The many mysteries of Rosslyn Chapel

AS A BUILDING, Rosslyn Chapel, on the outskirts of Edinburgh, is intriguing. The exterior features Gothic gargoyles and flying buttresses, while inside there are ornate pillars, carvings and an extraordinary ceiling.

As a place of mystery, it is a magnet for those with exotic - some might say outlandish - theories.

Built in the mid-15th century by some of the best stonemasons in Europe, the chiselled scenes and symbols would have been easily understood by their medieval audience but seem baffling to us today.

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The most striking example of their craft is the Apprentice Pillar, which is beautifully carved and entwined by stone coils. It symbolises the Tree of Life, with carvings snaking round from the bottom to the top. Supposedly carved by an apprentice, the master stonemason was so enraged when he saw the young man's work that he murdered him. The pillar itself has a number of outlandish theories attached to it.

One theory has it that these coiled spirals look just like our modern-day representation of the double helix of DNA. Isn’t it just too coincidental that in the 15th century a young man so carved out the exact form of DNA when hundreds of years later, down the road at the Roslin Institute, Dolly the Sheep would become the world’s first animal to have their DNA cloned? Did that somebody know about DNA back then or did they supernaturally foretell the news?

Beneath the floor of Rosslyn is a massive underground vault. The chamber was sealed in 1690 and has never been reopened. Obviously, there has been a lot of speculation as to what is inside the vault.

The village of Roslin, where the chapel sits, is considered by those who believe in such things to be a "thin place", where the line between our world and other worlds is fuzzy, where the unusual is usual and the impossible is possible.

Roslin, about 20 miles south of the capital, has been part of an odd series of events over the years. A Scottish army of only 8,000 won an unlikely victory over an English army of 30,000 in the 13th century. The hamlet of Bonnybridge, about 35 miles northwest of Roslin, is a leading UFO hot spot, and people there are known to have had success in winning the lottery. And, in Roslin, in 1446 Sir William St Clair decided to build a chapel.

To understand the mysteries surrounding Rosslyn, a quick history of the Knights Templars is required. This order of warrior monks was created in 1118 to protect pilgrims on the way to and from the Holy Land. They were housed in the Temple of Solomon and soon became wealthy despite their vow of poverty. They became so influential that in 1307 Philip of France acted to destroy them. Many were burnt at the stake but some were said to have escaped and found sanctuary in Scotland.

Over the centuries many have hypothesised that the Templars were guardians of a great secret. The Ark of the Covenant or other religious relics have been suggested. According to legend, whatever the Templars knew or found sailed with the survivors of the coup and found its way to Scotland.

Among the contenders are the following:

The One True Cross

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The least fanciful theory is that the vaults contain the remnants of the "one true cross" upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.

Templar Treasure

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Scotland becomes the headquarters for the Knights Templar.Another vaguely possible theory holds that when the Templar fleet escaped from La Rochelle in Western France they took with them their treasure of gold, silver and jewels. This legendary treasure also suggets a striking explanation for some of the more unlikely carvings. Botanists have confirmed that there are depictions of sweetcorn and cacti in the chapel, South American plants that were unknown in Europe at the time the chapel was built.

Sir William St Clair’s grandfather, Sir Henry Sinclair, may have sailed from Orkney to America in 1398, nearly 100 years before Columbus. The reason he sailed? To take the Templar treasure from Rosslyn to the New World, where it could be buried in safety - a place that no-one would think of searching. The sweetcorn? While Sir Henry stayed in Nova Scotia building a treasure pit, some of his shipmates possibly sailed further south and brought back samples of indigenous plants.

The Holy Grail

In 1962 Grail-seeker Trevor Ravenscroft claimed that a lead casket was buried in the Apprentice Pillar. This casket contained the Holy Grail itself – the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and used again at the foot of the cross to collect his blood. Buried for years under the Temple of Solomon, it was found when the Templars excavated the area and has been kept hidden ever since. Quite what Ravenscroft used for evidence that it ended up in the pillar has never really been explained. The whole notion of there being a Holy Grail is speculative in itself, never mind trying to prove that it’s in a pillar in Rosslyn.

Holy Scrolls

In their book The Hiram Key (1996), Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas claim the pillar contains ancient scrolls that prove Jesus was a mason and the whole Masonic ritual goes back to pre-Christian times. Once again, the theory claims the Templars found this out during excavations. Once again, the evidence is lacking.

The Head of Jesus Christ

Scrolls and cups are all very well, but not nearly as exciting as Dr Keith Laidler’s theory. In his 1998 book The Head of God, Laidler claimed the head that the Knight Templars worshiped (sometimes called Baphomet) was actually of Jesus Christ. He writes that the head was brought out of the Holy Land and removed from France once things got too hot and, yes, hidden in the Apprentice Pillar. As they say, we will believe it when we see it.

The Blood of Jesus Christ

The piece-de-rsistance of Rosslyn lore is the most startling of all. Rosslyn’s imagery, the figures, the ceiling, the pillar, the floor, point inescapably to the real secret encoded there. We have had Jesus’s blood, Jesus’s head and, lo and behold, we also have Jesus’s DNA. For the Holy Grail is nothing less than the bloodline of Christ. The child of the child of the child … of Jesus Christ and Mary of Magdalene is alive and well and living in Rosslyn.

And before you make a fool of yourself, be warned, Jesus's descendant is not the lady who runs the teashop round the back.