Masons’ April

My first real introduction to the Masons was in 1983 and I didn’t even know it. A naive 19-year-old American piper at the Argyllshire Gathering, I thought that Andrew MacNeill of Colonsay simply had a strange handshake. When I was introduced to him and shook his hand, he sort of tickled my palm. I didn’t think much of it, but when I saw him the next day and he spat on his hand before shaking mine, I thought it a bit queer.

“You idiot,” a more canny piping friend said to me when I told him that MacNeill had a strange handshake. “He’s trying to find out if you’re a Mason.”

“A what?”

“A Mason. A member of the Masonic Order of [I don't know].”

My only knowledge of the Masons up until then was as a fan of Monty Python, and their “How to Recognize a Mason” sketch. They were dressed in black tie and tails, so I figured it was some bizarre aristocratic thing about the UK class system, along the lines of their “Upperclass Twit of the Year” skit.

My Canadian friend went on to explain that, in piping, being a Mason helped you win prizes, and that in order to win a World Pipe Band Championship, the pipe-major had to be a Mason. Rumour had it then and for a good long time after, that that tenet was actually true and verifiable. I’ve asked several people who I believe do know to expand on it and, to a person, they refuse to say. They don’t deny it; they simply stay silent. And silence almost always means acceptance.

I was even told about a prominent piper who joined the Masons for the sole purpose of winning more prizes, and, looking at his incredible record, it certainly did not hurt.

There are many American Freemasons, to be sure, but the so-called “secret society” seems to be far more prevalent and popular in Commonwealth countries. To me, the idea then and now that anyone is awarded a prize for anything but his or her performance is repulsive.

But apparently it still happens. In fact, I have been told by someone I trust and who is deeply entrenched in the Scottish solo scene that the benefit of the doubt “70 per cent of the time” will go to a known Mason piper from a judge who is a brother (forgive me, Masons, if that’s the wrong term). And apparently there are a lot of Masons who populate the benches of solo competitions.

I don’t know for sure. And I guess the only way that one could know is by becoming a Mason, but doing that requires a vow of silence and secrecy, so I wouldn’t be able to spill the beans on threat of punishment by running the gauntlet of spanking with a cricket bat or wet noodles or something.

So, you can see how the tradition of the Masons continues in piping, since our other big tradition is sweeping serious problems under the rug and pretending they don’t exist.

I have nothing at all against anyone having their club with their rules. If the Royal Scottish Pipers Society wants to ban women from joining, that is their prerogative. If the Masons want to hold their meetings and get off on their rituals, fill your apron. Just don’t foist it on others.

And foisting it on others is what happens when delicate and subjective music competitions are swayed by anything but the musical performance itself.

For sure, the Masons do a lot of great things. They contribute to communities and charities, they volunteer their time. They are good people. This is simply a topic of conversation in piping and drumming based on my experience and what I have been told by those I trust. If it is indeed a practice or a problem, then sunlight, as they say, is the best disinfectant. If members of the Masons are offended by the perception simply being raised for the first time (that I am aware of) in a public forum in piping, then I guess that can’t be helped.

I am sure that readers know more about this and have had many more Masonic encounters in piping than me. Feel free to fill us in. Any Masons who want to refute it, you’re welcome.

And your identity can be secret.

23 thoughts on “Masons’ April

  1. Being a Mason may help you win, but perhaps its not in the way you think. Masons perform their ritual (for the most part) entirely from memory, some lectures of the ritual work are several pages long and are committed to memory by repetition and inculcation.

    Learning pipe music is not that different than learning a lecture, or learning to confer the degrees of Masonry from rote memory. Perhaps the Masons that you are calling into question here genuinely earned the recognition they received? Maybe they worked really hard and were rewarded with the honours they were due?

    I think the big problem in adjudication is a lack of standardization. Competitors play different music and the judging is in no way blind. If i want to know how I stack up against someone else, its not enough that we both compete in MSR, those MSR’s need to be the same music for both of us, and that judge needs to sit with his back to me.

    For the record the only competition I have placed in I came in fourth of four competitors… I still have the ribbon.

  2. What next Andrew, Popes assassinated and Pipe Majors overthrown! Get a grip you has a very fertile imagination or perhaps your research needs a little more detail and back-up than to snag the Lodge into a less than stellar performance & result. Cheers,, Peter MacKenzie – proud to be a Mason.

    • Hasing a fertile imagination in the arts is generally considered a good thing, so I’ll consider that a compliment. If you’d like to discuss your experiences competing in solo events in Scotland, feel free. It’s a discussion. If you’re offended by fairly discussing an issue that has bothered many, many people over the years, well, you’re reading the wrong publication.

  3. There’s no doubt it went on at one time and prize lists were swayed and even re-written. Nowadays, not so much. There are several senior judges who are not Masons and having grown up with that disadvantage quietly twist arms to reduce their effect. Judges know they are held to closer scrutiny than ever before and there is a lot less scope to promote your pals for whatever reason.

    Remember also that pipers, especially Scots, do enjoy winding up our fellow pipers in any way possible and a sinister cabal that conspire against your competition record might be just the thing ;)

  4. got an invite to play in a lodge (part of a mini band) for some ceremony within the lodge, and yup saw that shouting out business and reciting endless scripts, bizarre was not the word, was more like an opera, with people in the audience shouting out stuff left right and centre, they had this hugging business of embrace and slap each others back three times (we got endless childish fun copying that for weeks after it was over)

    i think i recall them all wearing white gloves

    there is also the business of the head of the then strathclyde police force only ever being a mason, as those on the board are all masons and elect their own, so whatever police force it is now, I suspect follows that tradition

  5. I never read such hogwash. Being a piper and a mason for over 25 years I have never seen (or felt) any influance from my membership.Imagination and some times jealousy can make losers invent wonderful stories.

  6. I thought April Fool’s Day was over?

    Really? “…just don’t foist it on others” – The only thing that Mason’s foist on others is the money they raise on their own time as acknowledge in the article. But the foisting statement was in no way in reference to the charitable work.

    One does not need to look too far to find extremely successful people that have belonged or do belong to the Order. Those that do not share the same success have consistently used the “Mason excuse” to blemish those successes whether business or personal.

    This is simply a shock and awe article bound to stir up the pot and get website hits and posts.

    • Presidents, prime ministers, great inventors, composers and pipe-majors – all have been Masons. The blog is simply a topic of discussion that has gone on in piping and drumming circles for at least the last 100 years, and is still talked about today by winners, losers and many in-between. Some very high-profile people — both Masons and non-Masons — insist that the influence exists in competitions. One told me the other day that a few of the greatest pipe bands of all time were purposefully built with mostly Masons in the ranks, and they made it known to the judges.
      So, if you think it’s not true, refute it, but don’t say it’s not worth discussing. People discuss it all the time under their breath. That the topic has not been broached before in a public forum does not mean it doesn’t merit dialog here.
      I have to say that many of the responses that I have seen from Masons remind me of the outrage I’ve seen from chanter and reedmakers when the topic of them judging is brought up – lots of outrage, as if even talking about it constructively were taboo. Why sweep things under the carpet that apparently matter to a great many people? You can only get answers by asking questions.

  7. Hi Andrew. O wow Andrew! Methinks you’re leading with your right foot on this topic and perhaps not on the true level and maybe been watching too many conspiracy episodes on the History channel. The Craft is a fraternal organization: Masons are not a secret society but a society with secrets – big difference. Yes, one can be jocular (tinged with suspicion) if not a member, about strange handshakes and ceremonies and the like but Masons I know are altruistic and moralistic and honest, quietly go about their work trying to make this world a better place in which to live and dedicate their lives to the common good of all and a belief in the Supreme Being. That’s all I know or, at least, am willing to share. So now we’re all squared up. Syd Girling

    • Thanks, Syd. Great to get your input. I’m just listening to competing pipers, drummers and judges, past and present, active and not, who have told me this is so. I never said that I personally have thought I was a victim of any sort of Mason bias as a competitor in the past. A few outraged people have said directly in comments (both published and not) that I probably WILL be now, which is kind of twisted. On one hand they insist it’s crazy to even think bias by Masons exists; on the other hand they say that Masons will be out to get me for even posing the question!
      But it’s just one of many questions that deserve to be asked and not swept under the rug. I’m sure I’ve not received the benefit of the doubt on some occasions, but putting sunlight on issues is far more important in the grander scheme of things than winning a prize that no one but me particularly cares about!

      • You’re most welcome Andrew. Many Masons live anonymously without wearing any insignia or signs they are a Mason and sometimes are unknown as a member to even their own brethren. They are Masons in their hearts, though, and just live their lives quietly doing good works and living by the creed of helping others and, of course, a belief in God to lead them. And to lighten it up a bit, there was a fellow who came from a community so small that the Knights of Columbus and the Masons knew each other’s secrets. Thanks for allowing me to add to the discussion. Be well and peace be with you and your family, Syd Girling

  8. Not a pipe band or piping mentioned lets keep focused
    Programs Supported by the Masonic Foundation of Ontario
    Bursaries and youth programs
    Grants for students and support for youth groups
    District Projects
    Hearing Research
    Funding for hearing research for sick children and infants
    Help Nip Drugs in the Bud
    Grants for alcohol and other drug education training sessions

    VOICE for Hearing Impaired Children
    Grants to help young children deal with profound hearing loss
    Prostate Cancer

  9. Having been fairly involved with primarily American piping for over 50 years, I too have heard the same rumors. I have also heard just about every other “excuse” from disgruntled losing pipers as to why he/she did not win.
    I too find the thought of awarding a prize for anything other than a competitor’s performance repulsive. For this reason, I would hope those of us who are charged with the difficult task of judging musical performances will reflect on our own personal biases and prejudices resolving to do our level best to keep them off any and all score sheet type decisions.
    My concern with this article is the impression I got that somewhere in the secret Masonic rituals there is a policy (or whatever you wish to call it) stating or maybe suggesting Masons should favor or give the benefit of the doubt to fellow Masons in a musical contest.
    I am not a Mason and cannot state categorically one way or the other if such a policy exists. However I would like to believe the vast majority of Masons who happen to be pipers would be “repulsed” by the possibility of such a thing happening. Maybe “Masonic affiliation” was just a bit too broad a brush to use?

  10. Hi Al: If Andrew would allow me to weigh in one more time, I too have been involved for going on five decades in the competition band scene (and dabbled in the open solos) in Canada, the United States and Scotland and on both sides of the clipboard (at least over here on a limited basis) and I can say categorically and with my limited knowledge of Freemasonary, that there is absolutely no policy or statement that would favour a Mason over other competitors as this would be totally anathema to its principles and strict code of conduct. And I think Masons would be equally repulsed that others might even think this. Cheers, Syd

  11. I think the innuendo and content of this editorial is very unfair. There is good and bad people all over the world. Their beliefs, connections, career path, business interests, personal matters are irrelevant when asked to take on the task of judging.To suggest that Freemasonry is in a sense corrupt is ridiculous. Judges are not paid grandiose amounts of money. They do it because they love the art and can offer something back to the piping and drumming fraternity. I would suggest that it’s human to have perhaps a small amount of bias when it comes to judging but that bias should hopefully be construed and accepted as “preference” to technique, style, overall performance, sound, control, all the elements etc. etc. Not to be confused with pre-judging, favoritism or personal vendetta. Can you imagine if we attacked others by way of Gender, Race, Religion etc. I realize that most of this article is basically hearsay and to some degree an opinion but it also tells me that no matter what a person does or doesn’t do in the piping world, that he/she leave themselves open to negative public criticism. There are far better topics or issues that could be openly discussed, other than specifically zeroing in on freemasonry. A lot of people fail to realize the good that Freemasonry does in our communities and all around the world but perhaps it’s easier to be human and find fault.

  12. Andrew – I was so glad to be told about your website (not being one who usually uses places like this!) and was so intrigued, on my initial visit, by the topic of ‘Masonry In Piping’!

    I read the offered articles with great interest and was curious as to how I might reply? Oh yes, as in the original statement (no disrespect) I can’t honestly say that I have ever had anyone ‘tickle my palm’!!? Is that not a trick for catching fish?

    There is almost a complete list of excuses/reasons, one way or the other with regards to the relevance of the Masonic Order and its influence for/against the Piping World and I make no excuses for this. I do feel terribly sad if this has had an adverse result on any individuals/bands particular performance!

    To the best of my knowledge, a person who truly believes in the precepts of the Masonic Order is one who has a belief in a supreme creator, one who deals in truth and also, one who is benevolent to his fellow man no matter what thier own situation might be. A person who goes about thier life on a day-to-day routine, trying to deal with all things fairly, supporting his family, his neighbour, his fellow man, not boasting or advertising about the benevolence he may have shown. As said by one of the previous statements, ‘a fellow Mason may not be known by another’! The act of giving without knowledge is important. No matter if you are a Mason or not, if you try to live your life in this manner, it is important!

    If things have been dealt with in an unfair manner, then the one who dealt them, was not being true to what the basic concepts of the order had asked for. I have never asked or expected to be given any special treatment, nor would I ever expect it to be given by me and would only hope to be judged on my abilities or merits! If others have suffered due to any experience with this, to my way of thinking, it has been against what the Masonic Order believes in! Or at least, that was what I was taught! Sincerely yours, a Mason for life.

    • I think the ‘secret’ part of it all is what riles people. Iain in his description of what a Mason is says they deal in Truth. What is it about the truth that has to be kept secret? He says they are benevolent to their fellow man, and yet they don’t share the truth with him? Trying to deal with things fairly? Yet not sharing the truth, and keeping secrets? Not boasting etc etc, and yet acting as though he has the Truth but isn’t willing to share it? I think this all adds to the idea of a secret society which keeps something special to themselves. The act of giving, the truth, the idea of benevolence etc all sound like great things to me, so why not be open about them and share the secrets? I adopt a sort of live and let live policy with any such groups – including the Masons–knowing little about them, and they don’t want me to know much about them. My father became one later in life and had funny wee books with gobbletigook in them (to me). After he died and to this day, the Masons send a half box of biscuits to my mother’s house at Christmas. A kind thing, but it’s always struck me as odd that it’s not a full box. Yes they’re giving you something–great, appreciated, kind of them, but they’re also NOT giving you something. As to why, that remains a mystery. It arouses suspicion that they’re keeping the gold wrapped chocolate ones for themselves, even if they’re not.

      • If you are really interested in masonic secrets, “google” them. There are no secrets in the age of the Internet.

        Robert McLeod

  13. I would bet my middle tenor that this type of favouritism has taken place. In exactly the same way that it happens based on gender, religion, race, sexual orientation…. you name it. In the end, of there is bias, it is ultimately the decision of the crooked individual, regardless of the “ideals” that they claim to be representing. There are shifty masons, guaranteed. As there are shifty judges, lawyers, teachers, product – pushers, doctors, priests, pipe majors, etc. If it is a mandate of the masons to help their own. .. shame on them. Otherwise. .. there are just some crappy masons. And I believe that is undeniable.

  14. Andrew, Andrew, Andrew, where do I start.

    Within your post you skim over the good work done by masons in communities, the charity, the fellowship etc but then let yourself down with the inferences that simply being a member of the craft helps you win. I can’t believe that a man of your experience and intellect can slant your mind to even contemplate believing, let alone writing this drivel.

    With the number of masons around the world, it’s not surprising that they are found in all walks of life.

    It has never helped me achieve anything in life that I didn’t earn fairly and the inference that it’s a pre requisite to win the worlds is a slap on the face to every pipe major and leading drummer who has ever won this.

  15. Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu!
    Dear brothers of the mystic tye!
    Ye favour’d, ye enlighten’d Few,
    Companions of my social joy!
    Tho’ I to foreign lands must hie,
    Pursuing Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’,
    With melting heart, and brimful eye,
    I’ll mind you still, tho’ far awa’.

    Oft have I met your social Band,
    And spent the cheerful, festive night;
    Oft, honor’d with supreme command,
    Presided o’er the Sons of light:
    And by that Hieroglyphic bright,
    Which none but Craftsmen ever saw!
    Strong Mem’ry on my heart shall write
    Those happy scenes when far awa’!

    May Freedom, Harmony and Love
    Unite you in the grand Design,
    Beneath th’ Omniscient Eye above,
    The glorious ARCHITECT Divine!
    That you may keep th’ unerring line,
    Still rising by the plummet’s law,
    Till Order bright, completely shine,
    Shall be my Pray’r when far awa’.

    And YOU, farewell! whose merits claim,
    Justly that highest badge to wear!
    Heav’n bless you honor’d, noble Name,
    To MASONRY and SCOTIA dear!
    A last request, permit me here,
    When yearly ye assemble a’,
    When yearly ye assemble a’,
    One round, I ask it with a tear,
    To him, the Bard, that’s far awa’.

    #rabbieburns

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