WHAT is the connection between football legend Jock Stein, Western hero John Wayne, the Duke of Kent, and the Ayrshire Bard Robert Burns?

Another question with a similar theme - what is the oldest organisation in Largs still in existence?

And finally, what is sometimes accused of being closed and secretive, but during the second world war were persecuted and chased out by the Nazi and fascist regimes and were threatened with death along with the Jews?

It is the same answer to all these questions ... and it is all to do with Masons.

The Largs and Millport Weekly News asked the Largs Masonic Lodge (Lodge St John Kilwinning No. 173) if they would be willing to do an article regarding freemasonry and unlock some doors, and find out a bit more about the so-called secret society..

Secretary Alan Galt was only too happy to oblige and gave unprecedented access to the �News� as we visited the Lodge No.173, inside the Master�s Room, the Masonic Temple, and bar area at the top of Frazer Street.

What are the masons? What do they believe in? Is there some cryptic clue which goes back in time to the dawn of civilisation that they are trying to hide?

The belief in a supreme being is at the heart of it according to Alan, and he pointed out that anybody can become a mason with lodges dotted all around the world throughout Africa, America and Australasia. The pictures I was shown were a far cry from what I expected as I saw all nationalities and religions embrace the mysterious concept which has survived the test of time.

There is no doubting that the masonic movement has been part of the fabric of society in Ayrshire going down the centuries and still exists in fine fettle today. So it was with some trepidation, that I decided to investigate further...

The masonic movement officially came to Largs in the 1769 when a Charter was granted by Lodge Mother Kilwinning allowing the Masons of Largs to meet under the title of Lodge �Largs Kilwinning.

The town back then was very different to what it is now.

Largs had a population of 3000 with the main occupations being fishing and weaving. There were about 300 weavers and also engaged in helping were wives and children. The finished cloth was taken to Paisley, via the Kilbirnie road.

There was very good fishing at Largs and carts would come from the Garnock Valley towns and their owners would buy the fish by the cartload at a shilling a stone for whiting. Sometimes the Largs fishermen would row all the way to Greenock with their catches. The shore road joining Wemyss Bay to Largs was built about 1820.

The houses in the 1780s mostly had earth floors! The only road to Greenock at that time would be over the moor road. The Largs Post Office was opened in Tron Place in January 1799, and post would come via a light two-wheeled carriage pulled by a horse (we shudder to think what these folks would have thought of Broadband!) Twenty two years after its formation the Largs Lodge applied for, and received a new charter from the Grand Lodge of Scotland, dated 2 November 1789.

It is believed that the charter meeting of the Lodge took place in a house in Tron Place in 1789. A long established firm of builders, named Hunter, had premises off Tron Place on the site of the present day office, or rather to the rear of it.

From 1862, the masons of Largs would be based at The Brisbane Arms Hotel (the George) had a fair-sized hall upstairs suitable for meetings.

Mrs Flarty�s Freemason Arms (yes, there was somewhere actually called this in Largs!) was used between 1862 and 1866 for �1 a year.

The Baking Society�s Hall was probably the Bath Hall, where all the social functions of the Baking Society were held there, was the next venue. But a dispute over gas and coal for one pound and six shillings meant that the masons moved from the building now commonly known as the Brisbane Centre in 1870.

The Lodge returned to Hunter�s Hall which proved a popular choice among Masons. The Victoria Hall in Nelson Street was used from 1873 through the pend opposite the new flatted development which replaced the Smugglers Bar. In 1875, the new Artillery Hall in Brisbane Road, at the corner of Seamore Street, was built and subsequently used.

In 1910, the current Masonic Lodge at the top end of Frazer Street was built. A time capsule with documents, papers and general items of the day is stored somewhere within the construction.

When I visited the Masonic Lodge, one of the first things that struck me was the unusual position of it. The building was seemingly stuck right on the edge of the street. Usually you would have a perimeter around a building like that but it was almost hidden away.

I rang the doorbell and waited to be invited in the inner sanctum. Alan opened the door and guided me through the bar area and on to the main chamber. It is quite a spacious hall and I was quite surprised there was a hall of this size positioned in the middle of town. With Largs crying out for a community centre, I was certainly taken aback with its scale.

There were two large double doors for the entrance, with masonic symbols, and coloured windows similar in style to stain glass. The chamber hall itself is quite imposing with tanned brown curtains and darkened varnished surroundings. The curtains were unveiled by Alan to reveal photos of former past masters of the Largs Lodge, some dating as far back as 1870. The main stage has three seats and a table all the masonic symbols, and a very foreboding eye which watches over you.

Alan told me that some masons came up to him in later life and said they remember attending the lodge as a child during parties and being spooked by the symbolic eye. It then lit up in front of me and I jumped!!! But it was Alan turning on a special light in the background.

He then proceeded to take me through the the small pool room, and an exhibition area with masonic coins, programmes, tickets, and a photo of the former Grandmaster Mason of Scotland - none other the King George VI. The Master�s room was where I conducted my interview and was surprised to see natty masonic wallpaper and carpet.

So what are the Masons all about?

I discovered that there are three great but simple principles. Brotherly Love, Relief and Truth unite Freemasons of every colour and creed. The Grand Lodge of Scotland state that non-Freemasons often �unfairly� criticise not knowing that members of the craft are guided by such principles. The good Freemason apparently builds these objectives into his daily life as a law abiding man of the world: BROTHERLY LOVE is the concern which each Freemason has for his Brother, which is readily shown by tolerance and respect of his beliefs, opinions and practices of his fellows and his willingness to care for his Brother and that Brother�s dependants.

RELIEF The Freemason is by nature and teaching a charitable man. He will cheerfully and kindly assist those less fortunate (whether Freemasons or not!) He will care for and support his community - local, national and international.

TRUTH The Freemason believes in Truth in all things in honesty and integrity in his personal business and public life, in fair dealings and in firm standards of decency and morality.

Reading from that, it sounds like an upstanding organisation which has very good aims and beliefs ... so why does it still have a reputation amongst some as a shadowy group which has been labelled a secret society? Could it be because of the rumours of infamous initiation ceremonies, or the pain of torture which would befall a member who would betray the secrets of the movement? Or is that an unfair Calumny on the good work done of the fair freemason citizens in society?

Largs St.John�s Lodge secretary Alan Galt says that he believes that the secretive image is not an accurate one and any colour or creed are welcome to join the �fraternity� as can be seen from pictures of masonic groups who have reached every corner of the globe.

However, Alan dismissed the rumours and said that to some extent the secret element of freemasonry was now outdated: �There are no real secrets to freemasonry - we are a lot more open. There are secret signs where masons can know each other by one another but that is about as far as the secret goes. That links back to stonemasons who once they had finished one project, required new work, and would have to go elsewhere to another part of the country. To prove they were capable of doing the work - an operative mason -they showed the signs.

�Freemasonry is open to every creed, every religion, as long as you believe in a supreme being. It is not a white protestant organisation. It does not involve politics or religion. Everybody can be together on the level.� In keeping with that last statement, Alan showed me a Roll book dating back to the 1880s which included all professions including butlers, ironmongers, plumbers, and weavers. They would mix with doctors, landowners and many others. Even a sub-editor based in Largs, possibly from the Largs and Millport Weekly News, was listed as a member in 1880, three years after the �News� came into being.

Brother Alex Simpson, an early proprietor of the �News� became the �second Honorary Burgess of the Burgh� - a Freeman of Largs, and presented two cottages in Kirk Close, housing his old Largs collection, to Largs and District Historical Society.

�Whether it was King George who was the master mason, or whoever, every mason is on the same level and is considered a brother,� said Alan.

The history of freemasonry in Ayrshire is fascinating and links strongly to mother lodge Kilwinning which holds records dating back to the 16th century.

Masons played a very important part in shaping the district from old churches and cathedrals to various other traditional buildings in the area.

An example of one Largs historical structure which had an integral masonic link is the current pier which has been earmarked for demolition On 10 January 1833, the foundation stone of a new pier at Largs was laid with Masonic honours by William Miller, of Monkcastle, Most Worshipful Master of the Mother Lodge and Provincial Grand Master of the County of Ayr.

The members of the Mother Lodge, with Largs St John�s, and many other lodges from Ayrshire, met at midday on the Green of Largs, and proceeded in procession accompanied by several bands of music through the town to where the pier was to be erected. Robert Wallace MP, one of Sir Thomas Brisbane�s commissioners, addressed the ceremony before the Grand Master proceeded to lay the foundation stone.

On occasions such as public parades, funerals, Lodge installations as well as the laying of foundation stones, it was a common occurrence during the 19th century, for the brethren to march through the streets of Largs wearing full masonic regalia.

A large number of servicemen were posted in Largs during the second world war and became members with some settling in the town and some moving on and joining other lodges down south.

Throughout the years, the Masonic Lodge has given generous donations to many charities and causes including Erskine Hospital, Age Concern (Largs), Haylie House, Cancer Care (North Ayrshire), RNLI, Crossroads, A.R.M.S West Kilbride, Ayrshire Hospitals Radio, Cancer Research, East Park Home for Infirm Children, Heart Start Scotland, Mission of Deep Sea Fisherman, Royal Institution for the Blind. Members regularly visit Erskine Hospital.

Local Lodge members have also contributed to the Benevolent Funds of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Ayrshire and of the Grand Lodge of Scotland.