You may have come across Brethren in a Lodge wearing strange aprons, edged in tartan rather than plain. These are Freemasons practising the Royal Standard of Scotland. Why do the aprons of the Royal Standard of Scotland have this peculiarity, which seems rather unusual compared to continental Masonic practice? And what is it about the Royal Standard of Scotland that requires such unusual aprons? We'll try to shed some light on this and answer the many questions that many European Freemasons have about the Royal Standard of Scotland and its peculiar aprons.

The peculiarities of  the Freemasonry in Scotland

To understand the origins of the Royal Standard of Scotland, we must first understand the very specific way in which the Freemasonry of Scotland operates (we will not use the adjective "Scottish", as this is a source of misunderstanding due to the so-called Scottish Rites, which developed on the European continent but have nothing to do with Scotland).

Freemasonry in Scotland is very different from its English, Irish, American and European counterparts. Although the Grand Lodge of Scotland is only the third oldest of the British Grand Lodges (1736, compared to 1717 - or rather 1721 - for the Grand Lodge of London and 1725 for the Grand Lodge of Ireland), it is clearly the oldest in terms of tradition. Scotland is the only country where Masonic Lodges existed continuously from the end of the Middle Ages until the seventeenth century. There was no Grand Lodge in the modern sense of the word, but a real, if rather loose, bond united the Lodges of Scotland within what might be called the Order of Masons of Scotland. This order was under the protection of the Sinclair family, as evidenced by the two charters of 1601 and 1628, which did not establish this custom but renewed it at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

In this highly decentralised system, the primary link was between Mother Lodges and Daughter Lodges. Certain Lodges, known as "immemorial" Lodges, were the custodians of the Masonic tradition, the most important of which were Kilwinning Lodge and Mary's Chapel Lodge in Edinburgh. Each Mother Lodge had established Daughter Lodges, which in turn could establish Daughter Lodges. The structure of Freemasonry in Scotland was thus like a family tree in which each Lodge knew which branch it belonged to, while at the same time being in contact with and recognising the other branches.

The Lodge of Kilwinning

The creation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736 did not fundamentally change the situation. The link between Mother Lodges and Daughter Lodges was not affected. The only addition was a permanent central body with very little power other than to ensure the continuity of the ancient system.

Under the ancient system, rituals were not standardised or imposed by a central body. Each Mother Lodge passed on its own ritual to its Daughters, who could modify it slightly and pass it on to their own Daughters. Masonic ritual in Scotland thus follows the contours of the genealogy of the Lodges, forming distinct families within which there are countless variations. As the Grand Lodge of Scotland currently has around 640 lodges, we can say that there are 640 different rituals in Scotland, which can be grouped into a few large families.

This situation may seem strange to Freemasons accustomed to highly centralised Masonic Bodies, which tends to dictate to Lodges the rituals they must use. This can be explained by the great antiquity of the Lodges of Scotland, which did not want to give up their customs and privileges, even though they formed the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736. 

There are also sociological reasons for this : Freemasonry in Scotland is deeply embedded in the social fabric of the country. Whereas everywhere else Freemasonry tends to be bourgeois and elitist, a sort of select club, in Scotland it is much more widespread and popular, and deeply linked to the history of the clans. It expresses part of the Scottish soul to the extent that 6% of the population belong to Freemasonry, whereas in other countries this percentage is generally less than 1%. It is difficult, if not impossible, to completely change practices that are so deeply rooted in a society.

A Masonic Working that doesn't really exist ?

If the Grand Lodge of Scotland has more than 600 Masonic rituals, what is the Royal Standard of Scotland ? Does it really exist or is it a figment of the imagination ? The answer may be difficult for rationalist and Cartesian Freemasons to accept : yes, the Royal Standard of Scotland has existed on paper since 1901, but it is not practised by any Lodge in Scotland.

So what is this Royal Standard of Scotland, who created it and what is its purpose? As we have seen, the Grand Lodge of Scotland has no power to impose rituals on the Lodges II federates, as these rituals are transmitted by the Mother Lodges through their Daughter Lodges. At most, at the turn of the twentieth century, it decided to draw up a "standard", i.e. the lowest common denominator of ritual practice in Scotland. It is therefore a sort of minimum standard, not intended to replace the ancestral customs of the Lodges. 

What purpose could such a ritual serve? In principle, not much, other than to establish minimum ritual rules (which traditional rituals already respected anyway) and to show other Masonic bodies the nature and style of Freemasonry in Scotland.

Consequently, the Royal Standard of Scotland found a concrete ritual application outside its home country. As a result, there are Lodges within European Masonic bodies, particularly in France, that operate according to this ritual and thus share in the Masonic tradition of Scotland , without having to historically trace back to one of the ancient Mother Lodges.

The Aprons of the Royal Standard of Scotland

Just as there are as many rituals as there are lodges in Scotland, so too are the aprons. Although they are uniform in shape, with a rounded bib, the colour of the border of the Master Mason's apron and the rosettes of the Fellowcraft's apron is chosen by the Lodge and does not follow any set guidelines. While the Grand Lodge regalia in Scotland are green, individual Lodges use aprons edged with different colours (green, blue, magenta, orange, yellow, etc.) or with specific tartans, usually the tartan of the region or clan of the Lodge's founders. Some Lodges have even changed the colour of their regalia in the course of their history.

Grand Lodge of Scotland Grand Officers regalia

Lodges outside Scotland that chose to operate according to this ritual adopted a different practice. A single ritual, at least in the logic of continental European Freemasonry, required a single set of regalia. Instead of a colour, as in the other rites, a tartan was adopted. What could be more Scottish ? But which tartan ? It's a more complicated question than it might seem.

Dating back to ancient Celtic traditions, tartans have been well documented in the Scottish Highlands since the sixteenth century. They varied from region to region and from district to district. It wasn't until the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth centuries that clan chiefs adopted the tartan of their region as their own. Today, tartans are usually registered in the Scottish Register of Tartans and the use of some tartans is regulated. For example, the Balmoral tartan can only be worn by the Royal Family of England. 

Choosing a tartan cannot therefore be done at random, as it represents a clan, a family, a region or an institution. So what tartan could Freemasons of non-Scottish origin choose to express their attachment to Scottish Freemasonry, without offending anyone's sensibilities ? The most obvious choice seemed to be the "Royal Stewart", which was that of the Stuarts, whose name is so often mentioned in the history of Freemasonry in the eighteenth century. This is normally the tartan of the royal family, but George V tried unsuccessfully to prevent its public use; although it was still the personal tartan of Queen Elizabeth II, it has now become the most representative, the best known and, above all, the most widely used tartan in the world.

The Royal Stewart tartan was therefore chosen for the Masonic regalia of the Royal Standard of Scotland, and it certainly looks very Scottish. Perhaps too much so, as the Royal Stewart is a bit of a clichéd caricature of Scotland. Perhaps it would have been better to respect the ancient customs of Scottish Freemasonry and leave the choice of colour to the lodges.

June 24, 2024 — Ion Rajalescu