17 October 2009

Sightseeing: Rosslyn Chapel

(One of the green men of Rosslyn Chapel, via Wikipedia.)

Last weekend, Nana and I joined the International Student Centre for a trip to nearby Roslin, home of the famous Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel, made ultra-famous by its recent role in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, is one of those tourist attractions you kind of assume won't live up to the hype. But it does, and then some.

Rosslyn Chapel is notoriously full of surprises, but our first surprise came before we even went in: as it turns out, the current Barons of Roslin are Erskines, which makes them Nana's (very) distant cousins. A whole bunch of them are buried throughout the churchyard.



The other surprise was that, owing to the massive restoration project, there was a catwalk around the exterior of the roof, which was open to visitors. 


The catwalk allowed for up-close inspection of the original stone (the stone inside the chapel is hidden behind a layer of concrete, foolishly applied by those silly Victorians).


As you can see, the chapel is actually multi-hued. It's made of a variety of local sandstones--red, gray, yellow, and grayish-green.

Photography is off-limits inside the chapel, but you can get a sense of the space by looking at some of the photos here. The chapel is a wunderkammer of late-medieval masonry, with nearly every surface in the chapel elaborately carved.

I won't go into the history of the chapel too deeply (if you're interested in more, check out the official website), just enough to tease out some of the many mysteries of the place. Originally built by a Norman knight named Sinclair in the mid-15th century, the chapel is a strange mishmash of Christian iconography, pagan Celtic imagery, and Masonic symbolism, with some references to the Knights Templar thrown in for good measure.What's more, even though construction on the chapel stopped around 1450, several carvings depict New World plants (the giant arch of corn--called "maize" in these parts--being the most obvious), which seems to support the Sinclair/St. Clair family myth that the grandfather of Rosslyn's founder had traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador sometime around 1430.

Naturally, the place is a conspiracy theorist's dream, and some of the wilder speculations name Rosslyn as the final resting place of the Holy Grail, the True Cross, and any number of other Catholic relics. This speculation is cannily encouraged by the St. Clair Erskines, Rosslyn's current proprietors, who have resisted attempts to open the chapel's enormous vaults--at least, that is, until the renovations are done.

Anyway, if you're in Edinburgh, don't let the hype scare you off: go to Rosslyn Chapel.

But while you're there, don't forget to explore the rest of Roslin Glen. Just down the hill from the chapel are the ruins of Roslin Castle (the current seat of the St. Clair Erskines is nearby), a tower of red sandstone looming out of a deep, wooded gully.



You can follow a short trail down some steps to the foundation of the castle, which was apparently a favorite spot of good old Rabbie Burns.


Roslin Glen is also a great illustration of one of the signature quirks of the Scottish landscape: anything exposed to the wind is swept nearly barren, left to gorse and heather, while the sheltered glens are almost like cool, wet jungles. Check out, for example, the moss growing on this tree:


So that's all the sightseeing for now. I'll try to get Nana to post something about her classes. And something tells me there might be some expat pumpkin carving in the offing . . . stay tuned!

Justin and Nana Eat Weird Stuff for Your Entertainment: Haggis Pizza

Yes, you heard me right. That's haggis, on a pizza. Quite tasty, actually, though the haggis-to-pizza ratio was a bit high for Nana's taste.


The truth is, after a while, haggis kind of loses its novelty. It's basically a giant spiced sausage, and in Scotland it's one of the cheapest meats around. But really, really good.

15 October 2009

Edinburgh Castle

(Sorry, Jillian, I have no creative titles for this one!)
Justin and I joined up with a trip sponsored by the Edinburgh University History Society that got us discounted admission to Edinburgh Castle, site of much history and many tourists. Unfortunately, this trip and tour were a long time ago, and I've been remiss in getting them posted, so I have no idea how much I'll remember.
Edinburgh Castle sits high above the city of Edinburgh. How high, you ask, especially Justin's skeptical Pittsburgh relations, whose driveways frequently rate as black diamonds come winter?

That high. I think even Pittsburghers must be impressed.

With the hill, and the commanding view of the water, one can therefore guess that this has been an important defensive position for a significant period of time. One would be correct. Way to go, one! According to the castle web site, the oldest evidence of human settlement on the castle hilltop dates back to 900 BC, with the fortress "Din Eidyn" ("Edwin's Fort") first appearing around 600 BC.

(Side note to Tolkein nerds: Din Eidyn... Dunedain. Warrior men of the North. Make your own call).

The oldest building on site, going back to 1130, is St. Margaret's Chapel, a tiny whitewashed stone room dedicated to the former queen of Scotland. You can just make it out on the far right of this image here. See how the texture of the stone is rougher?

Nearby you can find Mons Meg, a 550 year old medieval siege gun built at Mons, Belgium, and quite frankly not something I would have liked to have had to lug up the hill. I am, however, perfectly happy to pose around it in various undignified ways.

Nor would I have liked to have lugged the ammunition.

The castle was the site of several important battles during what Americans best know as "the Braveheart period," AKA the reign of Edwards I through III. (As our tour guide at the castle put it, "There are three types of movies: movies which tell the history, movies which are based on the history but take some liberties, and movies which make no attempt at historical accuracy whatsoever. Braveheart falls into the third category.") The relevance of the castle at this time is demonstrated by the following text from the castle web site:
Edward I of England invades Scotland, capturing the
castle after a three-day siege.

The Scots, under Robert the Bruce, recapture the castle.

The English retake the castle.

The Scots take it back again.
If I recall correctly, at least one of these sieges involved people boiling human waste to fling down on the enemy at the castle gates. Hey, why waste oil or pitch?
The Great Hall was built in 1511. Justin and I spent most of the time in there having flashbacks to Yale College dining halls, and wondering if we had remembered to swipe our meal cards.

(That's Edinburgh Castle at the top, Yale below).

King James I of England (James VI of Scotland, which, let's face it, is pretty irritating to keep track of) was born at the castle, in a tiny little chamber which we did not photograph, as indoor photography is frowned upon. It was tiny, and entirely paneled in painted wood, with a nice view down off the hill that I bet his mother Mary got awfully tired of while stuck in there in labor.

As they did at many UK historical sites, the Victorians took it upon themselves to improve upon the original. Here, you can see how a medieval wall becomes, halfway up, a Victorian addition:

The castle is also home to the Scottish National War Memorial

and the Honours (with a U!) of Scotland, which in English means the crown, sceptre (not scepter!), and sword of the monarchs of Scotland, along with some really nice royal jewelry. It is an interesting quirk of history, I think, that Scotland maintained its independence in the wake of the wars mentioned above - the not-really Braveheart wars. It was only after James VI went over to become James I (I told you that would be annoying) that the shenanigans started. You would think that a Scottish family on the throne of England would be good news for the Scots, but alas, it was not to be. (Although in all fairness, you could probably say that the problems really began when the Scottish family came off the throne; see Justin's earlier post for review. There will be a quiz.)

Yes, that's me in the lower right. Do you think I would make a good guard? See how vigilant I am!
On second thought, no. It was too cold.