The Freemasons are an historic organisation which have attracted intrigue for centuries, manifesting in a reputation for mysteriousness, with tales told of shady meetings and secret handshakes...
The freemasons evolved from the original tradition of trades and guilds, in which specific craftsmen and women held the right to ply their businesses within particular districts or towns - stonemasons in particular were highly sought after for their skills, and the guilds of masons would restrict access to their group by means of membership fees and strict periods of apprenticeship to protect both their businesses and the particular industrial skills and knowledge of their craft.
Today there are masonic organisations and outlets all around the world, with the Grand Lodge of Scotland having been established in 1736 but with a presence dating back much earlier, to the sixteenth century.
In Edinburgh the guild of Wrights and Masons was established in 1475, uniting two older trades, and from these rigidly maintained organisational groups evolved the tradition of freemasonry as a fraternal body, of people with shared interests and beliefs, and with (as today) often strong connections to their communities in terms of providing support to those in need. Modern freemasonry in Scotland has a largely charitable function, and is growing and evolving to maintain its place and purpose in the modern world.
As such, within Edinburgh there are 36 masonic lodges as well as former lodge properties. In contrast with the more dramatic portrayal of the freemasons as secretive, these lodges are clearly marked and very often serve as public spaces - particularly during the annual Edinburgh festivals, for example.
Here are some of the masonic lodges to be discovered in Edinburgh's Old and New Towns...
The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel) No. 1
As indicated by its numerical identifier, Mary's Chapel is one of the oldest extant masonic lodges in Scotland (only Lodge No 0 - called Mother Kilwinning - is older) and has the oldest continually maintained set of minutes in the entire masonic world.
Dating back to at least 1598, the Lodge of Edinburgh was originally established in the Old Town, on Niddry's Wynd, but moved to the New Town during the improvements of Edinburgh in the late 19th century.
Today the lodge stands on Hill Street, a lane between George Street and Queen Street in Edinburgh's New Town, and is identifiable by the ornate symbols carved into the stonework above its main entrance. This emblem was created in 1893, along with the lamp which was installed in 1894 which features the masonic symbol of a square and compasses in its coloured glass panel.
Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2
Tucked away off the Royal Mile near Moray House is another lodge with a distinctive history - Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2 is the world's oldest surviving purpose-built masonic lodge.
There are buildings used for masonic meetings across the world which are older but which were built originally with a different purpose, whereas the building on St John Street was built between 1735 and 1736, and continues to operate as a lodge house with regular meetings over 250 years later.
It was here that Robert Burns was inducted as Poet Laureate of the lodge in 1787, having attended as a member after previous contact with other lodge members, including Dugald Stuart, whose monument stands prominently at the top of Calton Hill (not far from Burns's memorial on Calton Road).
Roman Eagle Lodge No. 160
Sometimes listed as Roman Eagle Lodge CLX, using Roman numerals instead of digits, this lodge was established in 1785 and stands at the top of Johnston Terrace in the Old Town, near the Royal Mile junction of Castlehill and Lawnmarket.
This lodge originally conducted its meetings entirely in Latin, and counted the writer Sir Walter Scott among its members.
The building in which they meet today was built during the 1830s, and has been home to the lodge since 1927. During the summer Roman Eagle Lodge regularly hosts companies performing as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and on the ground floor of the lodge is the Victoria Regalia shop, selling masonic regalia.
Located at 96 George Street in Edinburgh's New Town is the city's Freemasons' Hall, home to the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the headquarters of freemasonry in Scotland.
Built in 1910-12, the building replaced an earlier hall built for Scotland's freemasons by David Bryce, who had himself been a member at Roman Eagle Lodge, and had served as Grand Architect of the governing body of masons, a position he shared with William Burn.
Above the entrance to the hall is a statue of St Andrew - the patron saint of freemasonry, as well as of Scotland itself - and like Roman Eagle Lodge the building is regularly used as a venue during the Edinburgh Fringe.
From 1809 the Grand Lodge of Freemasons had met at St Cecilia's Hall on Niddry Street, near to where the original Mary's Chapel had stood, in a building constructed as a concert hall in 1762. The masons had bought the building off the Baptist church, and by 1812 the masons were using it as their main meeting hall.
A new meeting space was built adjacent to the original concert hall, and is the building which backs onto Cowgate today, where the legend 'Freemasons Hall 1812' can still be seen.
In 1844 the Grand Lodge of Scotland moved into Bryce's new premises on George Street, on the spot where they continue to meet today.
Lodge of Journeymen Masons No.8
Located at the bottom of Blackfriars Street in the Old Town, the Lodge of Journeymen No.8 has an unusual history in that the lodge was created as a result of a breakaway from a larger group following disharmony among the brotherhood in the eighteenth century.
Although the official date of creation is considered to be 1707, the lodge was established before this date, and was only recognised as a separate lodge following legal arbitration by Scotland's Court of Session in 1715 - as such the lodge is unique in that it doesn't hold a charter from the Grand Lodge of Scotland.
The Lodge of Journeymen also have custody of the iconic Blue Blanket, a banner said to have been presented to the guild of masons by James III in 1482, in recognition of their efforts to rescue him from captivity. The banner was used to rally troops for the Battle of Flodden in 1513, a disastrous defeat for the Scots, and although the original Blue Blanket is held at the lodge on Blackfrairs Street, a modern version of the banner is carried each year during the annual Riding of Marches, which parades through Edinburgh.
Other masonic lodges exist across the city, but these are some of the buildings which can be found most easily in the centre of town.
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