William Schaw “Father of Freemasonry” *** FULL BOOK ***
No one man built Freemasonry, but there is an individual that stands out as its principal architect, the ‘Master of Works’ to King James VI of Scotland.
What started out as some personal research and interest in the history of Freemasonry turned in to a full blown “lockdown project” in 2020/2021.
WARNING: This is a long post, you are going to need a cup of coffee ☕ and something to put your feet up on.
Every Freemason who spends time reading about the history of the craft will eventually ask himself the same questions. When and where did Freemasonry start?
The origins of Freemasonry belong to a time when record-keeping and academic discipline were ‘questionable’ at best. A time when the vast majority of people could neither read nor write, and as a result, the history of the Craft has been open to imaginative interpretation and wild theory through the centuries.
Despite this, there is one individual that stands out as its principal architect, the ‘Master of Works’ to King James VI of Scotland. The Father of Modern Freemasonry, William Schaw.
Today most Freemasons are familiar with the date 1717, being the year that the Grand Lodge of England was formed. The first of its kind in the world, however, often misquoted by masonic historians as being the birth of modern speculative Freemasonry. As a date however, it has only minor importance in the overall development of Freemasonry which existed long before these four lodges met within the ‘Goose and Gridiron Tavern’ in St Paul’s Churchyard.
In fact, the hundred or so years prior to this were very aptly named ‘Scotland’s Century’ in David Stevenson’s work ‘The Origins of Freemasonry’.
In Scotland, we find the most extensive collection of Masonic records to be found anywhere. The earliest attempts at organising lodges at a national level, the earliest use of the word ‘lodge’ in the modern masonic sense and the earliest evidence that these were permanent institutions along with the oldest surviving minute books and other records of these lodges - something we can attribute directly to William Schaw. More on that later.
Scottish history also provides us with the earliest references to the term “Mason’s Word”, the earliest examples of ‘non-operatives’ (ie. men that were not working stonemasons) joining lodges, earliest connections of lodge masonry with specific ethical ideas explained through the use of symbolism, as well as the earliest evidence of the ‘entered apprentice’ and ‘fellow craft’ degrees as well as the later the emergence of the third degree.
Finally, the titles of lodge officers are unquestionably derived from the operative masons of Scotland.
Freemasonry is as Scottish as Tartan, Whisky and Irn Bru.
But what makes Scottish Freemasonry different from that found around the world is its distinctive history, and that historically Scottish Stonemasons and Scottish Freemasons are one and the same.
Freemasonry in Scotland was not an artificial creation, it grew from the beliefs and institutions of working stonemasons and later individuals, like ourselves, who were allowed the privilege and honour of joining Stonemasons in their Lodges as they slowly began to admit men from other crafts and men of higher social status. This process however, was undoubtedly accelerated after the foundation of the Grand Lodge in London in 1717 when freemasonry became ‘fashionable’.
We must be thankful to our Scottish ancestors and their sons for the records they kept, and to William Schaw for his part in commanding them to do so. Providing us incontestable facts and details on the character of operative Lodges, how they were organised, what they did and how they developed step by step into the craft we know today.
Early Stonemasons In Scotland
The earliest records relating to Stonemasons in an official capacity in Scotland date back to 1475 when the Masons and Wrights (woodworkers) of Edinburgh were recognised as being an official civic body, securing a ‘Seal of Cause’ or Charter from the City of Edinburgh.
Prior to this they are mentioned along with other trades in 1425 with regards to the Edinburgh city council fixing wages.
For our purpose, however, the latter of the two in 1475 marks an important moment, as this document creates an ‘Incorporation’ somewhat similar to or the equivalent of an English Trade Guild. Stonemasons were thereby incorporated into the local political system of Edinburgh.
A similar ‘Seal of Cause’ was granted to Masons, Wrights and Coopers (barrel makers) in Aberdeen and Glasgow in 1527 and 1551 respectively.
These seals do not, however, mark the beginnings of the organisations concerned. Rather that they had existed and evolved for generations, with the branding of the seal representing the culmination of the process, even though it is often the first point at which an organisation becomes visible to the historian.
In 1534, Henry VIII of England instituted a religious reformation in England, making himself the head of the church in place of the Pope in Rome. His motivation was his desire to annul the marriage to the first of his wives, Catherine of Aragon and the Pope’s refusal to do so. Henry capitalised on this opportunity and confiscated most of the church’s money and property. Organisations which supported and encouraged pre-reformation religious practices, such as English guilds, were disbanded, their money and property confiscated also.
At this time, however, Scotland and England were separate Kingdoms so this did not apply North of the border. In fact, the situation in Scotland was very different.
The Protestant Reformation took place in Scotland several decades later in 1559 and unlike that of Henry VIII, was of a religious nature. The Catholic Church and many of its practices were replaced by an entirely new religious system based on Calvinism. Unlike England however, Scottish guilds (incorporations) were not abolished, rather they simply ceased their religious support for the pre-Reformation Church when the new Protestant faith was established.
In fact, even following the ‘Union of the Crowns’ when James VI of Scotland (who we will hear more about later) became James I of England uniting both Kingdoms with a single monarch in 1603, Scotland still retained its own parliament, monetary system, laws, religion and Freemasonry.
So Scottish Incorporations, unlike their English counterparts, functioned in Scotland before and after the reformation. Their purpose was to advance the interests of their members and had certain rights and responsibilities with regards the governance of the Craft, resolving trade differences, negotiating wages, supervising ‘quality control’, apprenticeship terms, burying deceased members, looking after their widows and orphans and even improving the morals of members. Although almost certainly not well organised - the Stonemasons were powerful enough at this stage to be recognised as having some sort of economic and political clout, having at least at a local level, a voice within the city council.
Unlike other incorporated trades such as Websters (weavers), Cordiners (shoemakers), Fleshers (butchers), Baxters (bakers), and Hammermen (metal workers), the essential difference between the craft of stonemasonry and these others was an additional level of organisation - the Lodge.
The reason for this was two-fold. Whereas the way of life of most craftsmen was a settled one, producing goods for sale locally or in distant markets via merchants; the stonemason’s trade was one that frequently moved around from job to job, a life of movement and unpredictability. This meant that the needs of a mason in terms of organisation and relations with his fellow craftsmen were rather different from those of most other locally based trades.
In addition to this, the Incorporation of Masons also included other trades such as Wrights (carpenters) and Coopers (barrel makers) and therefore did not facilitate the communicating of stonemasons’ secrets specific to their craft.
The lodge was a strictly independent body, out with the control of the local burgh, and indeed there are instances where lodges would meet outside of the town specifically for this reason. Douglas Knoop in his book ‘The Early Masonic Catechisms’ refers to the literary exaggeration that a true lodge meets 'a day's journey from a burgh town without barking of a dog or crow of cock’ and metaphorically, of course, this is the same today.
The Lodge, therefore, was a place where secrets were transmitted from Stonemason to Stonemason. Incorporations being an acknowledged and accepted part of Scottish society, the public face of the craft, Lodges were the more private and secretive face of the Stonemasons.
Originally the lodge would have been a simple, sheltered working place, a temporary construction, perhaps a separate shed or sort of lean-to against the wall of an existing building that was under construction. Masons would use this to shape and carve stone out of the elements. Through time however, this developed beyond this and masons can be found eating and resting in lodges, even using them as temporary accommodation whilst away from home.
In 1491, just 16 years after they were incorporated, the Edinburgh authorities granted the stonemasons the right ‘to gett a recreation in the common luge’.
We can not realistically link this to Freemasonry as we know it today, however it does demonstrate that stonemasons used the Lodge for something much more than simply working stone or storing their working tools, and although in this instance granted by the Edinburgh authorities, these lodges were autonomous bodies, not answerable to the burgh and outside the restrictions of the trade incorporations.
Going back to what makes Scotland different to the origins of the craft across the world, this organisation and arrangement is very much restricted to Scotland and the Stonemasons alone.
William Schaw (c.1550-1602)
William Schaw was born circa 1550 in Cranock in Fife. He was the second son of John Schaw of Broich and grandson of Sir James Schaw of Sauchie whose lands lay near Stirling in the tiny shire of Clackmannan. Broich, known today as Arngomery, was a fortified house near Kippen.