Scottish Golf History -
The Role of Early Speculative Freemasons.
by Neil Laird
Several authorities cite
the ‘secrecy’ of the Freemasons for the ‘absence’ of early Scottish golf history
records, particularly of the Royal Burgess, but the evidence for these claims
is weak. The main reason
that the members of early golf clubs were Freemasons was because virtually all
middle class men of ability in Scotland in the century
after 1717 were Freemasons from senior law officers to skilled artisans
as well as poets and writers. (Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott were masons).
This was apparently because, from 1717, the Scottish
'stonemason' Freemasons, called Operative Masons, began to allow merchants and
professional people, termed Speculative Masons, to join Lodges or create their
own. This practice spread elsewhere in the world. For example, in France
Voltaire became a Mason as
did George Washington who was buried with full
Masonic honours in America.
You can now learn all about the ‘secret’ world of Scottish Freemasons from their ‘secret’ websites such as Grand Lodge of Antient (sic) Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland or even The Guinness Book of Records (search on ‘Masonic’ or ‘Lodges’ in their ‘Find a World Record’).
The Scottish Freemasons have kept the details of their activities from at least 1599 and now publish these on the web. It would be strange if they had destroyed their golf minutes to preserve the confidentially of the members while keeping the lists of their Grand Masters and Council. In any case the negative connotations associated with being a Freemason only arose in the second half of the twentieth century, by which time the evidence of golf history was in present state.
Extracts of the early minutes of five of the early clubs are documented in the book ‘Golf: A Royal and Ancient Game’ by Robert Clark and they read like the minutes of any modern club, parish council or tenants’ association. They note the banal details of admissions, competitions, match dinners and domestic arrangements. They do not indicate the heavy hand of Masonic traditions, beyond the fact that they date from a time when Freemasonry was strong and highly regarded. At most, they simply show that many important people who were involved with golf were Freemasons and acknowledged as such, in much the same way as modern buildings carry the plaques of the names of the local Councillors, who, with their chains of office, opened them. The laying of the foundations of the first ever purpose built golf clubhouse for The Honourable Company in 1768 on Leith Links is a case in point.
Leith, July 2, 1768
This day William St Clair of Roslin, Esq., the undoubted representative of the Honourable and Heretable G.M.M of Scotland, In presence of Alexander Keith, Esq., Captain of the Honourable Company of Goffers, and other worthy Members of the Goffing Company, all Masons, The G.M., now in his GRAND CLIMAX of GOFFING, laid the Foundation of the GOFFING HOUSE in the S.E. corner thereof, by THREE STROKES with the Mallet.
ALEXR. KEITH, C.
GMM stands for Grand Master Mason. The St Clairs of Roslyn were hereditary patrons of the Masons in Scotland for centuries and William St Clair was the first elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotlandin 1736. He was Captain and prominent member of both the Leith and the St Andrews golf clubs. Apart from laying the foundation stone of the world's first golf clubhouse, his name is on the St Andrew’s minute shortening the Old Course to be eighteen holes in 1764. He died in 1778 and is buried in Roslyn Chapel (see below).
The Royal Blackheath GC was open only to Freemasons
until 1789 and, until 1825,
it still contained a hardcore group of masons called
the Knuckle Club who played out-of season to avoid
the non-mason members. They died out for lack of support.
The first minute books of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which contained the most prominent Masons of the time, are still extant. The minutes of the Royal Blackheath, which was also strongly Masonic, were destroyed by a fire. The Royal Burgess GS has its minutes back to 1773, and it is not certain that there were any minutes kept before then. The only early minute books that definitely existed, but whose fate is unknown, are the first five books (prior to 1874) of the Bruntsfield Links GS, and those of Royal Musselburgh GC, (also before 1874), neither of which clubs displayed any particular Masonic connections. Given that extracts of the minutes of all these clubs, except those of Royal Blackheath, had been published in R Clark’s Golf A Royal and Ancient Game in 1875, it would make little sense for the Freemasons to have destroyed them subsequently.
Of course, another theory is that non-Mason golfers destroyed the original golfing records later to camouflage the Masonic origins of their golf clubs. The argument already made above that the Minutes had been previously published undermines this theory; as does the fact that the ‘Masonic’ connections were so normal for those days in Scotland.
It is much more likely that the early records have simply been lost to fire or mislaid because of the lack of administrative headquarters of the clubs or in the decampments that the early clubs had to undertake. However, one other intriguing possibility does exist – that Robert Clark retained the Bruntsfield’s and Musselburgh’s minute books after publication of his book in 1875/1893, maybe with a view to further research. He would not be the first or last academic to do so. The Minutes of these clubs were then subsequently lost en masse, so to speak, leaving Royal Blackheath’s, which, it is stated, were destroyed in a fire.
The Freemasons’ traditions of self-improvement
(‘making a good man better’) and the self-determination for artisans and
professionals were adopted by our modern educational institutions, trade
associations and professional bodies. Equally important is the major role that
the masons played in making golf the game we know today. At the time when ‘kolf’
died out in the Netherlands, as did its counterpart in Scotland, played as a
commoners’ game round churchyards and village greens, ‘links golf’ flourished,
played with a variety of clubs to holes marked by flags. From
1717 onward, when 'Speculative Masons' began to be recruited to Scottish Lodges,
many early Scottish links golfers were Masons
and they created the golf club and initially organised golf into what it has
become today. (David Hamilton outlines the probable genesis of the game
in several books reviewed in Golf Books.)
The Grand Lodge of Scotland was founded in 1736, the third Grand Lodge of Freemasonry after the English (1717) and the Irish (1725). At that time, there were about 100 Masonic lodges in Scotland and the difficulty of getting them to agree to a ‘head office’ had meant concessions had to be given to the participating lodges by way of local powers of decision; powers which were not conceded by other Grand Lodges. Even then, the Scottish Grand Lodge was only supported by a third of the Masonic lodges of the day.
Interestingly 1736 is one year after the published foundation date for the Burgess club in Edinburgh, but it looks probable that the Burgess masons did not join the Grand Lodge. There is little doubting the Masonic origins of the club, as many people point out. Their name and present day tradition of 'shaking in', whereby the Captain of the Burgess can admit anyone on a shake of his hand, admits of little other interpretation. However if they were an official lodge, formed at or after 1736, we could expect this to be noted in some way in the central records, which it isn't, whereas, if they did not join the Grand Lodge, but continued to observe Masonic traditions, however unofficially, it would explain their traditions and historical relationships, such as the absence of Burgess golfers from competitions held subsequently by clubs at Leith and St Andrews associated with the Grand Master Mason, William St Clair. Most importantly, this set of circumstances proves the foundation date of the society to 1735, before 1736, as they had to have started meeting before this date to have made the decision to carry on even if the were not officially recognised.
The use of sport competitions and society elections
looks so natural to our modern eyes, but in the pre-revolution, pre-democratic
days of princes and patronage, they were very new ideas. Even the much
criticised admission process of the ‘black ball’ in the Ballot Box must be seen
against the practices of the day, when elections for Members of Parliament were
by appointment or by open show of hands by a small number of constituency
freemen and subject to monetary influence. This gave rise to the ‘pocket
boroughs’ and ‘rotten boroughs’, whose removal featured so strongly in the
Reform Act of 1832. Against this background,
the practice of the 'black ball' to
exclude undesirable members looks more
enlightened than it appears at first sight to our modern
The Freemasons do not deserve the charge, sometimes leveled at them, of securing their own self-interests unduly and even plotting secret world domination. An investigation into such charges in the Judiciary and Police was conducted by the British Parliament a few years ago and the conclusions discounting them are summarised by the former Speaker of the Commons in an article published on Scottish Grand Lodge website. Freemasonry is due its credit for past contributions in our social, political, economic and sporting life. If there has been any conspiracy here it would appear to be on the part of those making fanciful claims for the destruction of golfing records and other shenanigans, without a single witness for the prosecution.
Roslyn Chapel where William St. Clair is buried.
Permission to use this article by SRA76 was granted by its author Neil Laird and Scottish Golf History to whom grateful acknowledgement and thanks are made. Click on this link to view the superb Scottish Golf History site.
The masonic golf ball graphic on this page was designed by SRA76 web design.