The Masonic Activities of Robert Burns
By BRO. ALBERT FROST
THE fact that the immortal Robert Burns was a "Son of Light" is well known throughout the Fraternity the world over, but that he was a very zealous and enthusiastic Mason is not so generally known. From the day of his initiation at the age of 22 to the time of his death, his interest in the Craft never subsided. Wherever he chanced to be located we find him identified with a lodge, as we shall see later. The "true spirit" was evinced in him from the commencement of his Masonic career, and with a fervour and magnetism which were characteristic of his sparkling nature.
He was initiated in St. David's Lodge, Tarbolton, on July 4, 1781 — a village a few miles distant from Alloway Kirk, Ayrshire, where he first saw the light of day. Whether the ceremony was conducted at the Bachelor's Club, or at the Cross Keys Inn, otherwise known as Manson's Tavern, is an open question. The brother who had the distinction of conferring the initiatory rites was Alexander Wood, a tailor of Tarbolton. The minute recording the event is brief to a degree — "Robert Burns in Lochly was entered an apprentice Joph Norman, M". He was passed and raised in the same lodge in October of the same year, the record being likewise brief:
Robert Burns in Lochly was passed and raised, Henry Cowan being Master, James Humphrey Senr Warden, and Alex Smith Junr, Robert Wodrow, Secy, and Jas Manson Treasurer and John Tannock Taylor and others of the brethren being present.
Probably "Taylor" is an error of transcription and should be "Tyler."
James Humphrey was a "character" in the lodge, possessing a remarkable genius for censoring Ministers of Religion, and a propensity for expressing adverse views on Theological subjects. Often did he find himself at grips with Burns, whose opinion is expressed in the "Epitaph on a noisy polemic":
Below thie stanes lie Jamie's banes
O, Death, it's my opinion,
Thou ne'er took such a bleth'rin' bitch
Into thy dark dominion.
Formerly there were two lodges in Tarbolton — St. David's and St. James', which became united under the name of St. David's in June, 1781, a month before Burns' initiation. The following year Burns and others seceded and reconstructed under a Charter from "Mother Kilwinning" St. James' Lodge, the present number of which is 135 — "Tarbolton Kilwinning, St. James'." The meetings were held at the Cross Keys, of which Bro. Manson was the Landlord and also the Treasurer of the lodge. If anything remains of this historic building it is but the ruins, which should at any rate have been preserved in memory of its glorious past, and particularly so in view of Burns' wish expressed so touchingly, and with an almost broken heart in his "Farewell" to the brethren:
And you, Farewell! whose merits claim,
Justly, that highest badge to wear !
Heav'n bless your honour'd, noble Name
To Masonry and Scotia dear!
A last request, permit me here
When yearly ye assemble a' –
One round, I ask it wi' a tear,
To him the Bard that's far awa.'
Masonic pilgrims from all quarters of the Globe turn their faces towards the commodious premises which the lodge now possesses, for in it there remains quite a collection of valuable relics of the Poet. The old Minute Book containing records in his own handwriting under his own signature. The Chair which he occupied as Master: the Gavel he used, and the Apron and Jewel which he wore. The Candlesticks are there, and an old Tyler's sword of the period. The Bible he presented to the lodge is preserved; but probably the possession most treasured is the letter he wrote from Edinburgh in August, 1787, regretting that it was beyond his power to be present, concluding with the verse:
Within this dear mansion may wayward contention
And withered envy ne'er enter.
May secrecy round be the mystical bound
And Brotherly Love be the centre.
The reviving of St. James' Lodge called Burns into very early prominence, for within three years of joining the Craft he became the Deputy Master, often conducting the proceedings of the lodge:
Oft honour'd with supreme command,
Presiding o'er the Sons of Light.
Whether he attained to the position of R.W. Master is doubtful; it is more than likely that some local dignitary was the nominal head of the lodge, whilst the duties were principally conducted by Burns or some other officer of the lodge. Being so, it is quite permissible for the Minutes to be silent on the subject.
The congenial companionship of Burns and his unswerving devotion to the Order, became landmarks to the brethren. If any proof of his devotion is wanted take a single instance of his anxiety to assure the attendance at the Annual Meeting and Procession which were held on June 24 — Lodge Tarbolton, Kilwinning St. James'. Fearing his friend Dr. Mackenzie would consider his duty to his patients weighed heavier with him than his duty to the lodge, Burns addressed to him a note in verse as a reminder of the occasion, which had its effect:
Friday first's the day appointed,
By our Right Worshipful Anointed
To hold our grand procession
Our Master and the Brotherhood
Would a' be glad to see you.
Evidence of his good humour and congeniality is no where better expressed than in his "Address to the De'il." With affected seriousness he narrates the alarming consequences of collusion with that dreaded personage. The stanza runs:
When Masons' mystic word an' grip
In storms an' tempests raise you up
Some cock or eat, your rage maun stop
Or strange to tell
The youngest brother ye wid whip
Aff straught to hell.
His bursts of eloquence on many occasions were popular diversion at the festival board; his facetious improvisations a source of wonder and merriment to all the brethren — more particularly to those who came under his magic spell. When in serious mood, the poetry which made him famous sprang from his lip and heart like "fragrance on the breeze." There is scarcely any side of human nature upon which he did not exercise his innate genius. His poems are a library in themselves — and must be the envy of all psychologists, whose science will never be understood without some supernatural manifestation.
He possessed an insight which is given to few, but even he realized how men can so easily be misinterpreted. With the very best of intentions one may become the greatest offender.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie' us
To see oursel's as ithers see us.
It wad frae many a blunder free us.
The social friendly honest man –
Whate'er he be
'Tis he fulfils, great nature's plan,
And none but he.
As a farmer in Mossgiel, Burns was a failure, and he decided to test his fortune in Jamaica where he had obtained a post as Book-keeper on an Estate. He took farewell of St. James' Lodge, Tarbolton, in a lyric so touching and so noble that by the time he got to the last stanza the tears were rolling down the cheeks of the brethren. It was sung to the tune, so popular at the time, "Good Night and joy be wi' you a'," and with such a pathos and passion as to produce a profound lasting impression:
Adieu! a heart-warm fond adieu!
Dear brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favoured, ye enlightened 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 away
There is a difference of opinion as to who was responsible for Burns being diverted from his intention to migrate to Jamaica. It is however more than likely that it was his staunch friend and counsellor Prof. Dugald Stewart who turned his thoughts in the direction of the Scotch Metropolis. With such an influential introduction to the brethren of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, Edinburgh, he was assured of a hearty fraternal welcome. His straightened circumstances were the means of his close friend Bro. Garvin Hamilton rendering him financial assistance in the publication of his poems.
_______ the poor man's friend in need,
The gentleman in word and deed.
The first edition was published in 1786 (Kilmarnock) followed by a second edition twelve months later. So successful was this issue, that Bro. William Creech, the publisher, was enabled to hand over to the Poet a sum of money which exceeded his vainest expectations. Smellie was the printer; Alex Nasmyth the painter and Bengo the engraver — all brother Masons. By this success the current of his life is turned and he —
Takes a share wi' those that bear
The Mallet and the Apron.
From this time Burns became a deservedly popular member of the lodge. Hailed and toasted — on one occasion by the Grand Master as "Caledonia's Bard" — he grew in general favour. Without assuming affecting airs he bore his honours with dignity. His conduct and manners were commendable; his intellectual energies were stimulated and he merited the acknowledgments which were showered upon him. He always rose to speak with an ovation; his forcible and fluent language — almost invariably unpremeditated — met with general approbation.
It was no small distinction for Robert Burns to be appointed Poet-Laureate of the lodge. Although his innate genius would have found recognition in any sphere, it is very appropriate that many illustrious Freemasons of nearly a century and a half ago should discover this "Ploughman Poet," by whom they were not only immortalized, but who in no small measure ennobled and enriched the Order by his many references to it. There is a vein running through many of his later productions which nothing but Freemasonry could have inspired, and his association with the Brotherhood very materially assisted in the development of his talents.
Of his contemporaries we know but little. Lexicons and Encyclopaedias make little mention of them. In his satires Burns himself gives us the best insight into the character of many of them. Even Lyon's Freemasonry In Scotland (1) makes but scant reference to them. Of their eminence, however, there is no doubt.
Amongst those who were proud to call Burns their companion and friend are Lord Elcho, Earl of Glencairn, Earl of Eglinton, Earl of Buchan, Sir William Forbes, Alex Cunningham, and many others whose names bespeak some importance in Scottish Freemasonry, and of whom short biographical sketches are to be found in "A Winter With Burns" published in the year 1846.
for a 'who's who in this painting click here
The photograph reproduced from the rare mezzotint is very interesting insomuch as it gives what may be taken to be a true representation of those present on March 1, 1787 — the great occasion of Burns' Inauguration, and typically depicts varieties of dignity and of expression and affability, presenting him in the light in which he was regarded by his brethren during the time he formed the centre of attraction. The original painting is hung in the Freemasons' Hall, Edinburgh, and is well worth a visit to see.
Alex Ferguson, Provincial Grand Master of the Southern District at this time, and also Master of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, is seen in the photograph presenting the poetic wreath to Burns, who has been conducted to the Chair to receive it.
The figure and face of Burns are pronounced to be a most faithful likeness; his gracefulness and modesty are characteristically delineated. The D.C. is William Nicol, Professor of Languages, who gave Burns tuition in Latin, immediately behind whom stands Louis Gauvin, a French Tutor of high repute. He taught Burns the French language, and afterwards expressed his conviction that no ordinary pupil could acquire in three years what Burns assimilated in three months. Other Masonic luminaries depicted are, Grand Master Sir William Forbes on the Master's right; James Dalrymple; Sir John Whiteford; Lord Monboddo. In the forefront is Lord Napier who laid the foundation stone of the College of Edinburgh, in which ceremony the Craft took no small part. James Boswell, the biographer of Dr. Johnson, is seen with clasped hands in the centre of the picture, whilst standing to the left is Nasmyth, the Landscape Painter. A prominent figure is Francis Grose the Antiquary, who is in conversation with James Gregory, the talented Physician. Scarcely any of these brethren escape notice in Burns' lyrics.
It would appear that the gathering was more of an informal character typifying a free and easy style. Whether in the ordinary lodge meetings the brethren were so placed is questionable, but if the manner in which the Minutes of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge were kept is any criterion, then we should imagine that informality was the order of the day, for although it is on record that the W.M. proposed Burns as a joining member on Feb. 1, 1787, yet there is no subsequent minute of his appointment to the Poet-Laureateship a month later. The first mention of his having held the office is recorded in the Minutes dated Feb. 9, 1815. The omission may be accounted for by the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge not being singular in its slackness.
The Minutes for many years prior to the period of Burns' attendance are brief to a degree, and this may account for the infrequency of the allusions to him who was not then the distinguished Poet he afterwards became. It will not, however, be denied that the Inauguration did actually take place, as the lodge has unimpeachable testimony from the brethren who were present on the occasion, and saw him wear the jewel of his office — evidence of the event.
It may be noted that prior to the publication of Freemasonry in Scotland (1) an interesting correspondence took place on the subject of the Laureateship between the Author and the Secretary of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, which goes to show that Lyon preferred to go into print with a distinct bias against Burns' appointment, rather than sift the evidence provided, with the result that not only was Burns depreciated but the lodge also. Why this should have been so is not easily comprehensible. If Lyon had any doubts on the generally accepted connection of Burns with the lodge they could have been removed at the time — instead of which we have a "History" which so far as Burns is concerned is not impartial; making isolated statements that do not convey the actual facts to the reader. The Secretary of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, Bro. H. E. Peacock, wrote to Lyon at the time of the preparation of his History:
It is my duty to inform you that there is ample evidence of the Poet's association with this Lodge, to which Lyon replied: I recognise the satisfactory nature of the evidence, but your delay prevents my being able to submit a slip of my remarks — the printers being close up to that particular part of my MSS.
If this be the sole reason why Lyon so summarily dismisses Burns from his History then it is still more difficult of comprehension.
W.J. Hughan states:
On March 1st, 1787, Bro. Burns was invested as Poet-Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, No. 2, Edinburgh — the painting to commemorate the event having been executed by Bro. Watson, a member of the same lodge.
So great a Freemason as Hughan must have had sufficient grounds for his assertion.
If further evidence be needed it is provided by the Minutes of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge under date Jan. 16, 1835, which state:
It was proposed by R.W. Bro. M'Neill, Master, and seconded by W. Bro. Turnbull, Substitute Master, that it was expedient that the honorary office of Poet-Laureate of the Lodge, which has been in abeyance since the death of the immortal Brother Robert Burns should be revived, and that James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd, on whom his poetic mantle has fallen should be respectfully requested to accept the appointment as the highest tribute to his genius and priorate worth which the brethren had it in their Power to bestow.
Neither can the records contained in that priceless little volume, A Winter With Burns, be discredited. The narrative rings so true, and it was so widely circulated at the time that it was rather late in the day — 27 years afterwards — for Lyon to doubt its accuracy, and at a time when very few of his contemporaries were alive.
Alexander Ferguson, the hero of the Song of the Whistle (the original manuscript of which was sold by auction in Edinburgh in March, 1887, for two hundred and thirty guineas), was the brother who conferred upon Burns the title of Poet-Laureate. The lodge Minutes dated March 1, 1787, bear witness to this — signed by himself and also Charles More, Deputy Master, and John Mellor, Advocate. J. W., William Dunbar — writer to the signet, was Senior Warden, and afterwards in some "tattered rhymes," Burns himself mentions the Laureateship in the following lines:
Latin Willie's reek noo raise,
He'd seen that nicht Rab crowned with Bays.
I have dwelt on this aspect of the Poet's Masonic career at some length because my researches leave me with the confirmed opinion that the incident is well authenticated; but notwithstanding this it is a pity that there should have been left room for doubt.
Incidentally, I may mention that there is in the Library of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge A Collection of Masonic Songs and Entertaining Anecdotes by Garvin Wilson, Poet-Laureate of the Lodge St. David. This was published in 1788 and dedicated to the Rt. Hon. and Most Wor. Lord Elcho — Grand Master of Scotland 1786-1787.
Therefore it may be that whilst the office was not officially recognized by the Grand Lodge of Scotland it was a title not uncommonly given as an honorary one to those who made the entertainment for the brethren.
Let us follow the Poet a little further a field. Proud as Tarbolton is that Burns was their offspring, yet that pride is shared by others also, Edinburgh probably taking first place; afterwards Kilmarnock, where he became a joining member of Lodge St. John Kilwinning. Whilst it has been stated by one writer that Burns' poem commencing "Ye Sons of Old Killie" had reference to Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, it will not now be denied that it bears direct reference to Kilmarnock, of which "Killie" is an abbreviation. Bro. William Parker is W.M. and proposes Burns as an Honorary Member, which is unanimously received. Burns is called upon to make acknowledgment, and that spontaneous effusion is the result:
Ye sons of old Killie assembled by Willie,
To follow the noble vocation
Your thrifty old mother has scarce such another
To sit in that honoured station.
Ye powers who preside o'er the wind and the tide,
Who marked each element's border
Who formed this frame with beneficent aim
Whose Sovereign statute is order!
Another brother of the Kilmarnock Lodge is Tam Samson, a worthy old sportsman, who confides to Burns his fears that his end is near at hand, and expressed a wish to die and be buried on the Moors. On the inspiration of the moment Burns composed the Elegy:
The Brethren o' the mystic Level
May hing their head in wofu' bevel
While by their nose the tears will revel
Like ony bead
Death's gien the Lodge an unco devel,
Tam Samson's dead !
Tam was not altogether pleased at being numbered amongst the dead, whereupon Burns promptly added the "Per Contra":
Go, Fame, an' canter like a filly
Thro' a' the streets an' neuks o' Killie,
Tell ev'ry social, honest billie
To cease his grievin'
For yet, unskaith'd by Death's gleg gullie,
Tam Samson's livin!
For nine years afterwards the worthy Samson lived to revel in the limelight into which the Poet had thrown him.
Burns visited the "Ancient" Lodge at Stirling, but the page in the attendance register bearing his signature is missing, which is taken as conclusive evidence of his visit. He was also a joining member of Loudoun Kilwinning Lodge Newmilns — on the nomination of Garvin Hamilton. In October, 1786, he attended a Lodge at Sorn and later at Irvine. In 1787 along with his friend Robert Ainslie he was admitted a Royal Arch Mason at St. Abb's Lodge, Eyemouth — at an "encampment" specially convened to do honour to the Poet.
At other lodges he was not an infrequent visitor. The last five years of his life were spent at Dumfries, where he was made a Freeman of the Burgh. In 1788 he became a member of St. Andrew's Lodge held in that town which he attended with regularity, taking part in the ceremonies and subsequently attained to the Chair of Senior Warden. His last recorded attendance is within three months of his death. The Minutes state that Burns was "the most distinguished brother, the Lodge has been privileged to receive within its portals."
Although no mention is made of his decease, it is more than likely that the brethren paid a last appropriate tribute to the memory of so distinguished a brother. The Apron he wore and the Gavel he used, together with the Minute Book, by some unknown means got into the auction room. Fortunately they were rescued by the timely intervention of Sir Michael Shaw Stewart, Grand Master 1873-1881, who presented them to Grand Lodge, where they now form part of an interesting collection of Masonic relics.
Far from uninteresting is the incident of his affection for "Highland Mary" — Mary Campbell. To her memory he subscribed some of his most beautiful inspirations. The Bible he presented to her was inscribed with his Masonic Mark. After finding its way to Canada it was sent back home to be deposited in the Monument erected to the Memory of Burns on the Banks of the Doon, where it is now to be seen. The Burns' Family Bible is in possession of the Trustees of the Monument, by whom it was purchased 26 years ago (1900) for 1500 pounds, and is now one of the most valued treasures of Alloway Cottage.
Undoubtedly Burns' connection with Freemasonry in Edinburgh was the most interesting era of his life. Certain it was that during this period his genius was appreciated and rewarded. Of his consummate love for, and interest in, the Order, there remains no shadow of doubt, and had it not been for his revolutionary political views, openly expressed whilst being in the Excise, and his disgust of conventional prejudice, he would have risen to a great height in the social sphere without the loss of his most ardent admirers. There is always the possibility of being wrong in viewpoints, no matter how convinced one may be that he is right. In Burns' case he was probably wrong. In any event, he had the courage of his convictions:
A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty's a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected
Churches built to please the Priest.
Burns died prematurely at the age of 37, on 21st July, 1796, at his residence in Dumfries, and his remains were interred in a humble grave. Afterwards they were transferred to the Mausoleum in the same churchyard. Shortly before his death he wrote:
The pale moon is setting beyond the white wave
And time is setting with me.
A lodge bearing the name of "Robert Burns' Lodge," constituted before the union in 1818, probably gives some significance to the fact of the monument being erected to the Poet's memory in 1820 — 24 years after his death. At Doon Brig, the vicinity of his birthplace, the foundation stone was appropriately laid by Sir Alex Boswell, "Worshipful Deputy Grand Master, of the most Antient Mother Lodge Kilwinning," at which ceremony the Masonic Lodges in Ayrshire were without exception represented. A full account of this is given in "Preston's Illustration of Masonry."
A good edition of Burns' Poems is that published by the Oxford University Press, edited by J.H. Robertson, in which they are placed in order of popularity, and it is significant that the "Address to the De'il," "Tam Samson's Elegy," and the "Lament for Earl of Glencairn" are amongst those considered to be his highest achievements.
In the vale of human life
The victim sad of fortune's strife
I thro' the tender gushing tear
Should recognize my Master Dear
If friendless, low, we meet together,
Then, Sir, your hand — my friend and Brother.
(1) This is the short title. The work is generally cited as History of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary's Chapel), No. 1, by David Murray Lyon.