Packed full of ornate stone carvings and mysterious legends, Rosslyn Chapel is one of the most intriguing buildings in Scotland. Construction began in 1446, high up on a small hill overlooking Roslin Castle. Sir William Sinclair had grand plans to create an enormous, elaborate church that would be the envy of the Scottish nobility.
Prioritising perfection over speed meant that the choir and vault below were all that had been completed by the time William passed away in 1484. Not wishing to spend any more time or money, the builder’s son cut the original design short and declared Rosslyn Chapel complete.
Everywhere you look, the chapel’s walls, arches and pillars are adorned with intricate, 500-year-old carvings. Each tells a story, from Biblical scenes such as the Nativity or the Crucifixion to portrayals of important Sinclair family members like William the Seemly. There’s even a carved band of musical angels, playing trumpets, harps and of course the bagpipes.
Of all the stories and carvings found within Rosslyn Chapel’s walls, the most famous surrounds the astounding Apprentice Pillar. It’s one of three prominent columns standing side by side including the beautiful, but simple, Mason’s Pillar. When the chapel was being constructed, the master mason carved this pillar with straight, rigid patterns. It was a work of art, but he still wasn’t happy.
William Sinclair expected better, these columns would be some of the first things visitors to the chapel saw. The mason was struggling for inspiration but knew he wasn’t going to find it in Scotland. With permission from William, he left to tour the continent where he could study the incredible artwork in places like France or Italy.
However, while he was gone, his young apprentice had a vision and with confidence in his own abilities, set to work on the remaining column. It took years before the master mason returned, full of new ideas and enthusiasm. Eager to show off what he had learned on his European trip, the traveller arrived at Rosslyn Chapel to be met with a perfectly finished pillar.
It was remarkable. Twisting vines and leaves reach a flourish of protruding plants at the top while writhing serpents are portrayed gnawing at the base. Astonished at the quality and devastated that he had lost his chance to create his own masterpiece, the mason demanded to know which master craftsman this work belonged to!
When the mason discovered it was his own apprentice who had eclipsed his skill, he flew into a fit of jealous rage. Picking up his hammer he struck out and crushed the apprentice’s skull with one blow. William Sinclair was furious at the crime and the mason was soon executed for the boy’s murder. The other craftsmen were equally upset, deciding that the punishment didn’t go far enough.
First, they created a replica of the apprentice’s head, complete with the gash caused by the mason’s hammer, in a corner of Rosslyn Chapel as a lasting memorial. Next, the master mason’s likeness was placed opposite the ornate Apprentice Pillar, where he would be forced to stare at its grandeur for the rest of time.
Written by Graeme Johncock
Graeme is the writer and storyteller behind Scotland’s Stories, sharing the traditional folklore and legends that make Scotland truly incredible.