By John Masters, Horizon Writers' Group
"Hello," I say. "I understand you may have a Knights Templar castle in your backyard."
I'm not sure how this will be received, but, after a moment, George White, the man who answered my knock, smiles. "I might."
White lives in a house that, had Dan Brown made different choices, would be famous. Brown, you'll recall, wrote The Da Vinci Code, the novel in which he speculated the Knights Templar had made off with the Holy Grail, then set his hero, Robert Langdon, on a wild and dangerous ride to find out where -- and what -- it was.
The book sold millions and became a 2006 movie starring Tom Hanks. It also gave a big tourism boost to Rosslyn Chapel, in the Scottish countryside near Edinburgh. The 15th-century chapel has a pivotal role in the plot. Rosslyn's visitor numbers leapt from 30,000 in 2000 to 120,000 in 2006. God knows what the effect would have been on New Ross (pop. 1,700).
New Ross is an agricultural community on a high point of land midway between Nova Scotia's north and south coasts, an hour's drive west of Halifax. Currently, its big attraction is the Ross Farm Museum, still worked as it was in the early 1800s. As I drive past, a sign invites me to its scything competition.
Thanks to a lawsuit, we know Brown considered Nova Scotia for The Da Vinci Code. Among the sources he used in concocting his tale was The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, promoted as a non-fiction work. Two of its authors, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, sued him for copyright infringement. They lost, but during the trial it came to light that Brown's research had uncovered possible Templar connections to Nova Scotia. He decided, though, that the province, "did not afford me the many options I would need for dramatic settings."
George White leads me to his backyard and I see what Brown meant. I hadn't counted on finding the walls of an ancient keep, but I did think there'd be a little more to look at.
My expectations had been raised by Joan Hope. An Englishwoman, she moved into the New Ross house in the 1970s. She began excavating its backyard for her garden and uncovered stones she took to be the remnants of a much earlier structure. Her theories on what this was went through a number of versions (you can read her musings atthelibraryofhope.com/acastleinnovascotia.htm), but the one that most caught people's imaginations was the stones were the foundations of a castle built about 1400 by Henry Sinclair -- the first earl of Orkney and grandfather of the man who built Rosslyn Chapel.
What was a Scottish lord doing in the New World a century before Columbus? According to skeptics, nothing, because there's no real evidence he ever came, but Frederick J. Pohl (not the science-fiction writer) says Sinclair was leading a band of Knights Templar/Freemasons to a new home. The details are in Pohl's 1974 book, Prince Henry Sinclair: His Expedition to the New World in 1398.
In 1997 a psychic, George McMullen, visited New Ross and paced about the backyard. He drew sketches of what he sensed had been there and wrote: "The New Ross building in which Henry St. Clair lived during his visit to Nova Scotia was approximately 28 feet wide by 30 feet deep." Its lower walls were stone, "two feet thick by seven feet high"; the upper floor was wood. McMullen went on to describe staircases, fireplaces, the attached stable, and where the men of lower rank slept.
Great stuff, but none of it, alas, visible. The backyard is once more grass and a vegetable garden. White points out the only remaining sign of Hope's excavations: A chunk of rock she called a herm. He bends down to indicate where what may be a tiny Templar cross is etched into it.
A handful of people show up each year asking to see the backyard. It's clearly a disappointment, unless you're psychically endowed like McMullen, but a couple of other things in town suggest there could be more to the story: Across the road from the house is a Masonic Lodge (to guard the site?) and the town is known to locals as "The Cross," supposedly after Charing Cross in London. But maybe that's just what they tell outsiders.
Fortunately, just 27 km away there's much more tangible evidence of a possible Templar presence -- but it's as hard to visit as the New Ross site is easy.
Oak Island is home to a mystery that's existed since 1795, when a teenage boy exploring the small island, 200 metres from the mainland, saw a tackle block hanging from a tree above a circular depression. "Buried pirate gold," he thought, maybe left by Captain Kidd or Blackbeard.
The first treasure hunters were encouraged when they found what looked like manmade wooden platforms about every 10 metres as they dug. But the sea, perhaps aided by clever engineers, thwarted them. Water, possibly from a tunnel built for this purpose, repeatedly flooded the shaft. Several companies went broke trying to solve the puzzle and a number of men died.
In 1965, Reader's Digest ran a story on the Oak Island mystery. Among those who read it and was intrigued was Dan Blakenship -- so much so he bought half the island and moved in, determined to find the treasure. He remains there to this day and in 2006 was joined by a new partner, the Michigan Group, with expertise in oil and gas exploration. In 2011 they began using ground-penetrating radar and electrical resistivity tomography to work out what was underground. No word yet on what they've found, but it's unlikely to be pirate gold. That theory lost credence decades back, replaced by several new ideas. One of the most popular: Knights Templar treasure.
According to this, something extremely valuable was smuggled out of France by the Templars after their order was suppressed by Philip IV in 1307 and made its way first to Scotland and then, with Henry Sinclair and descendants of the Templars (now transmuted into Freemasons) to Nova Scotia in 1398. There it was buried, on Oak Island. Maybe it's gold and jewels, but it might be the Holy Grail.
The turnoff to Oak Island is a gravel road next to St. Mark's Anglican Church, about 10 km north of Mahone Bay on Hwy. 3. At the end of the road is a one-lane causeway to the island and a sign at its head saying the island is private property and you aren't welcome. Karen Publicover, who lives on the mainland next to the causeway (with 42 ducks that will come out to greet you), says, in summer, at least 20 vehicles a day jolt down the road to stare at the island and its "No Trespassing" sign. "They bring motor homes down here," she chuckles, "and then they have to try to turn around." So near and yet so far.
But if you time it right you can not only go across, but also get a guided tour, too. A local society, Friends of Oak Island, has arranged with Blakenship to let the curious onto his property one weekend a month from May to September. The tours aren't advertised (sign up at Friendsofoakisland.com). I missed my chance by a week, but you, forewarned, can have better luck.
And perhaps, between New Ross and Oak Island, you'll find Dan Brown was wrong and there is enough in Nova Scotia to make it the setting for a bestseller.
If you go to Nova Scotia
GOOD TO GO
The New Ross house is on Hwy. 12, four doors past the Comet Gas station (street number 4901). Please be courteous and don't trespass.
For more on Henry Sinclair and Oak Island, read Nova Scotia author Mark Finnan's Oak Island Secrets and The Sinclair Saga. Both are for sale at Bluestone Magik & the Enchanted Crystal on Mahone Bay's main street. The Friends of Oak Island maintain a small museum in the Atlantica Hotel & Marina, 2 km north of the Hwy. 3 turnoff to Oak Island.
For information on travel in Nova Scotia, visit the provincial government's tourism website, Novascotia.com.
This story was posted on Sun, March 18, 2012
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