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The Story of the Atholl Grand Lodge





(Past Master, Neptune Lodge No. 22, Antients)

In 1717, four London lodges decided to form an organisation to regulate and standardise their Masonic Ceremony. Previously, Masonic lodges were completely independent of each other, and when it came to Ceremony, often had very different interpretations. Thus the Premier Grand Lodge was born.

Ireland also had its Freemasons, who were mainly working class or in the lower ranks of the army. English Masonry boasted elite of society, including wealthy businessmen and members of the professions, so it is not surprising that the Irish were not particularly welcome in English lodges. These were also turbulent times, with the Jacobite rebellion, which had much Irish support, taking place in 1745.

London has always attracted members of the Irish community. Work was readily available, and it was natural that those who were Freemasons would wish to join with their fellow Masons for evenings of conviviality.

However, Ireland by now had its own Grand Lodge, with little or no connection with that formed in England . English Freemasons now felt that they had no obligation towards these “foreigners”.

In a lodge room, everyone is treated equally, regardless of race or religion. All Freemasons adhere to this, but inevitably life would be much simpler for English Masons without the presence of the lower class Irish. Under the Premier Grand Lodge of England , Masonry was changing. New degrees were appearing, and signs were being altered.

The following statement could not have been uncommon- “It is so very unfortunate when an Irish Mason turns up at one of our London lodge meetings and doesn’t know the latest password. We just couldn’t let him in, as much as we would really like to!!”

Events like this became so widespread that, on July 17th 1751, about eighty Masons, nearly all Irish Catholics fed up with rejection, held a meeting to discuss their problems at the Turks Head Inn, Greek Street, Soho.

It was decided that the only course of action would be to form their own Grand Lodge, using the original passwords, under which they could form lodges which they could visit as frequently as they liked, without fear of rejection. Thus the eighty brethren formed themselves into five private lodges, each meeting at a different locality in London.

As they didn’t have a “Grand Master”, it was agreed that, temporarily, their Grand Lodge would be run by a Grand Committee, whom from the start (fortunately) ensured that extremely accurate records were kept.

1754. The sole surviving Antient's Grand Lodge Jewel, which belonged to

William Lilley, Grand Pursuivant (note the Antients coat-of-arms).

They adhered to the original ritual and passwords, and named themselves the Grand Lodge of England according to the Old Institutions, or the Antient Grand Lodge. The older Premier Grand Lodge, perhaps a bit tongue in cheek at the time, were nicknamed the Moderns, a name which stuck.

The Antients Grand Lodge might not have had much of an impact, with perhaps a few additional lodges being formed, but all that was to change the following year when Lawrence Dermott, who had arrived in London from Ireland in 1748, was appointed Grand Secretary.

Lawrence Dermott was a member of Lodge No. 26 under the Irish Constitution. By profession a painter and tradesman, with his Freemasonry he had such drive and foresight that within a few years he has transformed the Antient Grand Lodge into an equally successful rival to the Moderns.

His success was largely due to his publication of a book called the Ahiman Rezon (a faithful and willing brother), published in 1756, containing the Antient’s Constitution. It was broadly similar to a book already published by the Moderns Grand Lodge, but was much more successful.

It expanded their influence across Europe and America , and was so popular that eight editions were printed. It did, however, lack a section on the history of Freemasonry. When asked why, he replied that it had been written, but that a puppydog had entered his room the evening before the book went to press, and had chewed up that part of the manuscript!

Neither the Moderns nor the Antients had much time for each other, and both groups regarded the other as “Clandestine Masons.” If a Mason wished to join a lodge belonging to the rival Grand Lodge would have to be re-initiated and declare his allegiance to his new lodge only, although as a concession there would be a reduction in his initiation fee. Lawrence Dermott was so successful that after just six years, no less than 63 lodges had joined or been founded by the Antients.

As far as Masonic ceremony was concerned, each Grand Lodge had taken its own path. The Moderns considered the Royal Arch Degree to be an exotic degree and quite separate from normal craft Freemasonry, while the Antients considered it an integral part of their meetings, considering it to be the fourth degree, with the Antients Grand Chapter being called The Grand Lodge of the Fourth Degree.

There were other differences as well. The Antients brought in as an innovation the office of Deacon, now an integral part of the Masonic ceremony. The Antients Grand Committee lasted for two years, when, in 1753, Robert Turner was appointed Grand Master.

Although delighted to have a Grand Master at last, it was not until 1771 with the appointment as Grand Master of John, the 3rd Duke of Atholl, that the Antients could finally boast a senior member of the royal family as their Grand Master.

It was due to this appointment that the Antients Grand Lodge also became known as Atholl Grand Lodge. The two Grand Lodges were still not talking to each other. The larger Moderns found themselves in a gradual decline, whilst the Atholl Grand Lodge continued to expand.

Members of both Grand Lodges wore jewels. One of the most striking example of the differences between the two Grand Lodges is their respective Royal Arch jewels. The Moderns Royal Arch jewel was just a plain engraved six pointed star with a sunburst in the middle, whilst the Antients wore a jewel bearing a large arch, under which was the Ark of the Covenant on a squared pavement.

Both Members and Masters of the two Grand Lodges liked to wear jewels in lodge, but whilst the Moderns also produced jewels to commemorate famous Masons or buildings, the Antients produced jewels mainly for their Grand Officers to wear. The most notable of these were the gold jewels given to active Grand Lodge Officers on their retirement.

These were originally struck in solid gold, but by 1806 they were being produced in silver-gilt, apparently in an effort to keep costs down. Each jewel had the name of its receipient engraved on the reverse.

The Antients active Grand Officer's retirement jewel.

Another Antients jewel was the extremely large Nine worthies Jewel (and the past Nine Worthies Jewel). The Nine Worthies jewels were presented to nine eminent Grand Lodge officers annually, whose duty it was to travel around the country to ensure that the Masonic ceremonies were being performed correctly.

The Antients Grand Lodge Nine Worthies jewel.

For over 150 years, no Atholl Grand Lodge Officer’s jewel was thought to have survived. Miraculously, however, that of the Grand Pursuivant, dating to 1754 and originally belonging to William Lilly, was discovered in 1998 by the author of tghis article.

At around 1780, the Antients brought in another innovation, that of decorated aprons. These were generally extremely expensive and hand decorated, although there was a cheaper printed version which was not in colour.

An outgoing Master might present his lodge with such an apron, usually hand coloured, to be worn by successive Masters of the lodge, and by 1790 these aprons were extremely common, although very few have survived to the present day.

By 1790 times were changing, however, and the two Grand Lodges slowly found themselves moving closer together, although many individual masons were still extremely patriotic towards their own particular Grand Lodge.

By now there were many Masons who belonged to lodges affiliated to both Grand Lodges, even if they did not advertise the fact. Most noticeable was the famous jeweller Thomas Harper, who made jewels for both Grand Lodges.

He had become the Deputy Grand Master of the Antients in 1801, and strenuously sought an amalgamation between the two Grand Lodges, and in the process joined a Moderns lodge, but of course such a famous personage could not keep his dual membership a secret, and in February 1803 he was expelled from the Premier Grand Lodge.

But the amalgamation of the two Grand Lodges was beginning to appear inevitable. It was no longer a case of “if” an amalgamation would occur but “when”. Masons abroad were also puzzled by the existence of two Grand Lodges. But before an amalgamation could occur, many of the major differences between the two Grand Lodges had to be ironed out.

This was accomplished by setting up a Lodge of Reconciliation composed of members of both Grand Lodges. It operated on a “give and take” basis, which included individual lodges being numbered alternately, one from each Grand Lodge, according to seniority in their respective Grand Lodges.

Compromises were also agreed regarding the Royal Arch, the various ceremonies, and lodge officers.

On the thorny question of who would be the Grand Master of the new United Grand Lodge the Moderns prevailed, with the Duke of Kent stepping aside for the Duke of Sussex.

The two original Grand Lodges have not been forgotten, and are still fondly remembered by members of early lodges, but the many differences which once existed in the past are now forgotten in a unified craft.