Burns and Freemasonry
With Special Reference to the St.James,
by Rev J.C. Higgins. AM. BD
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
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
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.
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).
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
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 :—
following contains the signature of the Poet, with his Mason's mark (nine
points) ; also the signature of John Wilson (Dr. Hornhook) ;—
following contains the caligraphy of John "Wilson (Dr. Hornbook), the
secretary of the lodge, and a full minute, written and signed by Burns:—
the courteous permission of Mr. Watson, we append the following
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
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
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.
"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
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."
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
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
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.
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)."
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 :—
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.
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,
To MASONRY and SCOTIA
A last request permit
When yearly ye
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.
So Burns states in his letter of 14th January 1787, to Mr.
Ballantine, banker, Ayr.