Grail Quest

Nobody knows where it came from, who made it or what purpose it served. For untold years it lay in a corner of a room in the old town hall of Kirkwall, a painted scroll with mysterious images and symbols incomprehensible to the secret society of Freemasons that owned it.

Now a Cambridge historian believes he has cracked its ancient code to reveal a treasure map that could indicate the burial place of the Holy Grail in Scotland. According to Dr Andrew Sinclair, a graduate of Harvard University, the artefact is also a priceless “missing link” between the Masonic Order and the Catholic Knights Templar of the Crusades.

It was in 1307 that 50 Templars, fleeing persecution by the King of France, sailed from La Rochelle with sacred relics dating from the Crusades. Some of them are said to have landed in Scotland, and it is these knights that Sinclair believes may have been carrying the grail – and to have been the Catholic roots of the Masonic Order that flourished several centuries later.

In a film documenting his findings, to be shown at BAFTA in London on Tuesday, Sinclair identifies the possible site of the grail as the 15th-century Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. “Now we know where and how the crusading Knights Templar passed their eastern wisdom on to the Freemasons of Scotland and the New World, and where the grail may yet be found,” he says.

Other historians, and the present custodians of Rosslyn, are far from convinced. Initial reactions to Sinclair’s thesis range from bemusement to scorn, with one authority on medieval religion suggesting it is reminiscent of the X-Files.

The controversy centres on the hand-painted linen scroll Sinclair saw hanging in the Masonic Lodge in Kirkwall. Using radiocarbon dating, scientists at Oxford University gave the most probable date of its central panel as the 15th century – when Rosslyn Chapel was built by William St Clair, third and last Prince of Orkney.

Among Templar and Masonic emblems, Sinclair discerned a ground plan of the Temple of Solomon, with two chambers containing the Ark of the Covenant and other sacred relics. It matched exactly the plan of Rosslyn Chapel, where he had conducted an excavation of a subterranean vault seven years ago, without result. His workmen were prevented from reaching a larger chamber by a massive wall at least three feet thick. It is in this hidden recess that Sinclair speculates the holy treasures of the crusading knights may lie.

The Knights Templar were one of the first military orders created to defend Jerusalem after its capture in the first Crusade, and to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy City. According to Sinclair, the scroll is the missing link between these refugee knights and Freemasons who inherited their symbols and emblems. “It proves how the Templars contributed to the ancient Scottish rite,” he says. “That overturns the whole of Scottish Masonic history. Its significance is immense. ”

Historians in Scotland are in no hurry to put pen to paper, however. Dr Andrew Roach, lecturer in medieval history at Glasgow University, regards the theories as “highly unlikely”. He points out that almost four centuries elapsed between the disappearance of the Templars and the emergence of the Masons, and he considers the chances of a direct link between them as remote.

Roach is no more impressed by talk of buried treasure. “I think it’s sad. Rosslyn is a fascinating historical artefact, and the fact that people keep analysing it in terms of this nonsense distracts from what is really a fine piece of late medieval art.”

Dr Gary Dickson, of the department of medieval history at Edinburgh University, fears Sinclair has strayed into X-Files territory. “Before you know it, you’re going to have the Loch Ness monster, along with the Freemasons, putting in a cameo role in an all-star performance with the Scottish Templars.”

More seriously, he adds: “The interpretation of any kind of iconography is fraught with difficulties. Even for experts it is treacherous. If you have your own agenda, the tendency to impose it and see what you want to see is very great. The danger then is to make connections which do not in fact exist, and cannot be documented. The temptation to connect everything to a great, hidden theme that nobody has perceived before ends up in the sort of history which is a combination of folklore and occultism.”

As for the Holy Grail, the legendary receptacle of the blood of Christ, Dickson regards it as no more than a folk tale. “It is a literary invention dating from the 12th century. There is a whole mythology about it, but there is no proof, as far as I know, that it ever actually existed.”

Whether it did, and lies in a sealed vault at Rosslyn, is likely to remain a mystery – by law. Since Sinclair’s excavations, the chapel on the edge of the Esk Valley has been taken over by a private trust dedicated to its conservation and bound by restrictions imposed by Historic Scotland.

Stuart Beattie, the project director at Rosslyn, says they are not permitted to remove a blade of grass from the grounds without government permission, much less drill into subterranean caverns. “We are not in the business of being grail hunters at the moment, although I think there are members of the trust and a lot of the public who would like to see invasive investigations. The immediate priority is to focus on conservation work, and then perhaps the trust might turn its attention to more esoteric matters.”

Beattie admits Rosslyn benefits from legends and myths that surround the ancient site, which have fuelled donations for restoration work. He is sceptical about Dr Sinclair’s claims, but is pleased to hear about them. “Rosslyn attracts a huge number of exciting stories, and I suspect this is one more we shall enjoy. Were we to actually find any one of the number of relics that we are supposed to have, it would be like winning the lottery.”

The mummified head of Christ is among sacred items that legends speak of being smuggled to Rosslyn by the descendants of crusading knights. Sir Walter Scott wrote of Knights of the Grail being buried there. Beattie speculates that the crew of the Marie Celeste may be with them in a secret vault.

Visitors intrigued by the Kirkwall scroll may inspect a replica of it, made in 1911, which has been hanging at Rosslyn for the past two years, Robert Bird, exhibition director at the chapel, is a great admirer of the original. “It is mysterious, there is no doubt about it,” he says, “and it is extremely rare and historically important. But my own feeling is that it is not as old as Sinclair suggests. Stylistically it seems to be of more recent origin.”

According to an official history of the Kirkwall Masonic lodge, it may have been the work of an 18th-century house painter by the name of William Graeme. The book refers to a minute of a meeting on 27 January, 1786, which records that Graeme presented the lodge with a “floor cloth” on being admitted as a member.

“It seems very likely that what we now call the Kirkwall Scroll was the floor cloth of 1786,” the book says. “Graeme, an Orcadian by birth, had been resident in England for some years. He was a house painter by trade and it may be feasible to suggest therefore he had a hand in the painting of it, if not in its design.”

Academic controversies over the origin and meanings of ancient artefacts are inevitable, and the scepticism of fellow historians is unlikely to dissuade Sinclair that he has made an important discovery. He remains convinced that if he is ever allowed to burrow into the main vault at Rosslyn, he will find at least all of its Knights of the Grail, buried in their full armour. As they were official keepers of holy relics in Scotland, he suspects the Holy Rood may be lying with them.

Gavin Bell
Saturday, 22nd July 2000
The Scotsman
© The Scotsman Publications Ltd.

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