter plate and scratched a humorous but affectionate poem dedicated to the inn's hostess.
It was Sir Walter Scott, however, whose summer home was only a short walk away, who would use Rosslyn Chapel as a powerful inspiration. In the early 1800s Scott rented Lasswade Cottage, with its quaintly thatched roof, from the Clerk family of Penicuik. There Scott wrote the opening stanzas of The Lay of the Last Minstrel and his poem The Gray Brother.
Scott's residence at Lasswade Cottage was an added attraction for many of his literary friends and visitors — such as the poet William Wordsworth who wrote a memorable Sonnet Composed in Rosslyn Chapel and these writers and poets gave Rosslyn Chapel its reputation.
Shakespeare's visit to Rosslyn may or may not be true. What we do know is that, in spite of the title of Dan Brown's novel, when construction started on Rosslyn Chapel in the 1440s, Leonardo da Vinci was only 12 years old!
Michael TRB Turnbull is author of Rosslyn Chapel Revealed (The History Press, 2009)