Located at number 19 Hill Street, Mary’s Chapel isn’t a place of worship. It’s a Masonic lodge. And, dating back to at least 1599, it’s the oldest Masonic lodge still in existence anywhere in the world.
That might come as a surprise to some people. Ask most enthusiasts when modern Freemasonry began, and they’d point to a much later date: 1717, the year of the foundation of what would become known as the Grand Lodge of England. But in many ways, Freemasonry as we know it today is as Scottish as haggis or Harris tweed.
From the Middle Ages, associations of stonemasons existed in both England and Scotland. It was in Scotland, though, that the first evidence appears of associations – or lodges – being regularly used. By the late 1500s, there were at least 13 established lodges across Scotland, from Edinburgh to Perth. But it wasn’t until the turn of the 16th Century that those medieval guilds gained an institutional structure – the point which many consider to be the birth of modern Freemasonry.
Take, for example, the earliest meeting records, usually considered to be the best evidence of a lodge having any real organisation. The oldest minutes in the world, which date to January 1599, is from Lodge Aitchison’s Haven in East Lothian, Scotland, which closed in 1852. Just six months later, in July 1599, the lodge of Mary’s Chapel in Edinburgh started to keep minutes, too. As far as we can tell, there are no administrative records from England dating from this time.
“This is, really, when things begin,” said Robert Cooper, curator of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and author of the book Cracking the Freemason’s Code. “[Lodges] were a fixed feature of the country. And what is more, we now know it was a national network. So Edinburgh began it, if you like.”
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Not so many years ago, I had the good fortune of being able to sit in an EA degree in Mary's Chapel Lodge No. 1. There was a Masonic conference that weekend in Edinburgh, so there were over a hundred of us stuffed into that storied lodge room. (By the way, visitors from Lodge Kilwinning No. 0 were introduced as being from "Lodge Number Nuthin!"). As the candidate was led to the door, his name was called out: "Paul McCartney!" You can damn well bet every single head in the room craned over to see if it was the Beatle himself.
Regardless, there was still much rejoicing.