Mason Word, The

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01The Mother Lodge2007111920130807 (RS)

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Billy Kay presents a series on the history of Scottish Freemasonry which has a strong claim to be the spiritual home of a world wide brotherhood numbering close to 6 million people. Along with freemasons and academic historians from Scotland and the United States, Billy will explore the craft's early history among the country's medieval stonemasons, revealing and dramatising their rituals. He will also examine why, from the 17th century onward, non-stonemasons and gentlemen were sufficiently intrigued by the mason's word and grip, and the mason's lore, that they transformed the craft into the speculative Freemasonry that took off round the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A passage from the chapter The Mason Word in Billy Kay's book The Scottish World

While Freemasonry is regarded as a benign, charitable organisation in many countries of the world where the Scots put down roots, here in Scotland itself it is often regarded as a dangerously exclusive, sectarian, self serving organisation which is inimical to the public weel. In an interview for my series, The Mason Word, the emminent Scottish historian Dr David Stevenson recalled the extreme reaction he experienced from colleagues at his university when he mentioned that he was doing research into masonic history. It was so negative, that it struck him forcibly that if he had said he was researching Naziism, no one would have batted an eyelid or presumed that he had Nazi sympathies, yet somehow he was tainted by being interested in Masonic history! Dr Stevenson is not a Freemason, and neither am I but the Masons have been such an important institution in Scotland and in the Scottish world for so long that I find their history fascinating and deserving of attention.

02The Mystic Tie2007112620130814 (RS)

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The mystic tie, according to Robert Burns was the bond experienced and shared by brother masons. Billy Kay reveals that as freemasonry took off in the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the great men of European culture were drawn to the craft - Mozart, Sibelius, and Goethe as well as Scottish icons like Sir Walter Scott and James Boswell. We shall celebrate the cultural legacy of Freemasonry and hear of the conviviality that arose out of the harmonies enjoyed when the formal, ritualised part of the evening was over.

A passage from the chapter The Mason Word in Billy Kay's book The Scottish World

In Scotland the masons had been engaged in the building of the great Abbeys in the Borders and elsewhere in the 12th century, and it is no coincidence that the place with the strongest claim to be the home of Scottish freemasonry, Kilwinning, is the site of one of these great abbeys, and the Mither Ludge - the Mother Lodge of Scotland stands in the leas of its impressive ruins. To visit there and see the mason marks on the stones of the abbey, then hear the oral evidence of what they are sure is an unbroken tradition going back to the 12th century, anyone with a feeling for history has that frisson we feel when we are close to something from the past which is powerful and far reaching. Later when I visited Washington DC and heard that the Edinburgh masons who built the White House had also left their individual mason's mark on every stone, I was haunted by the memory of Kilwinning Abbey and an image of the masons working there.

03The Scottish Rite2007120320130821 (RS)

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Billy Kay continues the story of Scottish freemasonry, travelling to Fredericksburg Virginia home of the lodge of Scottish tobacco merchants who initiated George Washington into the Craft. He also visits Washington DC where the White House and the Capitol Building were built by Edinburgh stonemasons and freemasons, who were among the founder members of the prestigious Federal Lodge No 1 there.

A passage from the chapter The Mason Word in Billy Kay's book The Scottish World

Fredericksburg, Virginia June 29, 2007

Travis Walker: By 1755 it appears that local lodges had tied into a fashion to go back to the old world and get legitimate charters. It appears that the first was Kilwinning Cross Lodge down at Port Royal - they went to the Grand Lodge of Scotland and got a charter in 1755. So by 1758, the Brethren here at Fredericksburg decided that it would be expedient for them to do so as well.

Billy Kay: And that is the actual charter that is upstairs in the room I've just seen?

Travis : The original that dates to 1758

Billy: And so was George Washington then, a Scottish freemason?

Travis: I think it could be said that he was a Scottish freemason in that the majority of the individuals that he was meeting with. and who conferred the degrees on him were Scots.

George Washington was not the only great man of the Age of Enlightenment to find inspiration in what Robert Burns called the "mystic tie" which bound him together with major European figures like Goethe, Voltaire and Mozart and major Scottish icons like James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg.

04 LASTWe Met Upon The Level2007121020130828 (RS)

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In the final programme in the series Billy Kay confronts issues like sectarianism and conspiracy theories regarding freemasonry and look for possible origins, while we hear of persecution against Freemasons from Nazi Germany to Stalin's Russia. We also hear from Freemasons about the inclusive nature of the brotherhood, its work for charity and the morality it teaches....all of which means that for many of them, after their families, it plays the most important role in their lives.

A passage from the chapter The Mason Word in Billy Kay's book The Scottish World

I shall leave the last word to Lord Elgin, a former Grand Master Mason whose Bruce forebears have been part of masonic and Scottish history for many hundreds of years. Here is how he expressed his personal feelings for freemasonry, which I chose as the eloquent conclusion of my series The Mason Word.

Lord Elgin:

Inevitably there are great ups, and there are times when you find that some things have not gone quite right and they need a little bit of sorting out, misunderstandings and so on. But generally speaking, the lovely old 18th century song...dance, "Hey ho, the Merry Masons come dancing along" - I think that most of us who have had a long experience of Freemasonry, we know that that tune and that sentiment runs at the back of our mind. And that is the thing that we really most want to enourage and preserve because that is the truth of the matter, that if men in society can dance along together, this is the whole purpose of Freemasonry.

The Mason Word is an Odyssey Production for Radio Scotland.