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.