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Plate XXXIII., Roslin Chapel, pp.65-67.

[Scotland Illustrated Contents]

ROSLIN CHAPEL -the interior of which furnishes the present Illustration – is situated in an enclosed ground, on the brow of an eminence, between the Castle and the village. The rising ground which it crowns is named the College-hill, and is beautifully decorated, in its environs, with wood and water, – the river Esk running in a deep rocky bed on its west and south fronts. It is said to have been originally called Roskelyn, a Gaelic or Erse word which signifies ‘a hill in a glen,’ exactly describes its position, and is easily recognisable in the modern Rosslyn or Roslin. The Chapel was founded in 1446, by William St. Clair, the seventh of his name, Lord of Roslin, and third Earl of Orkney; and though called a chapel, was really, even from the outset, a collegiate church. It was dedicated to St. Matthew the apostle, and founded for a provost, six prebendaries, and two choristers. Tradition says, that the founder procured the architectural design of the church from artists at Rome; that he built houses for the workmen to be employed in constructing it; that he gave to each mason ten pounds a-year, to each master-mason twenty pounds, to both an extent of land, proportionate to the reward of the ability which they displayed, and to other artificers a commensurate extent of compensation and encouragement; and that; in consequence, he attracted all the best architects and sculptors from various parts of Scotland, and of neighbouring kingdoms. He endowed it with various lands and revenues, and saw it rising in profuse magnificence of architecture; yet, after vast efforts and great expense, he left it unfinished. A crypt at the east end – which shall be noticed in the description of the pile – was founded by the Earl’s first lady, the daughter of an Earl of Douglas. Such parts of the whole fabric as were in an advanced state toward completion, Sir Oliver St. Clair, the third son of the Earl of Orkney, carried on and completed; but the originally designed edifice was, in many of its parts, never commenced; what was finished, and now, in nearly an entire state, remains to refresh the eye of taste, is a comparatively small building, and consists only of the nave. At the Reformation, a mob, partly raised in Edinburgh, but consisting chiefly of the tenants of the barony, did some damage to the Chapel, and carried away its ornaments; and the edifice was in great danger, during the early part of last century, of becoming quite ruinous; but was repaired by General St. Clair. It was again repaired by the first Earl of Rosslyn, who roofed it with blue slate, and partially renovated its architecture, without impairing any of its antique or distinctive features.The Chapel is entered by two doors, respectively on the north and on the south. Its height within, from the floor to the top of the high arched roof, is 40 feet 8 inches; its breadth, 34 feet 8 inches; and its length, 68 feet. A descent from the south-east corner, leads, by a flight of 20 steps, to a crypt or chapel, which is supposed to have served also as a sacristy and vestry. This appendage measures 15 feet in height, 14 in breadth, and 36 in length; it is partly subterranean, but, owing to the sudden declivity of the hill, looks out from the surface at the east end, and is lighted by a single window. The whole Chapel is profusely decorated with sculpture, both within and without; nor is it less interesting from the mouldings in the exterior being worn and rounded by the weather. The interior is divided into a central, and two side-aisles, by fourteen clustered pillars, disposed in two rows, and supporting Saxo-Gothic arches. The shafts of the pillars are only eight feet high; but they are exquisitely rich in workmanship, and have capitals adorned with foliage and curiously wrought figures, and produce a very imposing effect. The central aisle is higher than the side aisles, and has along its middle, and over its arches, a row of windows; and, owing to the breadth and exuberance of its adornings, after springing from the pillars, it looks to be one continued arch. The roof, the key-stones, the capitals, the architraves, of the whole interior, are covered with sculptures representing flowers, foliage, passages of sacred history, texts of scripture, and grotesque figures, all executed with astonishing neatness. Like other celebrated structures – such as Melrose abbey, with some of its finest sculpturing, and Rouen cathedral, with its famous rose window – Roslin Chapel has a chef-d’œvre, which wonder-making tradition asserts to have been the work of an apprentice through jealousy. Legend even gossips so lustily as to point out among the sculptures the heads of the slain, the slayer, and the former’s mother weeping for his fate; and, quite in the characteristic style of monkish fiction, appeals to a daub with ochre as a memento of the apprentice’s wound, and blunderingly identifies his whole figure with that of a bearded old man. But, apart from this stupid romancing, ‘the Prentice’s pillar’ is a mass of superb sculpturing, and justly excites general admiration. “This pillar,” says the author of a pamphlet which minutely describes the Chapel, “has on the base of it several dragons in the strongest or first kind of basso relievo; as one can easily thrust a finger or two beneath some parts of the dragon and the base. The dragons are chained by the heads, and twisted into one another. This beautiful pillar has round it, from base to capital, waving in the spiral way, four wreaths of the most curious sculpture of flower-work and foliage; the workmanship of each being different, and the centre of each wreath distant from that or the neighbouring one a foot and a-half. So exquisitely fine are these wreathings, that I can resemble them to nothing else but Brussels lace. The ornaments upon the capital of this pillar are the story of Abraham offering up Isaac; and a man blowing on a Highland bagpipe, with another man lying by him.” Britton, in his ‘Architectural Antiquities’ of Great Britain, says respecting Roslin Chapel:- “This building, I believe, may be pronounced unique, and I am confident it will be found curious, elaborate, and singularly interesting. The chapels of King’s College, St. George, and Henry the Seventh, are all conformable to the styles of the respective ages when they were erected; and those styles display a gradual advancement in lightness and profusion of ornament; but the Chapel at Rosslyn combines the solidity of the Norman with the minute decoration of the latest species of the Tudor age. It is impossible to designate the architecture of this building by any given or familiar term; for the variety and eccentricity of its parts are not to be defined by any words of common acceptation. I ask some of our obstinate antiquaries, how they would apply either the term Roman, Saxon, Norman, Gothic, Saracenic, English, or Grecian, to this building.”

There were formerly in the Chapel several monuments; two which remain are remarkable, – that of the hunting knight, who won the match against King Robert Bruce, – and that of George, Earl of Caithness, who died in 1582. The family-vault lies beneath the pavement of the Chapel; and is entered by an aperture at the front of the third and fourth pillars, between them and the north wall, where a large flag-stone covers the ingress. This vault contains the remains of the barons of Roslin, who are said to have been anciently buried in their armour, without any coffin. A belief prevailed, amid the dark ages, that, on the night before the death of any of the barons of Roslin, the Chapel, by supernatural means, appeared to be in flames. Sir Walter Scott makes a fine poetical use of this superstition in his ballad of Rosabelle:-

“O’er Roslin all that dreary night,
A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam;
‘Twas broader than the watch-fire’s light,
And redder than the bright moonbeam.

It glared on Roslin’s castled rock,
It ruddied all the copsewood glen;
‘Twas seen from Dryden’s groves of oak,
And seen from cavern’d Hawthornden.

Seem’d all on fire that chapel proud,
Where Roslin’s chiefs uncoffin’d lie;
Each baron, for a sable shroud,
Sheathed in his iron panoply.

Seem’d all on fire, within, around,
Deep sacristy and altar’s pale;
Shone every pillar foliage-bound,
And glimmer’d all the dead men’s mail.

Blazed battlement and pinnet high,
Blazed every rose-carved buttress fair, –
So still they blaze, when fate is nigh
The lordly line of high St. Clair.

There are twenty of Roslin’s barons bold
Lie buried within that proud chapelle;
Each one the holy vault doth hold –
But the sea holds lovely Rosabelle!


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