Rosslyn Chapel: Harry Potter brings tourists to Edinburgh, but is The Da Vinci Code still a draw for this attraction?

Rosslyn Chapel exteriorRosslyn Chapel exterior
Rosslyn Chapel exterior
This novel sold around 80 million copies

I arrive at Rosslyn Chapel feeling slightly ashamed.

I’m going to have to admit to the director of the chapel’s eponymous trust, Ian Gardner, that I’ve never been to this historic 15th-century Gothic building, which is just a 20-minute drive from my Edinburgh flat.

Thankfully, he is very understanding. “You’re not unusual,” he says. “Sometimes we don’t visit the attractions that are right on our doorstep.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
Lady Chapel in Roslin ChapelLady Chapel in Roslin Chapel
Lady Chapel in Roslin Chapel

It’s a drizzly Wednesday morning and, already, two coaches have pulled into the car park and I hear various accents and languages, as visitors browse the bountiful gift shop.

On one shelf, there are, naturally, various editions of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown for sale, with the line “a real page turner for all ages”, in the blurb beneath. Twenty-one-years since its release, it’s hard to overstate the mark that this read had on the attraction, which was founded in 1446 by Sir William St Clair and took around 40 years to build.

While Harry Potter brought innumerable tourists to JK Rowling’s Edinburgh home, Brown’s book did something similar for Rosslyn Chapel. This wasn’t the first time it was a beneficiary of literary tourism, as Sir Walter Scott also wrote about it in poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which attracted visitors here in the 19th-century.

Scott did his bit, but The Da Vinci Code’s impact is such that the building is beautifully preserved, and they have a 12-year-old visitor centre and cafe, where you can order cheese scones and look out over Rosslyn Glen. In 2021, they installed a new stained glass window designed by artist Joe Tilson RA to mark the 25th anniversary of the trust.

The Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn ChapelThe Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel
The Apprentice Pillar at Rosslyn Chapel

The building is evolving. Indirectly, some thanks goes to the thriller, which tells the fictional story of a search for the Holy Grail.

“It came out in 2003, then the film came out in 2006. We had about 30,000 annual visitors before the book came out, then, all of a sudden, the number shot up to 76,000,” says Gardner. “When the film was released, it went up to 176,000. The building then was under a massive conservation project and the work was planned but there was a gap in the funding, so that was a huge help.”

Without those blockbusters, it would have been a much slower restoration job.

“The conservation would have gone ahead, but the building would’ve been under scaffolding for a while,” says Gardner.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad
The Apprentive Pillar and inscriptionThe Apprentive Pillar and inscription
The Apprentive Pillar and inscription

After two decades, nearly half of all visitors still come because of the book or film.

“In the long term, it’s really put the chapel on the map. Our research shows that 49 per cent of our visitors are still influenced by The Da Vinci Code,” Gardner says. “We were really struck by the high proportion”.

And as for the other 51 per cent? “Well, they just didn’t admit it,” the director jokes.

They conducted this research, via their online booking system, to mark the anniversary, and consulted 6,677 visitors between March 2023 and 2024. They also found that 72 per cent of them had read the book and seen the film.

The thriller has, after all, been listed in the top ten best-selling books of all time, with 80 million copies sold. “When you get that critical mass of books, there’s always a new generation who are inspired to read it, then come visit.”

Although they still sell quite a few at Rosslyn Chapel, there is no charity shop that doesn’t have a few dog-eared copies. In fact, last year, after he heard that a charity shop in Swansea had stopped accepting donations of this book, the Scottish artist David Shrigley pulped 6000 copies of it, and reconstituted them into one of George Orwell’s 1984.

Whatever your thoughts on the novel, it’s ubiquitous and has been translated into 44 languages.

“Our visitors come from all over the world,” says Gardner.

There are those who visit as part of their tour of the UK, and others for whom “this is the reason they come to Scotland,” he explains.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Since the pandemic, Rosslyn Chapel has divided each day into 90-minute visitor slots, so it’s never too packed. There is SO much to see. As well as the biblical tales and morality lessons, all carved in relief, there’s the secret beehive that’s hewn into a sandstone pinnacle, endless scowling gargoyles and, inside, the effigy of the green man, a bagpipe player and dragons.

It’s utterly captivating, and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to come here.

As the director shows me around, I stand in the same spots that Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou walked, in the Rosslyn Chapel scene. “They go through the door and along the South Aisle,” says Gardner. “Then into the sacristy, though the last room that appeared in the film was actually a space in Pinewood Studio.”

You can’t reenact those scenes and capture your poses for prosperity, as they’ve asked guests not to take photographs, as the space is too small. A wise move.

Apparently, the Countess of Rosslyn had a very nice letter from Hanks, after his visit. Dan Brown, who lives in the US, also popped in during the filming, but hasn’t been back since, as far as they know.

Anyway, Rosslyn Chapel Trust is obviously hugely grateful to the book and film, but it’s not everything. They’re careful not to make the place a “theme park”, though are happy that it’s part of their story.

“It was quite a controversial book when it came out and that’s why, in a way, it became popular,” says Gardner. “But what we say is, come because of that, but try to find out more. Take yourself back 600 years to the mid 1400s, to imagine a team of stonemasons chipping away with chisels and hammers and creating the carvings that we see around us.”

Comments

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.