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The Order

History of the Order

The origins of the Order of St John can be traced all the way back to an 11th century hospital – the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem. 

In 1113, the people who administered this hospital were formed into a religious Order. Soon after, they took on military duties and became known as Knights Hospitallers. The Order, which still exists today, is now commonly referred to as the Order of Malta. It recruited members and owned property throughout Western Europe. 

The first property in Scotland was established at Torphichen, in West Lothian. Acquired during the reign of David I, King of Scots (1124-1153), it became, and remained until the 16th century, the Order’s administrative centre in Scotland. 

Being Roman Catholic, the Order ceased to function in the British Isles at the time of the Reformation. However, in the first half of the 19th century, a group of people set out to revive the Order of Malta in the United Kingdom and ultimately formed into a separate organisation which they called the Order of St John. 

In 1877, they founded the St John Ambulance Association, whose role it was to provide training in first aid and similar activities. Ten years later, the St John Ambulance Brigade was created as a uniformed body of trained volunteers who would provide first aid for the public. 

In 1968, it was agreed that the Ambulance Association and Brigade should be merged, forming the St John Ambulance we recognise today. 

In 1882, as a further means to providing to those in need and recognising its origins, the Order opened a hospital in Jerusalem to care for people suffering eye diseases, prevalent in the Middle East. At that time, Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. 

Then, in 1888, Queen Victoria made the Order a Royal Order of Chivalry, with the monarch as its Sovereign Head. Since then, the Grand Prior has always been a member of the Royal Family – currently, HRH The Duke of Gloucester. 

An individual’s commitment and contribution to the charity is acknowledged by titles conferred by Her Majesty the Queen.

Beginning with Members, the hierarchy continues with Officers, Commanders, Knights and Dames to the highest grade, Bailiff and Dame Grand Cross.

The Order Today

The Order of St John is supported by thousands of volunteers across the world who share its commitment to help people in sickness, distress, suffering or danger.

The eight countries which have Priories are Australia, Canada, England and the Islands, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, the US and Wales.

As well as Priories, there are 33 Associations in Antigua & Barbuda; Barbados; Bermuda; Cyprus; Dominica; Fiji; Ghana; Gibraltar; Grenada; Guyana; Hong Kong; India; Jamaica; Kenya; Malawi; Malaysia; Malta; Mauritius; Montserrat; Namibia; Nigeria; Pakistan; Papua New Guinea; Saint Lucia; Singapore; Solomon Islands; Sri Lanka; Swaziland; Tanzania; Trinidad & Tobago; Uganda; Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Republic of Ireland is also an associated country.

Activities vary from country to country, although the majority operate an ambulance service.

The Order in Scotland

In its early years, the Order of St John operated throughout the United Kingdom, providing training in first aid and an ambulance service. However, the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association was formed later and began similar activities, both in Scotland and England. 

In 1908, it was agreed that St Andrew’s would handle first aid training north of the border and St John south of it. By the 1940s, some of the Scottish members of St John felt there was still scope for the Order to carry out a number of public services in Scotland. 

Then, in 1947, the Scottish Priory was formed, and since then it has achieved remarkable success in meeting a wide variety of needs. Each year, a festival is held in a different location in Scotland where Priory members who have shown exceptional commitment to the work of St John are invested as new, or promoted members of the Order in recognition of their great work. 

The Chancery, or headquarters, of the Priory of Scotland is located at St John’s House, 21 St John Street, Edinburgh. This early eighteenth-century house lies off the Royal Mile a little below the site of St John’s Cross in the Canongate. It was originally built for the Wemyss family and was generously gifted to the Order in 1971 by the late James Watt KStJ.

The library of the Priory of Scotland is contained within St John’s House. It is a fascinating collection of books, documents, photographs and objects concerned with the Order from its origins to the present day. Together, these form a rich source of information for research or general interest. Visitors are welcome, but are required to make arrangements in advance with Alan Lees, St John Scotland’s Administrator, 0131 556 8711. 

Each year, the Priory of Scotland produces an annual review of the past year’s activities, including our summarised accounts. The online versions can be downloaded from the ‘Downloads’ section of this website. Printed versions of the Yearbook, and previous Yearbooks are available from the Chancery, in Edinburgh. 

Torphichen Preceptory

The first property in Scotland of the pre-Reformation Order of St John, the Preceptory was established at Torphichen in West Lothian. 

Acquired during the reign of David I, King of Scots (1124-1153), it became, and remained until the 16th century, the Order’s administrative centre in Scotland, although it was mostly dependent on the Order’s Priory in Clerkenwell in London. 

It was also a hospital and a place of worship. It held the right of sanctuary, and the large stones marking the sanctuary boundary can still be seen today.

The crossing tower and transepts of the Preceptory building remain, and the property is currently under the stewardship of Historic Scotland. The parish church, built in 1756, occupies the site of the nave, and a choir of the same length would originally have extended eastwards beyond the crossing tower. 

The domestic buildings, including a dormitory, dining hall, kitchen, and preceptor’s lodge were set around a cloistered court on the north side of the church, although only their foundations remain. 

Work of the late 12th century church survives in the fine blocked archway between the crossing and the nave; this may originally have formed the chancel arch of a small church comprising a nave and a chapel. 

In around 1200, it expanded as a cross-shaped church with transepts for side alters, a bell tower and an extended choir.

Towards the end of the 14th century, the transepts were almost entirely rebuilt, with new windows and vaulting; and a new stair-turret was provided to the tower. In the 15th century, upper storeys were built above the two transepts. 

St John Scotland holds an annual service at the Preceptory and parish church on the last Sunday of August of every year.

With the help of volunteers organised by St John Scotland’s West Lothian team, the Preceptory is open to the public over weekends and bank holidays from April 1st to September 30th, from 1pm until 5pm. 

The Priory Coat of Arms

Every Priory of the Most Venerable Order of St John has its own unique coat of arms based on the Arms of the Order – a silver shield with a red cross having the Royal Crest of England in the first quarter. 

When the Reformation occurred in Scotland, the last Preceptor of Torphichen, Sir James Sandilands, surrendered the Order’s property to Mary Queen of Scots. She, in turn, handed the property back to Sir James and created him Lord Torphichen, along with the grant of a heraldic augmentation, consisting of a crowned thistle.

The crowned thistle and crowned saltire are the two Royal Badges of Scotland, which are still used by The Queen. Sir James was the first non-royal to be permitted use of the crowned thistle and this still appears in the Arms of Lord Torphichen. 

When the Scottish Priory was created in 1947, the then Lord Lyon King of Arms, Sir Thomas Innes of Learney, granted an escutcheon to the Priory Arms bearing a crowned thistle as a reminder of the historical connection with Torphichen. 

The Arms of the Priory are shown with the mottoes of the Order. ‘Pro Fide’ means ‘for the faith’, meaning the Christian faith, and ‘Pro Utilitate Hominum’ means ‘in the service of humanity’.

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