Masons turn to students in bid to boost membership

For more than four centuries, its ways have been shrouded in secrecy, known only to a band of brothers which has included no fewer than five monarchs and the likes of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott.

Ramsay McGhee, depute grand master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Photograph: Graham Hunter
Ramsay McGhee, depute grand master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Photograph: Graham Hunter

But faced with dwindling membership numbers in the 21st century, Scotland’s fraternity of Freemasons has redesignated one of its most historic lodges in an attempt to entice a new generation into the craft.

With a history stretching back to 1738, Lodge St David in Edinburgh is one of the oldest bastions of the masons in Scotland. However, with a declining and ageing membership, the Grand Lodge of Scotland has recognised it as the country’s first university lodge.

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The fledgling pilot scheme, which dispenses with long-standing age and residency requirements, is featured in a new documentary exploring the history and future of Freemasonry in Scotland.

Masonic regalia. Photograph: Graham Hunter

The BBC programme, Secrets Of The Masons, lifts the lid for the first time on some of freemasonry’s most arcane rituals and traditions, including the installation ceremony of the Grand Master Mason, which has never before been broadcast.

The five-year pilot scheme is designed to appeal to students in Edinburgh. Unlike traditional lodges, St David now admits members as young as 18, as well as those who have recently moved to Scotland. It also offers half- price joining fees for those in full-time education.

While the concept of university lodges are a fixture in England, where around 65 such organisations are active, the Grand Lodge of Scotland is taking a keen interest in the success of the St David initiative.

In 1920, as many as 54,000 men joined Freemasonry, but the annual intake of new members in Scotland now stands at about 2,000.

Masonic regalia. Photograph: Graham Hunter

Although it is not a requirement, the Edinburgh scheme asks that candidates have a “connection” with a Scottish university or college. The main criteria for admission is being able to “demonstrate high moral values” and “profess a belief in a supreme being”.

Alan Rudland, a member of the lodge, explained it had started to “fail” with an “ageing membership.” He said: “As a means of trying to bring in some new members, we redesignated it as a university scheme lodge, which allowed us to engage with students.”

The documentary, narrated by actor Bill Paterson, features a clutch of students embarking on the year-long application process to join the lodge.

One, Sandie Tweedie, from the Borders, admitted that there was a “stigma” attached to Freemasonry, but insisted that perceptions of the organisation were out of date. “From what I’ve seen at our lodge, it’s a very multicultural lodge, and it’s open to people who are homosexual and those who believe in many different religions,” he said.

However, the documentary also makes clear that senior figures in the Grand Lodge of Scotland are insistent that some centuries-old traditions should continue.

While there around 5,000 women Freemasons in England, Ramsay McGhee, left, the organisation’s depute grand master, insisted Scotland should not follow suit.

“We get criticised at times because we’re men only, but I firmly believe that there are times when men need to be with men, there’s times when women need to be with women,” he said.

Secrets Of The Masons will be shown at 9pm tomorrow on BBC Two Scotland.