In our modern age of information overload, it's easy to forget that for the majority of the world's history we have very few reliable and accurate sources of information. Very often historians and archaeologists piece together a picture of what life was like in former times, drawing on the variety of information available, and using existing knowledge to interpret new pieces of evidence.
In a city as old as Edinburgh, there are several instances where historians are unsure about the precise details of past events, and at the heart of one of those uncertainties is St Anthony's Chapel, a ruined structure on a rocky outcrop in Holyrood Park, the royal parkland adjacent to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Today only one section of wall and a few surviving stones are visible, but at some time in its history this would have been a fairy substantial three-storey chapel building with a tower approximately 40-feet high, which would have had an intimate ground floor space just 8-feet or so wide.
Little is known about when the chapel itself was built - it's likely that the structure was associated with the major abbey of Holyrood, just a few hundred metres away at the base of Arthur's Seat, and indeed one of the paths through the park today follows the line of a historic track which directly connected the two areas. But in the 1100s large parts of Holyrood Park were under the ownership and control of Kelso Abbey in the Scottish Borders, and it's thought that the piece of land on which St Anthony's chapel sits probably fell under their jurisdiction.
In 1426, there is a record of Pope sending money as part of a grant to support repairs to St Anthony's chapel - suggesting both that it was a significant enough structure that the pope would invest in its maintenance, and that by 1426 it was old enough to be in need of substantial repairs. (It's notable that Anthony himself only died in 1231, so the chapel may have been a very early institution established bearing his name.)
Around this time, a small hospital in the name of St Anthony was operating in Leith, specifically treating patients with skin conditions - it's possible there was some connection between that establishment and the chapel at Holyrood Park.
One theory is that the chapel, as tall as it was long, was designed as a navigation aid for pilgrims heading to Holyrood, which is set lower in what for a long time was a densely wooded valley. Perhaps St Anthony's chapel would even have been visible from as far away as the Firth of Forth, the river to the north of the city, from which direction many travellers would have made their approach to the area.
Holyrood Park itself was a major destination for visitors seeking relief in the holy wells which dotted the landscape. At one time it was thought there were as many as seven wells within the boundary of the park itself, underground springs given the names of saints, along with the reputation for healing properties.
One of those wells was St Anthony's, which is one of the only two wells to survive in the park today - alas, no water flows to it, but the shallow bowl can still be seen on the path beneath the chapel, and it was well known that locals would trek to this particular well on 1 May each year, to bathe in the dew and drink the water.
Other suggestions are that the chapel was a form of monastic retreat, set well away from the city (and the abbey at Holyrood) where it would be possible for monks to experience a form of solitude and isolation. There are the remains of what may have been a monastic cell or a store cupboard built into the rock just to the south of the chapel itself, and early investigations of the site uncovered a number of shallow graves in the vicinity of the structure.
More than that, nobody seems to know! Written records from before the seventeenth-century are relatively scarce, and the chapel would likely have been ruined by that time.
So for all its history and archaeological interest, Edinburgh as a city is one that still holds secrets, and new discoveries are being made fairly regularly as the city continues to grow and develop. For my part, though, I rather like that we don't know all the answers - I prefer my history to have a touch of mystery about it, too!
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