Classical Wall Monument of William Schaw in Dunfermline Abbey

William Schaw is probably the single most important individual in the development of Freemasonry in Scotland and throughout the world.

Excerpt from the book William Schaw “Father of Freemasonry”

William Schaw was born circa 1550 in Cranock in Fife. He was the second son of John Schaw of Broich and grandson of Sir James Schaw of Sauchie whose lands lay near Stirling in the tiny shire of Clackmannan. Broich, known today as Arngomery, was a fortified house near Kippen.

Commonly referred to as the ‘Father of Freemasonry’, Schaw is possibly the most important individual in the history and development of Freemasonry in Scotland and throughout the world.

In December 1583, James VI of Scotland ‘a mason King’ according to James Anderson in the Constitutions of The Freemasons in 1723, appointed William Schaw of Sauchie, at approximately 33 years of age, the Maister o' Wark (Master of Works) to the Crown of Scotland for life. Responsible for overseeing the repair, maintenance and new building work of all palaces, castles, hunting lodges and other buildings that might be used by the royal family.

Schaw’s position and inherent duties meant that he was in regular contact with stonemasons, who were in turn responsible for carrying out his commands on behalf of the Crown. Records still exist of the transitions and contracts he made with masons and other tradesmen who carried out work.

The most famous of these records are what we now refer to as the First and Second Schaw Statutes both issued on 28th December 1598 and 1599 respectively and laid the foundations for organised lodges.

Even today, in 2021, it’s difficult to read the 22 clauses of the 1598 Schaw Statutes and find a way to improve them. Schaw’s instructions are as applicable to every stonemason and Lodge in the 16th Century as they are today in every Freemason and Lodge across Scotland, impressing upon the craftsmen the qualities of loyalty, secrecy and obedience.

Schaw died on 18th April 1602 in Dunfermline after a short illness, and was interred in the Northern aisle of the nave in Dunfermline Abbey which he had previously helped to restore. Succeeded as the King's Master of Works by David Cunninghame of Robertland and a year before his King, James VI, ascended the throne of Great Britain at the age of approximately 52. 

A Classical wall monument in Dunfermline Abbey, now located under the north-west tower having been moved in 1794 from a position further east in the nave, was constructed in his memory at the expense of his friend Alexander Seton and Queen Anne of Denmark. It survives today with a Latin inscription recording Schaw's intellectual skills and achievements, and remains the most valuable source of biographic information relating to William Schaw. 

Classical Wall Monument of William Schaw (c. 1550-1602) located in Dunfermline Abbey and crafted by David Scougal of Crail at the expense of Alexander Seton and Queen Anne of Denmark.
Classical Wall Monument of William Schaw (c. 1550-1602) located in Dunfermline Abbey and crafted by David Scougal of Crail at the expense of Alexander Seton and Queen Anne of Denmark.

Composed by Alexander Seton, translated it reads:

‘To his most upright Friend, WILLIAM SCHAW, Live with the Gods, and live for ever, most excellent man; This life to thee was labour, death was deep repose. ALEXANDER SETON, Erected DEO OPTIMO MAXIMO (To God the Best and Greatest.)

This humble structure of stones covers a man of excellent skill, notable probity, singular integrity of life, adorned with the greatest of virtues – William Schaw, Master of the King's Works, President of the Sacred Ceremonies, and the Queen's Chamberlain. He died 18th April 1602.

Among the living he dwelt fifty-two years; he had travelled in France and other kingdoms for the improvement of his mind; he wanted no liberal training; skilful in architecture; was early recommended to great persons for the singularity of his mind; and was not only unwearied and indefatigable in labours and but constantly active and vigorous, and was most dear to every good man who knew him. He was born to do good offices and thereby to gain the hearts of men; now he lives eternally with God. Queen Anne ordered this monument to be erected to the memory of this most excellent and most upright man, lest his virtues, worthy of eternal commendation, should pass away with the death of his body.’

Included on the monument is a marble monogram that features the letters of Schaw’s name set over a Square and Compass, as well as a masons’ mark repeatedly and prominently displayed throughout.

The mason’s mark on William Schaw’s tomb at Dunfermline Abbey. This appears in multiple places across the monument and is believed to be that of David Scougal of Crail.

This is not the mark of Schaw, but rather that of the mason who created it, believed to be that of David Scougal of Crail in Fife, examples of which can also be seen on the signed and dated tomb of James, 7th Earl of Glencairn and his wife Glencairn aisle of St Maurs in Kilmaurs. Likely, also, to be the same “David Skowgall” mentioned as a member of the Lodge of St. Andrews in the St. Clair Charter of 1601.

Schaw’s death was recorded in the Annals of Dunfermline (A.D. 1601 - 1701 - Part 1)

DEATH OF WILLIAM SCHAW, “Master of the Works.”—William Schaw, architect to King James VI., died on the 18th of April, this year. He was an accomplished man, and “held in the highest esteem by his Sovereign, and by all who was honoured with his friendship.”  

About the year 1594, the restoration of the Abbey, &c., was committed to his charge.  

He built the steeple and the north porch, some of the buttresses, the roofs of the north and south aisles, and that part of the west gable immediately above the great western door.  He also planned and built the “Queen’s House,” the Bailie and Constabulary Houses, &c.  

He died at Dunfermline, on the 18th April, 1602, after a short illness, and was interred in the north aisle of the nave which he had restored.  His monument, a very massive one, was reared about his grave, “behind the pulpit-pillar”

The monumental tomb was removed from its original position in 1794 and placed within ‘the bell-ringer’s place at the bottom of the steeple’. The reason given for this in the Annals in 1794 was that ‘the upper part of it interfered with the light of one of the windows, and thereby prevented much of the light falling on the pulpit-bible.’

Within a year of Schaw’s death, the Union between Scotland and England led to a massive emigration of Scotsmen accompanying James VI to take up the throne in London as James I. The undoubted influence of The Schaw Statutes on English Masons thereafter is something that remains an area to be studied, however the development of lodges in Scotland, their growing importance in the decades that followed Schaw’s death and their handling of both operative as well as esoteric ritual with non-masons joining the craft is undisputed.

The contribution of Schaw for which those interested in the history of Freemasonry are most grateful however, was to order that lodges keep written minutes. As a result, lodges suddenly emerge from obscurity and left lasting monuments more impressive than buildings, though Schaw could never possibly have known what the effects his actions would have on the Masonic Craft in Scotland and throughout the world.