Source: The Scotsman
27th July 2000
The Painted Scroll
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
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 masons 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
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
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
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
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 Bryden, 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.
Mysteries, UFOs, etc.
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