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The Holyroodhouse Sundial

By Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, ©2008

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Gallery and Lowlands-L History collection as well.]



Picture of the SundialI n The Dwellings of the Philosophers (Les Demeures Philosophales et le Symbolisme Hermetique dans ses Rapports avec L’Art Sacre et L’Esoterisme du Grand-Oeuvre) the 19th century French occult author Fulcanelli gives a most imaginative description of a sundial in the grounds of Holyrood Palace attaching all sorts of alchemical and mystic chivalric symbolism to it. He starts by stating the garden in which it stands is closed to outsiders then develops his improbable thesis. Fortunately this garden was since opened to the people.

I not only saw the object in question during a recent Edinburgh visit but also took several photographs for subsequent detailed scrutiny. I can safely state that the much vaunted “Master Alchemist” simply hasn’t got a clue.

This is the first book of his that I have tried to read and, while in all fairness the translators may be at fault, I found the language pompous and tedious. He also does the time honoured trick of wrapping his material in loads of waffle, something those of us with academic backgrounds are all too familiar with.

In fact this chapter, supposedly about a Scottish sundial, is mainly taken up with irrelevancies and speculations. So what does he claim?

First off he states that the structure was built on the orders of King Charles I in 1633 and the Royal Cipher “CR” (Carolus Rex) is carved on it.

WRONG! Fact is the cipher is “IR” (Jacobus Rex), and is in line with statements from Palace Staff that the sundial was built by order of James Vth, the best patron of architecture in the Stewart Dynasty. Charles only visited Edinburgh twice and briefly to try and curry favour with the Scots when the English parliament went against him.

I admit I was unable to check the other side of the device, I would have been evicted for violating the lawn had I tried but I am sure on that side we’d find the cipher “MR” (Marie Regina) for Marie de Guise James’s French wife, mother of Mary Queen of Scots.

That Fulcanelli had never even seen the structure about which he makes such extravagant claims is evident when he refers to it, via translators as “an extremely unusual little building.” Fact is that with its much later triple pedestal (Built in Queen Victoria’s time) it stands at least nine feet tall.

He keeps referring to the head portion as some sort of mystical alchemical crystal yet at the time it was carved fine study of crystals was impossible as the microscope had yet to be developed to such a level.


I agree that saturated solutions would have produced masses of large crystals but doubt they’d be of this type. Scholars of the period were however well acquainted with three dimensional geometry and this is obviously an example of work by someone conversant with that science.

Between vague excursions involving a Scotsman rescuing a Dutch sailor, and telling us about the Gnomonic influence (?) on this amazing stone he makes the wildest claims about very obvious historical symbols carved thereon.

For starters he goes on about the several heraldic thistles carved on lower angles. Those he tells us are emblematic of The Order of Knights of the Thistle created in 1540 by James Vth. He goes on to claim that after its abolition in 1547 it continued as an esoteric Secret Society. If so secret how does he know this? Fact is the Order was re-constituted by James VI/II in his attempts to re Romanise Protestant Scotland, he got deposed instead

In view of other national symbols on the Head of the sundial it is much more probable that here the plant is used in its capacity as Scotland’s national emblem.

Fulcanelli gets so obsessed he next tells us that several depictions of roses are connected with Nicholas Flamel, they are in fact the emblem of England. And this man has a following?

Large carvings of fleurs-de-lys he claims to be of chivalric significance are actually to commemorate James’ marriage to his French wife as we can see from other French symbols. The emblems of Scotland, England, and Ireland appear at the points of an inverted triangle. This confused me at first but we must recall that James IVth married the sister of Henry VIII of England. His son, because of this marriage considered himself in line for the English crown in view of Henry’s sibling problems and lack of Papal recognition.

It is significant that when Mary of Scotland was wife of the French Dauphin they had the English, Scots, and French arms on their dinner plate signifying their rights over all three nations.

Having seen this gorgeous structure I can state there is not the slightest trace of any alchemical symbolism or of it being, as Fulcanelli claims an Hermetic Clock (whatever that may be).


He ends the chapter on an apocalyptic note continued in the following and final one with its claims to literal Biblical truth and coming human disasters.

I am grateful to Fulcanelli for setting me on this quest. I loved the sundial which I would probably never have seen if he had not brought it to my attention. It serves as both a sundial and a lunar dial but even without the plinth it must have been difficult to read. Edinburgh weather would also have made its use quite erratic. I read no more of the book as I had had more than enough of his literary meanderings and strange speculations.

Other sources have since confirmed this type of sundial is far from unique in the gardens of Scottish Stately Homes



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