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Roslin Glen


The dramatic site on the River North Esk includes the ruined Rosslyn Castle, Rosslyn Chapel, 19th-century walks and the gardens associated with Hawthornden Castle. These consist largely of a 20th-century formal garden incorporating 19th-century plantings of Irish yew. The mixed oak woodland is the largest surviving area of ancient woodland in Midlothian, supporting over 200 species of flowering plants and 60 species of breeding birds.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Type of Site

Roslin Glen, a steep-sided picturesque gorge along the River North Esk, supports a mixed deciduous valley wood with ground flora characteristic of ancient woodland, 47ha of which has been designated as a SSSI. From the early 1600s the glen was laid out with riverside walks centred on Rosslyn Chapel, Rosslyn and Hawthornden Castles. The glen, studded with natural and antiquarian features, became popular with tourists from the 18th century onwards.

Location and Setting

Roslin Glen is situated immediately south of Loanhead and Polton, 1km off the A768 Dalkeith-Loanhead road. Hawthornden Castle is situated at the north end of the glen, on the south banks of the River North Esk, with Rosslyn Castle at the southern end, on the north banks of the river.

The glen is primarily wooded, with stands of ancient oak woodland cladding the steep ravine. Views of Rosslyn Castle and Chapel can be seen from the B7003 Roswell-Roslin road. Within the glen views are to be found looking across and up to Hawthornden Castle, and from Rosslyn Castle along the glen. Additional views are to be gained from the Castles and from the walks which extend below them. There are numerous views, over the tree canopy into the surrounding countryside, from other high-level walks along the glen.

The extent of the designed landscape of Roslin Glen and Hawthornden Castle defined here is based on the walks recommended in Black's Picturesque Tourist Guide of Scotland, 1879. The north boundary is marked by the Bilston Burn, which flows into the River North Esk. From here the walk leads via a footbridge over the burn and into the glen. This is mirrored by a similar footbridge, to the south of Rosslyn Castle, which starts the walk at the southern end. To the east and west the Glen is bounded on the steep-sided wooded gorge.

The boundaries of Hawthornden Castle garden have contracted since the mid 19th century when Rhododendron walks (now overgrown) extended to the east of the Castle.

Landscape Components

Architectural Features

Rosslyn Chapel was built c 1446 and is notable for its curious and exceptional ornamental stone detail throughout the building, of particular note is the sculptured vaulting and the 'Prentice Pillar'. It was last restored by David Bryce, 1860-1, and is currently undergoing a programme of conservation and restoration (1999). Rosslyn Castle occupies a strong defensive position on a bend in the River Esk with an approach from the north via a bridge over a deep cutting. Much of the earlier castle was destroyed by a fire, 1452, and during later English attacks. It was further damaged by a mob in 1688. the east block (partly 16th century) stands and is occupied. Hawthornden Castle, situated upstream from Rosslyn Castle, sits on a triangle promontory. It consists of a ruinous 15th century tower, with Drummond's 17th century house attached. The house was heightened and altered in the 18th century. The single-storey Lodge and Entrance Gateway were built c 1820. The former has Gothic-latticed windows.

Drives and Approaches

Hawthornden is approached off a minor road and along a picturesque drive, with informal tree planting and wide grass verges. Chapel Loan, south of the village of Roslin, leads to Rosslyn Castle. The drive leads through Roslin Chapel Cemetery and over a dry-bridge are the remains of a track which crossed the river eastwards by a stone bridge. An engraving entitled Rosslyn Castle, Ante 1700 by J. Gellatly shows a grand walled approach from the south with an avenue of trees.

Paths and Walks

The paths leading along the Glen largely follow those depicted on the 1854, OS 6". In 1892 benches lined the path at intervals along the west bank of the River North Esk (1892, OS 25").

From the southern (Roslin) end of the Glen the path leads through two graveyards below Rosslyn Chapel and follows the drive to the castle. By the side of the bridge leading to Rosslyn Castle the path descends sharply and leads under the bridge to the west bank of the river. Along the west bank of the Esk, the path ascends and descends quite steeply with the choice of various alternative routes leading higher up or lower down the valley side. Approaching General Monck's Battery, the path passes through the remains of the gardens of Rosebank House, a 19th century villa. The path is lined on its west side by a row of yews set atop a low stone terrace. Behind this is a rhododendron walk, and a walk of Irish yew, with other garden trees and shrubs. The path continues past Hawthornden Castle, where views have become overgrown, and finally arrives at Polton.


Roslin Glen is the largest and most diverse surviving example of ancient woodland in Midlothian. The woodland is largely a deciduous mix of sessile oak (Quercus petraea), ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and wych elm (Ulmus procera). Other species include beech (Fagus sylvatica), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), hazel (Corylus avellana), and holly (Ilex aquifolium). The diverse topography and habitats give rise to over 200 species of flowering plants, 60 species of breeding bird, and a rich lichen flora.

In 1803 Dorothy Wordsworth's overriding impressions were of the woodland comprising Scots pine: 'I never passed through a more delicious dell than the Glen of Roslin, though the water of the stream is dingy and muddy. The banks were rocky on each side, and hung with pine wood'. Large clumps of hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), with Scots pine on the higher ground, contribute to the picturesque character of the southern part of the glen, at the base of Rosslyn Castle.

The Gardens

Little is known of the early 17th century landscape at Hawthornden Castle, or of the 19th century gardens. Late 19th century photographs show a formal garden at the east entrance front, below the drive (1897). This comprised a central circular segmented bed with scroll-shaped beds around the edge. A line of Irish yews (Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata') survive from this layout. A surviving stone wall separated the drive from this garden. In the 1930s, Maude Stebbing, a garden designer, laid out formal beds between the surviving Irish yews. South-east of the castle is a terrace, with vaults below, and a grass walk above which leads to the Glen.

At Rosslyn Castle, little survives from any early garden layout. Gellatly's engravings show the Castle and its grounds before the slighting of the Castle in 1650, but the probability is that these are idealised views. They show a typical castle courtyard set centrally with a low trellised enclosure around a central well. Outside the enclosure is the outline of a hedge or beds, with a curved end to the south. Another view shows the well surrounded by four grass plats with a path leading to the gatehouse and series of round-arched recesses set in the west wall of the courtyard, with a wall-walk above. Below Rosslyn Castle and above the river is the remains of a shallow earth terrace planted with yew (Taxus baccata), possibly the remnants of an earlier garden.

Walled Garden

South of Rosslyn Castle there are remains of a walled garden, known from 19th century views to have been used as a vegetable garden. The walled garden Hawthornden Castle has three high stone and brick walls on its north, east and west sides and a low wall on the south. A range of 19th century glass-houses survives on the north wall.

Visitor Access, Directions & Contacts

Access contact details

Roslin Glen Nature Reserve, Rosslyn Chapel and Roslin Country Park are open to the public. Please see:



Rosslyn Castle was the medieval seat of the Princes of Orkney, who enclosed deer parks at the beginning of the 15th century. The chapel was founded in the mid-15th century and abandoned at the end of the century. In 1610 William Drummond inherited the estate and retired to Hawthornden Castle where he laid out walks along the ravines. The chapel was restored in the mid-18th century.

Roslin Glen is a cultural landscape that attracted many artists and literary figures from the 18th century onwards, drawn by the picturesque and antiquarian qualities of the site. Among those who left records of their visits are Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, the Wordsworths and William Turner.

There were further developments in the 19th century, including a formal garden which was re-designed in the 1930s by Maude Stebbing. In the late-20th century Midlothian Council created Roslin Country Park and 19 hectares of the glen became a Nature Reserve for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. Hawthornden House currently functions as a writers' retreat.

The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:

Reason for Inclusion

Roslin Glen is a cultural landscape developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, epitomising the Scottish Romantic landscape portrayed by numerous artists, historical and literary figures. The poet William Drummond of Hawthornden settled here, and both poetry and place inspired Robert Burns; Lord Byron; Sir Walter Scott; William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and the artist J.M.W. Turner. Part of the wooded gorge is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Main Phases of Landscape Development

Bronze Age activity, 15th-19th century, and to the present day.

Site History

The name 'Roslin' is said to derive from the Celtic words ross, a rocky promontory and lynn, a waterfall. These features make up the scenery in the steep-sided glen formed by the River North Esk.

Little is known of early landscape activity in Roslin Glen but Earl Henry St Clair, 2nd Prince of Orkney, is said to have enclosed land at Roslin as parks for fallow and red deer 1400. In 1446 his son William St Clair (d.1484), 3rd Prince of Orkney, founded Rosslyn Chapel, set on the northern ridge of the glen. Only the Quire was built, overlooking the North Esk and commanding a wide prospect of the surrounding country. This dramatic setting was recognised and appreciated by incorporating stone seating into the eastern elevation of the building (Wallace, 1993). Despite the Reformation, it was not until 1592 that the Chapel ceased to be used and fell into disrepair. It was abandoned until 1736 when James St Clair glazed the windows, repaired the roof and relaid the floor.

Appreciation of the natural landscape, set with its ruins and antiquities, can be dated back to the early 17th century when William Drummond (1585-1649) retired to Hawthornden on inheriting the estate in 1610. The extent of his landscaping activities are unknown, although he is known to have rebuilt his house at Hawthornden by 1638, his achievement later marked by a plaque in the courtyard. He wrote of the solace he found among the walks and groves he created at Hawthornden, on the steep, tree-clad banks of the River Esk:

'Deare wood, and you, sweet solitary place,

Where from the vulgar I estranged to live,

Contented more with what your shades me give

Than if I had what Thetis doth embrace''

Inscribing above his door the Stoical epigram 'ut honestio otio quiesceret' ' ''that he might rest in honourable peace'', his philosophy echoes that of Sir Alexander Seton (1555-1623) at Pinkie (q.v. Pinkie House). A neo-Stoic association of the garden with tranquillity and innocence is the framework for his pastoral poetry. In 1618, Drummond entertained Ben Johnson here and is said to have been sitting under a tree on Johnson's arrival. By the mid 19th century a sycamore, 24 feet in circumference, was known as The Four Sisters or Ben Johnson's Tree ' today only a stump survives. Drummond is also associated with a grotto which incorporates stone benches, all cut out of the rock overhanging the River North Esk. This feature is known as the 'Cypress Grove' after Drummond's philosophic meditation on death written in 1623. A large flat rock is commonly known as John Knox's Pulpit, from where Knox is supposed to have preached.

The warren of caves which riddle the sandstone rock below Hawthornden Castle were noted by 18th century visitors on the picturesque tour, although little is known of their origins and subsequent use. They are thought to have been made in the Bronze Age, whose early inhabitants left carvings on the rocks nearby. In 1772 Thomas Pennant described his visit:

'In the front of the rock, just below the house, is cut a flight of 27 steps. In the way, a gap, passable by a bridge of boards, interrupts the descent. These steps led to lead to the entrance of the noted caves' These alone attract the attention of strangers''

Traditionally the caves are associated with King Robert the Bruce and Sir Alexander Ramsay during the Wars of Independence. Three chambers are known as the King's Gallery, the King's Dining Room and the King's Bedchamber. One chamber contains a fireplace, windows, seats and cupboards and is dated RG 1736 and WMD 1716. By 1853 the 'grand two-handed sword of the hero, with a huge handle of the white horn of the native wild cattle' was being exhibited in the caves (Menzies, 1853).

However, it was Roslin's natural beauty that captured the mind and spirit of the late 18th century writers and visitors. Thomas Pennant felt the 'solemn and picturesque walks cut along the summits, sides and bottoms of this beautiful den, are much more deserving of admiration' than the caves. 'The vast mural fence, formed by the red precipices, the mixture of trees, the grotesque figure of many of the rocks, and the smooth sides of the Pentland Hills, appearing above the wild scenery, are more striking objects to the contemplative mind' (Pennant, 1722).

By the early 19th century, appreciation of Roslin's natural scenery was augmented by its associations, supposed and real, with historical figures and writers. Thus Sir Walter Scott wrote 'Rosslyn and its adjacent scenery have associations dear to the antiquary and historian, which may fairly entitle it to precedence over every other Scottish scene of the same kind.' (Scott, 1822). Historical associations abound in the glen, principally the site of the Battle of Roslin, 1303, on the north banks of the valley. Place-names commemorate the battle; 'Shinbanes Field', 'The Hewan' and 'Wallace's Camp'. Other military associations include General Monck's Battery, an earthwork on the west bank of the river, and Wallace's Cave, an artificial cave on a ledge 20 feet up the cliff face.

Scott lived at nearby Lasswade in 1799 when writing The Grey Brother which celebrated 'Roslin's rocky glen'. A setting he returned to in The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805):

'O'er Roslin all that dreary night

A wondrous blaze was sene to gleam'

It glared on Roslin's castle rock,

It ruddied all the copse-wood glen

'Twas seen from Dryden's groves of oak

And seen from caverned Hawthornden''

Contemporary topographic accounts encouraged the traveller and visitor to journey to Roslin and Hawthornden, the scenery furnishing the subject matter for countless poets and artists. Hawthornden ''affords an infinite variety of every species of rural wildness. The painter, the poet, the contemplative man find here scenes suitable to their taste' (Campbell, 1802).

The architectural focus of the glen was Rosslyn Chapel, of which Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in 1803:

'The architecture within is exquisitely beautiful. The stone both of the roof and walls is sculptured with leaves and flowers, so delicately wrought that I could have admired them for hours, and the whole of their groundwork is stained by time with the softest colours. Some of those leaves and flowers were tinged perfectly green, and at one part the effect was most exquisite: three or four leaves of a small fern resembling that which we call Adder's Tongue, grew round a cluster of them at the top of a pillar, and the natural product and the artificial were so intermingled that at first it was not easy to distinguish the living plant from the other, they being of an equally determined green, though the fern was of a deeper shade.'

Her brother wrote Composed in Rosslyn Chapel during a Storm (1831).

Appreciation and curiosity in the chapel's architectural and antiquarian qualities, steadily grew after its 18th century restoration, which was continued in 1860 by David Bryce. The Chapel, Rosslyn Castle, 'a huge crude fragment of a ruin, towering stupendously over the bank of the Esk, and approached by a bridge' of a high level description, which would not disgrace the best modern engineering.' and 'the quaint old mansion' of Hawthornden Castle, were widely written about, admired, and prolifically depicted by painters. This included Julius Caesar Ibbetson's, 'The Mermaid's Haunt' (Hawthornden) and William Allan's, 'Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort at Hawthornden in 1842', commemorating the Queen's visit.

In 1847, the glen's popularity as destination became the subject of a test case in the House of Lords, to establish the public's right of way along the glen from Roslin to Polton. By 1853, enough visitors were entering Hawthornden Castle for an entrance fee for admission to the grounds to be levied (Menzies, 1853). Visitors to the glen increased dramatically after the Edinburgh-Penicuik Railway opened in 1874.

Associated People
Features & Designations


  • Conservation Area

  • Reference: Roslin Glen
  • Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland

  • Nature Reserve

  • Reference: Roslin Glen
  • Scheduled Ancient Monument

  • Reference: Rosslyn Castle
  • Scheduled Ancient Monument

  • Reference: Rosslyn Chapel
  • Site of Special Scientific Interest

  • Reference: Hewan Bank
  • Site of Special Scientific Interest

  • Reference: Roslin Glen


  • Castle (featured building)
  • Description: Hawthornden Castle, situated upstream from Rosslyn Castle, sits on a triangle promontory. It consists of a ruinous 15th century tower, with Drummond's 17th century house attached.
  • Ruin
  • Description: Rosslyn Castle.
  • Chapel
  • Description: Rosslyn Chapel.
Key Information





Principal Building

Religious Ritual And Funerary


Part: standing remains



Open to the public


Electoral Ward





  • Historic Scotland