The Not-So-Secret Scroll
- Priceless Relic or Floorcloth?
It is eight years since Andrew Sinclair first
drew our attention to the interesting ‘scroll’ in the Masons’ lodge
at Kirkwall, as part of his campaign to prove that Earl Henry Sinclair
went to America.
‘The earliest Masonic document
in existence in Scotland’, he said, ‘may well be the Kirkwall Teaching
Scroll, which is held to date from the late fourteenth century,
when Prince [sic] Henry St Clair became the Earl of Orkney.’ He
didn’t say who ‘held’ the scroll to be so old. In his bibliography
he revealed that ‘The Lodge at Kirkwall still keeps a copy of the
medieval original Teaching Scroll.’
Sinclair hadn’t seen the
scroll at that juncture, as his reference to a ‘copy’ makes clear.
The Kirkwall scroll isn’t a copy: it’s an original. But an original
of what date?
It wasn’t until 1997 that
Sinclair viewed the artefact, along with fellow delegates to the
‘Sinclair symposium’. Although his colleagues ‘could not assess
the evidence in front of their eyes’ that the scroll was a medieval
masterpiece, Sinclair had the ‘knowledge or the vision of experience’
to enable him to do so.
He became ecstatic. ‘As
I gazed up,’ he breathed, ‘I sensed that I had chanced upon one
of the great treasures of the Middle Ages, perhaps rivalled only
by the 13th-century Mappa Mundi that hangs in Hereford Cathedral.
It was a priceless relic that would demand the rewriting of medieval
These proposals, set out
and surpassed in his The Secret Scroll (Sinclair-Stevenson 2000),
are bilge. Sinclair’s methods led to faulty conclusions. As masonic
antiquaries have said since 1897, the Kirkwall scroll dates from
the eighteenth century. It is most likely to have been designed
and presented to the Kirkwall lodge as a floorcloth. And a little
research enables us to identify its only begetter.
Sinclair’s research was
curiously incomplete. ‘I was given a drawn copy of the Scroll,’
he says, ‘together with an interpretation of it by the late Brother
Speth of the Quattuor [sic] Coronati Lodge of London.’ He also
received something else ‘by another Brother Flett’. In text and
bibliography—his books contain no footnotes—Sinclair fails to give
any sources for these documents. This is a pity, because Speth’s
and Flett’s contributions, once located, are very important.
Sinclair goes on to cite
quotations and opinions by Speth, which seem to confirm his own
view that the scroll is medieval in date. For instance, he quotes
Speth as saying that the right-hand margin of the scroll was ‘the
work of an artist who knew the Nile Delta and Sinai and the land
of Canaan’. ‘In the opinion of Brother Speth’, according to Sinclair,
‘the Kirkwall Scroll was the work of a skilled Knight Templar whom
he identified as the large mounted figure drawn beside the besieged
Nile city. … During his advance from Palestine … the Templar “evidently
made notes or sketches as he went his way with the army, or probably
made very accurate mental notes of the whole country … and later
drew short maps for future reference.”’ I was perplexed to read
these alleged quotations by Speth, because they don’t appear in
my copy of his article.
George William Speth (1847-1901)
was an erudite Freemason, a founder and secretary of the famous
Quatuor Coronati Lodge and editor of its important journal, Ars
Quatuor Coronatorum. In 1897 he commissioned an article about Kirkwall’s
lodge from another masonic enthusiast, Archdeacon Craven of Orkney.
The article duly appeared in volume 10 of AQC, with a contribution
by Speth himself about the scroll. Far from concluding that it
was the work of someone who had been to the Middle East, or who
was a Templar, Speth speculated that it was a lodge floorcloth from
‘the first half of the eighteenth century, or very little later’.
Speth died four years
after writing his paper. I can’t believe that he changed his mind
about the scroll during that short period. Andrew Sinclair owes
us an explanation for the disparity between his quotations from
Speth, and Speth’s 1897 text.
In the 1920s another erudite
Freemason turned his attention to our scroll. Brother William Reginald
Day, from the Sydney Research Lodge in New South Wales, wrote a
long article about it, again in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum (vol. 38,
1925). Andrew Sinclair seems to be unaware of this important piece
Day was an expert in masonic
iconography, and he looked closely at the structure and subject
matter of the scroll, building on and amending Speth’s conclusions.
There is no space here to describe his findings in detail. On two
occasions, however, he finds important clues to the cloth’s date.
On the face of the altar on panel 6, for instance, he finds ‘the
arms of the Grand Lodge of the Antients’. Since the ‘Antients’
came into existence in 1751, it would be a brave commentator who
claimed that our scroll was 300 years older. Day discovered that
the ‘Antient’ arms were first portrayed in a work of 1764: ‘[c]onsequently’,
he says, ‘it is reasonable to assume that the Scroll is of later
date than that, especially as there are other traces of Antient
Thus in panel 8 Day found
‘Antient’ themes in some figures on top of globes. ‘In Freemasonry
and the Concordant Orders …,’ he says, ‘there is an illustration
entitled the “Dermott Arch” with exactly similar figures on the
top of the two pillars, but no globes are depicted. … [T]he name
of Lord Blesington appears in the wording. This will give some
idea of the antiquity of the design, as Lord Blesington’s term as
Grand Master lasted from 1756 to 1760.’
Day also spotted that
in panel 7 of the scroll there are (in cipher) three verbatim quotations
from the King James Bible (from Exodus chapter 3: ‘I am that I am
… I am hath sent me unto you’, and Song of Solomon chapter 2: ‘I
am the Rose of Sharon and the Lilly of the Vally’). Sinclair must
now explain how his medieval Templar anticipated King James’s English
translators of 1611. (Sinclair actually imagines that these well-known
biblical texts are ‘A Gnostic inscription concerning the Sophia,
the ancient goddess of divine wisdom’!)
I have only been able
to give a taste of Day’s scrupulous work. His paper is a tour de
force. Like Speth, he had no doubt that the Kirkwall cloth was
a modern production.
Why would there be a masonic
cloth in Kirkwall in the eighteenth century with influences from
an ‘Antient’ source? We must now turn to the other work that Andrew
Sinclair ‘received’ during his research: James Flett’s Kirkwall
Kilwinning No. 382: the story from 1736 (1976). According
to Flett a lodge minute of 27 December 1785 records that ‘Bro. William
Graeme, visiting brother from Lodge No. 128, Ancient Constitution
of England, was, at his own desire admitted to become a member of
this Lodge’. (My italics!) Lodge 128 wasn’t in Yorkshire, as Sinclair
thinks, or Bury in Lancashire, as others have suggested. According
to Lane’s standard work on masonic records (1894 edition) it was
at an unknown location in the West End of London.
Who was William Graeme
(more correctly Graham)? Paul Sutherland has written an entertaining
account of Graham’s career, in a dissertation which should be published
as soon as possible. He was a son of Alexander Graham, the Stromness
merchant who waged a famous legal battle with Kirkwall notables
in the 1740s and 1750s. ‘For a time’, two of William’s enemies
wrote later, ‘[Graham] was employed as a journeyman house-painter
in London. He returned to Orkney in poor circumstances, but Mason-mad.’
(My italics …)
A month after Graham’s
application to join the Kirkwall lodge he presented ‘a floorcloth’
to his new brethren. There can be no doubt that this cloth is our
scroll. Flett reports that when he joined the Kirkwall lodge, around
1900, ‘there was at that time a very old Brother who occasionally
visited Lodge meetings at the advanced age of over 90. On one occasion
I asked him if he could tell me anything about the Scroll. He said
he did not know very much about it except that it was used to be
called the floorcloth, and that at his initiation it lay on the
centre of the Lodge room floor when he was a young lad of 20.’
relations with his brethren deteriorated, and in 1790 he and others
formed a new lodge. They paraded through Kirkwall and laid the
foundation stone of their new headquarters ‘according to the ancient
order of the craft’. Graeme was devoted to ancient ceremonies and
rites, inside and outside the masonic fold. In due course he founded
an Anti-Burgher meeting-house in Kirkwall; on that occasion, ‘after
performing a great many antique tricks [he] kneeled down, made a
long prayer, and dedicated this Church … and then with his brethren
paraded the streets of this place to the no small amusement of the
public.’ (His enemies’ italics!)
In later, happier times,
Graham became reconciled with his former brethren. When he died,
sometime after 1812, he bequeathed to them his ‘Book of the Ancient
Constitution of Free and Accepted Masons’, for use at his burial.
There is no
document that states that William Graham painted the Kirkwall floorcloth.
However, he must be the prime candidate to have done so. From Speth
onwards the commentators agree that it is a crude piece of work.
‘One can easily see’, says Flett, ‘that the figures and emblems
are very roughly painted, just such work as an amateur would have
put off his hands’. We know that Graham was a journeyman painter.
The scroll contains Antient symbols, and Graham hailed from an Antient
lodge. Graham was ‘Mason-mad’, addicted to ‘antique’ rites. Most
importantly, we know that he donated the scroll to the Kirkwall
lodge, as a floorcloth for use in ceremonies.
Andrew Sinclair’s alternative
suggestion, that the scroll is far older, is less than convincing,
especially when he cites George William Speth as a source for his
view. His attempts to link it with the Sinclair family are laughable.
He imagines that a structure portrayed on panel 4 of the scroll—the
tabernacle in the wilderness, surrounded by the tents of the tribes
(see Numbers chapter 2)—is the Temple of Solomon, and that it has
a close resemblance to the Sinclairs’ Roslin Chapel. Interestingly,
Sinclair’s illustration omits the tents. Most grotesque of all
is his argument that the word ‘sultcrinea’ in panel 3 (the word
is actually ‘sulterinea’) is an anagram of ‘St Cler’ (as in Sinclair),
and ‘vina’ (as in Vinland, referring to Earl
Henry Sinclair’s alleged trip to America!)
He has no explanation how
such a cloth could have ended up in William Graham’s custody.
Finally, there is the
question of radiocarbon dating. Sinclair acquired two dates for
the scroll, from Oxford University’s Accelerator Laboratory. The
first result, he says, was ‘disastrous’, because the samples that
he submitted were ‘so spoiled by chemicals or use that the process
declared them to be not more than fifty years old’. He sent another
piece, and this time the result pointed to ‘the fifteenth century,
most probably between 1400 and 1530’.
Sinclair’s grasp of radiocarbon
dating seems to be defective. Scientists check for chemical contamination
before using the process. When Oxford investigated Sinclair’s original
sample they found no problem. Their result on that occasion was
85BP +/-35. (I am grateful to the laboratory for this information.)
This doesn’t mean ‘not more than fifty years old’, as Sinclair imagines.
Such a result translates into a very wide range, and calibrates
to the years 1680-1740 or 1800-1960. In other words, if the result
is to be believed, William Graham (if he was the painter) could
have used a piece of cloth made during the period up to 1740. Such
a date would indeed be ‘disastrous’ for Sinclair’s theory!
The second date that Sinclair
acquired is 435BP +/-50, which calibrates to the years 1400-1530
or 1560-1640. This radically different result is of course still
not incompatible with a late date for the design on the cloth.
We have already seen that the design cannot be earlier than 1611,
because of the quotations from the King James Bible on it. However,
there is no reason to prefer this date to the other - and, given
the incompatibility between them, it might be best to ignore both!
Radiocarbon analysis is
useful in the study of art objects. It is dangerous to use it to
try to authenticate them.
If I am confronted with
a cloth in a masonic lodge, stuffed with masonic symbols, which
we know was donated in 1786 by a Freemason entranced by masonic
lore, my inclination is to date it to the eighteenth century, the
period when the symbols were devised, not to the fifteenth. When
experts like Speth and Day reach the same conclusion, and radiocarbon
dating doesn’t rule out a late design, I am even more confident
that Andrew Sinclair has got it all wrong.
I am grateful for valuable
help to Patrick Ashmore, Phil Astley, Peter Claus, Jack Donaldson,
Chris Dowle, Christopher Ramsey, John Shaw, Paul Sutherland, Willie
Thomson and the Livingston Masonic Library of New York.