The Chapel of St John
(St John’s Chapel)
In 1735 the membership of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge commissioned the building of The Chapel of St. John because prior to that year the Lodge had no permanent quarters of its own. It is evident from entries in the minute books that the Lodge met before 1735 in private houses and in premises belonging to other bodies. The minute books of 1735 and 1736 make it clear that the Lodge purchased a piece of ground in St. John Street and in less than twelve months had built a new home at a cost of £400. The Chapel was consecrated, as St John’s Chapel, on 18th December 1736 by the Master, Bro. George Fraser as appointed by the Most Worshipful Grand Master, Bro. William St Clair of Roslin who was present with other members of The Grand Lodge of Scotland on the occasion.
The Chapel itself and the room immediately below it were built as an extension to property which already existed in the Canongate, as can be seen from differences in architectural styles. However, the Chapel and the now Refectory (originally built for use as a stable) were built as new accommodation, as is evidenced by the minute books of 1735 and 1736. Attempts have recently been made to prove that the premises were previously part of a private house, or a tenement, but such claims are shown, by the minutes, to have no foundation. This fact is important, because it proves that the premises are unarguably, the oldest purpose-built Masonic premises in the world.
Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, No.2 on the Roll of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, owned the building and held all its meetings there from 1735 until 1992 when an inordinate amount of maintenance work was needed at a time when the membership had reduced to about thirty active members. At that time, the City Council increased the rates on the property to £3000 per year, there by placing the members in an impossible financial position. At this juncture the Royal Order of Scotland suggested that the Lodge members should transfer ownership to them and without following the details of the transfer we can say that ownership was duly transferred.
The Royal Order of Scotland, a world-wide organisation, has improved the property at considerable expense and, by mutual agreement, the Lodge has continued to hold its meetings there. Furthermore, the alterations carried out by the Order have not altered the appearance of the inside or outside of the building in any deleterious way.
The Freemasons of Scotland can show that they are descended from the stonemasons of the Middle Ages who built so many of Scotland's Abbeys and Cathedrals. In Edinburgh, building work within the city was controlled by one of the earliest Lodges of stonemasons, or Operative masons, the Lodge of Edinburgh, which is now No.1 on the Roll of The Grand Lodge of Scotland and sports the sobriquet (Mary’s Chapel) denoting the building, St Mary’s Chapel, in which they, with other trade organisations, met. The Saint part was dropped in later years. The Canongate, in those early days was a separate Burgh, with its own core of stonemasons who had existed since the building of Holyrood Abbey. However, it was not until 1677 that these operative masons sought to become a Chartered Lodge, which was effected by making a petition to the Ancient Lodge of Kilwinning in Ayrshire who granted such Charter.
On 6th December 1677 twelve members of the Lodge signed the petition but there is no record of their activities from then until 1735, when the first, existing minute book was commenced. Like so many of the older Scottish Lodges the Canongate Kilwinning’s origins and exact beginnings cannot be determined as the records of its activities simply do not exist. During the intervening years, between 1677 and1735, the character of the Lodge had changed completely. There was only one stonemason on the books, the other members being drawn from the Merchant class, the professions and the Customs Service. Later members came from the Aristocracy, the Navy and the Army, and one of the Lodge’s members, Major William Ewart, was the first Scotsman to fly an aircraft, having been taught to do so by Louis Bleriot, the famous French aviator. Ewart was not the first member of the Lodge to take to the air, of course, as James Tytler had flown in a hot-air balloon over Holyrood Park more than a hundred years earlier on 27th August 1784.
In 1735 the premises were smaller than they are today but they were extended eastwards about 1911. It has been mentioned earlier that the Refectory was originally used as a stable, where during the 18th century; the members tethered their horses whilst meetings were held in the Chapel above. The Refectory has an interesting fireplace decorated with Delft tiles, but it is only during the last few years that the most interesting article in the room came to light - the small dog-leg staircase which is, sadly, no longer there, having been replaced with a straight flight of steps by the Royal Order to improve the circulation within the building.
This had been reconstructed on many occasions over the years, but it has existed from the earliest days of the building, and its purpose, according to the original plans of the building, was to give access from the Stable to the Old Playhouse Theatre, which stood next door. It was realised that from the 18th century there had been very close connections between the Playhouse and the Lodge and it appears that many of the more prominent members of the Lodge, for example Richard Cooper*, were numbered among the owners of the theatre and that several of the more renowned actors were members of the Lodge. One of these was William H. Murray who is described as a comedian. He appears to have been associated later with the Theatre Royal. He was a nephew of another of the members, John Murray of Broughton, whose name was erased from the Lodge records after 1745, when his evidence played a decisive part in sending Lord Lovat to his execution for his part in the ’45 rebellion.
A drawing and notes relating to the Old Playhouse Theatre were recently uncovered which indicate that three walls of that building still exist, including the windows, and form the external wall of the West elevation of the Chapel of St John complex. The original theatre building was commissioned by Richard Cooper*, a member of the Lodge and a keen theatre-goer. These walls were incorporated into the Chapel of St John Complex in 1911 when the premises were extended.
(*Richard Cooper was Senior Warden of the Lodge in 1735 when Lodge Canongate Kilwinning took the initiative in proposing the formation of The Grand Lodge of Scotland and the choosing of a Grand Master. The original meeting on this matter was held in Cooper’s house which stood two doors down from the Lodge Rooms, nominally number 19 St John Street. Bro. Cooper was also Senior Warden on the occasion of William St Clair’s Initiation into the Lodge on 18th May 1736. He was an expert engraver and deserves further mention).
The Chapel itself is immediately above the Refectory, being flanked to the South by a staircase, and to the North by the Secretary's Room and the Old Kitchen. This last chamber is almost certainly part of an earlier building, existing before the Lodge premises were built.
It is customary for Masonic Lodge Rooms to have one entrance, in the South-West corner, but the Chapel of St John has two, the additional one being in the North-West. It is believed that this door was set there for one reason - to give easy access to the Secretary's Room and the Old Kitchen. As the Refectory at this time was used for stabling horses, refreshment would be prepared in the Old Kitchen for consumption in the Lodge Room itself. It also maintains the symmetry of the room. Standing in the West of the Chapel facing the East, the Master's Chair and lectern may be seen. Overhead is a carved wooden canopy and on either side of the Chair are windows, now blinded by the 1911 extension. Behind the Chair is a mural of Masonic emblems, of which the most prominent is the All-seeing Eye. The Lodge still possesses an original invoice from 1735 which shows the cost of the Canopy, together with curtains for the doors and windows, came to nine shillings and sixpence. (Forty seven and a half pence in current money!!)
From the West, it may be seen that the Chairs of the two Wardens are in the North-West corner (Senior Warden) and the South-West Corner (Junior Warden). Other Lodges have these Chairs in the centre of the West and of the South, respectively, but originally all Scottish Lodges used the Canongate Kilwinning system. The change came from England but the reason for it is not clear but the Revd. Dr John Theophilus Desaguliers may have introduced it when he visited Edinburgh in August 1721 as he was in the city to promote English Freemasonry through the Lodge of Edinburgh.
The first recorded Master to sit in the Chair, in 1735, was Robert Trotter, a wealthy merchant, whose family name is perpetuated in Trotterhaugh in south east Edinburgh.
Moving to the East, the story may be continued from there. Immediately opposite the Master's Chair, a mural on the West wall depicts the beginnings of Masonry in the Canongate with the building of Holyrood Abbey. In the centre background can be seen the construction of the Abbey and immediately in front of it we see the figure of King David I with his Master of Works. Above them can be seen a workman looking down at them. The juxtaposition of these figures alludes to an interesting facet of Freemasonry. The right, left and centre foregrounds carry depictions of various figures, not all of whom can be named.
Firstly, it should be explained that this mural is the work of William McLaren of Cardenden, one of the country's then most eminent modern artists, who is now unfortunately deceased. He was not a Freemason and his picture contains items of Masonic significance to which he was not privy; he painted the work after speaking with an experienced Past Master for more than two hours.
Taking the figures in the painting from the right, the first is Dr. Alexander F. Buchan, who was a member of this Lodge. He served as Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland for 23 years, from 1948 until he retired in 1971, at which time he became Grand Secretary of the Royal Order of Scotland.
Following his death a few years later, the Royal Order commissioned this mural to his memory. Next to Dr Buchan stands William Woods, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of his day, and next to Woods stands James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who was Poet Laureate of the Lodge in 1835. On Hogg's right side stands the Honourable Henry Erskine, one of Scotland's greatest Lord Advocates who occupied the Chair of the Lodge (1780 – 1781). It was Erskine who offered to defend the radical Thomas Muir of Huntershill, possibly a member of Glasgow Kilwinning Lodge No.4,who was tried for sedition in 1792, found guilty and shipped to Australia for fourteen years. Muir had refused Erskine's offer preferring instead to defend himself to a court packed with his political opponents. Perhaps he should have listened to Bro. Erskine!
After Erskine can be seen the graceful figure of Robert Burns who, on 1st February 1787, became a member of the Lodge. He was already a Freemason, having been Initiated in what is now Lodge St David (Tarbolton) Mauchline No.133 but our records show his membership of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning. The Lodge has strongly asserted from the 19th century, and continues to do so to this day, that Burns was her Poet Laureate, and in Freemasons' Hall, in George Street, Edinburgh there hangs a famous painting which depicts the ceremony of his being inaugurated into that office. Although a badly kept Minute Book suggests that Burns was in the Lodge on only one occasion, various eye-witness accounts assert he attended the Lodge frequently whilst in Edinburgh. The Office of Poet Laureate is documented throughout the minutes of the Lodge as far back as 1802.
Next to Burns stands a gentleman who is facing away from us, which makes it impossible to say who he is, but facing us, and apparently speaking to this mystery man, stands the famous James Boswell of Auchinleck, who also held the Chair of this Lodge (1773 – 1776). Seated on the left side of the picture is Lord Napier, the celebrated mathematician, with two young men standing behind. Central to the composition are three figures in working clothes poring over a plan. They represent the three basic stages of Freemasonry, the Apprentice, the Journeyman (Fellowcraft) and the Master Mason.
To either side of this mural there hang two Renaissance style paintings. That on the right depicts the Circumcision of Christ and that on the left the Annunciation.
Casting our eyes towards the four corners of the room, there may be seen what appear to be four statues, William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. They are in fact flat paintings, deliberately designed to appear as three-dimensional figures, such works being known as Trompe L'Oeuil or Trick the Eye. The Lodge members were always advised that similar works could be found in the Palace of Versailles and that it was probably the same artist who painted them.
It was a romantic story but a few years ago it was found to be untrue. Having discovered a bundle of old papers among the Lodge’s artefacts, Bro. David Currie PM was cataloguing them when one paper was found to be a receipt which read: - 'To painting full length portraits of Sir Walter Scott, Burns, Byron and Shakespeare on the walls, £12-0-0.' It was not on the paper of a painter of the French Court but on the paper of Messrs Coulson, Painters and Decorators, who were well known in Edinburgh in 1833, and was dated 30th October of that year. Thus, each figure cost £3, but in 1972, when one of them had to be retouched, the cost almost ran into four figures.
On the North Wall, in the North East corner, hangs the Confirmation (dated 13th April 1737) of the Charter of the Lodge dated 1677. Curiously, this Charter establishes the Lodge as part of the Lodge of Kilwinning existing in Edinburgh. There is an hypothesis that this was done purposely in order to prevent the Lodge of Edinburgh from claiming jurisdiction over the Canongate Lodge but there is no evidence as yet to prove this theory.
In the centre of the North wall there hangs a picture of William St Clair of Roslin, Scotland's first Grand Master, who was a member of Canongate Kilwinning. The struggle for the Grand Mastership is a story of intrigue, back stabbing, and straightforward skulduggery.
To the right of St. Clair's portrait hangs that of a gentleman of the 18th century, whilst that of a lady of the same era hangs to the right. To find the portrait of a lady in a Masonic Lodge room is most unusual, but the records show there are special reasons for this exception. The portraits are of Baillie and Mrs John Jack. The Baillie owned part of the land on which the Lodge was built, and although he was not a member, his great-grand-nephew David Greig, some time after his uncle’s death, presented the two paintings to the Lodge in 1880. The minutes show that a condition was attached to the gift - Baillie and Mrs. Jack were renowned for their faithfulness to each other in a time of loose moral standards, and the deed of gift states that “in death, as in life, they are not to be divided”. It is believed that, although Robert Jack was not a member of the Lodge, he is known to have been Deacon of the Wrights and Coupars (sic) etc of the Incorporation of Cannogait (sic) in 1729. (Wrights and Coopers of the Incorporation of Canongate in 1729). He was a slater (sclater) by profession.
Across the room from the St. Clair portrait is the Lodge organ, set in its own space. From 1735 to 1754, music was provided by violinists, who played in the Musicians' Gallery which ran across the recess. In 1754 the Lodge decided to have an organ installed and soon afterwards it was learned that Johann Snetzler, a well known organ builder based in London, was to visit Scotland to provide an instrument elsewhere. Contact was made with him and he visited the Chapel, agreeing to build an organ to be sited in the recess behind the Musicians' Gallery. The cost of the venture was to be £75; this sum to include the price of carriage by sea from London, and in 1757 Snetzler advised the Lodge that he had arrived at Leith with the organ.
It was brought to the Lodge by cart, at which stage a problem became apparent. The doors into the building and into the Chapel were too small to admit the instrument. Fortunately, the land to the rear of the Chapel was (and still is) at a higher level than that to the front, so the west wall of the chapel was breached, the organ brought in and the wall repaired immediately. This accounts for the recess containing the mural. Until the Royal Order of Scotland built the extension to the west side of the Chapel it was possible to see where the original wall had been breached but nowadays it is concealed by the extension. The members did not pay the full cost to Snetzler on the grounds that the organ might need repair within a short time and he accepted that the outstanding balance would be paid at the end of a year, provided the organ had been trouble-free.
Twelve months elapsed, whereupon the members advised Snetzler that they were indeed satisfied with his work and that the balance awaited his collection in Edinburgh. The records conclude that either their attitude softened or they did not pay the outstanding sum, for there appears to be no further mention of the transaction in the minutes. Suffice to say that the organ has been in constant use since 1754, apart from two periods, one in 1888 and one in 1972, when it had to be stripped down for maintenance purposes.
It is played at all Masonic meetings in the Chapel and has been played for radio and T.V. programmes. Among its interesting features are the keys, which are not as the usual keyboard colours but are reversed. Snetzler used this arrangement of colours in all his instruments for reasons best known to himself. He was a very close friend of the composer Handel, who played most of the organs Snetzler built, so it is possible that George Frederick Handel was the first man to play this organ. Inside the woodwork there are two pieces of paper, each signed by Snetzler, which are the only known examples of his signature. The air is provided by a hand pump, but there is also a treadle which can be operated by the organist, although this means of filling the bellows is not recommended. The organ and the organist are less stressed by utilising the hand pump. In the latter case it frees the organist to concentrate on the pedal board. The working parts, including the bellows, are all original.
In 1972 the walls of the Chapel were covered by dark photographs from the Victorian Era, but in that year the interior was cleaned and repainted to make it look as it had been in 1787 when Burns attended. Leaving the Chapel by the West Porch, we enter the Secretary's room. And beyond the Secretary's Room is the Old Kitchen, which is older than the Chapel. It has a splendid 16th Century fireplace which bears a motto “T H E MORW NE SORW BE HEIR” (The morrow no sorrow be here). There are four emblems carved into the lintel, two before and two after the motto, these being the anchor, the heart and two representations of the sun or possibly a sunflower. Although the anchor and the heart were at one time Masonic emblems, they were used also in many other spheres so it is not possible to link them directly with the Chapel. The sun or sunflower carvings are most interesting as their centres are carved with a happy face and a sad face somewhat akin to the modern “smiley faces”, perhaps reiterating the motto. In this room the most significant items to be seen are Masonic aprons and an Armada Chest. This latter, always referred to as the "Lockit Kist" (locked chest), contains various items, one of which is a Breeches Bible. This book was presented to the Lodge by one of its members in 1745. This man was John Campbell, nephew of the Duke of Perth, who was the first Accountant of the Royal Bank.
This building and this Lodge have seen members from myriad walks of life working as Freemasons within its portals. Admittedly these have included notorious characters such as Deacon William Brodie, Eugene Marie Chantrelle and John Murray of Broughton. However, also numbered among them, apart from those already mentioned are much respected men such as Henry McKenzie (author of “The Man of Feeling”), numerous Earls, a Prince of the Russian Empire, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling (Poet Laureate of the Lodge 1905-1909, during which time he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1907) and many others of eminence in their own fields.