Rosslyn Chapel hasn’t exactly languished in obscurity since building began in 1456 – generations of the aristocratic Sinclair family have worshipped there and Queen Victoria visited in 1842 – but after it featured as the backdrop for a pivotal scene in The Da Vinci Code, the 2006 film of American author Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller of the same name, it’s fair to say the former Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew found fame of the worldwide, household name variety. The kind that brings annual visitor numbers in the tens of thousands.

When Queen Victoria dropped by, the place was a little less busy. The Chapel itself was a ruin thanks mainly to the enthusiastic iconoclasm of the Scottish Reformation of 1560 but also to Oliver Cromwell, whose army had stabled its horses in the building a century or so later after an attack on nearby Rosslyn Castle.

It was on Victoria’s prompting that Scottish architect David Bryce undertook a programme of restoration work and the Chapel was eventually re-dedicated in 1862. The altar, which had been destroyed in 1592, was put back to work and services have been held in the Chapel most weeks since. Further restoration was undertaken in the 1950s and again in the 1990s, when the Rosslyn Chapel Trust was formed. A new visitor centre opened in 2011. This photograph was taken in 2018 and shows the venerable old building bathed in red light as part of a Poppy Scotland appeal to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War.

The building’s exterior is certainly handsome but it’s the interior that draws the tourists – to inspect the famous Prentice Pillar, so-called because it’s said the master stone mason killed the apprentice who carved it in a fit of jealousy; to view the carvings of what looks like maize, then unknown in Europe; or to wonder at the pagan images of Green Men, 110 in all, who gurn and leer from pillars wherever you look, their faces semi-obscured by vegetation. Not for nothing did Dan Brown refer to the building as “the most mysterious and magical chapel on earth”.

Travel restrictions notwithstanding, the Chapel is open for daytime visits as well as for candlelit tours on Thursday and Friday evenings. Booking is essential for all visits.

What to read

At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s only one book to turn to where Rosslyn Chapel is concerned – Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It reheats the idea, popular since the 1980s, that Rosslyn Chapel has a strong connection with the Knights Templar and is the final resting place of the Holy Grail, a theory based in large part on 1982 book The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. If that all sounds preposterous and far-fetched, try William The Cat And The Rescue Of Rosslyn Chapel by the Countess of Rosslyn, with illustrations by Rosie Wellesley.