What we learned from BBC documentary on Freemasons

Ramsay McGhee, depute grand master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Photograph: Graham HunterRamsay 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
Perhaps it is fitting that one of the oldest known organisations of similarly-minded people is the subject of some of the longest-standing conspiracy theories in the world.

To many, the Freemasons are simply an archaic institution, fond of pomp and circumstance, not unlike the House of Commons or a particularly venerable sporting club.

To others, the very mention of Freemasons is enough to set off a diatribe about a secret society that has controlled the top of every western Government since time immemorial.

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Now, as the Grand Lodge of Scotland wrestles with dwindling numbers and an ageing membership, the doors were opened to a BBC documentary clue to lift the lid on this most secret of clubs, which has around 100,000 members in Scotland.

Here are just some of the things we learned in the documentary, ‘The Secrets of the Masons’.

They take their history seriously

One thing that stands out in the documentary, is just how seriously they take their illustrious history, despite much of it being a closely guarded secret.

The reverence with which each of the featured lodges treat their records, from the lofty contributions of their literary members, to the meanest minuted meeting.

Bill Paterson narrates as the lodges unveil what is arguably their most treasured possession, the archive of their former members.

Some of the most famous Scots ever have been members

The most engaging parts of the documentary were the ones that dealt with the membership, which perhaps unwittingly reveals where so much of the basis for freemasonry conspiracy theories come from.

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The influence of Robert Burns on not only the Masonic movement, but the country is a whole, is discussed, but it is clearly that Scotland's national poet saw a pragmatic use for his work in the brotherhood.

When he was facing exile, two-thirds of sales of Burns' first published works were to his fellow Freemasons, it is revealed in the documentary.

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The same is also said of legendary engineer James Watt, revealed to be a member who was given more than a few leg-ups by his fellow men of the enlightenment, many of whom were Masons.

They don't like conspiracy theories

"We've been done in by Dan Brown," exclaims the curator of Freemasons Hall in Edinburgh, as he rails against the author of the Da Vinci Code, which tied the institution to things like the Illuminati and the New World Order.

It is a theme of the documentary, as while the members featured are often guarded about what they give away to the documentary, they are clear that they want to shatter some of the stereotypes.

It is largely social

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the documentary is when the formality of the meetings is over, and 'The Harmony' can begin.

That is when food, drink and merriment are taken, and when watching the documentary's shots of the mainly older men sitting in a hall drinking and eating, and sharing jokes, and you realise you could be watching virtually any social club in Scotland.

The only difference is that rather than golf, or bowls, or even a trade, what unites these men is their sense of morality, and a passion for the history of their organisation.

They struggle with modernity

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Towards the end of the documentary, it was clear that the further afield one went, the less rigid the traditions were.

As the documentary visits a Freemasons event in America, the ceremony has more the feel of a university graduation, with family, friends, and outsiders in attendance.

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The organisation is clearly struggling with membership, like all social clubs, attracting young members remains a challenge, and as such, some of those traditions may fall by the wayside.

Like many old-fashioned golf clubs, for example, the thorny issue of women members clearly rankles.

The informative documentary may have answered many of the old questions about Freemasons, but one still remains - how will they survive in the future with numbers dwindling?