Burns as a Mason

by William Hunter

 

(From a rare pamphlet, of date 1858. Mr. Hunter was R.W.M. of Lodge Journeymen Masons, Edinburgh, No. 8)

 

Without further preface, I may state that Burns was entered an apprentice in the Lodge St. David, Tarbolton; on the 4th of July, 1781. The Brother who had the honour of ushering our National Bard into the light of Freemasonry was Alexander Wood, tailor, Tar­bolton, and, from this circumstance, his name is likely to be remembered when thousands of men far higher in worldly station and intellectual attainments are forgotten. It may be necessary to offer a word or two of explanation regarding the Lodge into which Burns was admitted a member. We find it stated that a Lodge of Freemasons was constituted in the village of Tarbolton, in the year 1771, by authority of a charter from the Lodge of Kilwinning, and called St. James. It is well known that the Kilwinning Lodge considered that it was the oldest fraternity of Freemasons in Scotland, and consequently that it possessed a right of granting charters of constitution to subordinate Lodges, and exercising a jurisdiction over their proceedings. It sent representatives to Edinburgh on the 10th of November, 1736, when William St. Clair resigned the office of Hereditary Grand Master Mason, and the present Grand Lodge of Scotland was formed; but, at that time, it refused to surrender its independent rights and privileges. The consequence was that it stood aloof from the Grand Lodge, till the year 1807, when it came to the resolution to divest itself of the powers which it had hitherto claimed and exercised, and to throw in its lot with the more modern but now all-prevailing confederation. The Lodge of Kilwinning, in 1771, still maintained its independence and exercised its ancient prerogatives, and thus it was that it granted a charter of erection to the Lodge of Tarbolton. This Lodge had only existed a short time when a difference of opinion on some subject or another arose among. the brethren, and so far was it carried, that a number of them seceded in 1773 and formed themselves into a new Lodge, to which they gave the name of St. David. The two Lodges continued in a separate state till June 1781 (that is, a few weeks previous to the initiation of Burns), when an amalgamation took place, and the name of St. David was retained, most likely, as Robert Chambers says, " as a, compliment or concession designed to appease the schismatic body." It was in this combined Lodge that Burns first saw the light of Masonry, and accordingly his name is found recorded in its books. Entire harmony, however does not seem to have been secured by the union, for a fresh disruption took place in June, 1782. Burns and a number of the brethren seceded and formed themselves into a separate Lodge, and resumed the name of St. James. This Ledge still exists. Its original number was 178, and its present one is 135. The Lodge St. David, Tarbolton, the number of which was 174, was struck off the roll of the. Grand Lodge in 1843 and most likely has ceased to exist.

The Lodge St. James, Tarbolton, in the course of a few years, came to the, resolution of joining the Grand Lodge of Scotland, and, accordingly, it sent in list of its members, which is to be found engrossed in the books of the Grand Lodge.  In this list the name of Burns does not appear. This may have been occasioned by the carelessness of the Grand Lodge officials at the time, who are alleged to have been very much averse to such dry labour as the enrolment of names. The likelihood, however, is, that the Lodge St. James only sent in a list of its entrants from the time at which it became a separate and independent body. This idea is so far borne out by the fact that the name of Burns's brother, Gilbert, stands only about a dozen from the top of the list, and we know that Gilbert was not made a Mason for five years after the establish­ment of the present Lodge St. James in a separate state in 1781.

Burns, at the time of his initiation into the mysteries of Masonry, was in the twenty-third year of his age, and was living with his father at the farm of Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. A few days after his initiation, he proceeded to Irvine to learn the art of flax dressing, with the view of being able to dress the flax which he and his brother had proposed to raise on his father's farm. It has been stated in some publications that he was made a Mason in one of the Lodges of Irvine; but I see no reason whatever to believe that such was the case. It is certain that neither the Irvine Lodge St. Andrew, nor the Lodge Navigation, which now meets at Troon, but which at the time belonged to Irvine, returned him to the Grand Lodge as an entrant. It is by no means unlikely that he attended some of the meetings of these Lodges during his residence at Irvine, which, according to sonic authorities, extended to a period of six months but, according to the testimony of his sister, Mrs Begg, to a period of nine months. The evidence of the books of the dormant or defunct Lodge of St. David ought to settle all dispute on this point, and these state that he was entered, in. this Lodge, at the time I have stated; and further, that he was there passed and raised on the 1st. of October of the same year, most likely during a short visit which he paid to his relatives at Lochlea.

Burns, at the time of initiation into the mysteries of Freemasonry, was an active and intelligent young man. He had read a number of the books then usually to be found in the cottages of the Scottish peasantry, and he had improved his mind and his skill in composition, by carrying on an extensive epistolary correspondence with his acquaintance. On the November previous to his being made a Mason, he had assisted at the formation of a debating society at Tarbolton, called the “Bachelors’ Club," and had the honour of being elected its first president. In speaking of this period of his life, he says “Poetry was still a darling walk for my mind; but it was only indulged in according to the humour of the hour. I had usually half a dozen or more pieces on hand. I took up one or other as it suited the momentary tone of the mind, and dismissed the work as it bordered on fatigue. My passions, when once lighted up, raged like so many devils till they got vent in rhyme, and then the conning over my verses, like a spell, soothed all into quiet." In mental acquirements he was, no doubt, superior to the greater part of his associates, but his condition was strictly that of a ploughman or farm labourer. From his earliest years, he had been incessantly engaged in the various employments necessary on a farm, and his wages never exceeded six or seven pounds per annum.

The keen sensibility and social temperament of Burns, fitted him to enter with enthusiasm into the business of Freemasonry. He had a heart that glowed with intense reverence and love towards all the objects and manifestations of external nature. The hills, the glades, the woods, the streams, the “fragrant birch," “the milk-white thorn," the mountain daisy, " wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower," and all the vicissitudes of the varied year were dear to him, and he has sung their charms in undying strains. With the lower orders of animated existence he had the warmest sympathy. He has set forth the noble qualities of his dog, Luath, his pet lamb, Mallie, his auld grey mare, Maggie, with a playful tenderness that fascinates every reader. He looked with pity on the timorous mouse, which the destructive ploughshare had dispossessed of its little nest, and the hare limping past him which some cruel sportsman had wounded. While he contemplated the storms and desolation of winter, he thought with compassion –

“On the ourie cattle,

Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle

O' winter war.”

And then made the feeling inquiry –

“Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o' spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o' thee?

Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing

An' close thy e'e?”

But Burns, above all, had a warm and an abiding love to the whole brotherhood of man. He entered keenly into their woes, wants, and struggles—no less than into their joys, amusements, and festivities. Nothing connected with humanity was indifferent to him; but the kind sympathies of his nature were specially drawn to the poor but honest men, maintaining a hard conflict with this world's ills, and needing the helping hand of his fellow-mortals. And hence he says –

“Affliction's sons are brothers in distress;

A brother to relieve, how exquisite the bliss!”

A man with a heart so full of love to every object around him, and with a mind elevated and refined by cultivation, and taught to look up with reverence to the Great Creator and Preserver of all, could not fail to be a good and a zealous Mason. He could eagerly enter into an examination of the sublime principles of our Order, and feel a high gratification in practising its beneficent requirements. In the Mason's Lodge, he would find an extension of the family circle, and a noble field for the display of those kindly and fraternal feelings which the Almighty had planted in his breast, and which he had been taught to evince and to cherish at his father's fireside. He would enjoy social intercourse with the most generous and intelligent men of the district, and engage in those rational festivities which Masonry sanctions and which serve to knit the heart of man more closely to his brother man. From these circumstances, we would naturally conclude that Burns would take a deep interest in Freemasonry; and that he actually did so, is evident from his constant attendance at the meetings of the Lodge. For some years, it is supposed that he was scarcely ever absent when the brethren assembled to carry on the work of Masonry.

His father died in the month of February, 1784, harassed and broken down by poverty, and the vexation arising from a law-suit, into which he had entered with his landlord, regarding the terms of the lease of his farm.

This event induced Burns and his brother Gilbert to take a lease of the farm of Mossgiel, in the parish of Mauchline, from Mr Gavin Hamilton; and accordingly they took possession of this place in the month of March following. By this means, the residence of the Poet was removed several miles from Tarbolton but this did not slacken his zeal in the cause of Masonry, or prevent his attendance at the meetings of the Lodge. He was elected Deputy-Master in July, 1784, and held this office for several years. In this capacity, he frequently appended his name to the minutes. For instance, in 1785, his, signature appears at the minutes on the 29th June, the 20th July, the 2nd and 18th August, the 15th September, the 26th October, the 10th November, and the 1st and 7th. December, thus showing that he attended nine meetings in the course of half a year. He was present and most likely officiated, on the first of March, 1786, when his brother Gilbert was entered, past, and raised.

It was about this tine, that he got into difficulties, arising from his imprudent connection with Jean Armour — an era in his history well known to all the readers of his works. Her father refused to sanction the clandestine marriage which they had contracted, and had uncoupled, as the Bard himself expresses it, the merciless pack of the law at his heels. The farming speculation into which he had entered after his father's death, along with his brother Gilbert, had, besides, from bad harvests, and perhaps from bad management, proved unprofitable, and he had incurred the warm resentment of the old Light, or Evangelical party in his neighbourhood, by the severe castigations which he had given several of their leaders on their peculiarities and improprieties. He was forced, as he tells us, to skulk from place to place to avoid being thrown into a jail; and it may easily be conceived that his condition was most wretched; and, indeed, several poems, composed at this time, such as "The Lament," the odes to "Despondency " and Ruin," furnish the most conclusive evidence that this was the case. His attendance at, the Lodge during the summer was therefore very irregular. He was present, however, at meetings on the 7th and 16th of June. A somewhat curious proposition was laid before the Lodge on the latter occasion, which is thus stated in the minutes:—"It was proposed by the Lodge, that, as they much wanted a lodge-room, a proposal be laid before the heritors, who are intending to build a steeple here, that the Lodge will contribute to the building of a lodge-room, as the basis of that steeple; and that, from the funds of the Lodge, they offer fifteen pounds, besides what will be advanced from the particular friends of the Lodge. In order that this proposal be properly laid before the heritors, five persons, namely, the Right Worshipful Master, Brother McMath, Brother Burns, Brother Wodrow, and Brother William Andrew, are appointed to meet on Saturday, at one o'clock, to draw up a proposal to lay before the heritors on Friday first." If the proposed steeple was to form part, of the parish church, the idea of converting the base of it into a Mason's Lodge was certainly somewhat singular. The Lodge St. James, Tarbolton, was, at that time, held in a back apartment of a small inn called the Cross Keys, kept by a person of the name of Manson. It was a small, inconvenient, and stifling tenement, quite unsuited for the purposes of a Mason's Lodge. It is not surprising, then, that the brethren should wish to leave it, and to procure a room possessing more comfort and convenience, and remove, altogether from a public house, in which the country brethren have always been averse to assemble, and hence it is that, for the most part, they have built halls for their own accommodation. But certainly it was a rare design to join the Lodge so closely to the church, as, I presume, in this case it was intended to be, though there was nothing incongruous in it, provided the Lodge was properly conducted. A Mason’s Lodge, whatever may be said to the, contrary, is fitted to be a valuable auxiliary to the Church; and it is only when the Lodge has degenerated into a mere convivial assembly, that its inconsistency with the Church is, in any respects, well founded. Whether the steeple was not built, or whether the application of the brethren of the Lodge was unsuccessful, I have not been able to ascertain but, at all events, it does not appear that the Lodge ever assembled in such a place.

It is not apparent that Burns, during the four or five years that he attended the Lodge St. James, Tarbolton, was ever raised to the dignified office of R.W. Master. It cannot be doubted that from his wit, his intelligence, his zeal, and his capability of expressing his ideas with elegance and propriety, he would have made an admirable Master of a Lodge. We are far from supposing that his brethren failed to appreciate his merits but the likelihood is that some one of the local gentry was preferred as the ostensible head of the Lodge, while its principal duties were per­formed by Burns, or some other office-bearer. It is evident from the minutes that he frequently presided at the meetings of the brethren, and he himself says that he

“Oft, honoured with supreme command,

Presided o'er the Sons of light.”

The following anecdote is told of his occupation of the Master's chair:— "A gentleman, an acquaintance of Dr John Mackenzie, of Mauchline, was very anxious to be introduced to Burns. One day these two gentlemen, taking a walk along the road, chanced to meet with the Poet, who, in the course of conversation, stated that he intended to be in the Lodge that same evening. Mackenzie and his friend resolved to be present also — so they set out, but did not arrive till after the Lodge had been opened. After sitting for wine time, the stranger whispered in the doctor's ear: — ‘What has become of Burns?’ “Become of him,” said Mackenzie; “don't you see him in the chair?” No, said his friend  that is certainly not the man we saw in the forenoon.' It was the Poet, nevertheless, under new circumstances" We have also the testimony of Professor Dugald Stewart in favour of the excellent manner in which he discharged the duties of the chair.

The professor says, "In the course of the same season (1787), I was led by curiosity to attend for an hour or two a Mason Lodge in Mauchline, where Burns presided. He had occasion to make some short unpremeditated compliments to different individuals, from whom he had no reason to expect a visit, and everything he said was happily conceived, and forcibly as well as fluently expressed." The professor says that his visit was to a Lodge in Mauchline; but this, perhaps, should rather be Tarbolton, as it does not appear that the present lodge St. Mungo, Mauchline, No. 179, was formed; at least it was not recognized by the Grand Lodge till I791 – that is four years after the above event is said to have taken place.

Burns seems early to have qualified himself to discharge the duties incumbent on a Mason. Not only was he able to preside over the brethren, and in this capacity call forth the approbation of such qualified and fastidious critics as Dugald Stewart, but he took the chief part in the initiation of candidates, and the instruction of the brethren in the principles of Masonry. For this purpose, he was not content with the meetings of the brethren in the Lodge room of Tarbolton, but he held meetings for Masonic instruction at Mossgiel ; and there many of the more zealous and enlightened brethren repaired to hold converse with the Bard on the sublime mysteries and noble virtues of our ancient Order. The first person that Burns initiated as a Mason was Matthew Hall, a musician, who was wont to accompany James McLauchlan, "thairm inspiring sage," in his excursions over the county of Ayr, to play at gentle­men's houses, and who was lately living, in extreme old age, at Newton-on-Ayr. This person was no doubt proud, in after times, to state that he was the brother on whom Robert Burns first tried his " prentice han " as an instructor in the art and mystery of Freemasonry.

The annual meeting and procession of the St. James's Lodge, Tarbolton, took place on the 24th of June, the anniversary of St. John the Baptist. Burns felt a strong desire to get a full attendance of the members on these occasions, and he was, in the habit of making personal exertions to draw out the brethren. We have an instance of this in the rhyming epistle which he sent to his friend Dr Mackenzie, of Mauchline. It is as follows:

“Friday first's the day appointed

By the Right Worshipful anointed,

To hold our grand procession;

To get a blad o' Johnie's morals,

And taste a swatch o' Manson's barrels,

I' the way of our profession.

Tim Master and the brotherhood

Would a' be glad to see you;

For me, I would be mair than proud

To share the mercies wi, you.

If death, then, ai’ skaith, then,

Some mortal heart is hechtin’;

Inform him, and storm him,

That Saturday you'll fecht him. 

Mossgiel, An. M. 6790.”  Robert Burns

It is to a circumstance that took place in the St. James's Lodge, Tarbolton that we are indebted for the excellent and most amusing poem called “Death and Dr Hornbook.” One of the members, who attended a meeting of the Lodge in the spring of 1785, was Mr. John Wilson, schoolmaster of the parish, a worthy but somewhat vain-glorious individual. In under to eke out file scanty income which he derived from his office of schoolmaster, he had opened it grocery shop in the village, and among other commodities which he sold were a few of the commonest kinds of medicine. Having perused Buchan's Domestic Medicine, and other books of the same sort, he fancied that he had acquired no inconsiderable amount of medical knowledge. This fanned his self-conceit, and induced him to set forth in an advertisement, that “advice would be given in common disorders, at the shop, gratis." On the occasion referred to, and after the Lodge had been closed, Burns and Wilson had a dispute on some subject or another, in the course of which the “sovereign knight of the ferule” made a rather ostentatious display of his medical attainments.

This appears to have greatly- tickled the fancy of Burns, more especially after he left the Lodge, and was wending his way homewards. He was in fine rhyming condition. "The clachan yill had made him canty," and the beauty of the night was inspiring, the rising moon beginning to glower o'er the distant hills of Cumnock, and to shed “its silver light on tower and tree.” In such a mood, and amid such scenes as presented themselves between Tar­bolton and Mossgiel, he composed the greater part of that famous colloquy between himself and Death, regarding the doings of Dr Hornbook, which has been read by all ranks with laughter and delight ever since, and has con­ferred on the dominie of Tarbolton a sort of ignoble immortality. Wilson, as shown by the minutes, occupied some of the principal offices of the Lodge, and, no doubt, from his self-consequence and acquirements formed one of the most conspicuous members. Some time after, in con­sequence of a dispute with the heritors of the parish regarding his salary, he left Tarbolton, and set up his staff as a teacher in Glasgow, he ultimately became session-clerk of the Gorbals, a situation of some emolument, and died at sit advanced age in 1838, but whether he frequented any of the Glasgow Lodges, or ever again paid a visit to his mother Lodge of Tarbolton, history saith not.

There is good ground for believing that Burns visited a number of the Mason Lodges then existing in the province of Ayrshire. We know that on one occasion, at least, he paid a visit to the Lodge Kilmarnock Kilwinning, presided over, at the time, by Air William Parker, one of his principal friends, and a subscriber for several copies of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems. Burns, whose muse was ever ready, composed a song for this occasion, which was, no doubt, sung in the Kilmarnock Lodge for the first time. It is entitled "The Sons of Old Killie" ­a contraction for Kilmarnock—and is as follows;

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 honoured 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 marked each element's border,

Who formed this frame with beneficent aim

Whose sovereign statute is order,

Within this dear mansion may wayward contention,

Or withered Envy ne'er enter,

May secrecy round be the mystical bound

And brotherly love be the centre.”

After Burns found that his farming speculation at Mossgiel would not be successful, and particularly after his rupture with Jean Armour, he resolved to leave Scotland altogether. He, therefore, entered into an engagement with a Dr Douglas, to act as a book-keeper on his estate in Jamaica. In these circumstances, he took farewell of the St. James's Lodge, in a lyric destined to a noble immortality. It is one of the best Masonic songs that ever was composed. Although it is well known, I cannot forbear quoting it:—

Adieu! a heart-warm fond adieu;

Dear brothers of the mystic tie!

Ye favoured, 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 shine,

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.

So touching a farewell, couched in such noble Masonic language, and recited by Burns with all the energy and pathos of his impassioned nature, could scarcely fail to make a strong impression, and it is, in fact, stated, in some editions of his works, that, by the time he got to the last stanza, the tears were rolling down the checks of many of the brethren; but, unfortunately, the records of the Lodge take no notice of the circumstance of its delivery. The brethren, most likely, did not perceive the immortality which the muse of their associate was conferring on the Lodge to which they belonged. Had they foreseen that this parting tribute of Burns's respect would be scattered in innumerable publications to the uttermost parts of the earth, and would, from age to age, be quoted anti sung in Mason Lodges with unbounded approbation, it can scarcely be doubted that they would have honoured it with a very special notice. The person referred to in the last stanza, as being entitled by his merits to wear the highest badge of Masonry, is said, by Robert Chambers, to have been Major-General James Montgomery, a younger brother of Hugh Montgomery of Coilsfield, and, at the time, Right Worshipful Master of the Lodge St. James, Tarbolton. It has been asserted by others, and with some degree of plausibility, that, the person referred to was William Wallace, Esq., Principal Sheriff of Ayrshire, Professor of Scots Law in the University of Edinburgh, and R.W. Master of the Lodge St. David, Tarbolton. This person had often met Burns in the Mason Lodges of the district, and was one of his most zealous patrons. It is well known that Burns had an enthusiastic veneration for the memory of the sheriff's illustrious namesake, "Scotland's great Patriot Hero, ill requited chief," Sir William Wallace, and that he gave vent to this veneration on several occasions, both in his poems and letters. The idea of Sheriff Wallace being the person alluded to, certainly best coincides with the explication given of the Sheriff's name:—

“Heav’n bless your honoured, noble name,

To Masonry and Scotia dear!”

The name of Montgomery might be dear to Scotland, but that of Wallace was ten times morose. The circumstance, however, which principally militates against the notion that the reference was intended to apply to the Sheriff, is, that Burns, in composing his farewell, would have in his eye the brother who held the highest office in his own Lodge, and whom he would expect to be present at the time it was first sung or recited.

One of the most, interesting episodes in the life of Burns is his attachment to Mary Campbell, or “Highland Mary," as it was to her memory that, he composed some of his most tender and inspired effusions. This maiden was born near Dunoon, in Argyleshire, and, at the time Burns became acquainted with her, she was a servant in the family of his Masonic friend, Mr Gavin Hamilton, writer, Mauchline, to whom he dedicated his poems. She is described as "a sweet, sprightly, blue-eyed creature, of a firmer modesty and self-respect than too many of the other maidens whom he addressed." Immediately after he had been deserted by his Jean, and at the time when he was seriously contemplating the idea of leaving "Auld Scotia” for a foreign shore, he turned his regards once more towards Mary, and proposed to make her his wife. Some dubiety still rests on the exact nature of the engagement into which he entered with this girl but, at all events, it is a fact that she gave up her situation at the term of Whitsunday, 1786, and went home to her father's house at Campbelton. On the second Sunday of May, a few days previous to her departure, Burns and Mary had a farewell meeting, at a sequestered spot, on the banks of the Ayr, to which he thus touchingly alludes, in his " Address to Mary in Heaven " :-

“That sacred hour can I forget

Can I forgot the hallowed grove,

Where by the winding Ayr we met.

To live one day of parting love!”

Cronick, a contemporary of Burns, and one of his biographers, states that “their adieu was performed with all the simple and striking ceremonials which rustic sentiment has devised to prolong tender emotions, and to impose awe. The lovers stood on each side of a small purling brook, they laved their hands in the limpid stream, and holding a Bible between them, pronounced their vows to be faithful to each other.” On this occasion, they exchanged love gifts. Mary’s gift was a small Bible in one volume, while that of Burns was a Bible in two volumes. On each of these volumes Burns had written his name, and a passage of Scripture calculated to keep them in remembrance of the sacred and binding nature of the vows which they had made to each other. Mary was not destined to be the bride of the Bard. She died in the end of the same year, while on a visit to a relative at Greenock; and the Bible presented to her by Burns, some time after fell into the hands of her nephew, William Anderson, mason, Renton, Dumbartonshire, who took it along with him when he left Scotland to settle in Canada. A number of the admirers of Burns, in that country, purchased the volumes from Mr. Anderson for L.25, and sent them to the Provost of Ayr, to be deposited in the monument erected to the memory of Burns on the banks of the Doon.

In that edifice they are now to be seen; and, to a Freemason; they possess additional interest on account of containing the Mason's mark of Burns, written with his own hand. The use of this mark appears to indicate that Burns had been made a Mark Mason previous to his elation to the rank of a Royal Arch Companion, and that he attached a peculiar sacredness to the inscription of his mark, regarding it, without doubt, as an additional pledge of truth and fidelity.

Burns, in the autumn of 1786, printed a collection of his poems, in order to raise a sufficient sum of money to enable him to pay his passage to Jamaica. This publication met with splendid success. The whole impression, consisting of six hundred copies, was sold in the course of a few weeks; and Ayrshire, throughout its entire bounds, rang, with the fame of Burns. This success changed the destination of the Bard. Instead of proceeding to Jamaica, as he at one time intended, he was induced to visit Edinburgh in order to publish a second edition of his poems. He paid a visit to his Mother Lodge previous to his departure. His prospects had now greatly brightened; the vengeance of the law no longer inspired him with terror; he had appealed to his countrymen, and they had given him a ready and hearty response; his reputation as a poet had been established; and instead of the extremity of poverty, he had now a very handsome sum in his pocket. According to the testimony of Brother John Lees, who was present on this occasion, and who long survived the Bard, Burns came dressed in his Sunday suit of clothes, consisting of a blue coat and buckskin breeches, and being in the highest spirits, entertained the brethren till near five o'clock next morning with the recital of his poetical effusions and his flashes of wit and merriment.

Burns arrived in Edinburgh on Tuesday, the 28th of November, 1786, and took tip his residence wits John Richmond, a law student, from Mauchline, in the house of Mrs Carfrae, Baxter's Close, Lawnmarket. Two days after his arrival, viz., on St. Andrew's Day, 30th November, the Grand Lodge of Scotland assembled in the aisle of the High Church, to elect the Office-bearers for the ensuing year, when the Hon. Francis Charteris, younger of Amisfield, was chosen to fill the dignified post of Most Worshipful' Grand Master. After the election was over, the brethren walked in procession to St. Andrew’s Church, to hear a sermon preached by the Rev. James Wright, minister of Maybole, then well known by the name of "Brotherly Love," in consequence of the publication of a sermon on that subject, which he had preached before the Lodge of Kilwinning, in the Abbey Church of that place, in 1766. As brethren from the country were invited to join in the procession, the likelihood is that Burns was present, and trod the streets of “Auld Reekie," for the first time, in the garb of it Mason. At that time, Masonry was in high repute in the Scottish metropolis. Although it did not contain one-half of the population which it does at present, it yet possessed no fewer than sixteen Lodges, all in active operation. During the winter, Mason meetings took place almost nightly, and were numerously attended. Our ancient metropolis had not then been so entirely deserted by the nobility as it now is. Many of them continued to reside in it during a part of the year, and, of course, were the life and soul of its public movements and private entertainments. Besides, Edinburgh, at that lime, was favoured and honoured by the presence of a considerable number of men distinguished for their talents and literary acquirements, as well as for their social qualities. Among the nobility and gentry then sojourning in "Edina, Scotia's darling seat," and belonging to the Masonic Order, may be mentioned, the Duke of Athole, the Earl of Balcuras, the Earl of Morton, the Earl of Buchan, Lord Napier, Lord Binning, Lord Haddo, Sir James Hunter Blair, Sir William Forbes, Lord Cringletie, the Hon. Colonel James Murray, Sir John Whitefoord of Ballochmyle, James Dalrymple of Orangefield, Thomas Hay of Hayston, J. Stewart of Allanbank, Lord Monboddo, Lord Torphichen, Lord Elcho, Mr Campbell of Shawfield, Mr Grant of Monymusk. John Clerk of Eldin, Baron Norton, &c. Among the learned who gave their countenance to the cause of Masonry, we may mention the Hon. Henry Erskine, Professor Dugald Stewart, Henry Mackenzie (the Man of feeling) ; William Creech, the bookseller, and author of Fugitive Pieces; William Smellie, the writer on Natural History ; Dr James Gregory, Professor of the Practice of Physic, and author of various works on Medicine and Philosophy; Robert Ainslie, afterwards author of Reasons for the hope that is in us, &c ; Alexander Wood, surgeon ; Louis Cauvin, teacher of French, and Founder of the Hospital at Duddingston ; William Nicol, one of the Classiest Masters of the High School; William Dunbar, W.S., colonel of a convivial club called the Crochallan Fencibles, and afterwards Inspector-General of Stamp Duties for Scotland, &e. To almost every one of these distinguished parties, Burns had the honour to be introduced; and, in most cases, all introduction to them was obtained through the medium of the Lodges in Edinburgh which Burns attended.

One of the first Edinburgh Lodges to which Burns paid a visit was the Canongate Kilwinning. His first appearance in it took place on the 7th December—that is, nine days after his arrival in Edinburgh. The Master of that Lodge, at the time, was Alexander Ferguson, Esq. of Craigdarroch advocate, and assessor of the burgh of Canongate, whom Burns celebrated, in a poetic effusion called “The Whistle”; Charles More, of the Royal Bank, was Depute-Master; William Dunbar, W.S,, Senior Warden; and John Miller, advocate, Junior Warden. The minute of that meeting states that John Cathcart, Esq., John Hepburn, Esq., Mr Burn, and Mr Jones, were entered apprentices; and Mr Jones and Lord Torphichen were passed and raised; and that the Earl of Errol, the Hon. William Gordon, afterwards the Earl of Kenmure, John Newal of Earlston, Captain Gillespie, and William Campbell of Fairfield, were initiated, or rather affiliated. On that occasion, the Lodge was visited by the Grand Lodge, and by deputations from the Lodge of Edinburgh Mary's Chapel, the Canongate and Leith, Leith and Canongate, the Journeymen Masons, St, Luke's, Ruglen Royal Arch, and the Edinburgh Royal Arch. It is stated that, at this meeting, Mr Dalrymple of Orangefleld, near Ayr, a keen Mason and a previous acquaintance of Burns, introduced him to Lord Glencairn and the Hon. Henry Erskine. Burns, that same night, after he left the Lodge, wrote his first Edinburgh letter, to his friend, Gavin Hamilton, of Mauchline, and in it he says:—"My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr H. Erskine, have taken me under their wing; and, by all probability, I shall soon be the tenth worthy and the eighth wise man of the world."—" I have met, in Mr Dalrymple of Orangefield, what Solomon emphatically calls, a friend that sticketh closer than a brother. The warmth with which he interests himself in my affairs, is of the same enthusiastic kind which you, Mr Aitken, and the few patrons that took notice of my earlier poetic days, showed for the poor unlucky devil of a poet." Mr Dunbar, the Senior Warden, and Burns, after this meeting, grow "unco pack and thick the gither." Dunbar was a remarkably mirthful, social, .and generous individual, and hence Burns calls him "Rattlin'. roarin' Willie," and holds him up as " one of the worthiest fellows in the world." He presented Burns with a copy of the works of the poet Spencer; and the Bard thus acknowledged the gift:—" I have not met with a man in Edinburgh to whom I would so willingly have been indebted for the gift."—" The time is approaching when I shall return to my shades; and I am afraid my numerous Edinburgh friendships are of so tender a construction, that they will not bear carriage with me. Yours is one of the few that I could wish of a more robust constitution. It is, indeed, very probable that, when I leave this city, we part never more to meet in this sublunary sphere; but I have a .strong fancy that, in some future eccentric planet, the comet of happier systems than any with which astronomy is yet acquainted, you and I, among the harum-scarum sons of imagination and whim, with a hearty shake of the hand. a metaphor, and a laugh, shall recognise old acquaintance –

“Where wit may sparkle all its rays,

Uncurs'd with cautious fears;

That pleasure, basking in the blaze,

Rejoice for endless years.”

It was the practice of the Grand Master at that time to pay a visit once a year to the different Edinburgh Lodges in succession. The Most Worshipful Grand Master, Charteris, paid a visit to the Lodge St. Andrew, on the 12th January, a 1787. Burns also attended, and was specially taken notice of. The minute of that meeting, written by the Grand Secretary, is as follows :— “Edin., 12th Jan., 1787.—This evening, the Lodge being duly constituted by the Right Worshipful Master—thereafter the Most Worshipful Francis Charteris, Junior, of Amisfield, Grand Master Mason of Scotland—the Right. Worshipful Fletcher Norton, Depute Master, p.t.; the Right Worshipful Thomas Hay, Substitute Grand Master James Home and Adam Gillies, Grand Wardens, p.t.; William Mason, Grand Secretary; and Robert Meikle, Grand Clerk, preceded by the Lodge of Grand Stewards, in their proper clothing, were placed to favour this Lodge with a visit, when he was received with that respect due to the dignity of his high office and distinguished rank; and, having taken the chair; delivered a suitable charge to the brethren, which was received with the highest tokens of applause and approbation. The Lodge, on this occasion, was visited by brethren from the following Lodges, viz, ;- Canongate and Leith, Leith and Canongate, St. James, Ruglen Royal Arch, and St. Stephen, Edinburgh ; to all of whom the proper compliments were paid, and due returns made.” Burns, next day, put on record the following remarks in regard to this meeting, in a letter to his Masonic friend, Mr John Ballantine, of Ayr: ;-

"I went to a Mason Lodge yesternight, where the Most Worshipful Grand Master, Charteris, and all the Grand Lodge of Scotland, visited. The meeting was numerous and elegant; the different Lodges about town were present in all their pomp. The Grand Master, who presided, with great solemnity and honour to himself, as a gentleman and a Mason, among other general toasts, gave ' Caledonia, and Caledonia's Bard, Brother Burns,' which rang through the whole assembly with multiplied honours and repeated acclamations. As I had no idea such a thing would happen, I was downright thunderstruck, and, trembling in every nerve, made the best return in my power. Just as I had finished, one of the Grand Officers said, so loud that I could hear, with a most comforting accent, ' Very well, indeed,' which set me something to rights again."

At a meeting of the Canongate Kilwinning, on the 1st of February, Burns was present; and, on this occasion, twelve gentlemen were entered apprentices, and Colonel Dalrymple of Inveresk, Captain Maitland of Marchfield, and J. Hammond, Esq., were affiliated. The R.W. Master, Alex. Ferguson, Esq. of Craigdarroch, as we are informed by the minute of the meeting, in the course of the evening, said that he observed Brother Robert Burns present, and as he was wall known for his poetic talents, and for a publication of his works which had been universally commended, he begged to propose that he should be assumed a brother of the Lodge. This proposal was at once unanimously agreed to, and he was assumed accordingly.

On the 1st of March there was a full muster of the brethren of the Canongate Kilwinning. The object, in the first place, was to transmit a letter of congratulation to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who had been initiated into the mysteries of Masonry at the Star and Garter, London, on the 6th of February preceding; and, in the second place, to confer a mark of respect on Burns. The R.W. Master, therefore, bestowed on Burns the title of Poet-Laureate of the Lodge, a title of which he was not a little proud. As is well known, an admirable picture, representing the inauguration of Burns as the Poet-Laureate of the Canongate Lodge was painted, some twelve or fourteen years ago, by Mr Stewart Watson, at present the much esteemed secretary of that Lodge. The engraving of this picture has made the scene which it represents familiar to almost every Scottish Mason. Burns, in Masonic costume, and with his right hand placed on his left breast, is seen ascending the three steps in front, of the master chair, to receive the wreathe of laurel which the Master is about to place on his brow. Around the Lodge, either seated or standing, are all the most distinguished Masons with whom Burns came in contact while in Edinburgh. The value of the picture is vastly enhanced by the circumstance that nearly all the characters introduced are correct portraits.

The second edition of Burns’s Poems was at length issued from the publishing shop of Mr Creech, in the Lunckenbooths and having now spent five months in Edinburgh, he set out on a tour to the south of Scotland, accompanied by Mr Robert Ainslie, a young lawyer, and a member of St. Luke's Lodge, of this city. Burns and he had been introduced to each other at a Mason's meeting, and an intimacy springing up between them, they were in the habit, of taking walks in the neighbourhood of the city, and joining together in the same amusements and intellectual exercises. They started on their tour on the 6th of May, 1787, and visited a number of the most interesting spots, as well as the most distinguished gentlemen in that part of the country. On Friday, the 18th of that month, they arrived at Eyemouth, a small village and harbour on the coast of the German Ocean, and took up their abode in the house of Brother William Grieve, who was, Burns tells us, was a joyous, warm-hearted, jolly, clever fellow," and who had some charming, sisters, one of whom, the Bard admits, made an impression on his heart. A Mason's Lodge had existed in this place for many years previous. It was, and still is, called St. Abb, after the saint who gives her name to a well-known promontory in the neighbourhood. It appears that a Royal Arch Encampment existed in connection with 'this Lodge, and that their host, Mr. Grieve, was one of its most active members. It was, no doubt, through his influence, that a meeting of it Hens called next day, and that there Burns and Ainslie were medic Royal Arch Masons. The following is a copy of the minute, entered in the books of the encampment on this memorable occasion:

“Eyemouth, 19th 'May, 1787.

At a general encampment held this day, the following brethren were made Royal Arch Masons. namely:—Robert Burns, from the Lodge St. James, Tarbolton, Ayrshire; and Robert Ainslie, from the Lodge of St. Luke, Edinburgh, by James Carmichael, William Grieve, Daniel Dow, John Clay, Robert Grieve, &c., &c. Robert Ainslie paid one. guinea admission dues; but, on account of Robert Burns’s remarkable poetical genius, the encampment unanimously agreed to admit him gratis, and considered themselves honoured by having a man of such shining abilities for one of their companions."

This Act, so well recorded, reflects infinite credit on the brethren who composed the encampment at Eyemouth.

After the return of Burns to Edinburgh, in the month of June, he was present at the annual election of office bearers of the Canongate Kilwinning, on the 26th of that month. On this occasion, Lord Torphichen was chosen Master; William Dunbar, Depute Master; Mr. Lindsay Carnegy, one of the Wardens; while Mr Cutler Ferguson, younger of Craigdarroch, and Mr Frizzle, of the Isle of Man, were admitted as members. He set out on a tour to the Highlands in the autumn of 1787, accompanied by his friend and brother Mason, William Nicol, one of the teachers of the High School, and a member of St. Peter's Lodge, Montrose. During his progress, he was entertained at the seats of several of the nobility, and greatly enjoyed the wild and romantic scenes with which that part of the country abounds. On his return to Edinburgh, he was present at many meetings of the Masonic craft during the winter. When he attended the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, he was always recognised as it’s Poet-Laureate, and usually sat near the well between the dais and the organ recess, where a full-length portrait of him is now placed.   

When spring arrived, he began to be seriously impressed with the propriety of taking leave of the Scottish capital. He “had sheltered in its honoured shade” for the greater part of fifteen months, and, during that period, he had been feasted, caressed, and applauded, in a way sufficient, to turn the head of any ordinary man. In the coteries of the learned, in the halls of the great, and the haunts of the jovial, he had been the chief object of attraction and admiration. Like a brilliant meteor, be had dazzled and charmed every circle into which he had been admitted ; but all the fascinations of Edinburgh society must now be left, and the serious business of life once more entered on. He squared up accounts with his bookseller, Creech, and found himself enriched to the extent of L.500. One of his first appropriations of this money was worthy of a man indoctrinated with the principles of Freemasonry. He advanced L.200 to his brother Gilbert, who continual to struggle in the farm of Mossgiel, avid to give shelter and subsistence to his mother and the younger Members of the family. He had been bred to the plough, as he himself said to the gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt, and was independent—but he still required an appropriate field on which to exercise his industry and skill. This he soon found, from a Masonic brother, Patrick Millar, Esq., of Dalswinton, a gentleman of some wealth, and no mean mechanical ingenuity—being the first person that ever made a successful attempt to propel vessels by steam. When Burns came to Edinburgh, Mr Millar had his residence in Nicolson Square, of this city, and was in the habit of attending the meetings of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge. He met Burns in that, Lodge in December, 1786, and feeling sympathy and admiration for the Bard, he invited him to an entertainment in his house, and also sent him L.10 anonymously, by the hands of a Mr Sibbald, but Burris soon after discovered the generous donor. When the Bard was about to leave Edinburgh, Millar came generously forward and offered to give him a lease of a farm on his estate of Dalswinton, almost on his own terms; and, accordingly, after .a careful inspection of that estate, in company with Mr John Tennant, Glenconner, a skilful agriculturist, he fixed on the farm of Ellisland, beautifully situated on the banks of the Nith, about six miles from Dumfries. Burns had a lively and painful recollection of the misery which his parents had endured in their hard struggles with bad crops and a high-rented farm, as well as of the failure of his own agricultural undertaking at Mossgiel. He was anxious, therefore, to have some employment, on which he could fall back, provided his farming operations at Ellisland should prove unprofitable ; and his thoughts were directed to the Excise. His wishes, in this respect, became known to Mr Alexander Wood, surgeon, who, in consequence of his great stature, was commonly known by the soubriquet of "Lang Sandy Wood," and who had been in the habit of meeting Burns in the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, of which he was a member. This generous-hearted brother consequently brought Burns under the notice of the Commissioners of Excise, and succeeded in getting him placed on the roll as an expectant officer.

Burns left Edinburgh on the 24th of March, 1788, and proceeded, by Glasgow, to Ayrshire. In the end of that month, orders were issued from the Excise Office in Edinburgh, to Mr James Finlay, officer, Tarbolton, to instruct the Poet " in the art of gauging “; and, as he wished to take possession of his farm at the Whitsunday ensuing, he lost no time in acquiring the knowledge necessary to qualify him for acting as an Excise Officer. The obstacles to his union with Jean Armour being now removed, he acknowledged her as his wife, and took her under his protection. It was not till the 13th of June that he took up his abode at Ellisland. He was here placed in a very lonesome and uncomfortable condition. The houses on tine farm had fallen into ruin, and required to be instantly rebuilt, and he was thus forced to reside in a wretched erection, to which he was unable to bring his wife, and in which he was annoyed with cold and smoke, and the cares consequent, on the new circumstances in which he was placed. He states, in his letters at the tithe, and particularly in a poetical epistle which he sent to his Masonic friend, Mr Hugh Parker, of Kilmarnock, that he was very unhappy, and that he had not the pleasure of looking on a single " kenn'd face," except that of his old mare “Jenny Geddes,” and he describes her as being also in a very melancholy state—

Dowie she saunters down Nithside,

And aye a westlin leuk she throws,

While tears hap o'er her auld brown nose!

Amid all his griefs and cares, he found sons consolation in, anticipating the pleasures which he would enjoy at meeting with his Masonic brethren, it Tarbolton, on Stammer St. John's Day.

Tarbolton, twenty-fourth o' June,

Ye'll find me in a better tune.

Burns, after his settlement at Ellisland, and particularly after his appointment to an office in connection with the Excise, the duties of which often led him front home, no doubt, found occasional opportunities to attend some of the Mason Lodges in that part of the country. We know that he was present at the annual meeting of the Lodge St. Andrew, Dumfries, on the 27th December, 1788, The minute of that meeting states, that " the brethren having celebrated the anniversary of St. John, in the usual manner, and brother Robert Burns, in Ellisland, of St. David's Strabolton Lodge, No. 178, being present, the Lodge unanimously assumed him a member of the Lodge, being a Master Mason, and he subscribed the regulations as a member." This minute is signed by Simon Mackenzie; but the writer of it had evidently an imperfect knowledge of the antecedents of Burns as a Mason. He certainly was initiated in the Lodge St. David, but the number of this Lodge is 174. He had, as I have already stated, along with a number of the members, broken off from that Lodge, and formed the Lodge St. James, the number of which was 178, and to this Lodge he properly belonged at the time of his affiliation into the Lodge St. Andrew, Dumfries. It is not unlikely that he stated on this occasion that he was made in the Lodge St. David, and this, of course, might lead to the mistake of the Dumfries secretary.

Burns left Ellisland in the end of 1791, and took up his residence in Dumfries. No record exists, so far as I am aware, of his Masonic career during the last five years of his life, which were spent in that town. From his pre-eminently social character, and his warm attachment, to Masonry, we may rationally infer that he was no infrequent visitor in the Lodges of the “Queen of the South." At that period, Dumfries did not contain more than 8000 inhabitants, and yet it had no fewer than five Mason Lodges, viz., Dumfries Kilwinning, No. 53 Thistle, No. 62; St. Michael, No. 63 Operative, No. 140 and St. Andrew, No. 179. It is obvious that Masonry, in Dumfries, at that time, was cultivated to no inconsiderable extent, and that a large portion of the adult male inhabitants was enrolled in its ranks. Surrounded, as Burns was, by so many Masonic brethren, and appreciated and welcomed as he must have been, he could hardly avoid being drawn to the Dumfries Lodges, to assist in the work of initiation, or to participate in the festive cheer that at times would prevail.

Besides the Masonic incidents in the life of Burns to which I have already referred, there are many passages in his works which were evidently inspired by his acquaintance with Masonry. I do not think that any man, except a Mason, would have written the song:—" A man's a man for a' that," which breeches the spirit of Freemasonry of worldly rank, and exalting the sense and worth of the poor but honest man, he winds up this noble lyric with an anticipation of a coming time, when –

“– man to man, the world o'er,

Shall brothers be for at that."

In his first epistle to Lapraik, dated 1st April, 1785, we find the following truly Masonic viz.:

But ye whom social pleasure charms

Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms,

Who hold your being on the terms,

"Each aid the others,"

Come to my bowl, come to my arms,

My friends, my brothers!

I may mention that the above stanza was engraved, many year ago, by a Freemason, still well known in Edinburgh, ,Mr. Hector Gavin, on the silver rim of the punch bowl, of Inverary marble, which Burns received from his father-in-law, Mr Armour, as a nuptial gift. At the time at which the stanza was engraved, the bowl was in possession of one of Burns's Edinburgh acquaintance, viz., Mr Alexander Cunningham, jeweller, who received it from Gilbert, the Poet’s brother. After the death of Mr Cunningham, the bowl passed through various hands, and, at length, became the property of the late Mr. Alexander Hastie, M.P. for Paisley, who bequeathed it to the British Museum, where it is, no doubt, in a great measure, lost among the endless multiplicity of objects with which that great repository is stored. It would have been more appropriately placed, and certainly would have attracted more attention, had it been deposited in the monument on the banks of the Doon, which is annually visited by thousands of the admirers of the Poet.

In the conclusion of his dedication to his patron and brother Mason, Gavin Hamilton, he gives expression to some noble 'Masonic sentiments. He declares his determination to remain steadfast, in his friendship, whatever calamities may befall his patron, and however much he might he reduced in circumstances –

“If, in the vale of humble life,

The victim sad of Fortune's strife,

I, thro' the tender gushing tear,

Should recognise my master dear

If friendless, low, we meet together,

Then, Sir, your hand,—my friend and brother."

Burns having some acquaintance with mathematics, Was no doubt led, in his study of Masonry, to pay special attention to the mathematical emblem in the Master's degree, generally known as the famous proposition of Pythagoras, and forming the 47th of the first book of Euclid, viz.:-"In any right-angled triangle, the square which is described upon the side substending the right angle, is equal to the squares described on the sides which contain the right angle. “The truths contained in this. Theorem, we would naturally suppose, were very unlikely to furnish apt, matter for all illustration in a poetical composition, and yet Burns introduces them with happy effect, in his poem, entitled “Caledonia" After referring to the successful contendings of Caledonia with the Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, and the English, he winds up with this patriotic stanza:—

Thus bold, independent, unconquer'd, and free,

Her bright course of glory for ever shall run:

For brave Caledonia immortal must be;

I'll prove it from Euclid as clear as the sun:

Rectangle-triangle, the figure we'll chuse:

The upright is Chance, and old Time is the base;

But brave Caledonia's the hypothenuse;

Then, ergo, she'll match them, and match them always.

A notion, engendered in the times of ignorance and superstition, long prevailed that. Masons were in the habit, at their meetings, of raising up his Satanic Majesty, in order to prove the fortitude of aspirants to the light and privileges of the Masonic Order. Burns, therefore, in his "Address to the Deil," when narrating the various terrific and mischievous manifestations of that dread personage, is naturally led to contemplate the prevalent idea, of his appearing in bodily shape among the Masonic brethren, and there playing off some of his most, frightful and malicious cantrips; and consequently, with affected seriousness, he penned the following amusing stanza, viz :—

“When masons' mystic word an' grip

In storms an' tempests raise you up,

Some cock or cat your rage maun stop,

Or, strange to tell!

The youngest brither ye wad whip

Aff straught to hell.”

One of Burns's acquaintance, at Kilmarnock, was Mr Thomas Samson, nursery and seedsman, a keen Freemason, curler, and sportsman. Burns states that Samson, on going out one season to enjoy the sport of fowling, entertained the idea that it would be "the last of his fields," and expressed a wish that he would die and be buried in the muirs. The Poet, therefore, on this hint, composed his elegy; and, at the very commencement, refers, of course, by anticipation, to the heavy loss which the brethren of the Kilmarnock Lodge had sustained by the death of this very worthy member, and the grief which so sad an event would occasion:—

“The Brethren, o' the mystic level

May hing their head in woefu' bevel,

While by their nose the tears will revel,

Like ony bead;

Death's gien the Lodge an unco devel;

Tam Samson's dead!"

"Tam Samson's Elegy" seems to have been composed in 1786; but Samson did not die till 1795, that is, nine years afterwards, so that it is likely he paid not a few visits to the Lodge after the time that Burns find contemplated the idea of his leaving the Masonic brethren and joining the general assembly of the glorified spirits in the celestial mansions. A plain slab, at the west end of the church of Kilmarnock, marks the spot where repose the ashes of this social and worthy man, and contains the epitaph of Burns:—

“Tam Samson's weel-worn clay here lies

Ye canting zealots, spare him!

If honest worth in Heaven rise,

Ye'll mend or ye win near him.”

In the days of Burns, the festivities of the tavern were not accounted a crime. Men of all ranks were in the habit of frequenting the haunts of sociality, and cementing their friendships and giving a discharge to their griefs and cares over a can of reaming liquor, or a bowl of inspiring punch. Nay, a man was not held up to odium and ridicule should he even venture to enlarge on the virtues of John Barleycorn. Burns considered that he committed no impropriety in eulogising the influences of a hearty carousal, and consequently, among other effusions in praise of drink, composed a song art the sovereign effects of a big-bellied bottle, which appears to have been sung occasionally in Mason Lodges, for we find that he added the following stanza at a meeting of Masons :—

“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.”

A reference to this song naturally leads to the inquiry —Was Burns rendered an intemperate man in consequence of his connection with Freemasonry? His brother, Gilbert, says that his becoming a Freemason “was his first introduction to the life of a boon companion." Now this is in direct opposition to what he himself states, in reference to this matter. He says that when he was attending the school of Hugh Rodger, at Kirkoswald, for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of mensuration, surveying, dialling, &c., which was four years previous to his initiation as a Mason, he "learned to fill his glass and to mix without fear in a drunken squabble." We have no reason to believe that the humble members of the Tarbolton Lodge indulged in excessive potations at their meetings. They certainly were not total abstainers. They had no objection to take a swatch of Manson's barrels, and to spend "the cheerful, festive night"; but there is no evidence to show that they systematically violated the principles of Masonry by art intemperate indulgence in the use, of spirituous liquors. Burns, all the time that he lived in the neighbourhood of Tarbolton, is not known to have been more addicted to drinking them his rustic compeers. His brother, Gilbert, expressly states that he was a most sober individual, and that he was never once seen intoxicated till the celebrity he acquired as a poet, caused him to be much sought after as an agreeable companion and a, man of mark. Burns himself, no doubt, says that he was :—

“Whiles daizt wi' love, whiles daizt wi' drink,

Wi' jads or masons”

But this seems to be example more than another example of that. poetic license, which he employed in his "Earnest Cry and Prayer," where he proposes to drink the health of the statesman, Pitt, nine times a week, in Nanse Tinnock's hostelry, in Mauchline, in which, he-says, he was sometimes in the habit of studying politics over a glass of guid auld Scotch drink. Now, Nanse declared, to her dying day, that the chiel Burns had, in this matter, spoken in it most regardless manner as, to the best of her knowledge, he had never drunk three half-mutchkins in her house during the whole course of his life. After he came to Edinburgh, he was much taken out by all classes, as well as by Masons and yet his friend, John Richmond, the law student, with whom he lodged for some time after his arrival, was in the habit of stating that he kept seasonable hours, and went soberly to bed, where he would prevail upon his companion, by little bribes, to read to him till he fell asleep. It is not, then, to Freemasonry; it is not to the moderate festivities of the Mason's Lodge; it is not to the example of his Ayrshire brethren, that we ought, to ascribe any deviation from the paths of sobriety of this noble and exalted genius ; but to the scenes of dissipation into which he was afterwards led by the wits and choice spirits of Edinburgh, to the unsettled and irregular life into which he was driven by his profession, as an Exciseman and to the killing kindness of friends and strangers after he settled at Dumfries, who could see no other way of honouring the Bard, enjoying his society, and gratifying their curiosity, than by alluring him into the tavern, and urging him on to debasing excesses, and the prostration of his gifted intellect.

This last view, I find, is also taken by Carlyle. In his critique of Burns, he says :—" picturesque tourists, all manner of fashionable danglers after literature, and, far worse, all sorts of convivial 'Maecenases", hovered around him in his retreat; and his good, as well as his weak, qualities secured them influence over him. He was flattered by their notice, and his warm social nature made it impossible for him to shake them off, and hold on his way apart from them. These men, as we believe, were proximately the cause of his ruin. Not that they meant him any ill ; they only meant themselves a little good ; if he suffered harm, let him look to it. But, they wasted his precious time and his precious talents; they disturbed his composure, and broke down his returning habits of temperance and assiduous contented exertion." I have no wish to palliate the intemperance of Burns, but certainly the accounts of his conduct, in this respect, appears, in many cases, to be vastly exaggerated. He does not seem to have been a. miserable solitary tippler; but, at the very worst, to have occasionally forgotten himself, and gone to undue lengths in the enjoyments of the tavern, only when surrounded by jovial and applauding companions. A man, who, till he went to Edinburgh, never had a higher wage than seven pounds a year who, in the latter part of his life, maintained himself and his family on an annual income never exceeding seventy pounds; who discharged all the duties of his profession with diligence and credit; who personally attended to the education of his children; who carried on an extensive epistolary correspondence; who wrote a great number of the most pure and exquisite lyrics ever given to the world ; and who, after all, left this world without owing almost any one a single penny, could hardly, by any possibility, be a habitual and confirmed drunkard. The generous vindication of his character, given by the Rev. James Gray, of Dumfries, and Mr Findlater, supervisor of Excise, both of whom knew him intimately, ought for ever to silence the base calumniators, who strive to blacken his reputation in respect to intemperance, and who are bold enough to ascribe to Freemasonry the excesses in which he was found, occasionally, in his last years, to indulge.

Burns, beyond question, derived considerable advantages from Masonry. It is evident from the statements which he has placed on record, that it contributed greatly to his happiness in admitting him into close and intimate fellowship with the wise, intelligent, and social, and furnishing him with opportunities for enjoying the "feast of reason and the flow of soul" in the most rational and ennobling manner. It presented him, also, with one of the best fields that he could find for the improvement of his mind and the display of his talents. In no other society are all the members treated with so much indulgence, and placed on a footing of so much equality. In the Mason's Lodge, merit and worth are sure to be appreciated, and to meet with approbation and respect. When the young and humble ploughman of Lochlea joined the Lodge of Tarbolton, he was still in a great measure unnoticed and unknown ; but no sooner did he receive the stamp of Freemasonry, than he took his place with Sir John Whitefoord of Ballochmyl ; James Dalrymple of Orangefield; Sheriff Wallace of Ayr; Gavin Hamilton, writer, Mauchline; John Ballantine, Provost of Ayr; professor Dugald Stewart, of Catrine; Dr John Mackenzie of Mauchline; William Parker, of Kilmarnock and a whole host, of Ayrshire worthies, high and low. By coming in contact with these men, his manners were refined, his intellectual energies stimulated, and his merits acknowledged and applauded. Nay, Wood, the tailor; Manson, the publican; Wilson, the schoolmaster; Humphrey, the " noisy polemic and all the meaner brethren, seem very soon to have discovered his high intellectual qualities, for they were not long in raising him to the second highest office in the Lodge—an office that caused him, on ordinary occasions, to occupy the master's chair, and perform the work of initiation. In the school of the Lodge, he must, in a great measure, have acquired that coolness of demeanour, that dignity of deportment, that fluency and propriety of expression, and that acquaintance with philosophy and humanity, which so astounded and electrified the sages and nobles of Edinburgh, and made his advent in that capital one of the most remarkable incidents in literary history. Instead of a clownish, bashful, ignorant rustic, the most learned and exalted citizens found that he was able and ready to take his place by their side; and that, in everything in which intellect was concerned, he was in some respects their equal, and in others greatly their superior.

Burns was principally indebted to Freemasonry for any little gleam of prosperity that shone on his earthly pilgrimage. It was the Freemasons of Ayrshire who invited him to their tables; who furnished him with advice; who read his productions into fame; and purchased and circulated the Kilmarnock edition of his poems. It was by the advice of his brother Mason, John Ballantine, of Ayr, to whom he inscribed his poem, entitled "The Brigs of Ayr," that he repaired to Edinburgh, and not, as is generally said, by the letter of Dr Blacklock to the Rev. George Lawrie of Loudon, which says not one word of his coming to Edinburgh; but merely suggests the desirableness of publishing a second edition of his poems. His brother, Gilbert, expressly states that, when Mr Ballantine heard that the Poet was prevented from publishing a second edition, from the want of money to pay for the paper, he "generously offered to accommodate Robert with what money he might need for this purpose (L.27); but advised him to go to Edinburgh as the fittest place for publishing." When Burns, acting on this advice, set out for Edinburgh, he bad not, is he himself states, a single letter of introduction in his pocket, and we would be quite at a loss to know how be was able to form so sudden an acquaintance with the nobility and literati of the Scottish capital, were we not assured, on good authority, that he owed this, in a great measure, to his appearance among the Masonic brethren. It was they who introduced him into the best circles of society who put money in his purse to supply his wants; who procured subscribers for the new edition of his poems; who formed his companions in his tours; who were his chief epistolary correspondents; who gave him accommodation in their houses; who obtained his appointment in the Excise; and who, last of all, put him in possession of a farm—the chief object of his desire. As Masons, we are proud that Robert Burns was enrolled in the ranks of our Order, and while we should strive to avoid the “thoughtless follies that laid him low and stained his name," we should, at the same time, endeavour to imitate his ardent zeal, his open and generous disposition, and his manly and lofty independence.

WILLIAM HUNTER.

(From a rare pamphlet, of date 1858. Mr. Hunter was R.W.M of Lodge Journeymen Masons, Edinburgh, No. 8)

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

 BURNS AS A MASON. BY WILLIAM HUNTER (sourced from The Burns Chronicle – Issue 16 - 1917, pages – 27-62)

This Article was extracted and transcribed in this format by Bro. J. Stewart Donaldson, Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning 2019.

 

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