Free Gardeners and Freemasons
Free Gardeners were not freemasons, but both philosophies came from a common source: the association of craftsmen with their brethren, joined later by interested outsiders.
The Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland was created in 1736. There were then already around 100 mason lodges. In the succeeding century freemasonry spread until it was firmly rooted in many towns and villages. In Scotland the lodges retain their own distinctive procedures, regalia and ritual, which is a reflection of the piecemeal growth of the order. Each lodge still remains semi-autonomous, despite being chartered by Grand Lodge. The order continues to celebrate its connection with the craft of stone masonry.
From an early date the mason craft in Scotland had begun to admit non-masons. As early as the first half of the seventeenth century the membership of some lodges was mostly 'gentlemen' or 'speculative' masons. The reason why men became 'free' masons is indeed a matter for speculation. Both curiosity and social reasons have been put forward. The craft of stone masonry appears to have differed from other Scottish crafts and incorporations by developing their concept of the lodge, or meeting place. Early documents also hint that stonemasons could identify themselves to each other through secret knowledge. The 'esoteric' knowledge professed by the craft was attractive and complex. A lodge provided a forum free from many of the prevailing social conventions or political debates. The presence of titled or otherwise important men gave the organisation legitimacy and reflected status on the humbler members.
The reasons that gentlemen joined the Gardeners were perhaps the same, but probably did have a practical purpose as well. The owners of country estates in the 18th century were often concerned to reflect the latest advances in style and taste in their grounds. The 1676 statutes of the gardeners in Haddington indicate that they were concerned to spread knowledge of plants and advances in horticulture. So by joining the fraternity the gentleman amateur could participate in the same knowledge as his employee, the craftsman. Then as now, the interested amateur could best learn directly from the masters of the craft.
Why free gardening did not survive to rival free masonry is also unknown. However, some reasons can be proposed.
There was a lack of any unifying structure that could encompass all the lodges. As late as the end of the 19th century there were three competing organisations in the east of Scotland. Many lodges did not join.
In the 19th century practical gardening or horticulture became almost completely divorced from free gardening. Horticultural societies appear almost everywhere that there were free gardener lodges. To a large extent they succeeded to (or usurped) the demonstrations of practical gardening or produce exhibitions and competitions formerly the domain of the free gardeners. Without the panoply of ritual they appealed to a wider audience. Prospective free gardeners now had choices - a horticultural society for gardening interests and a wide variety of competing friendly societies for benevolence. All free gardening had to commend loyalty was its ritual.
The esoteric knowledge of free gardeners seems to have become heavily contaminated or mixed-up with that of freemasonry during the 19th century. Freemasonry had not only a head start but also a richer vein of mystery for the interested amateur to tap. Free gardening could not compete.
Many lodges concentrated on benevolence and mutual aid. This placed them in an environment where there were many competitors. The survival of lodges was down to luck or local strengths: a strong lodge could sustain the competition, the weaker ones withered. The mutual element was a significant factor in the organisation of Grand Lodge and the creation of the Ancient Order, but coming so late as the mid 19th century the organisation failed to hold on to the loyalty of all the lodges. Some preferred different patterns of mutuality or disagreed with the strategy of Grand Lodge. Subsequent changes in friendly society legislation created a separate layer of gardener unity friendly societies, again emphasising the economic aspect to the detriment of tradition.
Free gardening in Scotland was all but dead by the last quarter of the 20th century.