The Not-So-Secret Scroll – Priceless Relic or Floorcloth?

An article exploring the Kirkwall Teaching Scroll by Brian Smith

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  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 history.’

These proposals, set out and surpassed in his The Secret Scroll (Sinclair-Stevenson 2000), are bilge.  Sinclair’s methods led to faulty conclusions.  As  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  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 of work.

Day was an expert in  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 influence’.

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  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  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. 

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