3D scans of Rosslyn Chapel leave (some) room for mysteries

A scan of Rosslyn Chapel

Those who believe there is a secret vault under Rosslyn Chapel have had a dent put in their theory by detailed 3D images of Rosslyn Chapel released this week.

These digital images were taken over a three day period by a team from Historic Scotland and the Glasgow School of Art, who laser scanned the interior and exterior of the building.

The results of this cutting-edge scientific exploration were awaited with interest. What many wanted to know was whether these images at last confirm the existence of a secret underground vault below Rosslyn that has been the focus of so much intrigue for the past 20 years.

Rosslyn lore ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some theories, including one which maintains that Rosslyn is built over a UFO landing pad, even make the Da Vinci Code look tame. Another theory is that, with wonderfully chivalric imagery, 12 Knights Templar, in full armour, lie beneath the chapel ready to rise again in times of need.

The first written record of the Knights began with Father Richard Hay in the early 1700s. He wrote a rather fawning description of the Sinclairs, the Rosslyn family who owned the lands and built the chapel, which was responsible for much of the mythologising around the Templars still given credence today. It was he who first described the secret vaults,  or caves, accessed by a network of tunnels, that held the armoured knights. It was this account that influenced Sir Walter Scott to write the Ballad of Rosabelle which contains the lines:

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

So it was this mysterious cavern that Rosslyn watchers hoped to see revealed in the new 3D scanning. Surely this would reveal the outlines of armoured men, and perhaps even greater treasure?

Sadly it hasn’t.

The images do show a vault, but this is a later addition, probably built in the late 19th century by the 4th Earl of Rosslyn. Although largely forgotten this vault was opened up in 1937 when an even later Earl insisted on being buried here. There were no Templar Knights then or now.

John Ritchie, a Scottish Knight Templar and author of Rosslyn Revealed, has long been fascinated with this secret space and believes that this new survey cannot disprove the existence of another vault: “They’ve not gone below ground level which indicates to me … that it’s not going to be that easy to find.”

The vault that Ritchie is searching for lies at the heart of the mystery of Rosslyn and dates back to the time of Mary Queen of Scot’s mother, Mary of Guise. She wrote in a letter to Sir William Sinclair – whose family are so entwined with Rosslyn history – that : “His counsel and secret shown to us we shall keep secret.”

A digital image of Rosslyn Chapel from aboveThere have been a number of attempts to find this hidden vault and “secret shown” – some more successful than others. Members of the extended Sinclair family have financed attempts to search below the floor, but with no success. Ritchie says the most successful and intriguing work was done in the 1980s: “Believe it or not it was done by the US navy who brought sonar equipment over from Holy Loch,” he says.

According to Ritchie the readings were “quite interesting”, showing tunnels running away from Rosslyn chapel. Running away, perhaps, to Father Hay’s Templar resting place?

Whatever the truth, and with Rosslyn this is as twisted as the carvings on the so-called “Apprentice Pillar”, there is no doubt that the fascination for this building will continue. That the 3D images failed to reveal the Templar Knights has not brought the story to a close. Far from it. Ritchie is preparing his next book which he believes will at last reveal the truth: “There are secrets still in the unfound vaults,” he says, but he won’t give much away other than to assure us that his new book will be “fantastic and ties up the whole Rosslyn story”.

Let’s hope he’s wrong. Who amongst us would really like this extraordinary building “explained” when we have so much fun attributing so many stories to its elderly stones?

  • “including one which maintains that Rosslyn is built over a UFO landing pad”

    Ridiculous! Everyone knows that the Rosslyn chapel IS a UFO landing pad. It was built by an aggressive race of parasitic aliens who came to Earth to enslave us….no, wait, that was Stargate.

    But seriously, I think I’m divided on the whole Rosslyn Chapel debate. On one hand I’ve always been fascinated by it and would really love to know what secrets are buried there, if any. On the other hand I agree with Diane; the mystery is what what holds our fascination. It keeps the chapel as one of Scotland’s best loved attractions and ensures that the conspiracy theorists are kept in business.

  • Kinghob

    Not sure if this half baked idea was worth the bother-as far as non invasive techniques are concerned, they should have done a full survey.

    There is no Templar connection whatsoever to Rosslyn beyond the fact that one of the first ecclesiastical centres of the Templars was built 6 miles away at Balantradoch (now called Temple) in the 1130’s, at the invitation of King David I.

    Whoever said that the vaults were built in the 1800’s as quoted in this article is talking pure balderdash; the earl of Sutherland (related to the builder William Sinclair by marriage of a sister) was interred here and another Sinclair was interred here after being killed at the battle of Dunbar circa 1650.

    The actual genuine reason for Rosslyn being built, the primary reason was for Sinclair’s relatives and descendants (and an ancestor or two were reinterred!) to be interred there, and for their souls to be prayed for “in perpetuity”. There are knights there, not one of them is a Templar, that is utter nonsense as the Chapel was built over a 130 years after the Templars were finished.

    The required vaults, which certainly exist were for family members of the Sinclairs.

    There may be further vaults, this scan wasn’t wide ranging enough to disprove that, the actual rear vault shown in the first picture is part of a previous building on what is now called collegiate hill prior to Rosslyn being built.

    It must also be remembered that Rosslyn was not finished, it was to be part of a much larger cruciform building, and the foundations are extensive for this part and were actually layed and have been re-excavated several times and seen but never investigated.

    The vaults in rosslyn probably form a figure of 8 shape and are bone dry, contrary to the impression given here, they have been entered over the centuries, but they will not hold anything like the treasures the imagination allows when it runs riot, the parts of the vaults that have been recently accessed are full to the brim with sand by the way.

    They could contains some of the statues and ruined altars which were destroyed by an Edinburgh mob during the reformation, and also ordered to be destroyed by the rather anti iconographical attitude of the more prolific protestants in the latter centuries as the Sinclairs were still Catholic.

  • Louise Yeoman

    Rosslyn is a collegiate church which was built as a beautiful place for masses to be said for the souls of the dead to shorten their time in Purgatory. It’s a fantastic example of the medieval love of exuberant decoration which you can see, for example, in the marginalia of medieval books. Due to so much medieval art being destroyed at the time of the Reformation and then later when prosperous and expanding parishes were desperate to pull down their medieval kirks and build new ones, Rosslyn is exceptional in Scotland. It’s an anomaly because its peers either did not survive or did not survive so well – an anomaly, and not a mystery. A beautiful precious anomaly.

    What does it say about us that we’re no longer interested in knowing what the building was actually for, or what it meant to the people who so lovingly conceived and crafted it and worshipped in it? The piety which created Rosslyn for us to enjoy, doesn’t merit a mention, instead we’re called on to admire the people who erase its meanings in favour of their own self-important fables.

    Why would I want it ‘explained’? That would be so I could stretch my hand across the centuries and place it in the hands of the people who made Rosslyn, respecting the reason why they made it, trying to hear their real voices and not the shrill ‘Look at me, Mummy!’ of wannabe ‘templars’

  • Sir James Douglas

    I know everyone wants to get excited by Rosslyn chapel, including me.
    However, the facts are as follows:

    The Sinclairs were crusaders, but they were never Knights Templars – the installation within the chapel of a stone slab with ‘William st Clair – Knights Templar’ carved on the upside is a modern addition, and local hisotrians have been campaigning to have this removed from the site.

    The chapel is not built to some ‘unknown design’. In fact, the blueprints can be matched almost exactly to Glasgow Cathedral. The reason for the odd shape is that they ran out of money so the chapel was never fully completed.

    The vast majority of visible sculptures, including the masonic sculptures, date to the 1860s then the chapel was restored. Unfortunately, the Victorian ‘restoration’ included recarving many of the reliefs which were eroded beyong recognition – the Victorian masons went to town on the chapel and all the masonic symbolism dates from this time, not before.

    The windows (including the so called lightbox feature) also all date to the 19th century, not before – photographs prior to 1860s clearly show that the ‘lightbox’ was not present then.

    The Vault is also 19th century.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but there is one sense in which the mythology is correct: the chapel is indeed full of masonic symbolism – however this symbolism is Victorian, not before.

    • livilion

      1127 Bernard de Clairvaux and Prince Abbot Edouard make Hugues de Payns the first Templar Grand Master

      1128 Hughes de Payns and Andre de Montbard travel to Scotland to meet with King David I. They also travel to Roslin to visit de Payns ‘in-laws’.

      Hugues de Payns’ wife, Catherine de Saint Clair, and her father give the Templars land at Balantrodoch, now known as Temple, only a few miles from Roslin, for the first Templar preceptory to be built outwith the holy land. Hugues and Catherine had three sons: Edmund, Thibaud, and Thomas. Not only were the Sinclairs Templars, they were there from the inception of the Order.

      1601 James VI initiated into freemasonry at Lodge Scoon & Perth on 15th April. He naturally expected to become Grand Master of the Order but was prevented from doing so because that hereditary title already belonged to the St.Clairs of Rosslyn.

      1650 Oliver Cromwell sacks Roslin Castle but gives orders for the chapel to be respected. Sir William Sinclair, slain by Cromwell’s roundheads at the Battle of Dunbar, the last to be buried in the chapel vault, in full armour.

      The windows were glazed for the first time in 1736 by Sir Charles Sinclair after the chapel had been ransacked during the Reformation, 150 years earlier, so I don’t get the relevance of your ‘lightbox’ issue.

      As for your Glasgow Cathedral ‘blueprint’: Dr Jack Miller from Cambridge University has pointed out that the west wall could not be part of any further building work. It was he who showed that the masonry is not tied into the main fabric of the building and any attempt to build onto it would result in a total collapse.
      The building was actually intended to be a one third scale reproduction of the Final Temple in Jerusalem with its historic underground passages and labyrinth, said to go down seven levels and run to link with the castle.

      The Templars did not finish in Scotland in 1307, but joined with the Hospitalers as the Knights of the Temple and Hospital, under the patronage of the House of Stuart, more or less up until the Jacobite ‘rebellion’ of 1715. In 1716 freemasons in England petitioned to set up a Grand Lodge in London.
      etc, etc, etc,…

      I am a wee bit curious as to why Prince Albert and Queen Victoria took the time and trouble to visit this supposed unfinished, weed-overgrown homage to Glasgow Cathedral before the road was built, before the freemasons had made their mark on it, and Dan Brown had brought it to public attention…

  • Diane Maclean

    Hi All
    Thank you all for contributing to this story. John Ritchie, whom I interviewed for it, was adamant that there was treasure in Rosslyn…but that this treasure was in the beauty of the building and the carvings. That at least can’t be disputed?

  • Sir James Douglas

    Ok, so I concede the vault, or some of the vaults (we haven’t located and mapped all the vaults yet), date to the chapel’s foundation.

    They were used as a burial place for the Sinclair family, but they are unlikely to contain the head of john the baptist or a working model flying saucer.

  • Louise Yeoman

    I’ll never forget looking at the scene of desecration at an isolated Lothian medieval chapel ruin where ‘treasure hunters’ who no doubt thought that after watching a few episodes of ‘Time Team’ they knew how to sink a trench, had sunk one through the altar end of the little church – smashing skulls and bones. The wee chapel had become a focus for Rosslyn pseudo-historians who’d published all kinds of nonsense about it on the web, making it seem like an obvious place to hunt for treasure and buried knights. It no doubt helped them sell a few books – at the cost of irreparable damage to the site and provoking the indecent act of smashing though what’s left of other human beings with a shovel.

    The thing is, that the pseudo-history doesn’t affect just Rosslyn itself. The mythos around it has impinged upon other Lothian sites. Sites that can’t afford 24 hour security against lunatics looking for ‘templar’ secrets are now at risk. I can think of at least another two, and in one case carved stones were appropriated under pretty dubious premises. These theories are not just false and divorced from scholarship and sensitivity to the past. They can cause real harm.

  • Brian

    I’m a bit puzzled by the implication that the scans could have discovered a secret chamber… Laser scanning only records the visible surface and would never have found any non-accessible vaults beneath the building. The purpose of the survey was to record the building not investigate the myths.

  • Thank you for the excellent article. Best thing I read all day. Look forward to reading more from you in the future

  • livilion

    Sorry you chose to disregard my contribution the other day when I stumbled across your article. I take it you have me down as some kind of nut job?

    Suffice to say that laser scans were never going to reveal subterranean detail, as John Ritchie dryly pointed out but you appear not to have picked up on. Perhaps you were confusing lasers with Ground Penetrating Radar so beloved of the ‘Timeteam’ crew on the telly? Kinda snookers your whole article.
    That there have been surveys conducted, such as the USN sonar survey, which demonstrate these underground workings exist does not mean I believe UFOs are parked there or that Christs head is buried there either. I have seen the endoscopic camera images showing stairs descending under the chapel floor blocked off by a wall and infilled with sand and rubble.

    If you have ever visited Rosslyn Chapel vault you should have noticed the patterns etched into the stone walls by the medieval stonemasons as they planned and laid out their work. That vault was the workshop where they lived and carved out stones for the chapel.

    Those who would have you believe that Rosslyn is an unfinished construction of a much larger kirk, have to explain why this Scottish family decided in the early 1400s to build a collegiate church, on the face of it to worship and in which to bury their chiefs, on a scale to rival any cathedral commissioned by Scottish kings themselves either before or since?

    That wee bit about the dozen Templar knights in full armour waiting for the call to come to our aid in time of need, was you getting carried away with yourself. The Sinclairs were simply granted the honour in perpituity to be buried in their armour in gratitude by Robert the Bruce for the distinguished role played by their family at the battle of Bannockburn and the wars of independence.

    The St Clairs or Sinclairs of history were nobody’s fools. So why spend so much time preparing the foundations, build the chapel we now see, and then construct a wall across where the Victorian entrance now stands but neglect to tie it into the existing masonry? Any building onto that wall would collapse the whole structure, gey odd don’t you think, and perhaps worthy of some further investigation?

    My interest in Rosslyn began with a primary school trip from Lanarkshire in the late 60s. I can only wonder at the foresight of my teachers in anticipating Dan Brown’s phenomena half a lifetime later…

    Btw I chuckled myself at the notion of Victorians carving all those Templar and masonic symbols into the chapel, again it begs the question, WHY?
    There was no metalled road when Victoria and Albert visited the site, which itself had been left to nature for over a century and was overgrown with weeds. What on earth were these Victorians thinking eg creating a ‘lightbox’ and then building the new entrance over it, pretty much obscuring all their best efforts?

  • gridmatrix

    livilion I couldn’t agree with you more.

    Lasers cant penetrate the same as side scan sonar. The US Naval scan’s reveil much more detail, and Sir Andrew Sinclair (repestfully noted) has already spoken of the numerous tunnels.

    IMHO, any excavations of the underground chambers (whose doors are 3′ thick) would undermine the entire buildings foundation. This was done for an obvious reason, to deny past, present, and future access. Renovations were just that, and any discovery wasn’t followed by exploration; because the entire structure had to be shored up for safety and esthetic reasons.

    I would like you to contact me, and as a Trio (you, myself, and Mr. Sinclaire) secure funding and permissions for a professional dig. With todays technology, there is no reason that this can’t go forward…and by supporting the foundation (like excavating a basement in an exsisting home) from underneath, done so in a safe and methodical manner.

    [email protected]

  • Geoffrey Morgan

    Secrets at Rosslyn Chapel


    barrel-vaulted roof of the Chapel,
    from east to west comprises sections of carvings of Daises, Lilies, Flowers,
    Roses and Stars. – The Daisy, white petals, the backs tipped with pink,
    its centre has a large yellow (gold) head … white surrounding gold. The white
    Templar Mantle has a large red Latin cross on the back. – The Lilies … St. Matthew, ‘and why take ye thought for raiment.
    Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they
    spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed
    like one of these’. Sir William St Clair introduces King Solomon … and
    Solomon built a Temple.
    – The Flower panel is left for the moment … we move to the Rose panel.
    – In the Song of Solomon … I
    (Solomon) am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys. It is once
    again Solomon and a link with the Lilies and a valley … (the valley of the
    River Sals). – With the Stars there are Angels, the Sun, Moon, a Dove,
    Jesus himself and what looks like water. In Luke’s Gospel … Now when all
    the people were baptised, it came to pass that Jesus also being baptised, and
    praying, the heavens was opened and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape
    like a Dove upon Him and a voice came from Heaven. Jesus (St. Nazaire), and
    the river Sals in the valley at Rennes
    les Bains (a Spa).

    The Daises say, ‘Templar and Gold’  … The Lilies and Roses point to Solomon and
    the ‘Temple at Jerusalem’. The Star section tells us of ‘Jesus and
    bathing’.  Putting the Daisy, Lilies,
    Roses and Star panels together the (Key) message may be read as …The Knight’s Gold from the Temple of Solomon is in the
    Church of St. Nazaire Et Celse at Rennes les Bains.

    The Flower Section is between
    the ‘Roses’ and the ‘Lilies’, both referring to Solomon. The arrow-headed
    pendant boss suspends from the arch separating the Roses and Flower

    The Flower section points us
    to the vaults beneath the Chapel. In Psalm 103 verse 15. … As for man, his
    days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind
    passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.
    … In St Matthew … wherefore, if God so clothe the grass (flowers) of the
    field, which to day is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven … the fireplace
    that is in the Sacristy. (The Apprentices Pillar also holds a clue). A John
    Slezer, writing in 1693, knew of bodies of the barons of Rosslyn found well
    preserved after four score
    years in the vaults … the Holy Grail – a misnomer for the Ark of the Covenant
    was not mentioned.

    Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem,
    ‘The Lay of the Last Minstrel’ – “Seemed all on fire that chapel proud, where Roslyn’s chiefs uncoffin’d lie. Each Baron, for
    a noble shroud, Sheathed in
    his iron panoply. Seemed all
    on fire within, around, deep sacristy and altars pale. Shone every pillar foliage bound (Apprentices Pillar), and glimmered 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” … And when fate was nigh, the
    fire was lit in the fireplace in the Sacristy.

    Sir Walter Scott knew the way
    down into the vaults below the Chapel was via the fireplace in the Sacristy, he
    was privy to the innermost secrets of the Templars.

    ‘Nothing is wanting but the key and
    if thou canst comprehend these things

    knowest enough’ …

    Geoffrey … ‘The Secret Church, the Treasure of