Robert Burns

by Wallace McLeod

 

Introduction

In a sense we are all exiles from our father’s land. My people came from another shore beyond the Atlantic to the New World in 1889, without a word of English – banished it seems, by their own chief, who hoped to find fewer cares and greater profits in raising sheep. Four years later, by a sort of tragic retribution, this same chief had to sell his patrimony to a wealthy stranger; and then in 1846 he exiled himself to Nalang, near Bordertown in South Australia. My people were subjected to what would now be called cultural genocide, and within two generations they lost touch with their ancestral language and culture. These events took place a century and a half ago but, when it comes to emotional details, memories are long.

            From the lone shieling of the misty island

                        Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas:-

            Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland.

                        And we in dreams behold the Hebrides.

In one sense the Scots did not play a major role in bringing Freemasonry to my part of the world. All the pioneer lodges in Ontario carried English or Irish warrants, and no lodges here were ever listed on the Scottish Register. But several Scottish brethren who belonged to English lodges were incredibly important in the early history of the region. I think of Simon McGillivray, born at Dunlichity, Invernesshire, about 1785; he was heavily involved in the Canadian fur trade, and became Provincial Grand Master for Upper Canada under the United Grand Lodge of England, he is the man who in 1825 brought out from England the ancestor of the so-called Canadian Masonic ritual, and kept it from being Americanised, the way it is in the rest of the country. Then there is William Mercer, born in Mavisbank in Perthshire in 1813, who came out to America and took the name William Mercer Wilson, and eventually became the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada, he ruled the Craft for ten years in all, and was instrumental in setting it on its proper path.

But our particular concern today is with another Masonic brother who was born 238 years ago, and who was initiated into the Craft 216 years ago this July. Not everyone is a fan of Robert Burns, and there is more than one story about a speaker who was almost lynched because he tried to say things about the poet that his audience did not want to hear on a Burns Night. I hope to escape that fate. An increasing amount is known about the poet’s life, and we do not have time to rehearse it all. Nothing I say will be particularly new, and much of it will be taken from others; indeed I can clam no connection with the poet, beyond the fact that he addressed three of his poems to Miss Isabella MacLeod, who seems to have been a first cousin of my great great grandfather; naturally she was ‘a young lady, a particular friend of the author’s’, and she was (I trust) attractive. I hope to consider several topics; to remind you of the poet’s appearance, his charm, and his nature; to say a little about some of his virtues as a poet (even though I do not speak the language); and to review his connection with Freemasonry.

Background and appearance

Robert Burness was born in 1759, on 25 January, in the parish of Alloway, Ayrshire, the eldest child of William Burness, gardener, and Agnes Brown, his wife. Robert did not take the name of Burns until 1786, when he was 27.

When Robert was about five, his father became a tenant farmer at Mount Oliphant, two miles from Alloway; and there the boy grew up until he was eighteen (1777), working long hours on his father’s holding. This hard labour gave him a muscular physique; but the overwork as a child, combined with poor food, were to take their toll in due course. His formal schooling was restricted to a few years before he was ten, and part of a year when he was thirteen or fourteen. He was a voracious reader and acquired most of his literary knowledge from books. But he always remained a son of the soil and was justly called the Ayrshire ploughman.

When Burns was about 28, and famous, in 1787, the young Walter Scott, then about 16 years of age, met him in Edinburgh. Long afterwards, Sir Walter wrote a description:

His person was strong and robust …. I think his countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. I would have taken the poet, had I not known who he was, for a very sagacious country farmer of the old Scotch school … There was a strong expression of sense and shrewdness … (His eyes were) large … and glowed (I say literally glowed) when he spoke with feeing and interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the slightest presumption. Among the men who were the most learned of their (time and) country he expressed himself with perfect firmness, not without the least intrusive forwardness.[1]

And here is part of a sketch published soon after his death, by a woman whom Burns had loved and affronted, and who had forgiven the insult while treasuring the memory of some years … friendship.[2]

Many others … may have ascended to prouder heights in the (realm of poetry), but none … ever outshone Burns in the charms … of fascinating conversation, the spontaneous eloquence of social argument, or the unstudied poignancy of brilliant repartee … His form was manly, his action, energy itself … His figure seemed to bear testimony to his earlier … employments. It seemed … moulded by nature for the rough exercises of agriculture … The rapid lightning’s of his eye were always the harbingers of some flash of genius … His voice [was] … sonorous … [and] captivated the ear.[3]

Professor Dugald Stewart of Edinburgh University also pays tribute to Burns’ gifts as a speaker. He says:

In … 1787 I …[attended] a Masonic Lodge in Mauchline, where Burns presided. He had occasion to make some short unpremeditated compliments to different individuals from whom he had occasion to expect a visit, and everything he said was happily conceived and forcibly as well as fluently expressed. His manner of speaking in public had evidently the marks of some practice in extempore elocution.[4]

His particular talent

Burns was a man of contradictions. In 1812 Lord Byron was able to read some of Burns’ letters, which were unpublished and which he thought could never be published. (Little did he know the times that were to come!) He wrote in his journal: ‘What an antithetical mind – tenderness, roughness – delicacy, coarseness – sentiment, sensuality – soaring and grovelling, dirt and deity – all mixed up in one compound of inspired clay!’.[5]

Burns had a superb mind, retentive and quick. He remembered everything he ever read; and when one considers how sketchy was his formal education, the range of allusion in his writing is nothing short of astonishing. His quickness showed itself in repartee and the barbed wit of his spontaneous sallies. It made him mor than enough enemies! The same temper appears in some of his published satires. But, beyond this quick reaction-time, his intellectual powers enabled him to reduce complicated matters to simple terms, to cut through to the essence of a matter.

One example must suffice. What is the strongest argument against extra-marital love affairs? Is it that in certain contexts they are against the law? Is it that they violate the husband’s proprietary rights over his wife, or destroy the sanctity of the family? Is it that they offend against the commandments of God?

In the winter of 1788, Burns and Mrs. Agnes M’Lehose – ‘Clarinda’ – were involved in their tempestuous love affair and, despite all Clarinda’s attempts at concealment, people had begun to talk, In particular, Dr. John Kemp, minister of the Canongate Church, and Lord Justice Craig. Clarinda’s kinsman, seem to have been outspoked in remonstrance. The church held it a sin for a married woman to comport herself as Clarinda was doing: the law … was equally sure that her conduct was on the point of becoming criminal. But neither lawyer nor preacher saw to the heart of the matter. That was reserved for the poet himself, who made it quite clear to Clarinda why such entanglements had best be avoided:

Had we never lov’d sae kindly,

Had we never lov’d sae blindly,

Never met, or never parted,

We had ne’er been broken hearted.

… No word of sine or crime … but only the reminder that out of love like theirs come broken hearts and little else. Could anyone have told the truth more simply and more accurately?[6]

Women and children

The poet’s well-muscled physique, luminous eye, magnetic voice, obvious intelligence and mordant wit exerted an almost charismatic fascination for the female of the species. And he, for his part. a down-to-earth countryman, found the company of the lassies to be congenial. The public attitude to illegitimacy was not at all stern. Burn was a late starter but he did father a number of children fairly casually. In 1785 (May 22), when he was 26, Betty Paton, his mother’s servant, bore him a daughter; he acknowledged the child and wrote a poem for her, entitles ‘Welcome to a Bastart Wean’.

Welcome, my bonnie, sweet, wee dochter!

Tho’ ye come here a wee unsought for,

And tho’ your comin I hae fought for

Baith kirk and queer;              (choir)

Yet, by my faith, ye’re no unwrought for –

That I shall swear![7]

There was never any question of marriage with the mother; and Burns publicly rebuked in church by the Kirk Session as a fornicator. The next year (3 September 1786) Jean Armour, the daughter of a local stonemason and a lodge brother of the poet, bore him twins. This earned him another ecclesiastical rebuke, which he took as deeply to heart as the previous one. In 1787 in Edinburgh, Meg Cameron, a poor girl ‘out of quarters, without friends’, swore out a writ against [Burns] for support of her child, [and] he answered and paid’ (on 15 August).[8]

In 1788 (3 March) Jean Armour bore him another set of twins; and finally, later that year (5 August), after four children, their marriage was solemnised; they proceeded to have five more youngsters (Francis Wallace, 19 August 1789; William Nicol. 9 April 1791; Elizabeth Riddell, 21 November 1792; James Glencairn, 12 August 1794; Maxwell, 25 July 1796, posthumously). In November of 1788 Jenny Clow, a serving girl in Edinburgh, gave birth to Burns’s son. And in 1791 (31 March) Anne Park, the niece of the hostess at the inn in Dumfries, gave him a daughter, and his wife gave him a son two weeks later!

I do not censure or condemn, condone or defend. Burns evidently had an active sex-life. His wife once said, ‘Oor Rab could hae done wi’ twa wives’.[9] And obviously she accepted him as he was, and he was true to her after his fashion. I mention all this not for the sake of titillation or embarrassment, but simply, as an object lesson. According to our present-day Masonic jurisprudence, the poet’s extra-marital escapades would have rendered him liable to expulsion. In the Book of Constitution of my mother Grand Lodge, in Section 410, subsection (n), we read that the following, when wilfully committed, is a specific Masonic offence: ‘To commit adultery or engage in any other sexual immorality.’

Suffice it to say that Burns was not expelled from the Order, any more than were Queen Victoria’s wicked uncles, all masons of high rank, all noted for their manifest, manifold infidelities. Times change, and we change with them. One hears senior Masons say that common-law relationships are immoral, and that no person who is involved in one can belong to the Craft. Well, personally, I wonder. I think that a lot less stigma attaches to common-law relationships than formerly. And that in many of them one can find a sense of commitment and fidelity outside the marriage bond. But let that go.

Quality of his poetry

What claim does Burns have on us today as a poet? Well, there are his songs, that are a part of our heritage: ‘My Love, she’s but a lassie yet’, ‘John Anderson, My Jo’, ‘Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doone’, ‘ Flow gently, sweet Afton’, ‘O, my luv is like a red, red rose’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. ‘Comin Thro’ the Rye’, ‘Last May a Braw Wooer’, ‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled’, and ‘O, wert Thou in the Cauld Blast’.

It’s not just the facility with which he sets words to traditional melodies. There’s something else as well; there’s a profound emotionalism. For some obscure reason, I’m not a particularly a great admirer of Burns; maybe it’s the language problem. But there are things that he says to me in his songs that move me tremendously. I wouldn’t attempt to read you the words of some of those songs because I know that I wouldn’t get through them without breaking down. It’s more that the evocation of personal association that are too deep for utterance. It’s the way he manages his rhymes and his rhythms, his assonances and its modulations. And this seems to be characteristic of all his poetry. In the words of one critic:

Whether his mood was light-hearted, or wistful, or bitter, whether he was dealing with the trivialities of an hour or the enduring values of human life, seemed to make no difference. So far as the mechanics of verse were concerned, he was an assured master of his craft.[10]

The same critic continues:

No Hamlet ever came from Burns’s pen, no Paradise Lost, no Divine Comedy. But had Burns never written anything except To A Mouse, we could still have said that he possessed a great and original genius, which found expression in noble poetry … Here, if anywhere in literature, one sees a most trivial incident so recounted and so interpreted as to become a symbol; of abiding truth. The episode must have taken place unnumbered times, but during all the centuries in which men have tilled their fields, no poet except Burns had had enough … imagination to see the tragedy of the mouse in its true significance … Only to Burns was it given to discover in the mouse his own ‘earth-born companion and fellow mortal’, and to see in her fate a symbol of his own. Deny it one hardly can: mouse and poet and reader alike are earth-born, born to die; how much they have in common! … [In] the closing stanzas … Burns deftly shifts the reader’s attention from the mouse to the poet, and thus to some of the unsolved problems of universal human experience. By this time the light-heartedness of the opening stanzas has all disappeared; the shadows of a November twilight deepen over the field where reader and port stand together and muse:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane

In proving foresight may be vain;

The best-laid plans o’ mice and men

Gang aft a-gley,

An’ Lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain

For promis’d joy.

 

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But, och! I backward cast my e’e

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess, an fear![11]

Burns the Mason

In 1781, on 4 July, at the age of 22 years and 5 months, Robert Burns was initiated in Lodge St. David, Tarbolton. Three months later (1 October) he was passed and raised. There was some friction of long standing in the lodge and the next year (17 June 1782) a number of members, including Burns, seceded and formed their own lodge under the name of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton. Two years later (27 July 1784) he was elected Depute Master, which was really the chief executive officer of the lodge. This at the age of 25. He was faithful in his attendance and regularly signed the Minutes.

Early in 1786 Burns was discouraged on financial and emotional grounds, and determined to seek his fortune in Jamaica. As Depute Master he extended an invitation to his friend Dr. John Mackenzie to attend on St. John’s day.

Friday first’s the day appointed

By our Right Worshipful Anointed,

To hold our grand Procession,

To get a blade o' Johnie's Morals,                   (batch)

An' taste a swatch o' Manson's barrels,

I' the way of our Profession:

Our Master and the Brotherhood

Wad a' be glad to see you;

For me, I wad be mair than proud

To share the mercis wi' you.

If Death then wi' skaith then                         (scathe)

Some mortal heart is hechtin,                        (menacing)

Inform him, an' storm him,

That Saturday ye'll fecht him.                        (fight)

 

                        Robert Burns, D.D.

                        Mossgiel, 14th June. A.M. 5790

According to tradition, at this meeting, on 23 June, in lodge, in anticipation of his forthcoming departure, Burn recited ‘The Farewell to the Brethren of St. James’s Lodge, Tarbolton’.

Adieu! a heart-warm fond adieu;

Dear Brothers of the Mystic Tie!

Ye favour'd, ye enlighten'd few,

Companions of my social joy!

Tho' I to foreign lands must hie,

Pursuing Fortune's slidd'ry ba';

With melting heart and brimful eye,

I'll mind you still, tho' far awa.

 

Oft have I met your social band,

And spent the cheerful, festive night;

Oft, honour'd with supreme command,

Presided o'er the Sons of Light;

And by that Hieroglyphic bright,

Which none but Craftsmen ever saw!

Strong Mem'ry on my heart shall write

Those happy scenes when far awa.

 

May Freedom, Harmony, and Love,

Unite you in the Grand Design,

Beneath th' Omniscient Eye above --

The glorious Architect Divine --

That you may keep th' Unerring Line,

Still rising by the Plummet's Law,

Till Order bright completely shrine,

Shall be my pray'r, when far awa.

 

And you farewell! whose merits claim

Justly that Highest Badge to wear;

Heav'n bless your honour'd, noble Name,

To Masonry and Scotia dear!

A last request permit me here,

When yearly ye assemble a'.

One round, I ask it with a tear,

To him, the Bard that's far awa.

The situation improves

But things began to look more cheerful and the poet decided to stay in Scotland. A bit more than a month later, on 31 July 1786, the Kilmarnock edition of his poetry was published. It was printed by a Mason and was handsomely subscribed to by the brethren of St. John’s Lodge, Kilmarnock, who agreed to take 350 copies. ‘This volume might with every justification be called a Masonic Edition.’[12] Burns at once began to be something of a celebrity.

Three months later (26 October 1786) he was made an Honorary Member of Lodge Kilmarnock Kilwinning St. John, at Kilmarnock. And on his admission he is said to have recited the following poem to the Kilmarnock Lodge and its Master, Major William Parker.

Ye sons of old Killie, assembled by Willie

To follow the noble vocation,

Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another

To sit in that honourèd station!

I've little to say, but only to pray

(As praying's the ton of your fashion).

A prayer from the Muse you well may excuse

(Tis seldom her favourite passion).

 

Ye Powers who preside o'er the wind and the tide,

Who markèd each element's border,

Who formèd this frame with beneficent aim,

Whose sovereign statute is order,

Within this dear mansion may wayward Contention

Or witherèd Envy ne'er enter!

May secrecy round be the mystical bound,

And Brotherly Love be the centre!

On 12 Jaunuary 1878 in Edinburgh, Burns visited Lodge St. Andrew. The Grand Master Mason, Francis Chateris, younger of Amisfield, was in attendance, together with the whole Grand Lodge. ‘The meeting was most numerous and elegant; all the different Lodges about town were present in all their pomp.’ Without warning, the Grand Master proposed a toast to ’Caledonia and Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns’, which rung through the whole Assembly with multiplied honours and repeated acclamations’. As Burns had no idea such a thing would happen, he was downright thunderstruck and, trembling in every nerve, made the best return in his power. He was somewhat cheered when he heard some of the Officers of Grand Lodge say with a comforting accent: ’Very well indeed’.[13]

Two weeks later, on 1 February, he attended Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in Edinburgh. The lodge minutes tell what next ensued: ‘The Right Worshipful Master having observed that Brother Burns was at present in the Lodge, who is well known as a great poetic writer, and for a late publication of his works, which have been universally commended, submitted that he should be assumed a[n honorary] member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to, and he was assumed accordingly’.[14] It is often said that a month later, on 1 March, the poet was installed as Poet Laureate in this same lodge, Canongate Kilwinning, and you will often see engravings of the scene. But there is no mention of it in the minutes, and the story is first recorded in 1815.

On 21 April 1787, the first Edinburgh edition of Burns’s poems was published. Many of the subscribers were members of Canongate Kilwinning, including his printer, his publisher, and the artist who provided the frontispiece. It has been said that ‘surly never book came out of a more Masonic laboratory’.[15]

 

Conclusion

He continued his Masonic connection for the rest of his life, as far as health permitted. In 1787 (19 May) he was exalted a Royal Arch Mason, at Eyemouth. When he moved to Dumfries he joined Lodge St. Andrew there (1788, St. John’s Day) and attended quite regularly. Indeed in 1792 (30 November) he was elected Senior Warden and served for a year.

He was a frustrated man, who recognised his own genius and raged against the necessity that forced him to work hard to gain his livelihood, first as a farmer, then as a low-level civil servant. He never had the luxury of being able to devote himself to his poetry as a man of leisure. Perhaps it was better so. Another poet, a wealthy aristocrat, mused on the problem. Byron asked himself: ‘What would he have been, if a patrician? We should have had more polish – less force – just as much verse, but no immortality – a divorce and a duel or two, the which had he survived, as his potations must have been less spirituous, he might have lived as long as Sheridan [that is, 65]’.[16]

But he didn’t. He died on 21 July 1796. He certainly drank too much, and thought that everyone might find joy in the Keg.

Then fill up a bumper and make it o'erflow,

And honours Masonic prepare for to throw:

May ev'ry true Brother of the Compass and Square,

Have a big-belly'd bottle, when harass'd with care.

But his death was not caused by excessive drinking, as Bryon thought, and as many others have said. The symptoms point to endocarditis, probably arising from rheumatic fever. He was aged 37 years and 6 months. That was older than Keats (25 years, 4 months); Shelley (29 years, 11 months); Schubert (31 years, 9 months); Mozart (35 years, 11 months); or Byron (36 years, 3 months). But it is still young to leave this interesting world.

In many ways Burns was a misfit, born at the wrong time, in the wrong stratum of society. But perhaps, as Byron hinted, it was the circumstance of his birth that made him what he was. He speaks to the heart, and from time to time he gives utterance to thoughts that seem peculiarly Masonic. For example, he had a vision of equality that still has not come to reality.

Then let us pray that come it may,

(As come it will for a’ that,)

That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth

Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.            (prize)

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s comin yet for a’ that,

That Man to Man the warld o’er

Shall brithers be for a’ that.

A devoted and in many ways idealistic Freemason. Not my favourite poet. But a well beloved one; one who speaks to many people; and one who is not without merit, as this occasion has served to remind me.

 

Bibliography

BELFORD, Fred J: ‘Robert Burns – Freemason’ in Year Book of the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland, 1955; reprinted in Draffen of Newington, George S (ed): Masons and Masonry (Shepperton, 1983) 42-69.

CARR, Robin: ‘A Tribute to Robert Burns: Masonic Poet’ in the Phtlalethes. 38:4 (August 1982), 19-22.

CARRUTH, J.A: Sir Walter Scott, Jarrold Colour Publications (Norwick 1982).

FITZHUGH, Robert T: Robert Burns: the man and the Poet: a round unvarnished account (Boston, 1970)

HENLY, William Ernest: Robert Burns: Life, Genius, Achievement’ in Henley, William Ernest and Henderson. Thomas F (eds): The Complete Poetical Works of Burns (Cambridge, Massachusttes, 1897) xiii-lxvi.

HOGAN, Mervin B: ‘Robert Burns: Man and Mason’, presented before the Research Lodge of Utah, 27 September 1972, reprinted in Carr, Robin L: The Mystic Tie and Men of Letters (Bloomington, Illinois, 1994) 53-75.

LOW, Donald A (ed): Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (London, 1974).

SNYDER, Franklyn Bliss: Robert Burns: his Personality, his Reputation, and his Art, The Alexander Lectures in English (Toronto 1936).

WEBB, John: ‘Robert Burns, Poet and Freemason’ in (1990) Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 103: 213-229.

This paper was presented at a Burns Night Supper, jointly organised by the lodge and the Robert Burns Society of South Australia, held on 30 June 1997. It has also been published in The Quest for Light, Wallace McLeod, ANZMRC, Melbourne 1997.


[1] Carruth, J A: Sir Walter Scott, Jarrold Colour Publications (Norwich, 1982.) 2, freely treated; Low, Donald A (ed): Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage (London 1974) 262.

[2] Snyder, Franklin Bliss: Robert Burns: his Personality, his Reputation, and his Art, The Alexander Lectures in English (Toronto, 1935) 9.

[3] Low, op cit, 102-103

[4] Belford, Fred F: ‘Robert Burns – Freemason’, in  Year Book of the Grand Lodge of Antient Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland, 1955; reprinted in Draffen of Newington, George S (ed): Masons and Masonry (Shepperton. 1983) 42-69 @ 51.

[5] Snyder, op cit. 10; Low, op cit, 257-258.

[6] Synder, ibid, 30-31.

[7] Fitzhugh, Robert T: Robert Burns: the man and the Poet: a round unvarnished account (Boston. 1970) 69.

[8] Ibid, 154

[9] Hogan, Mervin B: ‘Robert Burns: Man and Mason’, presented before the Research Lodge of Utah, 27 September 1972, 12.

[10] Snyder, op cit, 103.

[11] Ibid, 117-118

[12] Belford, op cit, 53

[13] Hogan, op cit, 22; Belford, op cit, 60-61.

[14] Hogan, ibid, 23; Belford, ibid, 61.

[15] Belford, ibid, 63.

[16] Low, op cit, 257.

Where any typo errors in this transcription occur, they are mine alone, and I make my apologies. webmaster.

 ROBERT BURNS. BY WALLACE McLEOD was sourced from 'The Quest for Light.'

This Article was extracted and transcribed in this format by Bro. J. Stewart Donaldson, Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning 2020.

 

                                            [up] [back]