• The view of the 15th-century chapel has been obscured by scaffolding and a steel canopy. Picture: Dan Phillips
More than 100,000 visitors flock every year to Rosslyn Chapel, just outside Edinburgh, intrigued by tales of its mysterious carvings and hotly disputed links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail.
But for more than ten years the romantic image many hold of the 15th-century masterpiece at Roslin, Midlothian, is tarnished when they arrive – by the sight of it surrounded by scaffolding and covered by a steel canopy.
But that is set to change within months, when the world-famous building, which dates back to 1446, is seen in all its glory again following the most extensive revamp in its history.
Work will begin next month on a brand new roof, which will finally offer proper protection and spell an end to its building-site appearance.
It will be one of a host of improvements to the chapel, which had a starring role in both the book and the Hollywood adaptation starring Tom Hanks of The Da Vinci Code.
A 1 million appeal is being launched by the trust responsible for the chapel to help secure its future, by ensuring a 9m restoration can be completed within the next year.
Although widely recognised as one of Scotland's most important historical buildings, the chapel has been in a poor condition for decades, partly because of the poor quality of a major revamp carried out in the 1950s.
The need to carry out a complete overhaul of the building was heightened by the success of The Da Vinci Code, which saw visitor numbers increase by around 140,000 in the space of four years.
Work has already started on a full restoration of the stained glass windows in the chapel, which will continue until next summer, while work to conserve and protect its ornate stonework will go on for another two years. Other work involves the installation of the chapel's first proper heating system and long-awaited repairs to its cracked floor.
A brand-new visitor centre, built to accommodate the surge of interest in the chapel triggered by The Da Vinci Code, is due for completion by April.
However, the major landmark in the restoration programme, plans for which were announced more than three years ago, will come with the removal of the protective canopy.
Work has already begun to dismantle the asphalt covering installed on the roof in the Fifties, which began leaking 11 years ago.
Colin Glynne-Percy, the director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, told The Scotsman: "The scaffolding and the canopy have been in place for 11 years and the look of the building hasn't changed from the outside in that time.
"Part of the problem has been that once the canopy was put in place we had to wait a long time until the original roof, which was turning green with mould, had properly dried out, and water had also been running down the walls of the building and into the chapel.
"The problem with having the structure in place is that people haven't really been able to take a proper photograph of the building. When it was featured in the film of The Da Vinci Code, a model of the building had to be used for one scene.
"The walkways around the scaffolding have allowed visitors to get a proper look at the external stonework around the building so there are only a few months left to do that before the structures are brought down.
"It has been a bit unsightly, so it should make a huge difference when people can see the chapel properly again after all this time."
The refurbishment project was given a huge boost in March 2007 when support was secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland – which are contributing 3.1m and 1.47m respectively.
But the trust has had to find the remainder of the funding itself and it has only recently started work on site.
However the building will remain open to visitors over the next few months and they will even get the chance to watch craftsmen at close hand.
Mr Glynne-Percy said fundraising efforts had been hampered by the economic downturn, but is hopeful of bridging the final gap to ensure the bulk of the work can be finished by next summer.
He added: "The credit crunch has obviously affected a lot of trusts and so on, but we're speaking to a number of people at the moment, and we're at the stage where we have 1m to go to finish off the project, which we're hopeful of achieving over the next few months.
"One of the big improvements will be the visitor centre, as the chapel has really been unable to accommodate the huge increase in visitors over the last few years. We went from having around 40,000 visitors a year before The Da Vinci Code came out to a peak of 175,000 when the film was released.
"Things have dipped a bit, but we had 130,000 visitors last year and are on track to have the same number this year again."
The featuring of the chapel at the climax of Dan Brown's novel delivered a huge boost to Scotland's tourism industry, which saw an even bigger boom when the big-screen adaptation featuring Tom Hanks, went into production and filming took place at Roslin.
VisitScotland, VisitBritain and the French tourist office, Maison de la France, joined forces with Sony Pictures to help promote the film's locations. Despite being panned by critics, the film is thought to rival Braveheart and the Harry Potter novels in terms of its impact on the industry.
Sinead Feltoe, regional director of VisitScotland, said: "Investment in the visitor experience is crucial if we are to continue to compete internationally. The refurbishment work at Rosslyn Chapel will no doubt enhance what is already a huge asset, not just to Midlothian but to Scotland. As a visitor attraction, Rosslyn Chapel certainly helps Edinburgh and the Lothians to benefit from the UK and international city-break market, and there are tangible ancillary benefits to the local economy. But perhaps most importantly for visitors, it is quite simply a fantastic place to experience – boosted not just by The Da Vinci Code novel and film but by the quality and 'wow factor' of what's on offer."
THE CHAPEL'S HISTORY
PERCHED at the top of a steep, wooded glen by the village of Roslin, the chapel has long been a magnet for symbologists, Freemasons, grail hunters, pagans and anyone considering a career in stone-carving.
The chapel, six miles south of Edinburgh, was founded in 1446 by nobleman William St Clair, the third Prince of Orkney, who commissioned the best stonemasons of the day to decorate the interior with religious, Masonic and pagan symbols of bewildering complexity.
Over the years the legends grew of links with the Knights Templar and that the chapel was the last resting place of the Holy Grail and that its whereabouts are concealed in the chapel's coded symbols.
Over the centuries it attracted the great and the good, including Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and even Queen Victoria, who was so taken by its pinnacled glory that she insisted it should be preserved for the nation.
At the Reformation (1560) the chapel was closed for public worship and the Sinclair family was forced to break down the altars and discard the carved saints of the old Catholic faith.
It was not until 1861 that Rosslyn Chapel opened again for public worship, this time in the Scottish Episcopal tradition. It continues today as an Episcopal church.
Many claim to have uncovered, among the arcane carvings of Rosslyn, clues which suggest the real purpose of the building was to hide a great Templar treasure. Investigations in the 1980s showed that the vault under the church was as deep as the chapel is high, and speculation about buried Templar treasure grew.
However, the church was built long after the order was disbanded, and Sir William Sinclair, grandfather of the Earl of Rosslyn who built the chapel, actually testified against the Templars at a trial at Holyrood.
In 1982, the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published, suggesting the grail was a metaphor for a secret bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. American novelist Dan Brown's blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, revived speculation that the key to the grail was to be found at Rosslyn. Most scholars believe the grail is a metaphor for a spiritual quest, which had its origins in mediaeval literature.