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.”
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.
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
On the other
hand, Brother Dudley Wright, in the Freemason, London, February 7, 1925,
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
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”.
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:
May 1787. At a general encampment held this day, the following Brethren
were made Royal Arch Masons, namely:
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.
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.”
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.
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.