The St. Clairs - Protectors of the Gypsies

The St Clair family had a curious affinity for gypsies, at a time when the laws against harbouring them were stringent.

In the middle of the 16th century, Sir William St Clair, grandson of the chapel builder, not only allowed gypsies to live in a part of Rosslyn Castle, but also intervened to save a gypsy from the gallows on Borough Moor. After this, it became the custom for gypsies to gather in Roslin Glen every May and June to perform plays. (The St Clairs of Caithness also protected gypsies in their lands.)

Significantly the plays that they performed were those telling the tales of Robin Hood - which were also then, like the gypsies, banned by law, because of their pagan and subversive undertones. (The two towers of Rosslyn Castle in which the gypsies lived were called 'Robin Hood' and 'Little John'.)

         Rosslyn Chapel drawing

Such was the gypsy presence in Roslin Glen that it became the subject of a Privy Council Enactment in 1623. This pointed out that the law required those in authority to 'execute to the deid the counterfeit thieves and limmers, the Egyptians' and complained that within the St Clair lands at Rosslyn 'they have a peaceful receipt and abode as if they were lawful subjects'. The Privy Council ordered that the Sheriff of Rosslyn - himself a Sinclair - to 'pass, search, hunt and pursue the said vagabond thieves' and to bring them to Edinburgh for punishment for the offence of simply being 'Egyptians'. Eight gypsy men were hanged, and their wives and children sentenced to be drowned, but the King commuted the sentence to banishment from Scotland.

At the moment the Rosslyn Chapel Visitors' Centre features an exhibition of the Rosslyn connection with gypsies, with exhibits loaned by internationally-respected Edinburgh historian and collector Robert Brydon.

The Last of the Line

Apart from the many prominent political positions that members of the family held over the centuries, the St Clairs also occupy a central place in the history and development of Freemasonry - another tradition well represented in Rosslyn Chapel, the finest flowering of the masons' art in Scotland.

Until the 18th century, the St Clairs were hereditary Grand Masters of Freemasonry in Scotland, although some dispute Sir William St. Clair, last of the male linethe legitimacy of this. The last male representative of the Rosslyn St Clairs, Sir William, who had no male heir himself, gave up the hereditary right in 1736, an act that led to the creation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, which elected him as their first Grand Master. Strangely, Sir William was not in fact a Freemason, and had first to be initiated at the Kilwinning Lodge before he could take up his title.

On his death in 1778, Sir William was buried in Rosslyn Chapel with full Masonic honours. His funeral oration said of him: 'Descended from an illustrious house, whose heroes have often bled in their country's cause, he inherited their intrepid spirit, united with the milder virtues of humanity and the polished manners of a gentleman.'

This Sir William made other arrangements to overcome the difficulties presented by his lack of male heir - although he had a daughter, Sarah. He sold the Rosslyn estates, including the chapel, to General James Sinclair, who was himself a direct descendant of the chapel-builder.

Sir William St Clair, the chapel-builder, had married twice. His first marriage was to Elizabeth Douglas, daughter of the Earl of Douglas, who had herself been married before, being the widow of the Constable of France. However, the marriage between Sir William and Elizabeth was ordered to be terminated by the Church on the grounds that they were too closely related - but Sir William obtained a special dispensation from the Pope and remarried her. She died 1452, after bearing him a son, William. Sir William's second wife was Marjory Sutherland of Dunbeath, by whom he had five more sons.

Curiously, Sir William passed over his eldest son, by his first marriage, when deciding on the inheritance of his titles and estates. In 1476 he drew up a charter leaving the estates in southern Scotland, including Rosslyn, to the eldest son of his second marriage, Sir Oliver St Clair, and giving the title of the Earl of Caithness, and his lands in northern Scotland, to the second son, also named William. (The disinherited William, however, was given the title Baron Sinclair and declared head of the St Clairs by Act of Parliament.)

The 18th-century Sir William was the last direct male descendant of Sir Oliver St Clair. But as General James Sinclair was a direct descendant of the disinherited William, selling Rosslyn to him ensured that it was kept in the hands of the male descendants of the original builder.

Sir William's daughter Sarah married Sir Peter Wedderburn, and their son, Alexander Wedderburn St Clair, was granted the title of first Earl of Rosslyn in 1801. So for a brief time, the Rosslyn lands and title were inherited separately, but as the result of a succession of childless marriages in the early 19th century, both passed to Sir James St Clair Erskine (great-grandson of Sir William St Clair and great-nephew of General James Sinclair). Sir James and his grandson, Francis St Clair Erskine, 4th Earl of Rosslyn, were elected Grand Master Masons of Scottish Freemasonry. The St Clair Erskines are the current owners of Rosslyn Chapel.

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