Robert Burns

Robert burns in the Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry

 

One of the most celebrated and best loved of Scottish poets. William Pitt has said of his poetry, “that he could think of none since Shakespeare’s that had so much the appearance of sweetly coming from nature.” Robert Burns, or Robert Burness, as the name was originally spelled, was born at Kirk Alloway, near the town of Ayr, January 25, 1759. His father was a religious peasant-farmer living in a humble cottage on the banks of the Doon, the river destined to be eulogized so touchingly in many of Burns’ verses in after life. Burns died in the thirty-seventh year of his life on July 21, 1796, broken in health. For years he had been feted, lionized and honoured by the entire Scottish nation.

At the age of twenty-three he became closely associated with the local Freemasonry, being initiated July 4, 1781, in Saint David’s Lodge, Tarbolton, shortly after the two Lodges of Saint David, No. 174, and Saint James, No. 178, in the town were united.

He took his Second and Third Degrees in the month of October following his initiation. In December Saint David’s Lodge was divided and the old Lodge of Saint James was reconstituted, Burns becoming a member. Saint James’ Lodge has still in its keeping, and we have personally inspected the Minute Books containing items written in Burns’ own handwriting, which Lodge he served as Depute Master in 1784.

From this time on Freemasonry became to the poet a great and propelling power. At the time of his initiation into Saint David’s Lodge Burns was unnoticed and unknown and, it must be admitted, somewhat unpolished in manner, although he had managed to secure before his sixteenth year what was then considered to be an “elegant” education.

With almost no exceptions his boon companions were all Freemasons and this close association with Brethren, many of whom were high in the social scale, but who recognized his talents and ability, did much to refine and stimulate him intellectually, influence his thought, inspire his muse, and develop that keen love of independence and brotherhood which later became the predominant factors of his life. The poet held the position of Depute Master of Saint James’ Lodge until about 1788, at which time he read his famous Farewell to the Brethren of Saint James’ Lodge, Tarbolton, given below:

Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu !

Dear Brothers of the Mystic tie!

Ye favoured, ye enlighten’d few,

Companions of my social joy!

Tho’ I to foreign lands must hie,

Pursuing Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’,

With melting heart, and brimful eye,

I’ll mind you still, tho’ far awa’.

Oft have I met your social band

And spent the cheerful, festive night ;

Oft honoured with supreme command,

Presided o’er the Sons of Light;

And by that Hierog1yphic 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

Justify the Highest Badge to wear !

Heav’n bless your honour’d, noble NAME,

To Masonry and Scotia dear.

A last request permit me here,

When yeany ye assemble a’,

One round, I ask it with a tear,

To him, the Bard that’s far awa’.

About this same time the poet presided as Master over a Lodge at Mauchline, which practice was, as a matter of fact, irregular, as the Charter of the Lodge covered only meetings held in Tarbolton, but, it is stated, Burns’ zeal in the furthering of Freemasonry was so great that he even held Lodges in his own house for the purpose of admitting new members.

Mention is also made, however, that Lodes’ were not then tied to a single meeting place as now. Regarding this, Professor Dugald Stewart, the eminent philosophic writer and thinker, and himself an Honorary Member of the Saint James Lodge, says, “In the course of the same season I was led by curiosity to attend for an hour or two a Masonic Lodge in Mauchline, where Bums 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.”

Burns found himself in need of funds about this time and it was due to the suggestions and assistance of Gavin Hamilton, a prominent member of the Order and a keen admirer of Bums, that the poet collected his first edition of poems and was able to have them published through the able assistance of such eminent Fellow Craftsmen as Aiken, Goudie, John Ballantine, and Gavin Hamilton. A Burns Monument has since been erected, in August, 1879, in Kay Park, which overlooks the little printing office where the first Kilmarnock edition of his poems was published.

Dr. John Mackenzie, a man of fine literary taste and of good social position, whom Bums mentions in several of his Masonic poems, lid much at this period by way of kindly and discerning appreciation to develop the poet’s genius and make it known to the world. It was due to a generous loan made by. John Ballantine, before mentioned, that Burns was able to make the trip to Edinburgh and have a second edition of his poems published. At Edinburgh, due to the good offices of the Masonic Brethren there, Burns was made acquainted with and was joyously accepted by the literary leaders of the Scottish capital. Reverend Thomas Blacklock, a member of the Lodge of Saint David, Edinburgh, No. 36, and afterwards Worshipful Master of Ayr Kilwinning Lodge, received Burns on his arrival, lavished upon him all the kindness of a generous heart, introduced him into a circle of friends worthy and admiring, and did all possible to further the interest of the young poet. Brother Sir Walter Scott, the novelist, addressed a letter to this Lodge of Saint David, Edinburgh, which is now in their possession in which he pays rare tribute to Robert Burns.

On October 26, 1786, Burns was made an Honorary Member of the Saint John Lodge, No. 22, Kilmarnock, the first of the Masonic Orders to designate him as their Poet and honour him with honorary membership. Just previous to this he joined the Saint John’s Kilwinning Lodge, Kilmarnock, warranted in 1747 but not coming under Grand Lodge until 1808, on which occasion in the Lodge was presided over by his friend, Gavin Hamilton. On February 1, 1787, Burns became a member of the Lodge of Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2, Edinburgh, which possesses the most ancient Lodge-room in the world, and this Lodge is said to have invested Burns with the title of the Poet-Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on March 1, 1787, from which time on Burns affixed the word Bard to his signature. This Lodge issued a booklet on Saint John’s Day 1925, from which we quote the following: ‘

The fact of the inauguration of Burns as Poet.-Laureate was, some time ago, finally and judicially established after an elaborate and exhaustive inquiry by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, which possesses the well-known historic Painting representing the scene, painted by Brother Stewart Watson, and presented to Grand Lodge by Dr. James Burness, the distinguished Indian traveller and administrator, and a distant relative of Burns through his ancestry in Kincardineshire, from which Burns’ father migrated to Ayrshire.

On the other hand, Brother Dudley Wright, in the Freemason, London, February 7, 1925, says:

The principal fallacy, which has lately found frequent repetition even in some Scottish Lodges, is the statement that Robert Burns was on a certain night installed or invested as the Poet Laureate of canongate Kilwinning Lodge, No. 2.

Bums became a member of this Lodge on February 1, 1787, as testified by the following Minute:” The Right Worshipful Master, having observed that Brother Burns was present in the Lodge, who is well known as a great poetic writer and for a late publication of his works which have been universally commended, Submitted that he should be assumed a member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to and he was assumed accordingly.”

The story runs that exactly a month afterwards, on March 1, 1787, Burns paid a second visit to Lodge canongate Kilwinning, when he was invested as Poet Laureate of this famous Lodge, and there is in existence a well-known painting of the supposed scene, which has been many times reproduced. The picture, however, is only an imaginary one, for one of the characters depicted as being present-Grose, the Antiquarian-did not become a Freemason until 1791. James Marshall, a member of the craft, published, in 1846, a small volume entitled A Winter with Robert Burns, in which he gave a full account of the supposed investiture, with biographical data of the Brethren stated to have been present on that occasion.

Robert Wylie, also, in his History of Mother Lodge Kilwinning, of which he was Secretary, published in 1878, has repeated the story, and added that ” Burns was very proud of the honour”; while Dr. Rogers, in The Book of Robert Burns, volume I, page 180 has also repeated the story, giving the date of the event as June 25, 1787, and adding the information that Lord Torpichen was then Depute Master, and that in compliment to the occasion, and as a token of personal regard, on the following day he despatched to the poet at his lodgings in the Lawnmarket a handsome edition of Spenser’s works, which the poet acknowledged in a letter.

There was a meeting of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on March 1, 1787, the Minute of which is in existence, but it contains no reference to the investiture of Burns as Poet Laureate of the Lodge. It reads as follows:” St. Johns chapel, March 1, 1787. The Lodge being duly constituted it was reported that since last meeting R. Dalrymple Esq., F. T. Hammond Esq., R. A. Maitland Esq., were entered apprentices; and the following brethren passed and raised: R. Sinclair Esq., Z. McDonald Esq., C. B. Cleve Esq., captain Dalrymple, R. A. Maitland Esq., F. T. Hammond Esq., Mr. Clavering, Mr. McDonald, Mr. Millar, Mr. Hine, and Mr. Gray, who all paid their fees to the Treasurer. No other business being before the meeting, the Lodge adjourned.”

It is not a pleasing task to dispel such a happy delusion, but it must be admitted that the investiture certainly did not take place on that occasion, when there is no record that Burns was even present. Had the investiture taken place, it would certainly have been recorded on the Minutes, especially when regard is had to the fact that his very admission to the Lodge a month previously was made the subject of so special a note. There were only three meetings of the Lodge held in 1786-7 session, and at one of these only-that of the night of his admission as a Joining Member -is there any record of the presence of Robert Burns. But did not Burns call himself Laureate, somebody may ask. Certainly he did, particularly in the following stanza:

To please you and praise you,

Ye ken your Laureate scorns;

The prayer still you share still

Of grateful Robert Burns.

But those words were written on May 3, 1786, before the date of his admission into Lodge, Canongate Kilwinning. While Brother Burns may not have actually been appointed Poet Laureate of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, and the account of the meeting of February 1 does not indicate anything more than that he was “assumed” a member, yet later mention of Brother Burns in the Minutes does suggest that the Brethren in some degrees considered our Brother as Poet Laureate.

For instance, on February 9, 1815, the Lodge resolved to open a subscription among its members to aid in the erection of a “Mausoleum to the memory of Robert Burns who was a member and Poet Laureate of this Lodge.” There is the further allusion on January 16, 1835, in connection with the appointment of Brother James Hogg, the “Ettrick Shepherd” to the “honorary office of Poet Laureate of the Lodge, which had been in abeyance since the death of the immortal Brother Robert Burns”.

Shortly after the publication of the second edition of his verse at Edinburgh, Burns set out on a tour with his friend, Brother Robert Ainslie, an Edinburgh lawyer. Brother A. M. Mackay tells us in a pamphlet issued by Lodge Saint David, Edinburgh, No. 36, on the Festival of Saint John, December 19, 1923, that “Burns visited the old fishing town during the course of a tour through the Border Counties in the early summer of 1787.” The records of the Lodge contain no reference to the Poet, or to the Royal Arch Degree of which Burns and his friend became members, but several prominent Brethren in Saint Ebbe were Royal Arch Masons and, although working under no governing authority, appear to have occasionally admitted candidates into that Order. Brothers Burns and Ainslie arrived at Eyemouth on Friday, May 18, and took up their abode in the house of Brother William Grieve, who was, the Poet informs us, “a joyous, warm hearted, jolly, clever fellow.” It was, no doubt, at the instigation of their host that the meeting of Royal Arch Masons, held on the following day, was arranged:

Eyemouth 19th May 1787. At a general encampment held this day, the following Brethren were made Royal Arch Masons, namely:

Robert Burns, from Lodge Saint James, Tarbolton, Ayrshire; and Robert Ainslie from the Lodge of Saint Luke, Edinburgh, by James Carmichael, William Grieve, Donald Dow, John Clay, Robert Grieve, etc., etc.

Robert Ainslie paid one guinea admission dues, but, on account of Brother Bum’s remarkable poetical genius, the encampment unanimously agreed to admit him gratis and considered themselves honoured by having a man of such shining annuities for one of their companions.

It is suggested by Brother A. Arbuthnot Murray, formerly Grand Scribe E. of the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Scotland, who is an authority on the old working of the Scottish Royal Arch Chapters that Burns was probably made a Knight Templar as well, as under the old regime the two ceremonies were always given together.

Dudley Wright in Robert Burns and Freemasonry says, “On December 27, 1788, Burns was unanimously assumed, being a Master Masson’ a member of the Saint Andrews Lodge, No. 179, Dumfries. The Secretary wrongly described him as of ‘Saint David Strabolton Lodge, No. 178.’” The poet’s last attendance at this Lodge was in 1796, a few months after which he contracted the fatal fever which led to his death.

A word should be said here in refutation of the slanderous charge that Burns acquired the habits of dissipation, to which he was unfortunately addicted, at the festive meetings of the Masonic Lodges (see Freemasons Magazine, London, volume v, page 291), and his brother, Gilbert’s, testimony is given below, “Towards the end of the period under review, in his, twenty-fourth year, and soon after his father’s death, he was furnished with the subject of his epistle to John Rankin. During this period, also, he became a Freemason, which was his first introduction to the life of a boon companion. Yet, notwithstanding these circumstances, and the praise he has bestowed on Scotch drink, which seems to have misled his historians, I do not recollect during these seven years, nor till towards the end of his commencing author, when his growing celebrity occasioned his often being in company, to have ever seen him intoxicated; nor was he at all given to drinking.”

Notwithstanding this, however, the poet undoubtedly enjoyed convivial gatherings and he wrote to a friend, James Smith, “I have yet fixed on nothing with respect to the serious business of life. I am, as usual, a rhyming, Mason-making, rattling, aimless, idle fellow.” In spite of this “idleness,” Burns was very prolific in verse and especially did he give of his genius liberally in service to the Masonic Order, an example of one of these verses being given below:

A’ ye whom social pleasure charms,

Whose heart the tide of kindness warms,

Wha hold your being on the terms,

Each aid the others,

come to my bowl, come to my arms,

My friends, my Brothers.

Among the various poetic Masonic effusions of this “heaven-taught ploughman” is the following, which was written in memory of his beloved friend, a fellow-poet and Brother, Robert Ferguson:

Curse on ungrateful man that can be pleased,

And yet can starve the author of his pleasure .

Oh, thou, my Elder Brother in misfortune,

By far my elder Brother in the Muses,

With tears I pity thy unhappy fate !

Why is the bard unfitted for the word,

Yet has so keen a relish of its pleasures?

Part of the proceeds of the Edinburgh edition of Burns’ poems was used in the erection of a tombstone over the remains of this same Scottish poet, Robert Ferguson, on which he inscribed the stanza:

No sculptured marble here, nor pompous lay,

No storied um, nor animated bust,

This simple stone directs pale Scotis’s way,

To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.

A monument was erected for Robert Burns, himself, by public subscription, at his birthplace, January 25, 1820. The corner-stone was laid with appropriate Masonic honours by the Deputy Grand Master of the Ancient Mother Lodge at Kilwinning, assisted by all ‘the Masonic Lodges in Ayrshire.

At a meeting in 1924 of the Scots Lodge of London in honour of Robert Burns, Sir John A. Cockbum, M.D., in the address of the evening explained to us that the poet when young had suffered from a rheumatic fever that frequently resulted in a condition peculiarly liable at any time later to sudden fatal consequences. Sir John also urged that due consideration should be given to the tendency and practice of the era when Burns flourished, when a free use of intoxicants was common.

 

Sourced from ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FREEMASONRY AND ITS KINDRED SCIENCES by ALBERT C. MACKEY M. D.

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