THEY are thick brown ledgers that wouldn’t look out of place in a Harry Potter film. The huge tomes - each containing around 500 yellowing pages crammed with densely-packed, handwritten information - are so heavy some staff are banned from attempting to lift them.
The huge works are the membership registers of the 600 Freemason’s lodges of Scotland, the "secret" order reputed to wield legendary influence in the corridors of power.
And last week, in a historic and unprecedented move, six volumes were thrown open to Scotland on Sunday as part of Freemasonry’s attempts to dispel its secretive image and counter a damaging association with Dunblane killer Thomas Hamilton. It is the first time that an outside organisation has had such open access to masonic files.
The registration books, and the equally-voluminous attendance books for two individual lodges, cover the period during which Hamilton could have been a member or a visitor. Exhaustive searches by senior staff of the Grand Lodge of Scotland - effectively head office - has failed to find any record of Hamilton ever being a mason or even stepping over the threshold of the masonic lodges in Glasgow and Stirling to which he has been most closely linked.
The Grand Lodge is now even considering publishing the relevant membership records on the internet in a further move to reassure the wider public that it has nothing to hide.
Robert Cooper, the museum and library curator of the Grand Lodge in Edinburgh’s George Street, said: "We are going to ask for members’ permission from two lodges that Thomas Hamilton has been linked with to print the membership book on the internet to put an end to speculation over whether he was a Freemason or not. We know he wasn’t but we want everyone else to be sure as well."
It’s not just an academic exercise. The Hamilton connection has haunted the Freemasons since he shot dead 16 children, one of their teachers and himself in the school gym of Dunblane Primary in 1996. Last month, a petition was submitted by a local resident to the Scottish parliament asking for the Cullen Inquiry into the murders to be reopened to re-examine alleged masonic links.
Cooper is more familiar than most with how the theory goes. It sprang, he says, from the clearly-recorded membership of Hamilton’s grandfather, James, a welder who joined the Garrowhill Lodge in the working class district of Baillieston in December 1957 and, after moving home, was a regular attendee at the Royal Arch Lodge in Stirling until his death in 2000.
As the grandfather was a member, then so was the grandson, so the theory progresses. As a mason, Thomas Hamilton would mix socially with other masons, many of them local police officers, the theory dictates. "Thomas Hamilton was unstable but was allowed to keep guns in his house by the police because they were all masons together," Cooper said. "None of this is true."
Membership records were scrutinised for the years in which Hamilton, who was born in 1952, could have been a member. They were from 1973, after he was 21 (you can only join at 18 if your father has been a member), to 1996 when he died. Another two Thomas Hamiltons were unearthed in Scotland but they were both the wrong ages.
"We spent months scouring the relevant documentation and no trace was found of him. Of course people will say you would say that wouldn’t you, which is why we are prepared to open the relevant parts of the register and attendance books up to scrutiny."
Cooper hopes it will also dispel the notion that masonic membership is the province of the wealthy and powerful. "I think most people will be surprised about how blue collar our membership really is. I shouldn’t tell you this but there isn’t one sheriff or judge among the Scottish membership."
The registration files themselves, stored in protective safes within the basement vaults of George Street, are kept in much the same format as they were when Freemasonry as a movement began life in Scotland in the 17th century. The broad pages record the new recruit’s name, occupation and age when first attending. A neat row notes the date of the three ceremonies each Lodge member must undergo before the achieve the rank of Master Mason.
A glance through the pages reveals a multitude of trades and professions, including engineers, joiners, labourers, bus drivers, pipelayers, welders, brewery workers and the occasional company director.
There have been attempts to present a more open image to the public. The movement and its 75,000-strong membership throughout Scotland realises that to survive in the long run it has to overcome long-held suspicions. The George Street headquarters is also the movement’s library and museum, stuffed with books and antique glassware and pottery of masonic significance, which are open to visitors.
The building dates from 1911, when it was purpose-built to replace an earlier Grand Lodge. The 30 rooms are an Edwardian time capsule of marbled pillars and warm wooden panelling.
The Grand Hall where the annual general meeting will be held next week has seating for hundreds in cathedral-like splendour. The centrepiece is a traditional black-and-white chequered carpet, which symbolises the choices of good and evil. The many masons initiated here will have had to swear to the three great Masonic principles of Brotherly Love, Relief (assisting others) and Truth (honesty and integrity in personal, business and public life).
Scottish masons who have taken the vows in the past include Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Harry Lauder, Manny Shinwell and King George VI.
The current Grand Master Mason is Sir Archibald Orr Ewing, a retired Stirlingshire businessman. His father held the same position and last Friday, his ceremonial regalia, complete with chains of office and gauntlets, had been lovingly laid-out in his office, with its immaculate Italian marble fireplace and ornate plasterwork ceilings, awaiting his attendance at the AGM.