The Burns Federation
“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts”
So said the 17th Century English Philosopher, John Locke, in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”.
With these words in mind, my address this evening concerns three men whose common idea, convictions and actions brought into being “The Burns Federation”, or as it is now called, “The Robert Burns World Federation Ltd”. The initial idea of a Burns Federation was mooted in London in 1884 by three men who were taking a stroll along the Thames Embankment after attending the unveiling of a Statue to Robert Burns. They were keen to promote the forthcoming centenary of the printing of Burns’s “Kilmarnock Edition” which would take place in 1886.They didn’t take long to get things moving, for after an initial meeting that was held in London early in 1885 – although there is no written record of the business conducted that day it was reported at the next meeting held in Kilmarnock. They had agreed to solicit interested parties to attend a meeting in Kilmarnock, the Ayrshire town being chosen for the obvious reason of that being where the “Kilmarnock Edition” had been printed and also for the fact that Burns had many associations with the Market Town. The following year there took place, within the George Hotel, Portland Street, Kilmarnock, the inaugural meeting of The Burns Federation. The building is no longer a Hotel but is occupied by a company called (quite appropriately) Mason & Murphy a much respected household furniture salesroom. I may add that for many years prior to Kilmarnock having its present Masonic Building in London Road the four local Lodges and The Provincial Grand Lodge of Ayrshire regularly held meetings in The George Hotel. The attendance sheet of that historic day, 17th July 1885, records the 17 names of those present:-
MM 175 Colin Rae Brown, President of London Burns Club; Peter Sturrock, Provost of Kilmarnock and President of Kilmarnock Burns Club; Rev. Wm Dunnett, The Laigh Kirk Manse, Kilmarnock; MM 202 James McKie, Publisher; A. J. Symington, Langside, Glasgow; PM 109 David Sneddon, Ex. President of Kilmarnock Burns Club; PM 244 PM 570 & PM 442. John Law, President of Springburn Burns Club; MM 109 George Dunlop, Kilmarnock Standard; Andrew Calderwood, Kilmarnock; R. S. Ingram, Architect, Kilmarnock; MM 109 Richard Armstrong, Kilmarnock; PM 126 Andrew Turnbull, Ex President of Kilmarnock Burns Club; David Aird, Kilmarnock; PM 126 James McAlister, Kilmarnock; Arthur Sturrock, Kilmarnock; Thomas McCulloch, Kilmarnock; MM 109 & MM 405 David Mackay, Secretary of Kilmarnock Burns Club.
Now, just to read over their names gives no real impression of the men themselves other than the fact that they were enthusiastic Burnsians.
I have researched further into the names of three of them in particular and will now give you a little insight into their individual personalities. In the same order as they signed the sederunt let us look at Colin Rae Brown, David Sneddon and David Mackay, this was the same far sighted trio who had walked the Thames Embankment one year previously. Colin Rae Brown was born at Greenock in December 1821 and died at London; his adopted home, on 11 September 1897, aged nearly 76. The date of his death is particularly interesting as it is the anniversary date of the Battle of Stirling and the subsequent triumph of William Wallace. Colin Rae Brown was most prominent in the raising of the Wallace Monument at Abbey Craig in Stirling in 1861. As a young man he began his professional career in a Glasgow Publishing house and this led to his great interest in literature. He contributed many items of prose and poetry to the leading periodicals of his day and as a Burns enthusiast was head of or in the forefront of nearly every movement, which honoured our National Bard throughout Great Britain. He was for many years a member of Greenock Burns Club serving as President for three years --in 1844, 1845 and 1847. He later served as the Honorary Secretary of Greenock Burns Club and was highly involved in what was to become known as “the great Ayr Burns Festival of 1844”. This festival was arranged by some prominent Ayrshire men who had been informed that three of the poets’ sons would be visiting Ayr on a certain day. The great event took place on 6 August 1844 in the presence of the three sons: Robert Burns, junior, Major James Glencairns Burns and Colonel William Nicol Burns. It may be of interest to you to know that on the 8 of August 1844 Lodge St. James Tarbolton Kilwinning No.135 held a Special Meeting at which the three sons attended and each was granted Honorary Membership of the Lodge. A very proud day for 135 and for Freemasonry.
Rae-Brown was a pioneer in the cheap newspaper press of his day, assisting in the founding of the North British Daily Mail and Tait’s Magazine. He also helped to promote the Daily Bulletin, which was the first regular daily penny newspaper in the country and it was within the Bulletin that he commenced the idea of the Wallace Monument. In Scotland he introduced two weekly journals The Scottish Banner and The Workman. But perhaps his greatest publication was The Burns Chronicle, which is still published today. Along with several others he organised the Centenary Festival of Burns Birth in 1859. It is said that it was due to his personal and characteristic energy that it was such a memorable success. When Kilmarnock did celebrate the Centenary of the printing of the First Edition of Burn’s Poems, in 1886, Colin Rae Brown was the principal guest of honour. Having lived in London since 1862 he had become a Founder Member of London Burns Club in 1868. As with all his other Burns interests he became greatly involved and indeed was the President in 1885 at the time of the founding of the Burns Federation. It is known that he actually served as President for 15 years in total, although not at the one stretch (1868-1880 and 1885-1887). It is recorded that the first 12 Annual Burns Suppers of the London Burns Club were held within Rae Brown’s house in Kensington, where he was both Chairman and Principal Orator. His last official outing on Burns business was to attend the unveiling of the Highland Mary Statue at Dunoon on 1 August 1896, again a monument that he played a major part in promoting. Colin Rae Brown served as a Vice-President of the Burns Federation from its inception in 1885 until his death in 1897. I am sure that had he lived longer he would most certainly have become President.
The second principal founder was David Sneddon who was born on 24 April 1843 in the Lanarkshire town of Airdrie. He settled in Kilmarnock in 1876 where he took up employment as an Excise Officer (not unlike Burns who also was an excise man). Apparently a man of great energy he soon found time to join the Kilmarnock Burns Club of which he became President and later served as Secretary for many years. He was also heavily involved with the Volunteer Movement and served that group for 43 years, 21 of them as Quartermaster for the Ayrshire Regiment, First Volunteer Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. It was from this side of his life that he became known as The Captain. It was said that he was a man of many talents and interests, one who, in the course of a busy life, had contrived to play many parts, and to play each of these parts well. The secret of his success was his natural force of character, and an untiring devotion to the minutest details of duty, his personal motto being “if a thing is worth doing at all then it is worth doing well”. Within the Burns Federation he was, for many years, the promoter of the Burns Chronicle and served as Secretary of the Federation from its formation in 1885 until 1906 when he was elected to the office of Vice-President. The following year he was elected President of The Burns Federation, a fitting tribute to his invaluable contribution to the organisation. An example of his keen sense of business acumen and committee handling is to be found in the records of the formation of the Burns Federation. At the inaugural meeting held at Kilmarnock in July 1885 the seniority on the Roll of Clubs was discussed. Captain Sneddon agreed with the proposal by the London representative that the London Burns Club should be allocated the prestigious Number 1, since after all, that was where the initial idea had been raised. From all accounts this proposal did not necessarily meet with the approval of the Kilmarnock members. Considering that there were 14 members from Kilmarnock present, had it went to a vote they would have won hands down. However, the decision being accepted, all was revealed at the next meeting. When the Roll was called out Captain Sneddon started with Kilmarnock Burns Club No. 0, London Burns Club No.1. No alteration from the original decision but a dramatic alteration to the expected order of the Roll of Clubs. Alas, all good things come to an end and whilst on a trip to South Africa, to visit his son, he took ill and died on 28 May 1910.
The third principal founder was David Mackay. He was a native of Kilmarnock but his parents came from Sutherland in the North of Scotland. The Mackay family were very well known in Kilmarnock. His uncle was the famous local historian Archibald McKay who, amongst many other books, produced a much sought after “History of Kilmarnock”. David Mackay began his business career with Messrs William Rankin & Sons, Wine Merchants, in King Street, Kilmarnock. Later he transferred to Messrs William Wallace & Co., Wine Merchants, becoming their principal Manager. He was also much involved with the local government and served as Treasurer of Kilmarnock Town Council for three years and thereafter was Provost for six years from 1895-1901. It is recorded that David Mackay was one of the most popular Provosts that Kilmarnock had had at that time. A leading promoter of the adoption, by Kilmarnock, of the Public Libraries Act it was due to his enthusiasm that Mr James Dick, Greenhead Works, Glasgow, (a native of Kilmarnock and just by coincidence also his brother-in-law), gifted the Dick Institute Library and Museum to the town. (This magnificent building is situated behind the Masonic Temple in Kilmarnock, and was up until recently the Headquarters of The Burns Federation. At least 110 years.) He was also Chairman of the Burgh School Board. An excellent artist himself he was excelled by two of his brothers in that field, R. S. Mackay in portraiture and James M. Mackay in landscapes. Part of his obituary states: - “A gentleman of fine presence, of highly intellectual gifts, of genial disposition, and an eloquent platform speaker, Provost Mackay rendered conspicuously good service to the community, and for years was in the forefront of every movement that was calculated to promote the happiness and welfare of the people.”Provost David Mackay was President of the Burns Federation from 1899 - 1906. Without a shadow of a doubt these three gentlemen were indeed of the highest calibre, very much servants to their fellow men, and willing to put their reputations to the test by public activities. They served their community extremely well and were rewarded not in financial terms but with great personal satisfaction. It will therefore, I trust, not come altogether as a surprise to you when I tell you that each of them was an industrious and enthusiastic Freemason. To you and I the duties and responsibilities of our daily lives reflect our Masonic teachings and to Colin Rae Brown, Captain David Sneddon and Provost David Mackay it was obviously no different.
A brief resume of their individual Masonic activities are:-
Bro. Colin Rae Brown was initiated into Lodge Greenock St John’s No.175 in 1844, aged 23 years, the same year that he was President of Greenock Burns Club. The records of the Lodge unfortunately do not show any involvement as an Office-bearer or Degree worker. When the Lodge celebrated its Centenary in 1890 Brother Rae-Brown composed a Song entitled “A Hundred Years Ago”. A copy of this is to be found in the Lodge History Book compiled by the late Brother William McKillop PM, Past PGM of Renfrewshire West and a Past Substitute Grand Master, whom I am sure that you all knew very well. Rae-Brown’s association with the Lodge covered a very long period of 53 years.
Bro. Captain David Sneddon was a member of Lodge St Marnock No.109 having affiliated to the Lodge in 1882, serving as RWM in 1884, 1885 and 1893. The name and number of his Mother Lodge is unknown. Perhaps he was Initiated into Freemasonry within a Lodge in Lanarkshire, there’s a challenge for someone to take up and if you have success let me know. In 1890 he was appointed as the first “official” Provincial Grand Secretary of Ayrshire and served from 1890 till 1895 under the Provincial Grand Mastership of The Hon. Thomas Cochrane MP, RWM of Lodge Mother Kilwinning and as such the PGM for Ayrshire. He was an active member of Grand Committee of the Grand Lodge of Scotland and served as Junior Grand Deacon in 1894-1895. He was also Proxy Grand Master for Canterbury, New Zealand. There is, to my mind anyway, no doubt that it was Brother Sneddon’s knowledge of Freemasonry, (especially the situation between Mother Kilwinning and The Grand Lodge of Scotland which resulted in Mother Kilwinning becoming known as No.0), that led to the unique Roll of Associated Burns Clubs which placed London as No.1 and Kilmarnock as No.0.
Bro. David Mackay was a member of The Rifle Lodge No.405, in Edinburgh, having been Initiated, Passed and Raised all on the same day – 3 October 1865. His occupation is recorded as an Artist and his age is given as 20 years. He was a reponing member of Lodge St Marnock No.109, Kilmarnock, in 1867. That same year he was appointed Treasurer of Lodge St. Marnock. No further information is known of Brother Mackay as a Freemason, other than that he was made an Honorary Member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No.2 in January 1902.
Now, it is not for me to talk on the numerous encounters and friendships which Robert Burns had, which were all connected to Freemasonry, but many of you will know that without the Craft he might well not have had his First Edition printed, which led to the Second Edition and his acceptance by the literati of Edinburgh. During the period that he stayed in Edinburgh he met and became acquainted with many of the Lords and Ladies of his day. In most cases the gentlemen were Freemasons. He was even addressed within Lodge Edinburgh St. Andrew No.48, on 12 January 1787, by the then Grand Master Mason, The Hon. Francis Charteris, as “Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns.” A gesture that Burns recorded had left him almost speechless. In 1898 an “Exhibition of Burns’ Relics” was held at the premises of Wm Allan and Sons in Glasgow, where the crowds who thronged the galleries found much to excite their interest. Among the items on display were:
The Poet’s excise inkbottle;The Bible he read at the Brow well;
The draughtboard he and Gilbert used at Lochlea;
The Masonic Apron and Jewel he had worn as Depute Master at St James Lodge, Tarbolton; Two of his razors, his blunderbuss and several locks of his hair; Jean Armour’s rolling pin and a pair of her black silk embroidered stockings; (why I cannot tell but it is recorded that they were exhibited) A man called John B. Morgan had lent a bolt and two hasps from the outer door of Clarinda’s house; Kilmarnock Burns Club lent a small eggcup made from the old rafters of the Steading at Mossgiel; a Doctor J S Hunter had made several items available from his collection, including a “piece of wood which formed part of the joist on which the bed rested on which Burns died”.
All of these things remind us of Burns’ humanity, but scarcely of his spirituality, wrote Duncan McNaught of Kilmaurs, who was at that time the editor of the Burns Chronicle. Brethren, I need hardly remind you that Burns is not a theory or an abstraction to us his countrymen, both he and his poetry are embalmed in our hearts. His Immortal Memory did not come in to being by Royal or Government Decree; it simply grew from the love of the people for a single man who has touched the hearts of mankind – the world o’er.
Of the Founder Members who were Freemasons, other that the three already mentioned, I can confirm another six thereby bringing the total to 9. How exciting it would be for Freemasonry to be able to announce that each of the 17 were Freemasons??
The other Masons are:
James McKie, MM of Lodge St Clement, Riccarton, Kilwinning, Kilmarnock, No.202, who donated his private collection of Burns material to the then newly opened Burns Monument in the Kay Park. John Law, Founder Master of Lodge Kenmuir No.570, Glasgow. Brother Law was initiated into Lodge Stonehouse No.244 in 1862, later serving as RWM. A Baker by profession. Incidentally, when he retired he lived for a short time in Saltcoats before settling in the neighbouring town of Ardrossan. Whilst in Saltcoats he affiliated to Lodge Neptune Kilwinning No.442 and served as Master of that Lodge for the years 1901-03. George Dunlop, MM of Lodge St. Marnock, No.109, and Editor of the Kilmarnock Standard. Richard Armstrong, MM of Lodge St. Marnock, No. 109. Andrew Turnbull, PM of Lodge St Andrew No.126, and active member of the Committee which promoted the building of the Burns Monument in the Kay Park. How sad that some of today’s youth have no regard for the history of our country and a few saw fit to destroy the Monument a couple of years ago. And lastly, Dr James McAlister, also a PM of Lodge St Andrew No.126, and who for 50 years was a respected Doctor in the town. Brethren, it has been my intention this evening to keep alive the memory of Burns while at the same time pay homage to those three particular fellow Masons whose concerted efforts brought in to being The Burns Federation, further strengthening the memory of an exalted brother with whom the Scottish Craft is proudly associated with –Robert Burns.
Returning to my opening statement that:
“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts”
I ask you to remember them every day ---as a prick to your conscience ---- that your actions are the best example to others ----- of how a Freemason should act ------or as Robert Burns himself put it ---
“Tae see oorsels as ithers see us.”