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Rosslyn: the Chapel, the Library, the Sinclair Search

From: Niven Sinclair <>
Date: Tue, 02 May 2000 15:47:32 +0100

You, too, help to convey the feelings which people have for Rosslyn Chapel.

The mystery, the mystique, the esoteric has always been there but there is also something much deeper which goes far beneath the foundations of reason and experience.

Earl William wanted to leave a message for posterity so, knowing that books could be banned or burned, he had it chiselled out in stone hoping that the day would come when someone somehow would find the clue which would give us a view of his amazing insight and knowledge. The answer may be staring us in the face. It may be contained in the symbols which are engraved on the cubes which hang from the underside of the arches.

I have always seen the famed [apprentice pillar] Apprentice Pillar as a decoy. The story of the skilled Apprentice and the jealous Master Mason is the stuff which legends are made of but it is an invention and it, too, may be a deliberate distraction. In the army, we had to guard against the feint attack and, when we are studying the myriad of carvings within Rosslyn Chapel, we have to keep our mind on the stifling religious influences which were keeping the masses in bondage to the Mother Church.

Earl William Sinclair saw God and Nature as ONE. The Chapel reflects this. He knew that the teachings of Jesus had been hi-jacked, debased and distorted. He knew that there had been far too much lip service paid to the Father on High with too little attention being given to Mother Earth from which all bounty flows. (The Cornucopia is in the Chapel to remind us of this). He knew that there had to be an essential balance between Man's spiritual and physical needs and that that balance could more readily be found in the middle of a field than in the aisle of a great Cathedral. This is a feeling which we have all experienced at some time or another when we find our own 'special spot' which suffuses our entire body with a sense of well-being and contentment. Earl William built his Chapel on a such a special spot - a spot which had been sacred long before the advent of Christianity. The Chapel also reflects this with its green men and with the Yggdrasil - the Nordic tree of life.

Earl William also wanted to get back to those ideals of chivalry and fraternity which had bonded the Knights Templar so he, with the Duke Burgundy and Brabant, formed a new Chivalric Order known as "The Order of the Golden Fleece" with the motto: "Autre n'auray" which, being translated means: "I will wear none other". One assumes that they took the name of the Golden Fleece from Jason, the argonaut.

[Arms of Prince Henry Sinclair as Earl of Orkney] Whilst on the subject of Earl William, I have just received from the Bodleian Library in Oxford the copy of Geoffrey Chaucer's work (1345 - 1400 which made him a contemporary of Prince Henry Sinclair) which was amongst the many books and manuscripts stolen from Rosslyn Castle by General Fairfax at the time of General Monk's Cromwellian attack on Rosslyn in 1650.

It makes copious references to the interest which the Sinclairs had in books, in book binding and illustration, and in their translation from other languages. It demonstrates that Rosslyn was a seat of learning. The library was situated beneath the Chapel which was within the Castle Precincts i.e. before the present Chapel was built but there is evidence that the library was in regular use up to the time of Cromwell's
``Ignorance of the law excuses no man;
not that all men know the law,
but because 't is an excuse every man will plead,
and no man can tell how to refute him.''
—John Selden (1584-1654).
bombardment because it also contained some of the work of John Selden (1584- 1654).

Some of the books to be translated from French by Gilbert de la Haye on behalf William, the 1st Lord Sinclair, were:

the buke of the law of armys
the buke of the ordre of knychthede
the buke of the gouernaunce of princis

The spelling in these early documents leaves a lot to be desired but this was the first attempt at writing in a form of English which became known as Lowland Scots.
What doth it serve to see sun's burning face,
And skies enamelled with both the Indies' gold?
Or moon at night in jetty chariot roll'd,
And all the glory of that starry place?
What doth it serve earth's beauty to behold,
The mountain's pride, the meadow's flow'ry grace,
The stately comeliness of forests old,
The sport of floods which would themselves embrace?
What doth it serve to hear the sylvans' songs,
The wanton merle, the nightingale's sad strains,
Which in dark shades seem to deplore my wrongs?
For what doth serve all that this world contains,
Sith she for whom those once to me were dear,
No part of them can have now with me here?
—William Drummond of Hawthornden
William Drummond of Hawthornden, who was a contemporary of William, Lord Sinclair, was the first poet to write his verse in Lowland Scots. Hawthornden is adjacent to Rosslyn and, thanks to the generosity of Mrs Heinz (of the baked bean family) it is still a place where writers can finish their manuscripts in the peace and quiet of Rosslyn Glen.

The books were written by scribes and were adorned with such 'decorative elaborateness' which suggested a highly organised scriptorium at Rosslyn. (I have some of the examples in front of me and, although it takes some time before one's eyes become accustomed to the strange script, the production is exemplary).

The manuscript (albeit a facsimile) is made all the more interesting because of the signatures of various signatures of members of different generations of the Sinclair family. A particular William Sinclair's signature appears no fewer than six times as if to indicate the point at which he left off reading so that he would know where to start again. Reading such manuscripts must have been a slow and painstaking affair. (I can manage about one page per day).

The foregoing is something of a digression from Rosslyn Chapel but it serves to emphasise the Sinclair thirst for learning. They had knowledge when knowledge was power. And, when Earl William Sinclair found that books could be banned or burned, he resorted to writing in "the indelible language of the stones" which makes Rosslyn Chapel the most unique library in Scotland.

I had intended this e-mail to be a specific reply to Bruce Carylon in Australia but, as the news about the material from the Bodleian Library in Oxford may be of more general interest, I have decided to copy it to the general Discussion List.

For me, life has never been more exciting, more exhilarating, more rewarding.

I am glad my father was a Sinclair.

Niven Sinclair

Last changed: 00/05/02 22:11:07 [Clan Sinclair]