Why no Masonic Tartan?

Robert L. D. Cooper

Curator, The Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum & Library

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Grand Lodge of Scotland). Reprinted here with kind permission from the Author.

An article now removed but was hosted on http://www.grandlodgescotland.com

When the Grand Lodge of Scotland was founded in 1736 there were approximately 100 lodges in existence, scattered across Scotland. These were mainly stonemasons’ lodges, although there were a few with a mixed membership and at least one that had no stonemasons at all as members.1 Scottish Freemasonry in the form of The Grand Lodge of Scotland was confronted with difficulty from the outset as it attempted to regulate the affairs of so many independent lodges. Indeed, support for the new body appeared to be lukewarm at best. All known lodges were invited to attend the inaugural meeting held on 30 November 1736 in Edinburgh.2 Only 33 attended or sent representatives to that meeting. Of those, 12 decided not to pursue membership of the new body any further and never became part of the Scottish Grand Lodge 'system'.3 It was not until 1891 that the last of these independent lodges became a daughter lodge of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.4 In order to be accepted as the governing body, the Grand Lodge of Scotland had to compromise on many issues, and it is those compromises which make Scottish Freemasonry unique in world Freemasonry.

The new Grand Lodge of Scotland ‘granted’ a great deal of power to existing lodges - it could not do otherwise, as such lodges preceded it by many years and already had such powers.5 6 For this reason, lodges under the Scottish Constitution are independent, sovereign bodies in their own right, and Grand Lodge has quite a different relationship with its daughter lodges than other Constitutions have with theirs. That relationship, together with the culture and history of the Scottish people, has ensured that Scottish Freemasonry has a very different character from other forms of Freemasonry. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why Scottish Freemasonry is so attractive to men outwith Scotland.7

Lodges which had existed prior to the formation of the Grand Lodge retained many of their local practices and traditions, which usually differed from place to place. This is one reason why Scottish lodges have the right to devise their own ritual — within reason, of course! There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ Scottish Masonic ritual, and in theory there could be as many rituals as there are lodges, although in practice lodges adopt an existing ritual and adapt it to suit their aspirations.8 Given that all Scottish lodges had this amount of independence before Grand Lodge, then lodges founded after 1736 expected - and gained - the same degree of independence. This applied not only to lodges in Scotland but also to those in other parts of the world such as the United States of America and Canada where many Scottish lodges were established. Such local autonomy manifested itself not only in wide variations of ritual but also had an effect on many other aspects of lodge organization.9 The most obvious difference is Scottish regalia, particularly aprons.

A lodge in one part of the country may have used red for its aprons and other regalia, whereas a lodge on the other side of the country may have used blue and orange. With no standard colours imposed on daughter lodges, they continued with existing designs.10 For this reason, all Scottish lodges can choose which colour(s) to use for their regalia. The reasons for the choice of colour might be obscure, but more often than not there is a conscious decision taken by the founder members when choosing a particular colour or combination of colours. For instance:

· Lodge Tullibardine-in-the-East No.1118 (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) chose Murray Tartan as this was the clan tartan of the Dukes of Atholl, and John George Murray, Marquis of Tullibardine, was Grand Master Mason at the time the lodge was founded (1913).11

· Lodge Celtic No 291, founded in 1821, uses Royal Stewart tartan, and one of the lodge’s avowed intentions was to ‘promote the wearing of tartan within the Scottish Craft’. This was a romantic - and late - reaction to the repeal of the Act of Proscription of 1746, which, among other things, had banned the wearing of tartan and the playing of bagpipes.12

The choice of a tartan for Scottish Masonic regalia can, like other colours, be for a number of reasons but, because tartan is uniquely Scottish, several specific reasons for their selection can be identified:

The use of a clan tartan by a Lodge which is located in the clan’s area.

The use of the tartan of a particular Freemason, e.g. the Grand Master Mason at the time a Lodge was founded, or the clan tartan of the Founding Master.

The selection of a tartan for ‘romantic’ reasons; for example, one associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Royal Stewart tartan.13 The Founder Members of the lodge simply liked the colours!14

What becomes clear from this very brief investigation of the use of tartan by Masonic lodges is that Scottish lodges have never thought, nor wanted, to have a ‘common’ Masonic tartan. Instead, they have deliberately chosen to use existing tartans as this permits enormous choice. This is entirely in accordance with the Scottish mentality of ‘non-standardisation’ - a peculiar concept in this world of ever-increasing conformity and standardisation. The Scottish Masonic mentality abhors this process of standardisation - certainly within Freemasonry. That is not a criticism of other Constitutions, but simply an observation of the differences between Scottish Masonic practice and that which pertains elsewhere. Scottish lodges revel in their differences, one from another, and this is manifested visually by the ‘colour’ of regalia. The choice of colours, combinations of colours, and the use of tartan is sufficient evidence of this independence of mind. This independence in terms of Ritual, Regalia, Colours, Officers, and Symbolism does not mean that there is a fundamental difference between Scottish Freemasonry and other forms of Freemasonry.15 As a colloquial Scottish saying has it: ‘It's the same but different’. In other words, the whole world is out of step with Scotland - and we are okay with that!

With Scottish lodges, not only in Scotland, enjoying the ability to express their individuality at lodge level in terms of Regalia, Ritual and Regulation (the three Scottish Masonic R’s) the reader might well understand the Scottish Masonic ‘shudder’ at the thought of the ‘invention’ of a universal Masonic tartan, for that would herald the introduction of the kind of Masonic standardisation alien to Scottish Freemasonry.

1 The Lodge at Aberdeen (1670) is an example of the former, and the Lodge at Haughfoot (1702) an example of the latter.

2 St. Andrew’s Day - the Feast Day of the Patron Saint of Scotland.

3 Most of these were stonemasons’ Lodges, with the notable exception of the Lodge at Haughfoot (1702).

4 The Lodge of Melrose St. John No.12.

5 The Lodge of Aitcheson’s Haven (1599) is another example of a lodge in recorded existence for almost 140 years before the creation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.

6 There are a number of Scottish lodges which do not have a Charter (Warrant) because they existed prior to the formation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.

7 The Grand Lodge of Scotland has approximately 600 daughter lodges furth of Scotland.

8 This is also one reason why many commentators unfamiliar with Scottish Masonic history and practice make some elementary errors when writing on Scottish Freemasonry.

9 Scottish lodges often have Office-bearers unknown in other Constitutions.

10 Within reason, of course. Day-glo pink is definitely out!

11 He later became the 8th Duke of Atholl.

12 The Act was repealed in 1782, but the use of tartan within Scotland remained out of favour for many years after.

13 Lodge Celtic No 291 almost certainly falls within this category.

14 There are numerous examples of Scottish lodges in many parts of the world that have chosen the tartan for their regalia for no other reason than the Founder Members liked the colour combination.

15 It is not possible to discuss is this short article the differences of Scottish Masonic symbolism, etc.