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Rosslyn Chapel

What connects Dolly the Sheep and Rosslyn Chapel? The answer is the small Scottish village of Roslin almost 13 kilometres from Edinburgh and the impact both have made on the level of tourism to Roslin.

Roslin is often mentioned by researchers seeking the origins of Freemasonry due to its alleged links with the Knights Templar and the belief the almost 600 year old Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin is the repository of the Holy Grail.

During February 1997, it was announced that the Roslin Institute, situated in Roslin at that time, had in 1996 successfully cloned a female sheep from a cell taken from the mammary gland of a donor sheep. Originally named ‘6LL3’, the ewe’s name was soon changed to ‘Dolly’ after the singer Dolly Parton.

Dolly the sheep The preserved remains of Dolly the sheep – Roslin’s second claim to fame. Photo by Toni BarrosDolly the sheep remained at the Roslin Institute until she was euthanised on 14 February 2003 after suffering an incurable illness.

But more publicity was on the horizon for Roslin and specifically the Rosslyn Chapel. In the year that Dolly the sheep died, Dan Brown’s mystery novel The Da Vinci Code was published, which drew heavily on the mysteries surrounding Rosslyn Chapel and its possible links with the Knights Templar, The Holy Grail and Freemasonry.

Although these links had been postulated by researchers for decades Dan Brown’s book and the film later released in 2006 popularised Roslin and Rosslyn Chapel.

Researchers and historians have developed several explanations for the mysteries surrounding Rosslyn Chapel ranging from the complex, for example, as the reason outlined in Rosslyn, Guardian of the Secrets of the Holy Grail by Tim Wallace-Murphy and Marilyn Hopkins, to the exhaustive in the publications of Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas to fiction based on fact such as The Da Vinci Code.

The Apprentice PillarThe ‘apprentice pillar’ in Rosslyn Chapel.But perhaps the most accepted explanation begins with the Knights Templar. After almost two centuries of being a military order functioning under the Pope’s patronage, the Templars returned to France to their place of origin. They quickly came into conflict with the King of France, Philip the Fair, Philip IV, who, due to financial difficulties, eyed the wealth accumulated by the Templars. This supposedly included the Holy Grail recovered by the Templars during excavations of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem. Philip was rebuffed by the Templars in attempting to negotiate access to their treasures and a whispering campaign began questioning their loyalty to the Church and the nature of their secret ceremonies. As this campaign gathered momentum Philip lobbied Pope Clement V, who was domiciled in Avignon and the first of the Avignonese Popes, to withdraw Papal patronage from the Templars. This was done and on Friday 13 October 1307, Templars were arrested in France, including the Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay. On 27 November 1307, Pope Clement V called on Christian monarchs to arrest all Templars and seize their assets.

Legend has it the Templars were forewarned and their treasures, including the Holy Grail, were loaded on Templar Fleet vessels which sailed from La Rochelle to an unknown destination. Philip, when he accessed the treasury of the Templars was disappointed by the meagre treasures he found.

Researchers have generally agreed that the destination of the fleet was Scotland. Why? Because Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland from 1306 to 1329, had been excommunicated by the Pope in February 1306 shortly before he ascended to the Scottish Throne in March of the same year. This added weight to the belief that Scotland was the choice of destination because in Scotland the Templars and their treasure would be out of reach of the Pope and the Church.

The story of intrigue continues in that Rosslyn Church is believed to have become the repository of the Templar Treasures including the Holy Grail. But the Templar Fleet in 1307 would have reached Scotland long before Rosslyn Chapel was commissioned by Sir William St Clair, believed to be a Knight Templar. The corner stone was laid on 21 September 1446 and the building was not completed until the early 16th Century. Where was the Templar Treasure stored for more than a century until the Chapel was finished if it was to be the final resting place of the Templar treasures?

It’s believed the Templar treasures were first held at Kilwinning Abbey, home to Benedictine Monks in North Ayrshire, before being taken to Rosslyn Chapel.

Kilwinning Abbey, built around the middle of the 12th Century, was known to the Templars who were influenced by the Rule of Benedict and was in existence when the Templars fled France. This viewpoint is supported by John Robinson in his book Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry. The Grand Lodge of Scotland website www.grandlodgescotland.com published an Irvine Herald article claiming in an interview with a local historian, Jamie Morton, that Kilwinning Abbey was indeed initially the repository of the Templar wealth.

A leap of faith is needed to believe the treasure was removed to Rosslyn by the St Clair family and concealed in the vaults of Rosslyn Church. But it is possible. Kilwinning Abbey was in decline from the end of the 15th Century, was plundered in 1513 and finally succumbed to the Protestant Reformation in 1560.

If the Benedictine Monks felt that the treasures were not safe at Kilwinning they could have agreed to move them to the new Rosslyn Chapel.

If this is the case, is this where the Knights Templar and Freemasonry came into contact?

The oldest lodge in Europe is recognised as Mother Kilwinning Lodge Number 0. being formed around the time of the building of Kilwinning Abbey. It was most likely, at the time, a lodge having only operative masons as members. The presence of the Templars in exile and the lodge which met in the vicinity of the Abbey would have brought the two groups into contact.

At that time masons could be categorised into two classes: operative masons who were restricted to certain areas and required permission from their lords to travel elsewhere, and operative free masons, who had no restriction on travel but needed to develop signs and knowledge peculiar to their status so that their skills could be recognised wherever they travelled. By the end of the 16th century it has been suggested that speculative masons were being accepted into lodges which formerly contained only operative masons. In 1736, thirty three lodges met to form the Grand Lodge of Scotland.

As Rosslyn Chapel took more than 60 years to complete it is not beyond imagination that Freemasons from different backgrounds and skills were involved in its construction given the different styles of carvings in the Chapel.

The Chapel Trust which manages the privately owned Chapel adopts a relaxed attitude towards the different and contradictory theories of the influence of the Templars and Freemasonry on the origins of the Chapel and whether Rosslyn is the repository of the Holy Grail. In fact the Trust actively encourages further research and on its website www.rosslynchapel.com makes the following statement: ‘A plethora of books and self-published pamphlets claimed to have the answers, but Rosslyn Chapel Trust has lacked the resources to test the various theories and suppositions. So we offer a selection of the books for sale in our gift shop and leave it to you to make up your own mind!’

Initially a Freemason’s museum was part of the display at the chapel but that has been closed. Major chapel renovations have taken place in recent years and an expanded visitor’s centre has been added with a shop selling masonic and Templar memorabilia.

The carvings in the Church are magnificent. At the eastern end are three pillars believed to accord to the three degrees in Freemasonry. Probably the better known is the Apprentice Pillar and the legend surrounding this is familiar to all Freemasons. Elsewhere the carvings from different backgrounds has led to some researchers believing they contain clues to hidden mysteries. There is also a belief some of the carvings prove the Templars discovered North America before Columbus.

But whatever the mystery, Rosslyn Chapel is well worth a visit. Since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, interest in the Chapel has soared with a significant influence on Scottish tourism. BBC Scotland News reported in 2016 that 34,000 people in 2001 visited Rosslyn Chapel. In 2006, the year of the release of the film, the number soared to 176,000 and has remained steady at around 150,000 a year since then. The Chapel remains one of the top tourist attractions in Scotland.

And what of Dolly the sheep? A native of Roslin and a tourist attraction, she stands preserved on display, as a centrepiece, in the Science and Technology section of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, September 2018, pages 8 and 9.

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