Why no Masonic Tartan?

When the Grand Lodge of Scotland was founded in 1736 there were approximately 100 Lodges in existence, scattered across Scotland. These Lodges were mainly stonemasons’ Lodges although there were a few with a mixed membership and at least one that had no stonemasons at all as members. The Grand Lodge of Scotland was confronted with difficulty from the outset as it attempted to regulate the affairs of so many independent Lodges. Indeed support for the new body appeared to be lukewarm at best. All known Lodges were invited to attend the inaugural meeting held on 30th November 1736 in Edinburgh. Only 33 attended, or sent representatives, to that meeting. Of those 12 decided not to pursue membership of the new body any further and never became part of the Scottish Grand Lodge system. It was not until 1891 that the last of these independent Lodges became a Daughter Lodge of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. In order to be accepted as ‘the’ governing body the Grand Lodge of Scotland it had to compromise on many issues and it is those compromises that make Scottish Freemasonry unique in world Freemasonry.

The new Grand Lodge of Scotland ‘granted’ a great deal of power to existing Lodges - it could not do otherwise as such Lodges pre-existed it by many years and already had such powers. For this reason Lodges under the Scottish Constitution are independent, sovereign, bodies in their own right and Grand Lodge has quite a different relationship with its Daughter Lodges than that of other Constitutions. That relationship, together with the culture and history of the Scottish people, has ensured that Scottish Freemasonry has a very different character to other forms of Freemasonry. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why Scottish Freemasonry is so attractive to men outwith Scotland?

Lodges which had pre-existed the formation of the Grand Lodge retained much of their local practices and traditions which often were different from place to place. This is one reason why Scottish Lodges have the right to devise their own ritual - within reason of course! There is no such thing as a ‘standard’ Scottish Masonic ritual and in theory there could be as many rituals as there are Lodges although in practice Lodges will adopt an existing ritual and adapt it to suit their aspirations. Given that, in Scotland, before Grand Lodge, all Lodges had this amount of independence then Lodges founded after 1736 expected and gained the same degree of independence. That local autonomy manifested itself not only in wide variations of ritual but also had an effect on many other aspects of Lodge organization. The most obvious difference is Scottish regalia, particularly aprons.

A Lodge in one part of the country may have used red of its aprons and other regalia whereas a Lodge on the other side of the country may have used blue and orange as colours for its regalia. With no standard colours imposed on Daughter Lodges they continued with existing designs. For this reason all Scottish Lodges can choose which colour(s) to use for their regalia. The reasons for the choice of colour might be obscure but more often than not there is a conscious decision taken by the founder members when choosing a particular colour or combination of colours. For instance, Lodge Tullibardine-in-the-East, No.1118, (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) chose Murray Tartan as this was the clan tartan of the Dukes of Atholl and John George Murray, Marquis of Tullibardine, was Grand Master Mason at the time the Lodge was founded (1913). Lodge Celtic, No.291, founded in 1821, uses Royal Stewart tartan and one of the Lodge’s avowed intentions was to ’promote the wearing of tartan within the Scottish Craft’. This was a romantic and a late reaction to the repeal of the Act of Proscription of 1746 which, among other things, had banned the wearing of tartan and the playing of bagpipes.

The choice of a tartan for Scottish Masonic regalia can, like other colours, be due to a number of reasons but because tartan is a uniquely Scottish icon several specific reasons for their selection can be identified:

The use of a clan tartan by a Lodge which is in the clan’s area.

The use of the tartan of a particular Freemason, e.g. the Grand Master Mason at the time a Lodge was founded, or the clan tartan of the Founding Master.

The selection of a tartan for ‘romantic’ reasons - e.g. one associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie - the Royal Stewart tartan.

The Founder Members of the Lodge simply liked the colours!

What becomes clear from this very brief investigation of the use of tartan by Masonic Lodges is that Scottish Lodges have never thought to have a ‘common’ Masonic tartan. Instead they have deliberately chosen to use an existing tartan. This is entirely in accordance with the Scottish mentality of ‘non-standardization’ - a peculiar concept in this world of ever increasing conformity and standardization. The Scottish Masonic mentality abhors this process of standardization. That is NOT a criticism of other Constitutions, other Grand Lodges etc., but is simply an observation of the differences between Scottish Masonic practice and that which pertains elsewhere. Scottish Lodges revel in their differences, one from another, and is manifest, visually, by the ‘colour’ of regalia. The choice of colours, combinations of colours, and the use of tartan(s) is sufficient evidence of this independence of mind. This independence in terms of Ritual, Regalia, Colours, Officers, and Symbolism does not mean that there is a fundamental difference between Scottish Freemasonry and other forms of Freemasonry. As a colloquial Scottish saying has it: ‘It is the same but different’. In other words the whole world is out of step with Scotland and we are ok with that!

With Scottish Lodges, not only in Scotland, enjoying the ability to express their individuality at Lodge level in terms of Regalia, Ritual and Regulation (the three Scottish Masonic R’s!) the reader might well understand the Scottish Masonic ‘shudder’ at the thought of the ‘invention’ of a Masonic Tartan for that would herald the introduction of the kind of Masonic standardization alien to Scottish Freemasonry.

Robert L. D. Cooper


The Grand Lodge of Scotland Museum and Library

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Grand Lodge of Scotland).


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Lodge Carbonear #1043, Antient Free and

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