I ran into this title in the books of Tobias Churton. Like Churton, Stevenson is not a Freemason himself. The subtitle of the book makes it clear where Stevenson’s emphasis lays: Scotland’s century 1590-1710.
While many authors see the origin of ‘modern Freemasonry’ in England because it was in London that the first Grand Loge was founded, Stevenson focuses on Scotland. Not only is there much more material about Freemasonry predating 1717, but according to the author, Scottish Freemasonry differed from English Freemasonry and the former heavily influenced the latter in the years around 1717.
Stevenson also comes with a somewhat different version of the transition from so-called “operative” to so-called “speculative” Freemasonry.
Thus the assumption imposed by the terminology […] is that operative lodges, made up of stonemasons, must to operative things; non-operative lodges of gentlemen or speculatives do speculative things. This may make some sense in an English context, where nearly all lodges were ‘artificial’ foundations by gentlemen, but it is totally inappropriate for Scotland where virtually all the pre-1710 lodges were originally, and often long remained, closely tied to the mason trade. (p. 10)
And so we get the story that you may have ran into before with “Old Charges” (Scottish and some English), early lodge minutes, joining “gentry”, etc. Stevenson comes up with slightly different details and lays stress on other details to make his point that many things that we know of Freemasonry today, actually came into existence in Scotland and was only around 1717 introduced in England such as the Mason Word and the two grade system.
William Shaw is the person for Stevenson, whom restyled early Freemasonry into a form that would develop into what Freemasonry is today, including a big part of its esotericism. Also slightly different from several other authors is Stevenson’s ideas that gentry usually only experienced an initiation, but were not active in the lodge afterwards; that lodges consisted not only or masons as workmen, but other professions as well; and that “gentry” not only joined but also left lodges basically making them “operative” again.
It is an interesting history and Stevenson shines his own light on it. I find his ‘Scotland theory’ a credible one. Why would the French, when Freemasonry started to develop there, refer to Scotland (Ecossais) rather than England for their systems of ‘high degrees’? And is it so strange that in Scotland things were somewhat different, but elements found their ways to England right around the time that the first Grand Lodge was founded?
I just started reading another David Harrison book and in the first pages he proved himself critical towards Stevenson. Let us just take the different theories (emphasis) at heart and remember what appeals to us. When you are interested in somewhat dry historical Masonic history (think Knoop and Jones), Stevenson makes a worthwhile read.