Freemasons invent Golf Club

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Though it may be a slight exaggeration to say that the 'Speculative Freemasons' invented the golf club, being a Mason or a Burgess was certainly a condition of the earliest known clubs in Scotland and England. Still today, very few golf clubs in the world do not have some entry criteria, if only financial.

Until 1789, the Royal Blackheath GC was open only to Freemasons and for a generation afterwards there was a clique of Masons called the Knuckle Club who played out-of-season on Blackheath to avoid the non-mason members. They continued 'as golfers' only in 1825 and disbanded in 1844. Their minutes and medals are now part of Royal Blackheath GC. 

The Grand Master Mason of Scotland was captain of both the Leith golfers (Honourable Company) and St Andrews golfers (R&A) four times in the eighteenth century. He also laid the foundation stone for the clubhouse at Leith in 1768 in the presence of 'all Masons' (see below). Alexander McDougall, elected secretary of Gentlemen Golfers at Leith in 1764, was the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.

There is indirect evidence that the origins of the Royal Burgess and Bruntsfield Links were Masonic, though seemingly not after 1736.  See Burgess Foundation Date. Certainly, being a Burgess was important to the eponymous golf club, though a proposal to make it an official condition of membership was defeated in 1790. That is not to say that it was not informally applied in the early years.

Royal Musselburgh is the only one of the oldest six clubs for which no particular Masonic link can be proved or inferred, although the oldest Masonic lodge in the world,  Acheson's or Aitchison's Haven, dating from 1599, was based only a Par-5 away from the Old Musselburgh Course and met at locations around Musselburgh. 

The main reason that the members of early golf clubs were Freemasons was because, in the century after 1717, virtually all middle class men of ability in Scotland were Freemasons from senior law officers to skilled artisans as well as poets and writers, as listed here. (Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott were Masons). This was because, from 1717, the Scottish 'stonemason' Freemasons, called Operative Masons, apparently began to allow merchants and professional people, termed Speculative Masons, to join Lodges or create their own. This practice spread elsewhere in the world. For example, in France Voltaire and Napoleon's mistress Josephine were Masons as were the luminaries of the American Revolution including George Washington, who was buried with full Masonic honours.

You can now learn about the 'secret' world of Scottish Freemasons from Mason websites such as Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland as well as public information such as The Guinness Book of Records (search on Masonic or Lodges in 'Search Records') or online encyclopaedias.

Leith Clubhouse and the Grand Master Mason

Extracts of the early minutes of five of the early clubs are available in the book Golf: A Royal and Ancient Game' and they read like the minutes of any modern club, parish council or tenants' association. They note the banal details of admissions, competitions, match dinners and domestic arrangements. They do not indicate the heavy hand of Masonic traditions, beyond the fact that they date from a time when Freemasonry was strong and highly regarded. At most, they simply show that many important people who were involved with golf were Freemasons and acknowledged as such, in much the same way as modern buildings carry the plaques of the names of the local Councillors, who opened them with their chains of office. The laying of the foundations of the first purpose built golf clubhouse on Leith Links for The Honourable Company in 1768 is a case in point.

Leith, July 2, 1768

This day William St Clair of Roslin, Esq., the undoubted representative of the Honourable and Heretable G.M.M of Scotland, In presence of Alexander Keith, Esq., Captain of the Honourable Company of Goffers, and other worthy Members of the Goffing Company, all Masons, The G.M., now in his GRAND CLIMAX of GOFFING, laid the Foundation of the GOFFING HOUSE in the S.E. corner thereof, by THREE STROKES with the Mallet.

ALEXR. KEITH, C.
Wm. ST. CLAIR, G.M.M.

WStClair1Other Masons are listed with their Masonic rank. GMM stands for Grand Master Mason. The St Clairs of Rosslyn were hereditary patrons of the masons in Scotland for centuries and William St Clair was the first elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1736. He was Captain and prominent member of both the Leith and the St Andrews golf clubs, winning their competitions at an advanced age and apparently a very accomplished golfer. 

Apart from laying the foundation stone of the world's first golf clubhouse, his name is on the St Andrew's minute shortening the Old Course to be eighteen holes in 1764.  His portrait hangs in Archers Hall and copies of it feature prominently in golf histories and clubhouses.

Rosslyn Chapel

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Rosslyn Chapel now restored

William St Clair was the 21st Baron of Roslin. He died in 1778 and is the last of the male line buried in Rosslyn Chapel, alongside the Chapel's founder, Sir William, who was buried there in 1484. Sir Walter Scott wrote that the pillars in the chapel 'were slightly indented' to accommodate the 'uncommon stature' of Sir William.

There is a direct connection between Rosslyn Chapel and golf. When it was being built Sir Gilbert Hay was working in Rosslyn Castle for Sir William Sinclair. Later, in 1460, Sir Gilbert translated an old French poem in which he used the term 'golf'. Rosslyn Castle has been demolished but copies of Sir Gilbert's poem have endured.

Rosslyn Chapel is the spiritual home of the Freemasons in Scotland and is used by other ancient orders, though now part of the Scottish Episcopal Church.  There is no known connection to the Knights Templar, who, if they did flee to Scotland in 1308, as is commonly believed, had died out a hundred years before the Chapel was built in 1446. Nevertheless, Rosslyn is a very historic building of international significance.

Golf Club Minutes

Several authorities cite the 'secrecy' of the Freemasons for the 'absence' of early Scottish golf history records, but this statement needs clarification.

Certainly, when the Knuckle Club at Blackheath disbanded as a Lodge in 1825 and decided to continue meeting merely 'as golfers', they excised and destroyed the first four pages (the first six rules) of their rulebook, retaining the others in their original numbering. This led the Club historians to speculate that this was to camouflage their Masonic links, though, if that had been the aim, they would surely have rewritten the other rules to cover this up. The historians also speculated that similar destruction happened elsewhere, though there is no evidence for this, and Masonic connections were still noted in minutes, as with the building of the Leith clubhouse

The first minute books of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which contained the most prominent Masons of the time, are still extant. The minutes of the Royal Blackheath, which was also strongly Masonic, were reportedly destroyed by a fire, though the details of the fire are not known, which led to the presumption that the fire had not happened, though, of itself, this is not a reason to disbelieve the report and fires were common in the days of candles and rudimentary fire fighting. 

The Royal Burgess GS has its minutes back to 1773, and it is not certain that there were any minutes kept before then. The minutes of Royal Musselburgh GC before 1784 do not exist, but the only early minute books that definitely existed, but whose fate is unknown, are the first five books (prior to 1874) of the Bruntsfield Links GS, which like the Musselburgh had the least Masonic connections.

The reference to Masonry in the foundation of the Leith clubhouse was published in 1875 by Robert Clark, when these lost minutes were still in existence. There would be no point to destroying them later. Apart from the actions of the Knuckle Club, as outlined above, the 'destruction' theory may be a misunderstanding of the dispute that arose in the Royal Burgess in 1807-09 over the Stymie Rule, when minutes were destroyed on settlement of the matter, but for completely different reasons.

The Scottish Freemasons have kept the details of their activities from at least 1599 and now publish these on the web. It would be strange if they had destroyed their golf minutes to preserve the confidentially of the members while keeping the lists of their Grand Masters and Council. In any case the negative connotations associated with being a Freemason only arose in the second half of the twentieth century, by which time the evidence of golf history was in its present state.

It is much more likely that the early records have simply been lost to fire or mislaid because of the lack of administrative headquarters of the clubs or in the many decampments that the early clubs had to undertake. 

It does seem that the 'Speculative' Freemasons continued the 'Operative' Freemasons' traditions of secrecy (or privacy). Therefore, because many of the golfers at the time the early golf clubs and competitions were first convened were Freemasons, this could have influenced them into avoiding recording their sporting activities in greater depth until golf clubs were more clearly distinguished from the Freemason activities.

The Freemasons' core traditions of self-improvement ('making a good man better') and the self-determination for artisans and professionals, as well as quality of service and service to others, were adopted by our modern educational institutions, trade associations and professional bodies. Equally important is the major role that the Masons played in organising golf into the game we know today. At the time when 'colf' died out in the Netherlands, 'links golf' flourished. From 1717 onward, when 'Speculative Masons' began to be recruited to Scottish Lodges, many early Scottish links golfers were Masons, who created the golf club and initially organised golf into what it has become.

Burgess Foundation Date

The Grand Lodge of Scotland was founded in 1736, the third Grand Lodge of Freemasonry after the English (1717) and the Irish (1725). At that time, there were about 100 Masonic lodges in Scotland and the difficulty of getting them to agree to a 'head office' had meant concessions had to be given to the participating lodges by way of local powers of decision; powers which were not conceded by other Grand Lodges. Even then, the Scottish Grand Lodge was only supported by a third of the Masonic lodges of the day.

It may be significant that 1736 is one year after the published foundation date for the Burgess club in Edinburgh. There is little doubting the Masonic origins of the club, as many people point out. Their name and present day tradition of 'shaking in', whereby the Captain of the Burgess can admit anyone on a shake of his hand, admits of little other interpretation. However if they were an official lodge, formed at or after 1736, we could expect this to be noted in some way in the central records, which it isn't, whereas, if they did not join the Grand Lodge, but continued to meet socially and play golf, it would explain their traditions and historical relationships, such as the absence of Burgess golfers from competitions held subsequently by clubs at Leith and St Andrews associated with the Grand Master Mason, William St Clair. It also explains the significance of their first minute in 1773, documenting their dwindling numbers over the decades, as they could neither recruit Masons, nor saw the need to recruit 'non-Masons'.

It thus looks probable that the early Burgess golfer 'Masons' did not join the Grand Lodge and most importantly, this set of circumstances proves the foundation date of the society to 1735, before 1736, as they had to have started meeting before this date to have made the decision to carry on even if the were not officially recognised.

Black Ball

The use of sport competitions and society elections looks so natural to our modern eyes, but in the pre-revolution, pre-democratic days of princes and patronage, they were very new ideas.

On the use of the Black Ball, one club describes the process.

When a person wished to join the club he was selected by each member placing a white or black ball into the Yes of No compartments of a wooden box which was vintage Masonic practice. The candidate had to receive two thirds majority to be accepted. In 1864 this was reduced to one black was enough for the individual to be refused membership. No reason was given to the unsuccessful candidate, and nobody knew who had blackballed them. Often the captain was allowed to enter three members a year 'on the shake of a hand.'

This much criticised admission process of the 'black ball' in the Ballot Box must be seen against the practices of the day, when elections for Members of Parliament were by appointment or by open show of hands by a small number of constituency Freemen and subject to monetary influence. This gave rise to the 'pocket boroughs' and 'rotten boroughs', whose removal featured strongly in the Reform Act of 1832. Against this background, the practice of the 'black ball' to exclude undesirable members is more enlightened than it appears at first sight to our modern eyes, as it is a pre-cursor to the secret ballot.