Burns and Freemasonry

With Special Reference to the St.James, Tarbolton, Lodge.

by Rev J.C. Higgins. AM. BD



Shortly before he repaired to Irvine on his flax-dressing scheme, the Poet was entered, 4th July 1781, an apprentice Mason of the St. David's, Tarbolton, Lodge. On 1st October 1781, he travelled from Irvine to Tarbolton (twelve miles) to be passed, and raised to full masonic brotherhood. Formerly, there were in Tarbolton two lodges—the St. David's, 174, and the St. James's, 178; but these had united, as the St. David's, in June 1781. A year afterwards, however, this union was departed from, through Burns and others seceding, and reconstituting the St, James's Lodge, whose original charter had been granted by the ancient mother Kilwinning Lodge. It is in connection with the reorganised St. James's that the Poet appears most prominently as a Mason. What keen and regular interest Burns manifested in the meetings and affairs of the brotherhood is abundantly manifest from the St. James's minute-book—a volume which the lodge has carefully preserved, and which it values highly, as containing a record of its history, and, most of all, for the fact that the book holds three minutes entirely in the Bard's own handwriting, and about as many as thirty minutes signed by him as Master-Depute.

The rules of the lodge are interesting reading. One is as follows:—

" Whereas a lodge always means a company of men, worthy and circumspect, gathered together in order to promote charity, friendship, civility, and good neighbourhood ; it is enacted that no member of this lodge shall speak slightingly, detractingly, or calumniously of any of his brethren behind their backs, so as to damage them in their professions or reputations, without any certain grounds ; " and any member committing such an offence must humble himself by asking " on his knees the pardon of such person or persons as his folly or malice hath aggrieved." Obstinate refusal to comply with the finding of the brethren assembled shall be met by expulsion "from the lodge, with every mark of ignominy and disgrace that is consistent with justice and Freemasonry."

Other regulations, dealing with such offences as the breaking of dramglasses, attending the lodge in a state of intoxication, and so on, are very suggestive of the largely convivial nature of the meetings.

Besides this unique and precious minute-book, the Tarbolton St. James's Lodge possesses various interesting relics of Brother Robert Burns, amongst which we notice the chair and footstool, and the miniature Mason's mallet, so often used by the Poet when presiding over the lodge ; the silver badge referred to in his " Farewell to the Brethren of St. James's Lodge, Tarbolton;"[1] the lodge Bible, dated 1775, and referred to in the minutes as "a new Bible, per Brother Burns, 13s.; " and (carefully framed) his letter from Edinburgh, 23rd August 1787, on the business of the lodge:—

Men and Brethren,—1 am truly sorry it is not in my power to be at your quarterly meeting. If I must be absent in body, believe me I shall be present in spirit. I suppose those who owe us moneys, by bill or otherwise, will appear —I mean those we summoned. If you please, I wish you would delay prosecuting defaulters till I come home. The Court is up, and I will be home before it sits down. In the meantime, to take a note of who appear and who do not, of our faulty debtors, will be right in my opinion; and those who confess debt and crave days, I think we should spare them. Farew'ell!


Within your dear mansions may wayward Contention,

And withered Envy ne'er enter;

May Secrecy round be the mystical bound,

And Brotherly Love be the centre.


Robert Burns.

On penning for the Kilmarnock Standard a series of four articles, June 1890, dealing with the Poet's connexion with the Tarbolton Freemasons, Mr. Peter Watson, Annbank, Tarbolton, was at pains to have some photographs taken of several pages of the St. James's minute-book, on which the signature and handwriting of Burns appear, as also those of Gilbert Burns, and John Wilson (the Dr. Hornbook of the famous satire).

Of these photographs we give the following impressions. The following shows two signatures with the "Burness" spelling, the body of the minutes being in the handwriting of John Wilson (Dr. Hornbook) the secretary of the lodge:


The following contains a full minute, written and signed by Gilbert Burns; also a full minute, written and signed by Robert Burns; also Burns's signature to another minute :—

The following contains the signature of the Poet, with his Mason's mark (nine points) ; also the signature of John Wilson (Dr. Hornhook) ;—

The following contains the caligraphy of John "Wilson (Dr. Hornbook), the secretary of the lodge, and a full minute, written and signed by Burns:—


With the courteous permission of Mr. Watson, we append the following explanatory remarks:—

Burns must have been the life and soul of the St. James's Lodge in more ways than one. The minutes show that there were more meetings when he was an office-bearer than at any other period. Though Burns is known to have been a member from the end of 1781, it is not till 27th July 1784 that we have the record of his appointment to a position of influence in the lodge. The Deputy Mastership was then conferred upon him—a position that carried with it the active duties of the Grand Master, who was not very frequently present at the meetings. All assemblies at which the Master was not present were under the presidency of the Deputy Master, and it is in this capacity that Burns has signed so many of the minutes. There are three short minutes written in full by the Poet. The first is dated " Tarbolton, 1st September 1784," but is unsigned, a circumstance not uncommon amongst the records of that time. This minute bears marks of literary conceit at any rate, the antithesis being worthy of note. It is almost ludicrous to find the world-famed Poet writing this—

"This night the lodge met, and ordered four pounds of candles and one quire of eightpence paper for the use of the lodge, which money was laid out by the treasurer, and the candles and paper laid in accordingly."

The other minutes, written fully in the Poet's hand, are as follows:—

"Tarbolton, 23rd June 1786.—This night the lodge met, and Robert Andrew, a brother of St. David's, Tarbolton, was admitted by unanimous vote, gratis; likewise James Good, having been duly recommended, was entered an apprentice.

R. Burns, D.M."

“Tarbolton, 18th August [no year, but, from the dates immediately before and after, sure to be 1786].—This night the lodge met, and James Tennant, from Ochiltree, having been recommended, was admitted accordingly.

RoBT. Burns, D.M.

It is a curious coincidence that two of the three minutes written in full by Robert Burns are near to the one written in the hand of Gilbert Burns, the three being in view at the one opening of the book. Burns, who, whether living at Lochlea or Mossgiel, must have had several miles to walk in order to attend the meetings of the lodge, was most attentive to his duties. The first minute which he signed as Depute Master is dated 29th June 1785, and the last to which his name is adhibited is dated 23rd May 1788; but this does not mark his final departure from the lodge, as Dr. Robert Chambers erroneously states in his Land of Burns. On 21st October 1788, and again on 11th November of the same year, the minutes record that Brother Robert Burns was in the chair, though his signature is not attached. Both of these meetings took place at Mauchline, and they must have been held during a flying visit from Ellisland, as Burns settled there on 12th June 1788, a letter of his, dated 13th June, stating that "this is the second day " he had been on his farm in Dumfriesshire. Between the first and the last signature, Burns has in all signed his name twenty-nine times, and on one occasion he has his initials placed to a postscript; but one of the signatures has been cut out by some unscrupulous admirer. The theft occurs in the second last minute that was signed by the Poet, the signature being that of the main part of the minute — the minute having been divided into three. Burns has signed a “P.S." to the same minute, and also an addition to this “P.S.," connected by the words "also at same time," and to the last of these hangs a tale. The gentleman in Tarbolton who had charge of the minute-book was at one time showing it to a visitor, but, being called away for a moment to attend a sick daughter in another room, the visitor and the book were left unwatched. After the visitor departed, the gentleman was asked by his daughter to look the book, as she was afraid something would be found wrong. Whilst her father was with her, she heard either a knife or a pair of scissors at work, and she was right in the surmise that one of the minutes had been tampered with. On discovering this, the visitor was communicated with, and ordered to return the stolen property or suffer the consequences, and the cutting was returned. The stolen part is now neatly pasted in its original place, and, being on the opposite page from the blank left by the cut out signature, eloquent testimony is borne to the rapacity of collectors, and the value placed upon relics of our national bard. Strange as the omission may appear, there is no mention in the minutes of the Poet's demission of office, nor of his leaving the district, even though Burns himself looked so favourably on the position he held amongst the Tarbolton Masons as to address a poem to them as his farewell. This was in 1786, when he seriously contemplated emigrating to the West Indies. It is curious also to note the manner in which Burns signs his name; in this there is great variety. In regard to the spelling, he continues the " Burness" up till 1st March 1786 — the first under the more familiar " Burns" being of date 25th May of the same year. Whilst Burns signs "Burness " so long, it is noteworthy that the references to him in the text of the minutes are always spelt " Burns," unless on one occasion, when the name had first been spelt " Burns," but afterwards altered to "Burness," probably by the Poet himself, or at least by his instructions, as his name appears at the foot of this minute as "Burness." In regard to the Christian name, it appears once before Burness as “Robert," and thirteen times it precedes the same spelling as "Robt." Before the later spelling of "Burns” we have it once only in full as "Robert," a single time as "R.," and eleven times as "Robt."—this latter having, it is thus seen, the greatest favour with the Poet. Amongst a long list of signatures of members, many of them having their Mason's marks attached, we find Burns signing himself in full, " Robert Burns," and adding his masonic mark of nine points in the same line. This signature has less resemblance to the familiar and undoubtedly genuine form than any of the others, but there is no date to it, and it is just possible that the conditions under which he signed were what the lodge might term “unfortunate."

Burns's younger brother, Gilbert, was entered, passed, and raised as a brother on 1st March 1786 (the last date on which the Poet signed Burness), and must, for a time at least, have taken an active part in the affairs of the lodge. We find Gilbert signing the minutes on five separate occasions between 11th December 1786, and 21st December 1787, one of these, as already said, being written by him in full. The last references to either of the brothers occur on 18th November and 20th November 1788, on which dates the text of the minutes states that Brother Gilbert Burns occupied the chair. These last-named meetings were held in Mauchline, and form the closing testimony to the warm interest maintained for six or seven years by Robert, and the shorter period by Gilbert, in the affairs of St. James's, Tarbolton, Lodge. Burns signs the minute relating to the visit of Professor Dugald Stewart to the lodge, who at that time was tenant of Catrine House, and was a friend of the Poet. The record is as follows:—

"A deputation of the lodge met at Mauchline on 25th July 1787, and entered Brother Alexander Allison of Barmuir an apprentice. Likewise admitted Brothers Professor Stewart of Cathrine ; and Claud Alexander, Esq., of Ballochmyle ; Claud Neilson, Esq., Paisley ; John Farquhar Gray, Esq., of Gilmilnscroft ; and Dr. George Grierson, Glasgow, honorary members of this lodge," the minute being signed "Robt. Burns, D.M.," in very faint ink.

John "Wilson, who was parish teacher of Tarbolton, and the Dr. Hornbook of Burns's well known poem, was secretary to the lodge from 8th August 1782, till some time in 1787, and in that capacity wrote many of the minutes. Two of them are signed by him—one as “Master 'pro tempore," and the other as “M.P.T." This last minute shows his adhesion to the lodge after his successor in the secretaryship had been appointed, and it is not shown that he was at the date the holder of any office other than that of ordinary membership. Immediately succeeding Wilson's first signature as "Master pro tempore" he finds an imitator in James McDonald, the succeeding chairman, who signs his name, and adds "P.T." merely, a thing that occurs also once afterwards in the writing of another temporary president.

Two of the Grand Masters sign the minutes occasionally, viz.—Mr. James Montgomerie of Coilsfield, and Mr. James Dalrymple of Orangefield, but these are the only names adhibited of the half-dozen Grand Masters who held office during the years embraced in the minutes. The others were Mr. John Hamilton of Sundrum—a name still honoured in the county in the person of the present proprietor ; Mr. Mungo Smith of Drongan ; Mr. Alex. Montgomerie of Coilsfield (a branch of the Eglinton family, whose estate had to be parted with after the Eglinton tournament) ; and Mr. Gavin Hamilton, the wellknown friend and correspondent of Burns. The name of the Montgomeries suggests the immortality shed upon the family and their estate by the Poet's works. The gratitude of the lodge is expressed at one meeting to Captain Montgomerie, the Eight Worshipful Master of the lodge, for his trouble in recovering their colours, "for some time illegally retained by the Lodge of St. David."

Passing from the St. James's Lodge, it is well known that, until the close of his troubled career, the Poet manifested a warm interest in Freemasonry. It is easy to imagine what a charm he lent to the many meetings he attended, though it may be in these gatherings he gave away not a few “slices of his constitution."

On two occasions, during his first winter in Edinburgh, he was highly honoured by the craft—once at an important meeting, attended by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, on 13th January 1787, when the Grand Master gave the toast of " Caledonia, and Caledonia's Bard, Brother Burns, which ran" through the whole assembly with multiplied honours and repeated acclamations;"[2] and again, at a meeting of the Edinburgh Canongate (Kilwinning) Lodge, on 1st February 1787, when, in honour of his great poetic fame. Burns was enthusiastically assumed as a member of the lodge.

Then, in the Diary of his Border Tour, there occurs under date of 19th May 1787 this entry: "Spent the day at Mr. Grieve's—made a Royal Arch Mason of St. Abb's Lodge (Eyemouth)."

As already remarked, the Poet continued his connection with the Tarbolton St. James's for some considerable time after going to reside at Ellisland, and, from the following note of his attendance at Mason meetings in Dumfries, we learn how ardently he kept up his attachment to the brotherhood until the end :—

1791—27th December.

1792— 6th February.

1792—14th May.

1792—31st May.

1792— 5th June,

1792—22nd November.

1792—30th November.

1793—30th November.

1794—29th November.

1796—28th January.

1796—14th April.

On 30th November 1792 he was elected Senior Warden, and in the minutes of the sixteen meetings held during his stay in Dumfries his name is eleven times found in the list of those who were present.


[1] The “Farewell,” penned by Burns when he was meditating emigration to Jamaica, he thus closes; -

“And you, farewell! Whose merits claim,

Justly, that highest badge to wear!

Heaven bless your honoured, noble name,


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’.”

William Wallace, Sheriff of Ayrshire, and at that time Grand Master, is referred to in the above, as well fitted to wear the highest badge of office.

[2] So Burns states in his letter of 14th January 1787, to Mr. Ballantine, banker, Ayr.

Source: The Book of Burns, Vol 111.

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