After Edinburgh, we visited three significant buildings in the Scottish Borders: Rosslyn Chapel, Abbotsford House and Melrose Abbey.
Rosslyn Chapel may ring a bell with fans of bestselling author Dan Brown. The chapel was the setting for a turning point in The DaVinci Code, Brown’s 2003 blockbuster mystery (and subsequent movie, starring Tom Hanks). The ornate chapel, which is about seven miles south of Edinburgh, was constructed in the middle of the 15th century by Sir William St. Clair, a wealthy Scottish landowner. Every inch of its ceiling and walls is decorated with elaborate stone carvings. Every inch. That’s every freakin’ inch. Trust me. I saw.
Stonemasons were the architects of the Middle Ages, according to our guide Vinny. At least one of the stonemasons’ images has been incorporated in a wall design. Rosslyn’s carvings depict pagan gods, Christian symbols, Bible stories, the St. Clair family history, Scottish history, and items related to the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. Many of the carvings are mysterious and open to imaginative interpretations.
The stonemason whose image peers down on visitors was a murderer. Here’s the story: The master mason was very good. He was proud of his accomplishments. The master had an apprentice. While the master was away, presumably in Italy to learn more about his craft, the apprentice carved a pillar even more beautiful than his master’s. When the master returned, he was so envious and incensed by his apprentice’s work, he struck the apprentice with his mallet, killing him. The master’s likeness was carved on the opposite wall, so he could forever gaze upon the work of the man he murdered.
Rosslyn Chapel eventually fell out of favor, was neglected and allowed to deteriorate for several hundred years. It filled with something our docent called “the damp.” Rot, I suppose. And mildew. Even stone is susceptible to the ravages of Mother Nature.
The building’s historic value was finally recognized and the restoration process – mostly achieved by trial and error – is another fascinating story. Alas, no cameras were allowed inside the chapel.
Abbotsford House is a manor house built by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) a Scotsman who wrote popular novels (Ivanhoe) and poetry (“The Lady of the Lake”). Scott bought the land in the Scottish Borders when he was 40 years old. He eventually tore down the existing structures and started building Abbotsford House. He kept building – a new room here, another room over there, a wing here, another wing there, a tower, a walled garden, a formal garden, and so on. The resulting architectural style – many wings, lots of arches and chimney pots and turrets and leaded glass and gargoyles and crenellated towers -- was admired and copied and became known as the Scottish Baronial style. Queen Victoria loved Abbotsford House.
Scott was an extraordinary collector of “things.” He was partial to items related to Scottish history, but often bought stuff just because he liked it. Abbotsford became a place to display his eclectic array of rare books, medieval armor, animal antlers, antique furniture, coats of arms, paintings, and assorted oddities and mementoes. He had a crucifix supposedly owned by Mary, Queen of Scots. He owned a lock of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s hair. He had Rob Roy’s broadsword. He bought a chair made from wood salvaged from the house where William Wallace was captured. (Now there’s a stretch!) He often bought stuff even if its provenance was iffy and it was most likely not authentic. All his historic tchotchkes were mounted on Abbotsford’s walls. In some rooms they extended from door jamb to door jamb, baseboard to crown molding.
I think Sir Walter was a hoarder. No cameras allowed inside Abbotsford House either.
Melrose Abbey is another ruined architectural masterpiece. Scotland is chockfull of tumbled walls from old abbeys and castles and monasteries. At Melrose, I climbed the 74 slippery, moss-covered spiral stone steps, a staircase navigable only while grasping a knotted rope to keep from sliding backwards. The view at the top was worth it – a panorama of the adjoining graveyard filled with 17th and 18th century tombstones, tipsy and weathered and green with moss.
A commemorative plaque marks the spot where Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried. The King of the Scots died in 1329, but wanted his heart to go on a Crusade. Somebody – what a friend he must have been! -- set off on a Crusade with the heart. The Crusader was killed, however. Robert the Bruce’s heart was found near the body, then toted back by another friend to be buried at Melrose. Ick.
In Chapter Three, we visit the Isle of May, a National Nature Reserve, where our group got dive-bombed by dozens of crazy terns, then rewarded by meeting some adorable puffins. Then we head for the Highlands, which are freaking spectacular!