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Book review - Rosslyn Chapel Revealed by Michael Turnbull

15 June 2012

Book review - Rosslyn Chapel Revealed by Michael Turnbull

Review of Rosslyn Chapel Revealed by Michael Turnbull.


Rosslyn Chapel Revealed

By Michael T.R.B. Turnbull

Sutton Publishing, 2007

242 pages

Hardback; £17.99

ISBN: 978-0750944670

The purpose of Dr Turnbull’s volume on Rosslyn Chapel is to provide the reader with a greater understanding of a building and heritage site that has been the subject of an explosion of international interest since the release of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code in 2003 and the subsequent Hollywood film (2006). Turnbull’s laudable aim is to provide a timely repost to the tranche of often poorly researched works about the site that inspired Brown’s novel. To achieve this the author sets out to place the 15th-century Christian building in the context of the ‘political, cultural and ecological development of medieval Scotland’, and to confront what he describes as the ‘layers of beguiling conjecture’ that have developed surrounding the site.

The opening chapters of the book explore the environmental, political and religious context of the site and the construction of the chapel itself. In Chapter 1 Turnbull explores the topography and environmental history of the area before examining the history of the St Clair family from 1061 to the construction of the chapel in 1447. The value of this section is somewhat undermined by the author’s reliance on the work of 17th-century historian Fr Richard Augustine Hay (1661-1736/7), who wrote his genealogy of the St Clair family c.1700. Although Turnbull provides a robust defence of the scholar’s work, noting in particular that ‘he (Hay) was no believer in fables’, it is clear from the subsequent sixteen pages, in which the content of the genealogy is outlined, that fables were very much Hay’s stock in trade. Hay’s account of Scottish history from 1061 to 1447 is badly flawed and was clearly intended to exaggerate the role of the St Clair dynasty in the development of the kingdom of Scotland during that period. For this purpose Hay invented titles for the family (Princes of Orkney), exaggerated their role in important events and even invented battles for his heroes to win (most notably the fictional Battle of Allerton in 1138, said to have occurred following the Battle of the Standard). Although Turnbull notes that Hay’s close relationship with the family (his step-father was a St Clair) may have affected his impartiality as a historian, the gap between fiction and reality in his work should have been made clearer.

Turnbull is on firmer ground in Chapter 2, which explores the foundation of the chapel and its collegiate status. Whilst this section has some useful comparisons with other collegiate foundations, particularly St Giles in Edinburgh, some further comment on trends in religious patronage that formed the context for the foundation would have been useful, particularly as lay piety in the later middle ages has been the subject of recent scholarship by A.B. Fitch and others.

Having placed the foundation of the chapel in context, the core of the book is concerned with guiding the modern day visitor around the site and addressing some of the key myths that have become associated with the building and its surroundings. It is in this section that the main strength of the volume lies, particularly in Chapter 4, which examines speculation regarding comparisons to the temple of Solomon, the providence of the masons, the famous botanical images on the stonework, the significance of the Prince’s Pillar and the role of freemasons and Templars. In this chapter Turnbull makes good use of a range of contemporary scholarship to dismiss misconceptions surrounding the chapel. The remaining chapters explore other sites of interest in the region and the book concludes by addressing the challenges that face the guardians of the chapel following the explosion of interest in the site since the release of The Da Vinci Code.

While a reader looking for a modern insight into either politics and religion in medieval Scotland or the history of the St Clair family should look elsewhere, Dr Turnbull’s book is a beautifully illustrated guide to one of Scotland’s most interesting and controversial heritage locations and the surrounding region, and it carefully and calmly deals with the various misconceptions associated with the site.

Review by Tom Turpie, University of Stirling




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Last Updated: 10th May 2012