The very mention of the name
"Robert Burns" brings to mind images of red roses, starry-eyed lovers,
Tam-O'-Shanter and the Cutty Sark, and the glens of bonnie Scotland. And
while these images describe Scotland's "ploughman poet" to some extent,
There is another side of Burns that is not as well known: Burns the
radical--Burns, the supporter of the French Revolution--Burns, the
critic of Religious hypocrisy and Puritanism--Burns, the Freemason.
While this image may not be as comfortable with many
as the love-struck yeoman bard is, Burns echoed the sentiments of many
of his day, calling for "liberty, fraternity and equality", and speaking
out against the excesses of the secular, as well as religious
Most certainly, Burns's commitment to the ideals of
the Enlightenment came from his membership in the Masonic Lodge, much
praised and damned for it's equality, both in political and religious
matters, among its members. But besides these lofty ideals, the lodge
also appealed to Burns for other reasons; the camaraderie and spirit of
brotherhood that prevailed in the lodge room and the charity towards the
widow and orphan. According to William L. Fox in "The Near Miss of
Robert Burns", "He found in the experience [of being a Freemason]
something unlike the political and religious institutions that had kept
his father in a state of perpetual frustration"(p.7). For Burns,
Freemasonry was one of the cures for his society's numerous social ills.
But before examining Burns's Masonic career, let me
first present a very short general history of his life. Born on 25th
January 1759, in the parish of Alloway, Ayrshire, Burns was the eldest
of seven children to William Burness and Agnes Brown (or Broun). Well
educated in a variety of subjects, from Scottish history and folklore to
literature, Burns was forced to assist his father in working on the
family farm, and took over at 25 when his father died in 1784 (McLeod,
p. 162; Boot).
By 28, Burns was beginning to be well known in his
literary career; In 1786 he published "Poems: Chiefly in Scottish
Dialect", which was expanded in 1787 and again in 1793 (Ibid.).
Beginning in 1786, Burns would spend much time in Edinburgh among the
elite and intellectuals of Scottish society, although Burns felt that
they were only patronizing him because his soul of literary genius lied
within the body of a country bumpkin. He returned to Ayrshire and
unsuccessfully tried farming; in 1791 he became an exciseman, or customs
agent, and joined the local yeomanry unit, the Dumfriesshire Volunteers.
However, the physical and mental toll of his hard life, plus growing
financial burdens, weakened him, and in 1796, Burns died of rheumatic
heart disease, caused by his lack of a healthy diet in his younger years
(Fox, p.7, McLeod, p.171).
However, physical and financial matters were not the
only things that troubled Robert; The Kirk of Scotland (The Presbyterian
Church) and it's opposition to his lifestyle was another. In particular,
Burns's sexual escapades caused much hostility between him and the
church. Burns fathered a number of illegitimate children, including one
by his future wife, Jean Armour, the daughter of a Master Mason. Burns
wanted to marry Jean; her father refused and Burns and Jean appeared for
penance in church to "receive public reproof for the sin of
fornication"(Dachies, p.36; Boot; McLeod, p.165). Burns would continue
his rampant sexual activities right up until several years before his
death. He never stopped his literary war against Scottish Calvinism, and
lampooned it in a number of poems, including "Holy Willie's Prayer",
"The Holy Fair", and others.
Besides his rather libertine actions with women,
Burns was also a political radical, and a rather strange mix at that.
From reading Scottish history, Burns became an ardent nationalist,
writing many romantic ballads about Scottish attempts to secure their
independence from the English, from Robert the Bruce to Bonny Prince
Charlie. This can be seen in poems like "Scots wha Hae", "Charlie is My
Darling", "The White Cockade", and many others.
Burns combined his Jacobite sympathies of the past
with Jacobin politics of the present. He vocally supported the French
and American Revolutions, which aroused suspicion of his loyalties,
especially when in the service of His Majesty's government as an
exciseman, although Burns did recant his French tendencies when Britain
and France went to war in 1792 (Dachies, p.99). And while Burns may have
been inspired by the French Revolution, his involvement in Freemasonry
certainly played a large part in his opinions in favour of both secular
and religious equity.
Freemasonry was very popular in Protestant Europe
during Burns's time, especially in the British Isles, where the first
Grand Lodge was formed in London on 24th June 1717. Scotland's
connections with Freemasonry go even farther back, but to use an old
cliche, "that's another story". Freemasonry inspired the revolutionary
efforts of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, Joseph
Warren, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who would fight not only in the
American Revolution, but in the French Revolution as well. In England,
while Freemasonry tended to be part of the status quo of the gentry, it
still tolerated different religious beliefs, even though the government
and the state church did not. Jews, Roman Catholics and Dissenter
Protestants were all admitted, even though members of these same
religious groups could not hold political office under the Test Act,
which required all office holders to be members of the Anglican Church
(McLeod, p. 150).
The Reverend James Anderson, a Presbyterian Minister,
wrote a new Book of Constitutions for the UGLE in 1721, while he was
living in London, and would be excluded from all other aspects of
English political and religious life due to his church membership. Yet
Anderson's Constitutions are the cornerstone for Masonic bodies the
world over (McLeod, 150-51); In 1729, the United Grand Lodge of England
elected the Duke of Norfolk, a Roman Catholic as the Grand Master-Two
clear examples of Freemasonry's ecumenicalism in an age that still knew
the bitter sting of religious intolerance and bigotry.
ROBERT BURNS' MASONIC HISTORY
Robert Burns was initiated an Entered Apprentice in
Lodge St. David, Tarbolton on 4 July (ironic date) 1781, at the age of
23. His initiation fee was 12s 6d, and paid on the same date. Like many
other times in his life, Burns came into the lodge amidst a controversy.
Originally, there had been only one lodge in Tarbolton, chartered in
1771 from the Kilwinning Lodge, which is said to be the oldest lodges in
the world (again, another story worth telling, yet for another time).
In 1773, a group broke away from the lodge, forming
Lodge St. David No. 174, and the original lodge became St. James
Tarbolton Kilwinning No. 178, only to be reunited in 1781, 9 days before
Burns's first degree. However, while St. James was clearly the older of
the two lodges, St. David's name was used, and the seeds were sown for
further dissension. Burns in the meantime was passed to the degree of
fellowcraft, and raised to the degree of Master Mason on lst October
1781. The Lodge record book, according to James Mackay's "Burns" reads
Robert Burns in Lochly was passed and raised, Henry
Cowan (ironic name!) being Master, James Humphrey Senr. Warden, and
Alexr. Smith Junr. Do., Robt. Woodrow Secy. and James Manson Treasurer,
and John Tannock Taylor and others of the brethren being present"(119).
Manson and Woodrow would later take the regalia of
St. James's lodge from the charter chest (containing the minute-books,
archives and other belongings) stored at John Richard's Inn (Richard was
a Steward of Lodge St. David) after tricking Richard into a false errand
with a couple of "gills" of punch. While originally ordered to return
the regalia and other items by the Grand Lodge, it was eventually ruled
that since the union of the 2 lodges were voluntary, then the separation
was as well. The St. James lodge met again as a separate body on 17 June
1782. (Mackay, 119-120).
Burns went with Lodge St. James, and on 27 July 1784,
he was elected "Depute Master" of the lodge at the ripe young age of 25.
Sir John Witefoord was the Worshipful Master of the lodge, but it was
somewhat of an honorary position, and the Depute Master in reality was
in charge. Burns was faithful to the lodge, attending regularly and 3
minutes were in his handwriting; 29 minutes were signed by him and also
show when he changed his name; originally, his father spelled the last
name "Burness"; before 1786, Robert spelled it the same way. On 1 March
1786, Robert's brother Gilbert received his 2nd and 3rd degrees; both
Gilbert and Robert signed their last names as "Burns"(Mackay, p.121).
1786 was not a happy year for Robert financially or
emotionally; Denied his love Jean, Burns had sought comfort with Mary
Campbell (the famous "Highland Mary"), who reportedly bore Burns a child
and died later that year from Typhus. Burns, in grief over the loss of
two women, as well as facing child support payments for Jean's unborn
child, decided to flee to Jamaica to avoid grief and an angry father
(and brother!). Tradition says that Burns recited his "Farewell to the
Brethren of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton" on the night of 23rd June, at
the stated meeting of the lodge, in anticipation of his voyage to the
However, Burns decided to stay in Scotland when in
July 1786, his Kilmarnock edition of poems was published, by a brother
Freemason, and 350 brethren of St.John's Lodge, Kilmarnock, subscribed
to a copy. In October he was made an honorary member of Lodge Kilmarnock
Kilwinning St. John, and wrote "Masonic Song" in honour of the lodge and
its Worshipful Master, Major William Parker (McLeod, p.169).
Burns's rise in popularity for his poems also
contributed to his rise in Freemasonry. At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew
in Edinburgh in 1787, at which the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of
Scotland was present, Burns was toasted by the Worshipful Grand Master,
Most Worshipful Brother Francis Chateris, with the words "Caledonia and
Caledonia's bard, Bro. Robt. Burns", which was met with a terrific
response from the brethren. Burns was completely taken aback, and though
trembling, returned the toast of the Grand Master, to response of 'Very
Well Indeed' from some of the officers of the Grand Line (McLeod, p.
169). In February 1787, Burns was made the Poet Laureate of Lodge
Canongate Kilwinning No. 2, Edinburgh. Wallace McLeod, in his essay
"Robert Burns", quotes the minute book, which states:
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 [honorary]
member of this lodge, which was unanimously agreed to, and he was
assumed accordingly (McLeod, pp.169-171, Mackay, pp. 273-274).
Tradition has it the Burns was installed as Poet
Laureate at the March meeting of the lodge (as many paintings show), but
lodge records disprove this, although some maintain that faulty records
and Robert's modesty are responsible for it being left out of the lodge
minutes and Robert's letters; Mackay doubts that Burns would have
purposely left out such a high accolade to his work as a poet (McLeod,
p.170, Mackay, p.274). When the first Edinburgh Edition of his poems was
released in April 1787, and again, many subscribers were members of
Canongate, including the publisher, printer and artist who supplied the
frontispiece for the edition. Like his Kilmarnock edition, Freemasons
assisted their brother and ultimately gave the world the gift of Burns's
Burns was exalted a companion in the Holy Royal Arch
Degree in May 1787 at St. Ebbe's Lodge, Eyemouth. The companions
unanimously agreed to admit Burns without paying the necessary fees, as
they were greatly honoured to have such a great poet and man like Burns
as part of their chapter (Mackay, p.311). When Burns moved to Dumfries,
he joined Lodge St. Andrew on St. John's Day, 1788, and once again,
showed a great enthusiasm for his lodge. In 1792, he was elected Senior
Warden and served a one-year term. This was the last Masonic office he
held before his death in 1796. He was 37 years old.
ROBERT BURNS MASONIC INFLUENCES
Freemasonry's influence on Burns's poetry is quite
visible. Besides the aforementioned works which specifically deal with
the craft, a number of poems have a strong dose of Masonic philosophy
and ideals in them. Fox mentions the poem "Libel Summons", which finds
two brothers in a court docket, one for hypocrisy and lying, the other
for the neglect of his duties. With these two brothers for examples,
Burns reminds any brother reading the work that the Masonic ideals of
brotherly love, relief and truth do not stop at the lodge-hall door, but
should be shown to any person, regardless of Masonic affiliation (Fox,
Masonic ideals can also be seen in "A Man's a Man for
a' that", in which Burns speaks of a day when "man to man the warld
o'er, shall brothers be for a' that!" Certainly the lodge inspired Burns
in his call for the rights of man; Marie Roberts, in "Burns and the
Masonic Enlightenment" states that Freemasonry not only spoke out for
the ideals of "liberty, fraternity, equality", but also was responsible
for the creation of nationalistic feelings and fervour, as a number of
Freemasons played prominent roles in the American and French
Revolutions. While Freemasonry did not produce the same feelings per se
in Scotland, "it did help mobilise cultural nationalism in generating a
since of national identity by supporting literary figures such as Burns"
(p. 332). By supporting his works, Freemasons encouraged Burns in
writing poetry in the Scottish vernacular, and kept him in constant
contact with his cultural roots (Roberts, p. 337).
And yet a third influence might be seem with Burns's
works dealing with Calvinism and the Kirk of Scotland. Burns had always
been on the side of liberal thinking within the Kirk, and detested the
"Auld Lichts" or "Old Light" Presbyterianism with it's conservative and
puritanical outlook on life. While English and Scottish Freemasonry has
always denied the Freemasonry is not a religion, and that good masons
should also be good church-goers, certainly many conservatives in the
Kirk viewed the lodge, with its ideas of a non-denominational deity and
respecting the rights of all humans to worship their God as they saw fit
as a danger to their established religion (Roberts, p. 333). For Burns,
Masonry was everything that the Kirk was not.
His Masonic poems show his great love and admiration
for the craft and it's ideals, although he did hold his brothers to a
high standard that some might argue that he did not keep himself. But
whatever your opinions of Burns's passions, one must argue that Burns
had the good of the fraternity in his heart. one matter that deeply
troubled him was the use of the Lodge treasury for personal loans by the
members. Burns viewed the monies not for the members personal use, but
for times of "distress" or "old age"; coming to the relief of a brother
was far more important than personal whims, which is no surprise, given
Burns's childhood and and ever-changing financial situation (Fox, p.9).
From what we have heard, there is no doubt that Burns
had a very rough life. Burns found no comfort for his woes in the church
or his society, but Freemasonry remained one of the most important
aspects of his life. Even during the time when all others had abandoned
and condemned him, the lodge still welcomed him as a brother, and he
never forgot it. The "Farewell" to his brothers as St. James Lodge
expresses a very sincere sadness in leaving Scotland and his brothers
for Jamaica, and many have speculated that the support of his lodge
brothers encouraged him to stay and produce some of his greatest works.
Freemasonry provided Burns with an "alternative" form of patronage for
his works free from aristocratic influence and restrictions imposed by
the patron on the artist (Roberts, p. 333).
Above all else, Freemasonry's spirit of Brotherhood
had a special place in Burns's heart. Roberts states that "For Burns,
Freemasonry was a compound of mysticism and conviviality" (p. 335). This
attitude is found in one of his most famous works, "Auld Lang Syne", a
song that millions of people around the world know and love. We hear it
at New Years and our moved by its message of old friends reminiscing
about days past. T.G. Paterson, in "Auld Lang Syne and Brother Robert
For [Burns], "Auld Lang Syne" is a concrete
expression of his love of mankind and his ideal of international
What a fitting tribute that Burns's song of
International Brotherhood is sung the world over in the spirit that he
wrote it. Also fitting is the fact that it is the last song in the movie
"It's a Wonderful Life", the story of a man who gave up his personal
dreams for others, and sees all of his friends come to his aid when he
is in trouble. Burns and the character George Bailey share one thing in
common, in that, when all seemed lost, friends rallied and aided in his
relief. George Bailey's guardian angel Clarence states "No man is a
failure when he has friends (which I might paraphrase 'Brothers'); a
sentiment that would be heartily agreed with by Brother Robert Burns.
Boot, Jeremy. Robert Burns, Poet A
Daiches, David. Robert Burns and his
world. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Fox, William L. "The Near Miss of Robert
Burns: Why the Caledonian Poet was
not a Calypso Balladeer" in The Scottish
Rite Journal, January 1998
Grand Lodge of Scotland. "Famous Scottish
Mackay, James. Burns: A Biography of
Robert Burns. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1992.
McLeod, Wallace. "Robert Burns" in The
Quest For Light.
Melbourne: Australia and New Zealand
Masonic Research Council, 1997.
Tony Pope, ed.---. "The Universality of
Freemasonry" in The Quest For Light.
Melbourne: Australia and New Zealand
Masonic Research Council, 1997.
Tony Pope, ed.
Paterson, T.G. "Auld Lang Syne and
Brother Robert Burns" in The Scottish Rite Journal January 1997.
Roberts, Marie. "Burns and the Masonic
Enlightenment" in Aberdeen and the Enlightenment. Aberdeen: Aberdeen
University Press, 1987.