COWANS and EAVESDROPPERS

by

Bro. Bobby A. Lupess

 

COWAN, ['kʌuən] n.1, 1 (1) a builder of dry-stane dykes la16-. (2) disparaging one not properly apprenticed and trained as a mason 19-, 2 freemasonry one outside the brotherhood, esp one seeking to knows its secrets la18-e20, local, 3 an unskilled or uninitiated person; an amateur 19-e20. [obscure][1]

 

EAVESDROPPER, n., one who stands close to walls of a house under eaves to listen to secrets; listen secretly to private conversations.[2]

 

There is no doubt that the origin of the word Cowan is distinctively Scottish and was used originally to describe a man who was a builder of dry-stane dykes, which are walls or fences where the stones stay in place without using any type of mortar. These dry-stane dykes are to be found all over Scotland where they are normally used to serve as boundaries between areas of land, and the more commonly used term for the builders of these dykes today are dry-stane dykers. The word Cowan can also be used to describe one who had not been properly apprenticed to a master or trained to work as a mason, although these days the term Cowan is not normally used in association with these men and has become a purely Masonic expression and when applied in conjunction with eavesdropper signifies an intruder and or listener.

                                    W.J.W. The situation of the O.G. or T.?

                                    Outside the door of the L., R.W.M.

                                    What is his duty?

                                    Being armed with a D.S. to keep off all Cowans and eavesdroppers.[3]

The term eavesdropper however is not a peculiar Masonic expression, although when used with the word Cowan it becomes so, Mackey gives this description of an eavesdropper[4];

Eavesdropper. A listener. The punishment which was directed in the old lectures, at the revival of Masonry in 1717, to be inflicted on a detected Cowan was: “To be placed under the eaves of the house in rainy weather, till the water runs in at his shoulders and  out at his heels.”

The first record of the use of the word Cowan in a Masonic context occurs in the Schaw Statutes of 1598. These statutes were codes of practice and rules drawn up by William Schaw, Master of Work and General Warden of Masons appointed by James VI of Scotland: the paragraph reads;

No master or fellow of craft shall accept any cowan to work in his society or company, nor send any of his servants to work with cowans, under the penalty of twenty pounds as often as any person offends in this matter.

These statutes by Schaw were strictly adhered too in Masonic Lodges throughout Scotland, so much so that in the minute books still extant from Lodges of the time, the statutes are inscribed within their pages. The Lodge of AITCHISON'S HAVEN, now dormant, has the statute engrossed in the pages of its records, this minute of less than two years later than the issuing of the Schaw statutes shows the Lodge took the paragraph regarding Cowans very seriously;

Upon the VII day of Januarie the zeir of God 1600 being convenit of or brither Wilzeam Aiton of Mussilbrugh Wairden for ye present and Thomas Petticruif Deiken for ye present and John Fender John Pedden Robert Widderspoon Wilzeam Miler Edward Ramage and fund Thomas [illegible] to haif ane cowan in his Companie and had [illegible] the foresd. Cowan qr for it was ordainit yt he should pay X, lib of for his offense and should [illegible] also he was found [illegible] XII day of May and promisit never to offend under the pains containit in or buik of Ordinansis the zeir of God 1600.[5]

Also in the minute books of the Lodge of Kilwinning in 1707 is found this passage;

“no maeson shall employ no cowan which is to say [a mason] without the word to work.”

There have been several suggestions that some Lodges allowed Cowans to do less skilled stone work, such as the building of dry-stane dykes, which was looked upon as unskilled work by the early operative masons. Some sources report that old Masonic records like this would indicate Cowans were unaffiliated operatives who were allowed by the regular masons, that is, who were not part of a guild, but who under some circumstances might be employed by the "trained" Fellow of Craft or Master Mason in some minor rough work, thus allowing the mason with the connection or word to work at the more skilled stone work. The inference being that the unskilled mason without the word was a Cowan, and with the transformation of operative to speculative masonry the word Cowan would come to have a purely Masonic meaning, and the Cowan would become admitted into the Craft.

The word Cowan was not known in English freemasonry until James Anderson wrote his constitutions, being Scottish and a member of the Lodge of Aberdeen, Anderson would know all there was to know regarding Cowans, and when in 1738 the second edition of his Constitutions was published on the behest of the Grand Lodge of England, he introduced into English freemasonry the term Cowan.;

But Free and Accepted Masons shall not allow cowans to work with them ; nor shall they be employed by cowans without an urgent necessity; and even in that case they must not reach cowans, but must have a separate communication.

This was the first use of the word Cowan in England and is not to be found in any of the old manuscripts of the English Freemasons before the eighteenth century. The word was in the opinion of Brother Mackey, came to the English Fraternity directly from the Operative Freemasons of Scotland, among whom it was used to denote a pretender. Thereby speculative masonry was quick to use the word as part of their ritual, for to the early speculative mason the cowan was an eavesdropper, a snoop, a listener.  In the middle of the eighteenth century any man not a mason was considered to be a Cowan. In fact, in early Scottish Masonry, the cowan was an outsider. He did not have the word. Today, the Speculative mason has labelled him otherwise.

There can be no doubt that the word Cowan comes from the Operative Masons in Scotland when it was used as a derogatory term for an unskilled worker. During the transition from Operative to Speculative, a Cowan relocated with the ritual to be used as a term for the uninitiated into the Craft. The cowan is really only a person who is not a mason. Before you became a mason, you too were a cowan.[6]


 

Sources

[1] The Concise SCOTS Dictionary. Aberdeen University Press. Pub 1985.

[2] The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Pub 1981.

[3] A Ritual of Scottish Craft Freemasonry as practised by Lodge Stirling Royal Arch No. 76. Pub 1966.

[4] Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. Albert MacKey. The Masonic History Company Pub 1916.

[5] The Book of the Lodge of Aitchison’s Haven 1598-1764. Grand Lodge of Scotland year book. Pub 1981

[6] THE GRAND HISTORIAN'S NOTEBOOK. David "Bud" Gillrie Pub 2003

 

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