…As TV crew gets rare access to mysterious Grand Lodge
Conspiracy theories go hand in hand with the Freemasons.
From the funny handshake to the rolled up trouser leg, the secretive nature of the organisation has led to centuries of suspicion.
Charles Iain Robert Wolrige Gordon of Esslemont, the 110th Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, who presides over hundreds of lodges and tens of thousands of Scottish Freemasons worldwide, is well aware of them.
He is also hoping to change them by opening the doors of their head office, the historic Grand Lodge of Scotland in Edinburgh’s George Street, and allowing access to TV cameras for BBC Scotland documentary, Secrets of the Masons, the Daily Record reports.
He said: “The decision was relatively simple, partly because the BBC came to us and it was an opportunity to try and promote the great and the good of freemasonry and try and dispel the rumours that pop up periodically that we’re a secret organisation, we conspire against people, we try and rule the world in a weird and wonderful way, which is utterly untrue.
“It was a great opportunity to promote what we really stand for. We’re not demons working away together. We are just ordinary folk who appreciate the craft and the way it was set up centuries ago.
“We have grabbed the opportunity to show those people who look at us in a rather dark and curious manner that actually a lot of good is achieved by Freemasons.”
The foundations of the organisation can be traced back to James VI in 1598, who sent his adviser William Shaw to organise the stonemasons to rebuild a Scotland riven by civil war, famine and religious infighting.
The archives hold the oldest lodge minute book in the world from January that year, as groups of craftsmen formed what Bob Cooper describes as a “proto-trade union” to protect their trade secrets, passing on their skills from generation to generation.
The infamous handshake developed as a way to identify stonemasons to each other as they moved around Scotland.
Inspired by their work, they also strove to live a better life.
It expanded beyond stonemasons to become the Freemasons in 1641, largely due to the influence of Sir Robert Moray, who helped underpin their principle tenets of brotherly love, relief and truth.
As popularity grew, so did its influence and famous masons who were aided by their membership include poet Robert Burns, who in 1786 saw fellow Masons account for two thirds of subscriptions for his first book, and engineer and inventor James Watt, whose Lodge connections helped him build his steam engine. Even George Washington, the first US president, was a mason.
But the secret nature of the organisation made enemies.
Pope Clement XII issued a decree in 1738 banning Catholics from becoming Masons and in 1798 they were attacked from within.
Scottish professor John Robison published a book accusing his fellow Freemasons and the Illuminati – an openly atheist group who wanted a rational world run by science – of conspiring against all the religions and governments of Europe.
Hitler believed the Freemasons were such a force he sent 80,000 to the gas chambers.
The suspicions continue to the modern day with Cooper, curator of the Grand Lodge, pointing to Dan Brown’s best-selling book The Da Vinci Code .
He said: “The Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, Rosslyn Chapel, it’s all been chucked in there. The master of masons, the master race… we’ve been done in by Dan Brown.”
In Scotland, their influence has often been linked to the other institutions, not least the police.
Depute Grand Master Ramsay McGhee, is a former chief superintendent who worked in Northern Constabulary for 30 years and makes no apology for his membership of the Masons.
He said: “The principles of freemasonry are really conducive to being a good police officer.
“Brotherly love, relief and truth. In the ritual of the order, you’re taught to make sure you abide by the laws of any state of which you take residency.
“It’s all very much hand in hand with what a good police officer should be doing.”
He hasn’t done any favours. He was asked once, during his time as a police officer, for some help with a minor traffic offence by a fellow member of his lodge.
He said: “He got short shrift. I am in Rotary Club as well and I keep telling people, Rotary is freemasonry without the ritual.
“The other big difference is, in Rotary you are encouraged to use other fellow Rotarians to sort your televisions or rewire the house, whereas that is not encouraged in freemasonry.
“There is no direct link there, where if somebody is in The Craft, you use them against somebody who is not. That just doesn’t happen.”
Another belief which dogs the Freemasons in Scotland is that they are connected to the Orange Order. The Grand Master says there is no link.
He said: “That is a great misconception. There is no connection between the way Scottish freemasonry is practised and what the Orange Orders practices.”
The new openness of the masons is fuelled by falling membership and a recognition that times are changing.
Not too much, however. Freemasons in Scotland are a male-only society and it is likely to remain that way for some time, albeit with a glimmer of light shining into the unknown.
The Grand Master said: “Within Freemasonry, we do try and extend our arms in welcoming the family into our social events but within the lodge it is very much a male organisation.
“I don’t think we would go down the route of opening our membership to women because there are other organisations that have what you would call female Freemasons.
“I’ve always been very comfortable with it.
“I’ve never, within my Masonic life or social life, said, ‘You’re male only, you have to open your doors to females’.
“As we are a fraternity, people accept it is a male-only organisation.”
Secrets, too, will always remain and, in all likelihood, suspicions.
He said: “We work within our lodges with closed doors. We have a wonderful ritual we abide with. Like any business or any industry, there are certain things we don’t disclose to the public.”
Secrets of the Masons is on BBC Two Scotland, Monday, March 19, 9pm.