When it comes to the history of Freemasonry, many brothers are intrigued to learn which is the oldest of the Masonic lodges. Brothers within the centuries-old fraternity have been meeting in lodges since Freemasonry began. And while every lodge has its own unique character, they bring Masons together around a shared purpose.
This article is concerned with uncovering the truth about the oldest Masonic lodge in the world, as there is often some contention regarding which establishment should be awarded the title. Read on to find out which of the world’s Masonic lodges is officially the oldest.
The oldest Masonic lodge can be found in Scotland.
Given that Freemasonry as many of us know it originated in England, it’s no real surprise that the oldest Masonic lodge can be found in the United Kingdom. However, the oldest record of a Masonic meeting took place in Scotland, long before the 1717 date given as the inauguration of Freemasonry with the United Grand Lodge of England.
But this is also where the controversy begins. Some sources tell us that the Lodge of Mother Kilwinning, under the auspices of the Grand Lodge of Scotland is the oldest Masonic lodge in the world, with some attributing its origins to the 12th century.
An excellent source for our consideration of the origins of the Lodge of Kilwinning can be found in Mackey’s Revised Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry, in which he states:
“As the city of York claims to be the birthplace of Freemasonry in England, the obscure little village of Kilwinning is entitled to the same honor with respect to the origin of the Order in the sister Kingdom of Scotland.”
The Kilwinning Mother Lodge is actually number zero on the Masonic roll, given its status in many people’s eyes as the oldest Masonic lodge in existence. However, in 1736 when the Grand Lodge of Scotland was organized, Kilwinning Lodge was unable to verify its existence as the oldest lodge in Scotland, as many of its original records had been lost.
Today, the oldest written records for a Masonic lodge that is still in existence are from The Lodge of Edinburgh, St Mary’s Chapel No. 1. The Masonic lodge records at St Mary’s Chapel date back to 1599, making it the oldest proven Masonic lodge in the world.
What proof do we have that St Mary’s Chapel is the oldest Masonic lodge in existence?
Proof of St Mary’s Chapel as the oldest Masonic lodge in the world can be found in the Schaw Statutes.
William Schaw was the Master of Work to His Majesty and General Warden of the Masonic Craft, and in his statutes, he declared that these ordinances issued by him for the regulation of lodges considered the lodge at Edinburgh to be for all time, the first and principal lodge in Scotland.
The Schaw Statutes from St. Mary’s Chapel date back to July 31st 1599 and are now preserved in the first Minute Book of Edinburgh’s Lodge. It is from these minutes that historians assert that the lodge at St. Mary’s Chapel is the oldest on record.
Schaw decided that the informal meetings taking place between operative masons required a formal structure that covered details of how apprenticeships worked and how Masons could live charitably and harmoniously with one another.
When he sent these statutes to every lodge in existence, one of his rules meant that each lodge should hire a clerk’s services, meaning that minutes could be taken and stored. It is why from the start of the seventeenth century, we have records of meetings taking place at Masonic lodges across Scotland.
So does this mean that Freemasonry dates back to before 1717?
The short answer is yes. Although the United Grand Lodge of England gives 1717 as the year of the foundation of Freemasonry, ask any Masonic historian and they will tell you that Freemasonry has its roots in Scotland in the centuries preceding this date.
Learn more: Did Freemasonry Really Begin in 1717?.
From the Middle Ages, associations formed by craft stonemasons existed in communities in both England and Scotland. In the late sixteenth century, evidence of these associations can be found, with proof that meetings were held across Scotland from Edinburgh to Perth.
These informal associations had likely been meeting for centuries, but it was at the turn of the seventeenth century where they developed an institutional structure and established ground rules and procedures, as were documented in the Schaw Statutes already introduced.
Although there is evidence of minutes from Aitchison’s Haven lodge in East Lothian from January 1599, this lodge closed in 1852, and it is the minutes from six months later, taken from a meeting at St Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh, that historians point to as evidence of the existence of the oldest Masonic lodge in the world.
What happened at these early lodge meetings?
As with all early guilds of operative stonemasons, the meetings at these early lodges were generally informal. They were a way for masons to discuss their craft and develop relationships with other masters of the craft.
In Britain during the Middle Ages, there was a rush to build bigger and more intricate churches throughout the country. Often stonemasons would be posted far from home, often for months or years on end, until the project was complete.
When presented with such a situation, the stonemasons created associations that their fellow masons could join, so they could get to know other people and learn about the intricacies of one another’s craft.
It really wasn’t too dissimilar to how people get to know one another in the present day. If we move home for work or any other reason for that matter, we seek out community groups of like-minded individuals so we can try and develop new relationships. The stonemason’s associations of the Middle Ages were essentially away for men to network and get to know one another.
In approximately 1600 in Scotland, the Lodge of Edinburgh began to admit non-operative Freemasons to join their lodges. In June of the same year, the Laird of Auchinleck was appointed as a speculative member, which is the first known authentic record of someone outside the craft joining a lodge. In many respects then, the Laird’s admittance to the Masonic lodge set the precedent for the development of Freemasonry as we know it today, and it was from this occurrence that modern-day Freemasonry began to take shape and admit new members.
Why then, do people consider the founding of Freemasonry to be in 1717?
It’s a good question, and one that is often debated. Many historians agree that it was Schaw’s statutes that helped lodges develop a rigid structure and enabled the meetings to spread across the whole country and into England.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, for whatever reason, Scotland’s Masonic influence was overshadowed and the Grand Lodge of England was established in 1717. In the centuries that have followed, Freemasonry’s Scottish origins have been largely forgotten and even ignored by many within the craft.
However, if one is to visit St Mary’s Chapel and the associated museum, they will learn the true history of Freemasonry’s roots.
What does this all tell us about the origins of the craft as we know it today?
As we all know, the history of Freemasonry is shrouded in intrigue and mystique, with brothers attributing many stories to the formation of the craft. We believe many historical sources contribute to the development of Freemasonry, and the existence of the Scottish lodges before 1717 strengthens the argument that Masonry evolved from the medieval associations of tradesmen.
While many of the Masonic allegories and teachings come from the story of King Solomon’s Temple, the meetings at lodges, and much of the Masonic regalia, originate from the meetings of medieval stonemasons, and the existence of the early Scottish lodges is further indication of this strong Masonic heritage.
Conclusion: the oldest Masonic lodge in the world
Despite there being several contrasting theories, it’s widely agreed by Masonic historians that Freemasonry, as we know it today, was actually born before the 1717 date given by the United Grand Lodge of England.
It’s more accurate to say that Freemasonry has its origins in Scotland, and records from the Schaw Statutes indicate that the oldest Masonic Lodge in existence is The Lodge of Edinburgh, St Mary’s Chapel No. 1.
It was at this lodge that non-operative Masons were first permitted to become Masons, and therefore we can conclude that this period of time should be rightly marked as the birth of the fraternity of Freemasonry as we know it today.