Never reaching the end. Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send. Mashing the 1967 Moody Blues song with history, the subjects of this blog wore mantles of linen or canvas rather than satin. And many of the letters they’ve written did get sent, although delivery was never assured in those dangerous times. We’re talking about the Dark Ages and the legendary Knights Templar!
The “Order of Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon” was established in the early 1100s as a Monastic order to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land. They became known as the Knights Templar, wearing white mantles with a red cross to reference their faith. The Order’s Seal of 2 knights riding on one horse indicated their humble origins but very soon, the Templars became a force to be reckoned with. They rapidly grew into the strongest and wealthiest Western Christian military order, pretty much created modern banking by inventing letters of credit and checks (making for safer travel) and are seen as the first true multinational, based in several countries. Oh, and they’re rumored to have found the Holy Grail!
But: did they reach the end of their quest indeed? Did they really find the Grail? If so, where did they hide it? Or is it all just a legend…
Fascinated by the stories, we recently took the “Scottish Borders & Rosslyn Chapel” day tour out of Edinburgh, operated by our Authentic Vacations partners at Rabbie’s Tours. This day trip is perfect if you’re interested in the history of the Scottish Borders, its Roman occupation, the many Abbeys, and for fans of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, the thrill of experiencing Rosslyn Chapel and its Holy Grail legends for yourselves.
The tour starts at Rabbie’s “office and coffee shop”, a combination more companies should implement! It’s situated at 6 Waterloo Place, on the New Town side of Waverley Station, a short walk from Old Town. Entering the Coffee Shop you’ll see a big display board with the day’s tours and driver’s name. Grab a coffee and a pastry if you like, and pop outside to check in with Rabbie’s roving ticketing person. When the time comes, walk east up the street to your clearly marked van – they had like 10 lined up even in this quiet season – where you will be greeted by your driver/guide. Ours was Alan, our lucky day, as he used to work at Rosslyn Chapel and had the inside scoop.
Fun fact: the tour company’s full name is “Rabbie’s Trail Burners”, a play on words and nod to Scotland’s literary great Robert Burns. In Scots, “Rab” is short for “Robert”.
Alan drove us out of Edinburgh, while pointing out sites and telling stories. As the day went on, he also played Scottish and other music, adding informative little tidbits about his selections.
SCOTT’S VIEW – AND WAVERLEY EXPLAINED
The first stop was at “Scott’s View”, a scenic spot named after Sir Walter Scott, another literary giant, commemorated with a huge monument in downtown Edinburgh. Nicknamed the “Great Scot”, he is the only author in the world to have a train station named after one of his novels: the aforementioned Waverley Station is named after the novel “Waverley”, the story of young Scot Edward Waverley in the days of the Jacobite uprising under Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Scott’s View was Sir Walter’s favorite view and it does its name justice: beautiful scenery, albeit a bit sprinkly during our stop. I had a particular interest, as the view looks out over the Eildon Hills, starting scene of my February “Saint Cuthbert Way” weeklong hike from Melrose to Holy Island (see Blog post on that). I even had a “Holy Grail” coffee on that trip; little did I know…
THE FIRST WILLIAM WALLACE MONUMENT
Next up, just a few minutes away, Alan pulled over for a short walk to a rather imposing statue of William Wallace. Commissioned by the 11th Earl of Buchan, and created by local sculptor John Darnick, it was revealed on September 22nd, 1814, the 517th anniversary of Wallace’s great triumph at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. It stands an amazing 31 feet high.
The statue is widely recognized as the earliest monument to the Scots hero who fought the English with everything at his disposal, losing his life in a most horrid fashion at the end. Hero for sure, but please do NOT call him “Braveheart”! That honorific is reserved for Robert the Bruce, victor of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn and King of the Scots. The confusion caused by Mel Gibson’s 1995 movie annoys the Scots to no end.
Another site here is the Temple of the Muses, also commissioned by the Earl of Buchan. If you’re very fast, you may want to run down along the path to the Temple – but your tour group will be yelling for you if you take too long. Trust me on that….
MELROSE: ABBEYS AND ROMANS
The third stop was the town of Melrose. Rightfully famous for its Abbey, there are many more abbeys in the Scottish Borders, for example in nearby Jedburgh and Dryburgh. The break in Melrose was long enough for sightseeing and lunch, with several choices for both. We had a nice lunch at a local bakery and then, skipping Melrose Abbey – been there before – we visited the Roman Museum on the High Street, run by the Trimontium Trust.
Around 80 AD, the Romans established a fort about a mile away at Newstead and named it “Trimontium”, for the three “mountains” of this area, the aforementioned Eildon Hills. The Romans were here on and off for about 200 years, in what they called the province of Valentia, trying but never fully occupying this part, let alone all of “Caledonia”, Scotland.
The legionaries are long gone and in their stead, we enjoyed a whirlwind tour by the most awesome older gentleman guide. Could have spent much longer here but, the van was waiting and I didn’t want to risk being tardy again!
ROSSLYN CHAPEL: LEGENDS, ART and KNIGHTS
After Melrose, it’s on to the main destination: Rosslyn Chapel, forever linked to the Knights Templar. We got to spend several hours here and were fortunate on this intermittently pretty October day, as the summer crowds were long gone. The entrance ticket is not included in the tour, so be prepared to purchase that. Totally worth it, as you can’t see the Chapel any other way – and I checked, walking all around it, including along well-kept World War I and II cemeteries down to Rosslyn Castle, site of interesting ruins and still partly in use.
Rosslyn Chapel, official name “Collegiate Chapel of Saint Matthew”, gives you a sense of mystery indeed. The Chapel was started in 1446 by Sir William Sinclair and built up in fits and starts but never completely finished. I won’t go into all the history – there is plenty of literature about that, and the Rosslyn Chapel website provides a wealth of information. Suffice it to say that thanks to Dan Brown, the place felt somewhat familiar, in a spine-tingling kind of way. And gorgeous it is too, boasting incredible craftsmanship and detail.
MASTER YOUR FURY
There is a legend about the most impressively carved column of them all, the Apprentice Pillar. In the 1800s, the Master Mason set about to carve a gorgeous pillar, assisted by his apprentice. Barely into the project, the Master left on a trip to study an original work elsewhere. He wanted to bring back additional knowledge, as he did not think his apprentice could contribute without being taught properly. When he got back, the apprentice had completed the pillar, creating a work of stunning beauty, a masterpiece! Furious instead of proud, the Master bashed the apprentice’s head in with a mallet and killed him. As punishment for his crime, the Master’s face was then carved gargoyle-style high up in a corner to forever be looking at the Apprentice Pillar. No inside photography allowed, so you’ll just have to go visit to see it for yourself!
Try to time your Chapel entry so you don’t miss the overview provided by a local docent, most interesting. They do repeat like hourly, so you’ll get a chance or two. I took a quick pop down into the crypt, pretty cool – but forget trying to spot potential hiding places for the Holy Grail. Rosslyn is forever legend-linked with it but despite sophisticated hi-tech efforts, no one ever succeeded in finding anything. If it is hidden here, all we can say is that those Templars did a masterly job…
Fun fact: our Knights Templar were not the only knights obsessed by the Holy Grail. The legendary relic was also hunted by the Knights Who Say “Ni” in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, a somewhat less intimidating Order!
TIME FOR REFRESHMENTS – and GIFTS
After this overwhelming onslaught of history and art, you may find yourself in need of refreshments. I know I did! The very worthwhile Chapel Visitor Center has a café/restaurant in addition to the inevitable gift shop. Alternatively, Rosslyn Village is only a short walk back up the road. I did the latter and found several pubs to choose from, offering nice local draughts. Rehydrated, I went back into Rosslyn Chapel – the entrance ticket provides in-and-out privileges – and the weather had improved, allowing for better pictures. The walk also takes you by the original Rosslyn Inn dating back to 1660, which later became known as the Collegehill House, and an interesting Knight helmet carved in stone. Templar?
After Rosslyn, Alan toured us back to Edinburgh, sharing more stories and playing music. Passing through the pretty scenery, we felt this tour day treated us to a wonderful combination of education, information, fun and even some exercise! And isn’t that what makes up a successful trip?
In the meantime, the legend of the Holy Grail lives on. Who knows what the next thousand years will bring. Do you think we’ll ever find it? I’m sticking with the Moody Blues: I know you’re out there somewhere, somewhere….
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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