Opening the door to the real Rosslyn
7 Nov 2005
It's the blue blanket, an ancient symbol of Edinburgh, said to date back to the time of the Crusades and raised whenever the city's tradesmen were called upon to defend the king.
Yeah, yeah, he says, but take a look at this carving . . .
Ian is darting around Rosslyn Chapel, pointing out the areas where Dan Brown got it all wrong in his best-selling book The Da Vinci Code. For he and another historian, Mark Oxbrow, have just published Rosslyn and The Grail, their take on the Holy Grail myth which surrounds the Midlothian chapel and which has spawned a major tourism industry and a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Hanks.
But what about the blanket? How on earth did he come to have it? With a modest shrug, he says: "I got friendly with the couple that used to look after it and when they decided it was time to move on, my fiancée Vivienne and I were asked to move in.
"So we left our flat in Bathgate and moved into this glorious New Town basement flat, which is where the blue blanket is kept."
What he's skirting around is that he is now the custodian of the private craft museum of the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh at the Trades Maiden Hospital in Melville Street. And the blue blanket is one of their most important relics.
However, he's been there done that in his last book Quest for the Celtic Key. We meet - a day before he is due to get married to Vivienne, but not in Rosslyn Chapel - to discuss his latest obsession.
"I remember coming to Rosslyn Chapel as a boy with my Uncle Eddie who had come over from America with a guide book, and it mentioned the history of the chapel.
"I was fascinated and it started from there," he grins.
It's easy to see why. Sat on a hillside on the outskirts of the Capital, situated near a stream and overlooking fields and forests, the tiny medieval Rosslyn Chapel, built in 1446 by Lord of Rosslyn, Sir William St Clair, is certainly magical and captivating.
And, of course, thanks to Dan Brown it's also is now one of the most famous and mysterious churches in the world. But the 44-year-old historian, who as a pupil at Penicuik High detested history - "I blame my teacher" - had always been interested in his local church long before it became a magnet for tourists desperate to find out if Brown's book contains any truth.
"I really read up about it as a pastime," he says. As such he is somewhat of a Rosslyn buff. Indeed, Brown has nothing on this man.
His book, with Oxbrow - another Edinburgh historian, who now lives in Glasgow - is the result of decades of reading, researching and devouring all the legends.
And this time there's no fiction, no sensationalism. Instead, Ian claims, after 500 years shrouded in mystery and myth, the secrets of the chapel, the castle, King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail have been revealed in their book.
"We had both written about Rosslyn way before the Da Vinci Code came out," he says. "Strangely, the place we met was through a group called the Saunier Society which is mentioned in the Da Vinci Code, and we had our first meeting at the Templar Lodge hotel in Gullane.
"We were both speaking about Rosslyn, freemasonry and the Knights Templars, we'd both grown up in the area - Mark in Buckstone and me in Penicuik - and we were both interested in the wonderful historical tales that surrounded the area."
IT must have been fate. Together they have been working on the chapel's complete history - and they found rather large anomalies.
"We'd both been on our own personal quest for years, so when we got together we swapped tales," says Ian.
"Most of what we know of the chapel comes from one man, a priest called Father Hay who was related to the family (St Clair), so in 1700 when he wrote a book about the genealogy of the chapel, he apparently had access to family papers.
"There's relatively little contemporary information about the chapel, but we've based our book on the old material such as the myths and legends that have been passed down. There may be historical facts that have been elaborated, but as academics we questioned the sources and have only put together legends that add up. I think people have really been too fluid with stories."
Ian and Mark, who are also speakers on Arthurian and Grail legends, British folklore, Freemasonry and are both Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland jokingly call themselves "anoraks". But they were determined to research Rosslyn properly, putting together old tales in an attempt to tell "the truth."
"We've shown that it's a Christian place of worship - not Pagan, as has been said - and that's confirmed by the way the building has been built. Traditionally, the foundations of all buildings began in the north-east which is symbolic of the day starting in the east.
"The carvings remain youthful in the east and progress in age towards the north, as the north in Scottish tradition is associated with death and winter. It comes full circle, beginning with carvings of an angel in the east opening a book, and finishing with an angel with a closed book - the end of the story.
"It's not Dan Brown symbology, it's the real deal."
But while he is critical of Brown in the historical sense, Ian admits to being somewhat of a fan. "Hats off to him - I wish I'd written the thing," he laughs. "It was very clever - with such detail. But, at the beginning when he included the statement that although it's a novel it's all correct, we took issue with it and thought, that's rubbish."
Which is why, although the duo had already started writing Rosslyn and The Grail, when Brown's novel was released they chose to redress some of the inaccuracies.
"The number of people that come here with the Dan Brown book in their pocket - we just had to include it in the book, and tell the truth about what he claims," he says.
The result is a book which tackles the myths about whether the Holy Grail is buried beneath the chapel, whether the Knights Templar hid their treasure in a secret crypt and whether the thousands of carvings within the chapel have secret meanings.
According to Ian, no-one has ever come close to uncovering the truth about Rosslyn until now, but why? "They're looking in the wrong places and they're not looking into 15th-century Scottish history," answers Ian. "Previous writers have flown in, got their taxi to the chapel, walked round the chapel and gone back home again. We've grown up in the area - I played in the glen, my parents told me stories of Rosslyn so nobody I know of has written the truth until now."
However, while he's happy to put Brown fans straight, Ian doesn't want to destroy all the mystique of Rosslyn. "There's something quite unique about Rosslyn, quite like the Loch Ness monster as we'll probably never get to the bottom of what it's all about."
• Rosslyn and The Grail, by Mark Oxbrow and Ian Robertson, published by Mainstream, priced £15.99 is out on November 14
DEBUNKING THE MYTHS
IN the opening pages of Dan Brown's blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code, he claims: "Fact... all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Not so, according to the Da Vinci code breakers, Ian and Mark. "The Da Vinci Code is a great book but it doesn't tell the truth," says Ian. Here, Ian and Mark set the record straight.
1 THE KNIGHTS
Dan Brown's myth: Rosslyn Chapel was built by holy warriors, the Knights Templar. Ian and Mark's truth: The chapel was built in 1446 by Lord of Rosslyn, Sir William St Clair, a century after the last Templar Grand Master was burned at the stake in 1314.
2 LAMB OF GOD AND MERLIN'S DRAGON
Dan Brown's myth: Rosslyn contains symbols and clues of the Knights Templar.
Ian and Mark's truth: The Lamb of God carving is said to be similar to a carving in a genuine Templar church in London, but Ian claims this carving was a popular Christian symbol used in churches, cathedrals and chapels throughout the world and so isn't necessarily connected to the Knights.
3 THE STAR OF DAVID
Dan Brown's myth: The chapel hides a six-pointed star worn into the floor, which marks a secret vault.
Ian and Mark's truth: "If you look under the red carpet that now covers much of the chapel's floor and examine the aisles, you will find no sign whatsoever of any path worn into the stone floor," says Ian. "Dan Brown invented it. There are many five-pointed stars in the vaulted stone ceiling of the chapel and an eight-pointed star beneath the Nativity scene in the Lady Choir."
And the hidden vault? It's the burial vault of the St Clairs of Rosslyn.
4 THE HOLY GRAIL
Dan Brown's myth: Rosslyn was once home to the Holy Grail, which in fact is not a cup but a bloodline from the offspring of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, as well as her lost gospels. This holy bloodline was dubbed the Rose Line, and so the name Rosslyn was derived.
Ian and Mark's truth: "The name Rosslyn definitely does not derive from any hallowed Rose Line," says Ian. "It has nothing to do with a bloodline. The name actually originates from the Scots words 'Ross' which means hill, and 'Lynn' which means waterfall.
5 KING SOLOMON'S TEMPLE
Dan Brown's myth: Rosslyn Chapel is a copy of King Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.
Ian and Mark's truth: The chapel was supposed to be much bigger and in the shape of a cross, but work stopped when Sir William died and his family simply roofed over what was already built.
ONE THING THE DA VINCI CODE DID GET RIGHT. .
In his book, Dan Brown talks about the Murdered Apprentice, a young stonemason who was killed by his jealous master after he carved an ornate pillar better than that of the senior mason. This story is actually true. The Apprentice Pillar stands near the chapel's altar. "At least he got that right," laughs Ian.