ROBERT BURNS AS A FREEMASON
Among the many men whose memories Scotsmen and women delight in perpetuating, few if any are held in greater love and admiration than Robert Burns, the National Bard of Scotland. Indeed the enthusiasm which is aroused as each succeeding January comes round is a source of continued wonder to other nations, and it certainly has no parallel in any other country. In this talk I shall deal mainly with Burns’s activities as a Freemason, and as such endeavour to show that Masonary played no small part in giving to the world the poetry of Robert Burns. He was born in 1759 in the famous clay biggin’ at Alloway, near the seaport of Ayr, and many years later made reference to his birth date with the famous lines:
“Our Monarch’s hindmost year but ane
Was five-and –twenty days begun,
‘Twas then a blast O’ Janwar win’
Blew hansel in on Robin”
His Masonic career began in Tarbolton, and Freemasonary began in this town on the 17th of May 1771, when the Master of Mother Kilwinning issued a Charter for the erection of a Lodge under the name of Tarbolton Kilwinning. At this time the power and authority of “ The Grand Lodge of Scotland” was gaining support from many of Scotland’s masons, and in 1773 some twenty members of the Tarbolton Kilwinning Lodge asked the Grand Lodge to grant them a Charter to establish a new Lodge in Tarbolton under the sovereignty of The Grand Chapter. This Lodge received its Charter in 1773 and Lodge St. David Tarbolton, number 174 began its career. Those who were left in the old Tarbolton Lodge were not long in requesting a desire also to be associated with The Grand Lodge Of Scotland. On the 27th of May 1774 they were erected into a Lodge with the name of St. James’s Tarbolton, Kilwinning number 178. It was not long before the two Lodges realised that there was not enough room in Tarbolton for two Lodges. and they agreed to sink their differences and unite under the name of Saint David’s The union was consummated on the 25th of June 1781 and the name of Saint David was adopted because that Lodge held the oldest Charter. It was into this united Lodge that on the 4th of July 1781 Robert Burns was initiated into Freemasonary, and he was made by the hands of Alexander Wood, a Tailor in Tarbolton.. His entrance fee was 12/6 and as there was no other work for that evening his initiation was minuted thus:
“Robert Burns in Lochly was entered an apprentice”
It is generally accepted that the meeting place of the Lodge at that time was what is now known as “The Batchelors Club”. Shortly after this date Burns came to Irvine to learn the business of flax dressing and some months passed before he could attend the Lodge again. He did so on the first of August when he was passed and raised on the same evening. Burns was now back in Lochlie assisting his brother Gilbert to run the farm, and was therefore comparatively near the Lodge meeting place and was a regular attender and a very active worker. The two Lodges which had joined together, that is St. David’s and St. James, now began to have certain differences, caused principally by the old members of St. James, until eventually they seceded from St. David’s, and with Burns they met in John Richard’s public house in a room upstairs. St’ James’s Lodge re-elected themselves on the 17th of June 1782 and appointed Sir John Whiteford, Bart. of Ballochmyle as their Right Worshipfull Master. (R.W.M.) At this time it was customary to select for its Master one of the local gentry who was little more than a figurehead, and attended meetings only on rare occasions. His duties, and those of the R.W.M. as we know them today were invested in the Depute Master. The new lodge of St. James did not have a very successful start and were often in severe financial difficulty, but they progressed slowly until the 30th of June 1784 when they moved their meeting place to the Cross Keys public house in Tarbolton, kept by James Manson, the Lodge Treasurer. On the 27th of July 1784 Burns was elected as Depute Master a position he held for four years.
The Lodge records show that he was an enthusiastic Depute Master, and like others of his time was so keen to admit new members that he even held a Lodge meeting in his own house.
It was at one of these meetings that his brother Gilbert was admitted to the craft,, and during Burns’s term of office he Presided at 33 meetings out of a possible 70. It was to the Brethren of this Lodge that Burns addressed his famous poem “The Farewell” where the last verse reads:
“And you, Farewell ! whose merits claim,
Justly, that highest badge to wear!
Heav’n bless your honour’d, noble name,
To Masonary and Scotia dear!
A last request permit me here,
When yearly ye assemble a’,
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the bard that’s far awa’”.
It was only natural that many of his Masonic colleagues would figure in his poems, and the most famous of these was the Lodge Secretary John Wilson, Schoolmaster, Grocer, and patent medicine quack who is better known as Doctor Hornbook. It was later recorded that Wilson took no offence at Burns’s satire but regarded it rather as a compliment, the last thing it was intended to be. Like many politicians and others he probably thought that it was better to be abused than to be ignored. In spite of increasing responsibility and the travels of his momentous years of 1787 and 1788 Burns discharged his duties successfully, and was an inspiration to his brethren. The previous year, 1786 had been the turning point, his affair with Mary Campbell his loyalty to bonnie Jean Armour his cancelled journey to Jamaica and the publication of his Kilmarnock edition, are the material which all the wit and imagination of fiction writers could not emulate. During his time as Depute Master there is ample evidence that Burns was a source of strength in furthering the causes of Lodge St. James and its brethren. The first minute written by Burns as Depute Master is written in Burns unmistakable hand writing and reads as follows:
“This night the Lodge met and ordered four pounds of candles and one quire of eight pence paper for the use of the Lodge ,which money was laid out by the Treasurer, and candles and paper laid in accordingly”.
In the records of St. James’s Lodge Burns signed his name to 29 minutes as Depute Master, wholly in his penmanship. This minute book is carefully preserved in the Lodge which also treasures the Master’s chair, foot stool, apron and mallet, and also the candle-sticks and other furnishings associated with Burns during his term of office. The Lodge Bible, which bears the date 1775, was one of the poets possessions and was presented to the Lodge by his brother Gilbert and himself. Although each Lodge meeting was followed, then as now, by a harmony, excessive drinking was discouraged, and there was on record a rule applicable to St. James’s Lodge and duly minuted:
“At the third stroke of the Grand Masters hammer silence shall be maintained under a penalty of two-pence” “Whosoever shall break a drinking glass at any meeting shall be liable to the instant payment of sixpence, and the same for every one he breaks.” “If any brother be unfortunate as to have disordered his senses by strong liquors and thereby rendering himself incapable of behaving decently, peaceably and kindly towards those around him, such brother coming to the Lodge in that condition shall be prudently ordered away to some place of safety in the meantime, and at the next meeting shall submit to such censure and admonition from the chair, and to such a fine inflicted on him by the Lodge as to them may appear proper to punish the crime, and deter him from it in all time coming”.
As I have said Burns wrote many verses for the Lodge, few of which could be dignified by the name of poetry, but all expressing with sincerity the desire for peace, love and harmony, within the Lodge and beyond it. It is an acknowledged fact however, that had it not been for the encouragement which Burns received from the Brethren of his own Lodge and from Saint John’s Lodge, Kilmarnock, who knew well his ability as a poet, the edition might never have been printed. Burns had no capital of his own, but the list of subscriptions increased so strongly among the Masonic Brethren that its success was assured. Saint John’s Lodge Kilmarnock, took 350 copies alone, and the volume might well have been termed the “Masonic Edition”. The most persuasive element was of course Gavin Hamilton, to whom Burns dedicated this first edition, one of his closest friends and an ardent Mason, John Wilson the printer, was also a member of the craft. Scottish Masons may indeed claim deserving recognition of giving to posterity and saving from oblivion, these gems of poetry that have claimed the admiration of the world. The remaining copies of the first edition are now worth in pounds what Burns received in pennies. The first Lodge to give honorary membership to Robert Burns was Lodge Saint John, number 22 Kilmarnock, and it was conferred on the 26th of October 1786,and in recognition of this honour he wrote the stanzas beginning
“Ye sons of old Killie, Assembled by Willie”
The reigning Master at that time was William Parker. While he was Depute Master there is evidence that he visited a number of neighbouring Lodges, and while attending Lodge Loudon Kilwinning Newmilns on the 27th of March 1786 where his friend Gavin Hamilton was Master, he was introduced and admitted a member “Much to the satisfaction of the Lodge”. On the 5th of October 1786 he attended a Lodge at Sorn, and later while attending Saint Andrew’s Lodge in Irvine it is conjectured that he wrote the “Stanzas added in the Masonic Lodge”
“Then fill up a bumber and make it o’erflow
And honours Masonic prepare for to throw
May every true brother of the compass and square
Have a big bellied bottle when harassed with care.”
There is no doubt however that while in Edinburgh it was due to his Masonic friends that he was introduced to the Hon. Henry Erskine and particularly to Lord Glencairn, who never lost interest in Burns and his works, and it was he who introduced Burns to Creech the publisher. Glencairn was also the means of introducing him to the patronage of the “Caledonian Hunt”, and the elite of Edinburgh of that time. The Bard acknowledges the help he received from his brother Mason Lord Glencairn in securing a post for him in the Excise, and one of the finest stanzas he ever wrote is in his “Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn” his revered benefactor.-------
“ The bridegroom may forget the bride, was made his wedded wife yestreen
TheMonarch may forget the crown, that on his head an hour has been
A mother may forget the bairn, that smiles sae sweetly on her knee
But I’ll remember thee Glencairn, and a’ that thou hast done for me”
Other famous Masons who befriended Burns in Edinburgh were Henry Mc Kenzie, the famous author who was a member of Lodge Cannongate Kilwinning Number 2, and Dugal Stewart, Professor of moral Philosophy at Edinburgh University. Both these illustrious Scotsmen placed on record many times their admiration of the works of the Bard. There were many other Edinburgh notables including Lord Monboddo the Judge, Sir James Hunter Blair the Lord Provost, and they all had one common factor, they were all Freemasons. During his stay in Edinburgh Burns visited St. Andrew’s Lodge on the 12th of January 1787 which was the occasion of the Annual visitation from the Grand Lodge. During the dinner the Grand Master proposed a toast to “Caledonia, and Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns” Burns had no idea that such a toast was to be given, and was in his own words “Thunderstruck and trembling in every nerve” made the best return in his power. Two weeks after this he was attending Lodge Cannongate Kilwinning No. 2 where he was affiliated, and the record of this is set out in the minutes.
“The R.W.M. (Brother Alex Ferguson of Craigdarroch,) having observed that Brother Burns was at present in the Lodge, who is well known as a great poetical writer, and for a late publication of his works which have been universally commended, moved that Brother Burns be assumed an affiliated member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to, and he was assumed accordingly”.
There is of course a long running argument about Burns being installed as Poet Laureate of Lodge Cannongate Kilwinning, but as there is no note of this happening in the minutes of the Lodge, and the number of years that passed before any mention was made of it, it must be assumed that the Bard never received this honour. The minute book of 1835 records that James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, was elected to succeed Robert Burns as Poet Laureate, but nowhere does Burns mention anything about it, which is indeed very strange. The Edinburgh edition of Burns works was published on the 21stof April 1787 and here again the printer was William Smellie, William Creech was the publisher and Alexander Nasmyth provided the frontispiece, and all were enthusiastic Masons. It was in the company of another Mason that he made his tour of the Border country, and on the 19th of May 1787 they were both made Royal Arch Masons in Lodge St. Ebbs in Eyemouth. His friend Robert Ainslie, had to pay one guinea admission fee, but Burns, on account of his remarkable poetical genius was admitted gratus. On his return to Dumfries that year he was made an Honorary Burgess of that Burgh, and in Tarbolton he was re-elected as Depute Master , and on the 25th of July 1789 he presided at a meeting when Honorary Membership was conferred on his friend Dugald Stewart from Edinburgh. Shortly after this he set out on his Northern tour, travelling some 600 miles and visiting many Lodges, some of whom claim he was made an Honorary Member, Lodge Stirling Ancient No. 30 and Lodge Ancient Brazen No. 17 Linlithgow make this claim, but as in so many of these occasions records are scanty, and proof is lacking. His final sojourn to Edinburgh was to square matters with his publishers, and enrich himself with £500. Burns gave £200 to his brother Gilbert to assist his widowed mother and family. He had now decided to settle in Ellisland and here he renewed his Masonic interests by affiliating to Lodge St. Andrew’s No.179 on the 27th of December 1788. His fee was 10/- and on the 30th of November 1793 he was elected Senior Warden. The Poet continued in more or less active membership with this Dumfries Lodge for the remainder of his life. He was one of five brethren who constituted a meeting in the Globe Tavern on April 1790, and as had been the case at Tarbolton, Mauchline and Edinburgh, he made many warm Masonic friends. There are among admirers of the Bard, many who think that the Craft made Burns, but while the publication of the Kilmarnock may never have happened without the Masons subscribing their cash before its publication, Robert Burns was a Mason in thought and action long before he entered the Craft. His final attendance at a Masonic Lodge was on the 14th of April 1796 and St. Andrew’s Lodge ceased to meet in 1805.