Eighteenth-century Scottish clubs and societies—particularly the freemasons—have long been of interest to me. While a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, I studied Scottish masonic lodges and how they functioned during the Scottish Enlightenment. Certainly, masonic lodges were fixtures of eighteenth-century Scottish associational culture, and were known for their rituals, secrecy, and—to a lesser extent—drinking. Lodge members also contributed to their communities. Many lodges regulated the local stonemason trade and counted among their members operative stonemasons, and were responsible for numerous building projects and frequently presided over cornerstone laying services. Lodges also offered monetary aid to unemployed and injured stonemasons, and in some cases supplied food and shelter to the widows of lodge members who died as the result of work-related accidents.
Although modern Scottish freemasonry had existed since the late sixteenth century, by the early nineteenth century the formative age of freemasonry was largely over. However, it bequeathed to the eighteenth century an associational template which provided for the organization and structure of many Scottish clubs and societies. Operative—or traditional stonemason craft—lodges established a codified system of rules regulating attendance, behavior, and fines for various infractions. Speculative—modern or symbolic—lodges put into place ceremonies and ritualistic oaths which created fraternal bonds among members. Regardless of lodge flavor, freemasonry functioned primarily as a convivial and improvement society, and its contributions to a larger network of improvement are observable not only in the makeup of other organizations, but also in the ways in which numerous clubs and societies established themselves as mainstays of the Scottish Enlightenment.
More recently, I have turned my research focus towards the ways in which other Scottish clubs and societies nurtured and interpreted the burgeoning interest in improvement. This narrative of improvement is closely bound to clubs and societies as well as Scottish pride. The need to improve firmly embedded itself within the Scottish consciousness in the decades following the Act of Union (1707), as many Scots keenly felt the sting of being absorbed into a merger that perhaps accentuated perceived shortcomings and—as some historians have asserted—revealed a comparative backwardness to the English.
By 1730, there was a tacit acceptance of English societies as models for Scottish imitation. For example, the Edinburgh Society for the Reformation of Manners, the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, and many others were based on or inspired by English examples. Each found purchase in a society that was keen to equal and exceed English successes, and put in place the foundations for future societies and associations that would ultimately give rise to what James Boswell dubbed “the clubbable Scots.” This determination was echoed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson and David Hume, and imitated and employed by countless Scots intent upon understanding new notions of polite society. Through various interpretations of nationalism, identity, and service, it is clear that Scots were thinking about their place within Britain and—more immediately—within clubs and societies of like-minded individuals. Ultimately, the demands of a populace keen on understanding a confused, post-Union context led to the development of a uniquely Scottish associational culture.
The emergence of such a rich assortment of Enlightenment associations allowed men and women of all walks of life to pursue interests and passions; indulge in unmitigated drinking; or simply meet with friends and acquaintances within an open and democratic setting, allowing for the free and easy exchange of ideas and philosophies. The varying motivations and mixture of economic and occupational backgrounds of club members created a sub-culture of associational diversity within Scotland, highlighting the relevance of clubs and societies to the cultivation of Scottish improvement and the exploration of Scottish identity in the wake of the Union.
Eighteenth-century clubs and societies were important for many reasons. Aside from providing new outlets for discussion and a variety of interests, they allowed people of varied socioeconomic backgrounds to meet in democratic spaces. Many societies were short-lived, while others continued on for decades. Still others underwent periods of inactivity, were restarted and renamed, and survive to this day. Despite the occasional scepticism with which some associations were viewed, Enlightenment clubs and societies shaped Scottish society and enabled societal and personal improvement. Through the expanding associational culture, one can gauge the chart the progression of interests, hobbies, and activities – all of which reflect the basic human need to belong.
Dr. Mark Wallace received his PhD from the University of St Andrews and is an Associate Professor of Scottish and British History at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas. He has published numerous articles, book chapters, and book reviews on eighteenth-century Scotland and Enlightenment sociability, and is editing a collection of essays on Scottish clubs and societies. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.