Scotland’s Freemasons have broken with centuries of tradition and opened their doors to public scrutiny.
Long regarded as a secretive society that has closely guarded its clandestine rules and arcane rituals, the masons have allowed cameras into their lodges for the first time.
Several famous figures — including King George VI, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — have been members of the Grand Lodge of Scotland but the all-male organisation has always eschewed publicity.
Now it has permitted a documentary film crew to enter its buildings and document some of the previously offlimits ceremonies.
Robert Cooper, the lodge’s curator and official historian, hopes that the documentary will help to boost the masons’ image and dispel myths and misconceptions.
He is frustrated by persistent suggestions that members wield a powerful and sinister influence over public life.
“Most of our members are ordinary working guys; bus drivers and taxi drivers, with the odd dentist and midranking professional,” Mr Cooper said. “The idea that we somehow run the country behind closed doors is laughable.
If we genuinely were a secret society, you would know very little about us. People love conspiracies and, unfortunately, we fit the bill.
“We have never had an opportunity to explain ourselves to wider society. We are keen to improve our public profile and redress the balance. However, we accept that a minority of people will always be against freemasonry whatever we say or do.”
The Grand Lodge is also keen to dispel the idea that it has any links to similarly named Protestant-only groups.
Mr Cooper said: “It’s a popular perception, but completely false. We are open to men of all faiths and creeds and have members who are Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.
“In the documentary, viewers will see members wearing regalia in green and gold, which are colours that people would associate with Ireland.” However, members must swear to a belief in a supreme being, meaning atheists, agnostics and humanists cannot join.
He is also keen to distinguish his lodge from its sister organisation in the south, the United Grand Lodge of England. “In terms of demographics there is no doubt that freemasonry in England is very middle and upper class,” he said.
“In Scotland the lodge was created by working men and that is reflected in our membership today.”
Despite giving access to outsiders the lodge has refused to reveal the details of its unique handshakes, or grips, or to allow its initiation ceremonies, which involve blindfolds and raised trouser legs, to be filmed. Mr Cooper said: “It would be the ultimate spoiler. If I told you the butler did it would you still go and see the play? I don’t think so.”
In recent years the lodge, whose roots date back to the 16th century, has had to come to terms with a marked decline in membership. In 2015 it launched a public Facebook account where it revealed that the number of new recruits, or initiates as they are known, had fallen from more than 45,000 a year in 1918 to about 2,000 a year. It has since launched a university lodge in Edinburgh to attract younger members.
The BBC confirmed that its hourlong documentary will be narrated by Bill Paterson, the actor from Glasgow known for the BBC series Sea of Souls. A spokesman for BBC Scotland said: “The Freemasons is an organisation that many people have heard of, but relatively few know much about.
“To some observers it is a club characterised by funny handshakes and raised trouser legs, to others it’s a secret group with genuine power which can have a questionable influence in some areas of society.
“For the first time Freemasons have allowed cameras into a number of Scottish lodges to shed light on the organisation.”
Secrets of the Masons will be screened on BBC Two at 9pm on Monday, March 19.