ROBERT COOPER and I step out of Freemason’s Hall into Edinburgh’s George Street, the central strand of James Craig’s New Town grid plan of 1766. Cooper is curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and he starts pointing out a Freemasonic townscape.
“Craig was a Mason,” remarks Cooper, a 54-year-old former civil servant, “and the New Town is of course quite geometric compared to the Old Town, in fact some have suggested that the New Town Plan was designed according to Masonic geometry,” – Freemasons traditionally regard geometry as ‘the queen of sciences’.
To the east, beyond St Andrew Square, rises Calton Hill with its National Monument – the unfinished Parthenon known as “Edinburgh’s Disgrace”, due to a shortfall in public subscriptions, which prevented its completion. The Grand Lodge of Scotland, says Cooper, was involved in fundraising for the scheme, and its foundation stone was laid in 1822 by the tenth Duke of Hamilton, Grand Master Mason of Scotland, amid much Freemasonic pageantry and cannon salutes.
There won’t be quite such panoply this weekend, when Freemasons’ Hall hosts the first event of its kind, a major International Conference on the history of Freemasonry. Nevertheless it is a milestone event, which, despite early predictions to the contrary, has amazed its organisers by attracting more than 250 speakers and delegates from all over the world. And the majority of speakers are not Masons. Cooper, therefore, has his work cut out, but agrees that, in a very real sense, this is Freemasonry coming home.
While the earliest origins of Freemasonry – whose members, in a nod to their roots among working stonemasons, refer to themselves as “The Craft” – remain obscure, the first records of anything resembling modern Freemasonry come from Scotland, as Cooper explains. “Freemasonry began here in the 16th century, if not earlier, and we’re proud of the fact that here we’ve got the oldest lodge records in the world.” Dating from 1599, these are the records of Aitcheson’s Haven, a small stonemasons’ lodge once based in East Lothian.
“It was taken up later in England then spread across the world,” says Cooper. He adds, in wearily defensive tones: “It’s curious that we’re continually accused of running a ‘New World Order’ and all this stuff. The reality is very different. There is no real co-ordination between countries, which makes them all interestingly different. But now they’re coming back to their roots.”
So Cooper has much on his mind as we stroll west along George Street – named with North British fervour after a very eminent English Freemason, King George IV. We pass North Castle Street, where number 39 was once home to Sir Walter Scott, another Freemason, who orchestrated the riot of tartanry which greeted George IV when, in 1822, he became first reigning monarch to visit Scotland since 1641. George Meikle Kemp, who later designed the monument to Scott in Princes Street was another Mason.
Scott, suggests Cooper, would have been involved in raising funds for the Calton Hill monument, designed to commemorate the dead of the Napoleonic wars. The charitable work continues, but Masonic processions are a thing of the past, he observes: “The Second World War put an end to that. Hitler claimed that it was the Jews and the Freemasons who had brought Germany to its knees.The Grand Lodge of Scotland was first on the hit list if the Nazis invaded the country… so you stopped telling people that you were a Mason.” He grins: “I have no problem telling people – but then I’m a professional Freemason.”
Yet his organisation has long laboured under an unenviable image – which its critics would say has been well-earned – from the much-parodied spectacle of men in aprons to disquieting concerns about networking within the police and judiciary, and even bringing down governments, as in the case of the Italian P2 Lodge scandal of 1981.
That irregular lodge was described by investigating Italian authorities as “a state within a state”, its members including government ministers, members of parliament, secret-service heads, judges, defence chiefs and bankers – including Roberto Calvi, the former president of the Vatican’s Banco Ambrosiano, who was found hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge, London, in 1982. Licio Gelli, the lodge’s Grand Master, was eventually jailed in connection with the bank’s fraudulent bankruptcy.
So far as that affair is concerned, says Cooper, “people forget that P2 started out as a Masonic lodge, but when the Grand Lodge of Italy realised what was going on, they closed it down. It continued illegally.” The secrecy issue is, he argues, more in the perception than in the fact. “Does the Mafia, for instance, have a public museum like Freemason’s Hall here, where people can go and see their history? It’s just silly.”
And he is dismissive about attempted moves, at Holyrood and Westminster, to make MPs, police and members of the judiciary declare Masonic membership: “This brought back horrible memories of what happened in Hitler’s Germany when the Grand Lodge there was asked to provide a list of members and at least 80,000 of our members ended up in the gas chamber. So when we hear a liberal democracy asking people to reveal membership of a legal and legitimate organisation, then we really have major concerns.”
By this time we’re in Charlotte Square, its unified frontages designed in the 1790s by Robert Adam – another Mason, and Cooper points out recurring twin-pillar motifs. There were supposedly two pillars in the porch of Solomon’s Temple, where, according to Masonic lore, the first Lodge met.
Talking of squares, he lists some of the Masonic expressions derived from craftsmanship and long absorbed into everyday usage – “all square”, “meet on the level and part on the square”, not to mention “pillar of the community”, “third degree” and “on the level”. Our conversation turns to a group of buildings back on North Castle Street, opposite Scott’s house. These, claims Cooper, were the last houses built in Scotland in the late 18th-century by stonemasons who were also Freemasons and who shortly afterwards left for America, to help construct Washington DC. George Washington was a member of a Scottish Lodge in Fredericksburg and, among other things, adds Cooper, these wandering Scots Masons helped construct the building which became known as the White House.
The development of Freemasonry in America is one of many topics being aired this weekend (others consider Freemasonry’s role in the Enlightenment, in promoting equality in 19th-century India, and even in the music hall). According to Cooper, the Scottish lodges in America tended to attract the radicals while the English lodges drew those loyal to the crown – “although that’s probably oversimplification”. Certainly, he says, Paul Revere was a member of the Lodge of St Andrew in Boston. He and another Mason, Joseph Warren, are recorded as meeting at Boston’s venerable Green Dragon Tavern in November 1773, the minutes noting rather cryptically: “Consignees of Tea took up the Brethren’s time…”
Back at home, Cooper, who conducts walking tours of “Masonic Edinburgh”, describes the Royal Mile as “the most Masonic street in the world”. The oldest records of a lodge still in existence are held by the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel), No 1, which originally met in the now vanished Niddry’s Wynd and are now based in Hill Street. Other locations include the High Kirk of St Giles, where Edinburgh stonemasons were officially granted the aisle to St John the Evangelist for their use, and Holyrood Palace, where two of the earliest Masonic documents were prepared.
John Street meeting room, off the Canongate, was the location of Robert Burns’s supposed inauguration as “poet Laureate” of Canongate Kilwinning No 2 – an event which seems to have little foundation but was enshrined in a well-known painting by Robert Watson. Other notable masons have included Sir Winston Churchill, authors Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, and the polar explorers Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton.
Back at Freemason’s Hall, David Begg, Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland hopes the conference might dispel some myths – such as enduring allegations of religious bias. While some people still confuse Masonic lodges with the Orange Lodge, and a belief in “the Great Architect of the Universe” is a prerequisite of membership, Freemasonry recognises no distinction of religion, creed or colour, stresses Begg, who recalls having seen a Jew and a Muslim take their Masonic oaths side by side, one on the Torah, the other on the Koran. Mainstream Freemasonry remains “a society of gentlemen”, although there are other Masonic organisations for women or for both sexes. At least one paper this weekend is likely to argue that they should open their doors to women, says Begg, “so it’s not all self-congratulatory.”
Giving the perspective of a historian (and non-Mason) David Stevenson, Emeritus Professor of Scottish history at St Andrews University and a plenary speaker at the conference, argues that while historians in America and Europe have long accepted Freemasonry as an important social and cultural phenomenon, “by contrast academic historians in Britain have until recently acted as if it didn’t exist”. However, continues Stevenson, a course in the study of Freemasonry has opened at Sheffield. “In recent decades, acceptance has grown that the evolution of Freemasonry is too important to ignore through narrow-minded prejudice or, in the case of Masons themselves, an inward-looking emphasis on secrecy, even when there are no secrets.”
Stevenson’s paper will stress how, in Scotland at least, freemasonry has remained “predominantly a social, moral and charitable organisation of skilled working men”. He also describes its role in promoting egalitarian thinking, and suggests that freemasonry’s once very public presence has diminished, “partly because it came to be attacked by both fascists and communists – Masons tend to argue that an organisation that was ruthlessly suppressed by both Hitler and Stalin can’t be all bad. Only in the last decade or so have Masons come to accept that obsessive secrecy fostered suspicions and conspiracy theories.
“This conference is an important example of Freemasonry coming out of the closet.”
FREEMASONY…THE MYTHS AND THE FACTS
• FREEMASONS EMERGED FROM THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR
DESPITE the cliams of Dan Brown, legions of conspiracy theorists, and the mythology surrounding Rosslyn Chapel, Robert Cooper, who has written a book on the subject, says there was no link between the origins of the Freemasons and the Knights Templar.
• MASONS EXCLUDE ROMAN CATHOLICS
A COMMON belief in Scotland, possibly caused by the bigotry of individuals, or even individual lodges (this writer encountered an anti-Catholic stance on the part of one local lodge back in the 1970s), as well as confusion with the Orange Lodge. The official line is that Freemasonry recognises no distinctions of race, religion, colour or creed, although it does require members to believe in a “great architect” or supreme being. Cooper says: “I was in Rome in February. How many Protestant Freemasons did I meet? None. I was in Penang last year. How Many Christian Freemasons did I meet? None – just Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs.”
• MASONS INVOKE OATHS ABOUT “HAVING MY THROAT CUT ACROSS, MY TONGUE TORN OUT BY ITS ROOTS, AND MY BODY BURIED IN THE ROUGH SANDS OF THE SEA AT LOW WATER MARK…”
THAT OATH is no longer part of the mason’s “obligation”, but it is still referred to in a historical context and explained to members. The oath of obligation, says Cooper, “like our pinny (apron) and jewels (medals) are all symbolic”.
• THEY EXCLUDE WOMEN
MASONIC organisations, such as the Grand Lodge of Scotland, remain men only, although there are other masonic groups which admit women only, or both sexes. Cooper argues they are not anti-women or anti-feminist, simply gender-specific, like a football team. “We have the slight burden of history in a sense that there were never any women members of early lodges and that’s continued to this day, but there’s nothing sinister about it.”
• FREEMASONRY IS A SECRET SOCIETY
THE official line is that Freemasonry is not a secret society, but its lodge meetings, like those of other social and professional associations, are open only to members. Freemasons are encouraged to speak openly about membership, while undertaking not to use it for their own or anyone else’s advancement. Concerns about possible Freemasonic networking and improper influence continue, however. In 2002 there calls for MSPs to declare if they were masons, and in 1992 Maria Fyfe, MP for Glasgow Maryhill, tabled a Commons motion asking MPs to declare Freemasonic membership.
Article taken from: http://news.scotsman.com/edinburgh.cfm?id=810732007