Robert Burns

The Freemasons’ Poet-Laureate

Marie Roberts

"To MASONRY and SCOTIA dear!" Burns[1]

The Freemasons' Poet-Laureate

 

Robert Burns (1759–96) who is renowned as 'the prince o' poets an' o' ploughmen"[2] was also a bard of the Freemasons. He rose through the Masonic ranks to become an ambassador for the fraternity earning the accolade of being the first Poet-Laureate of the lodges. In view of the importance which Burns attached to his Masonic membership, it is curious that the influence of Freemasonry on his life and work should have been underestimated by so many of his biographers and critics.[3] Masonry actively furthered Burns's career by bringing him into contact with a number of writers and patrons who helped establish his reputation as a poet.[4] In turn, Burns derived poetic inspiration from the craft and conveyed through his poetry his sense of commitment and loyalty to the Freemasons.

Burns's Masonic career began on 4 July 1781 when, at the age of 23, he was initiated into St David's lodge, No. 174, Tarbolton. He had been introduced to the fraternity by John Ranken of Adam Hill to whom he dedicated a number of poems including "Epistle to John Ranken" and "Lines to John Ranken". In compliance with the entrance requirements of the lodge, Ranken would have vouched for the poet's good character. Burns was then admitted into the order by Alexander Wood, a local tailor, who charged him an entrance fee of twelve shillings and sixpence. His initiation was recorded in the lodge minutes as "sederant for July 4th (1781) Robert Burns in Lochly was entered an apprentice."[5] According to tradition the ceremony took place in Mason's Tavern, situated in what is now known as Burns Street. From then on Burns progressed rapidly through the tripartite system of Masonic degrees even though he spent much of his time at Irvine where he was learning the craft of flax-dressing.[6] Three months after his initiation as an Entered Apprentice, he advanced to the second degree of Fellowcraftsman and then to the third degree of Master Mason. Burns's progress was registered in the minutes of the lodge meeting for 1 October which announced "Robert Burns in Lochly was passed and raised."[7]

Burns's involvement with Scottish Freemasonry coincided with a turbulent period in its history. Ten years earlier, the Grand Lodge of Scotland had been seeking to centralise the craft. The original St James's Kilwinning lodge, Tarbolton, had resisted this move with the result that twenty malcontent members who had wanted the sanction of Grand Lodge left in protest to form a new lodge called St James, No. 174. Eventually, the former dissenting Tarbolton lodge agreed to be affiliated with Grand Lodge whereupon it was renamed St James, No. 178. Inevitably, rivalry grew up between the two lodges until the Scottish Grand Lodge authorised them to merge together under the name of St David on 25 June 1781. But the wrangles were not yet over. Members who had originally belonged to the St James's lodge complained about losing their former identity through the merger. Burns, who had been initiated into the united lodge, sympathised with the St James's faction and defected with them in 1784 to form a new lodge. Less clear was the attitude of officials at Grand Lodge. Had they sanctioned the manoeuvre or did it constitute Masonic mutiny? Burns wrote to the Master of the lodge, Sir John Whitefoord, of Ballochmyle who had been the Senior Grand Warden of Scotland, urging him to investigate the matter:

We have considerable sums in bills which lye by without being paid, or put in execution, and many of our members never mind their yearly dues, or anything else belonging to the Lodge. And since the separation from St David's, we are not sure even of our existence as as [sic] a Lodge.- Their [sic] has been a dispute before the Grand Lodge, but how decided, or if decided at all, we know not.[8]

By helping to rescue St James's Lodge from bankruptcy Burns was instrumental in preventing it from being outlawed by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Hans Hecht mentions the role Burns played in preserving a lodge which had contributed to the local community "St James was resuscitated through a secession in which Burns took part, and from that time onward exercised considerable influence on the intellectual life of Tarbolton and its immediate vicinity."[9] Burns's concern for his Masonic brethren during this period of uncertainty was an important factor in his election to Depute-Master of the lodge on 27 July 1784, an office which he commemorated in his poem, "The Farewell. To the Brethren of St James's Lodge, Tarbolton" (1786). As Depute-Master Burns was effectively in charge since the office of Worshipful Master tended to be an honorary position usually reserved for an absentee member of the aristocracy. Nevertheless the head of St James's, Sir John Whitefoord, was not such a remote figure since he was a close friend of Burns who remembered him as follows:

Thou, who thy honour as thy God rever'st,

Who, save thy mind's reproach, nought earthly fear'st

To thee this votive off'ring I impart,

The tearful tribute of a broken heart.

The Friend thou valued'st, I, the Patron lov'd;

His worth, his honour, all the world approv'd.

We'll mourn till we too go as he has gone,

And tread the shadowy path to that dark world unknown

Burns proved to be such a popular Depute-Master that he was re-elected to the post in July 1786 until St John's Day in 1788. While Burns was in office, the brethren expressed dissatisfaction with their meeting-place in Mason's Tavern. Burns supported their campaign for a purpose-built Freemason's lodge which was described in the minutes of 5 June as follows:

It was proposed by the Lodge, that as they much wanted a lodge-room, a proposal be laid before the heritors, who are intending to build a steeple here, that the lodge shall contribute to the building of a lodge-room as the basis of a steeple, and that from the funds of the lodge they offer fifteen pounds, besides what will be advanced from the particular friends of the lodge; in order that this proposal be properly laid before the heritors, five persons namely, the Right Worshipful Master, Brother M'Math, Brother Burns, Brother Wodrow, Brother William Andrews — are appointed to meet on Saturday at one o'clock, to draw up a proposal to lay before the heritors on Friday first.[10]

There is no indication that this proposal ever materialised. But an adequate meeting-place was essential for the fraternity's social functions and rituals particularly those of initiation. By all accounts Burns presided over these ceremonies with great enthusiasm. According to Robert Chambers, Burns was "so keen a mason, that he would hold lodges for the admission of new members in his own house."[11] During one Masonic gathering, Burns even initiated his own brother, Gilbert.[12] But the first man Burns is believed to have admitted into the craft was Matthew Hall, a musician who accompanied James M'Lauchlan, the violinist of traditional Scottish music. Burns mentions M'Lauchlan in his poem, "The Brigs of Ayr", which commemorates the building of a bridge across the river Ayr:

While arts of Minstrelsy among them rung,

And soul-ennobling Bards heroic ditties sung.

O had M'Lauchlan, thairm-inspiring Sage,

Been there to hear this heavenly band engage.

Burns extended his Masonic contacts by gaining admittance into another lodge, the Canongate Kilwinning, Edinburgh, in 1787. Earlier that year, on 6 February, the Prince of Wales was initiated into Freemasonry at the Star and Garter, London. The Canongate Kilwinning lodge responded by calling a meeting for the purpose of sending him their congratulations. According to popular myth, it was upon this occasion that the Master of the Lodge, Ferguson of Craigdarroch, decided to confer upon Burns the title of "Poet-Laureate of the Lodge." Burns had already called himself "Laureate" in a stanza written on 3 May 1786 which predates his admission into Canongate Kilwinning:

To phrase you, an' praise you,

Ye ken your LAUREATE scorns:

The PRAY'R still, you share still,

Of grateful Minstrel Burns.

In January 1787, two months before the alleged inauguration, the Grand Master of Scotland, Francis Charteris, proposed a toast for the members of St Andrew's Lodge to "Caledonia, and Caledonia's Bard, brother Burns!"[13] Burns described his reaction to this toast in a letter to his friend and patron, John Ballantine:

As I had no idea such a thing would happen, I was downright thunderstruck, and, trembling in every nerve, made the best return in my power. — Just as I had finished, some of the Grand Officers said so loud as I could hear, with a most comforting accent, "Very well indeed!" which set me something to rights again.[14]

The investiture of Burns as Poet-Laureate on 1 March 1787 is commemorated in a painting by Stewart Watson, a Masonic artist who was also the Grand Lodge secretary. Nevertheless it would appear that Watson's painting is anachronistic since it contains portraits of Masons in attendance who had not even seen Burns until two years after the alleged ceremony.[15] Furthermore it is curious that the event is not mentioned anywhere in the lodge records despite the existence of first-hand accounts. More perplexing still is that Burns, himself, never made any direct reference to the Laureateship or to the ceremony. The controversy is explored by David Murray Lyon who initially had believed in the authenticity of Burns's inauguration:

The poet Burns was a member, and was elected Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, to which many of his friends belonged. He was not installed as represented by Bro Stewart Watson's picture, but there may have been some ceremony on the occasion. Probably there was. There is evidence for it. [16]

Yet in his History of the Lodge of Edinburgh, Lyon retracts his original view and concludes:

The whole subject has been recently carefully investigated, with the result that there can be no doubt that Burns was never elected to, and never held the office of, Poet-Laureate of the Lodge, and that the alleged ceremony of his installation into that office never took place ... There are many other facts which all go to show that the poet's election and inauguration as Poet-Laureate of this Lodge is a myth![17]

Even so, the tradition persists that Burns had been elected the Freemasons' Poet-Laureate at Canongate Killwinning Lodge. Twenty years after this legendary event, James Hogg, the "Ettrick Shepherd" succeeded Burns as the Masons' bard. In the minutes it was recorded that the post had been "in abeyance since the death of the immortal brother, Robert Burn".[18]

The Kilwinning Lodge, which had been associated with the Knights of Malta, was said to be the oldest in existence. This claim had been made by a native of Kilwinning, Michael Ramsay, known as the Chevalier Ramsay.[19] He was a Freemason and exiled Scottish Jacobite living in France where he had been trying to raise funds for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. In the poem, The Muses Threnodie (1638) the Scottish poet, Henry Adamson, makes a connection between the Masons and the Stuarts:

For we have brethren of the Rosie Crosse;

We have the Mason word and second sight,

Things for to come we can foretell aright ....

But for King Charles, his honour we are back.[20]

Some branches of Scottish Masonry which had supported the Stuarts were sympathetic towards the Jacobite cause. After 1715, several Masonic lodges canalized the surges of Scottish nationalism which followed the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion. The current Whig administration created some new offices including that of "the king's mason".[21] This title formalised the relationship between the monarchy and the Masons. Burns, himself, harboured a sentimental attachment to the Stuart kings when he visited the ruined Stirling Castle where he scratched out the following verse on a window pane:

Here Stewarts once in triumph reign'd,

And laws for Scotland's weal ordain'd;

But now unroof'd their Palace stands,

Their sceptre's fall'n to other hands;

Fallen indeed, and to the earth,

Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth.

The injur'd STEWART — line are gone,

A Race outlandish fill their throne;

An idiot race, to honor lost;

Who know them best despise them most.

Because Burns was not a Jacobite he renounced his action some months later through an act of even greater vandalism. He returned and smashed the window. His reverence for the Stuarts as the founders of Scottish independence did not extend to supporting the restoration of a Jacobite Catholic heir to the throne even though the Vatican's support of the Jacobite cause had led to an alliance between the Jesuits and the "Scottish" Freemasons. Ramsay, who had helped orchestrate these political manoeuvres, was dismissed by James Stuart, the "Old Pretender", as a madman. Nonetheless Ramsay continued to profit from the conspiratorial milieu of Italian Freemasonry. In Rome and Florence intrigue was the hall-mark of the lodges which were attracting religious dissidents, political subversives, and foreign spies. Pope Clement XII reacted to this political threat by issuing a Bull in 1738 which banned Catholics from becoming Freemasons on pain of excommunication. He condemned Masonry as "depraved and perverted", dangerous to the "well-being of souls", and as a result "most suspect of heresy".[22]

Ramsay's method for building up support had been to recruit members for the Scottish or Blue Rite which he may have introduced. Despite its Scottish associations the Blue Rite was never as popular in Scotland as in Europe. The Rite, which continues up to the present day, consists of thirty degrees including the basic triadic system of Entered Apprentice, Fellowcraftsman, and Master Mason. Burns progressed along the path of the Blue Rite through his initiation into the fourth Masonic degree, the Royal Arch, which was reserved for Master Masons. His installation took place on 19 May 1787, at St Abb's lodge, No. 70, at Eyemouth. It was customary for the candidate to pay a guinea as an admission fee but, because Burns had become such a celebrity, his fee was waived. The lodge minutes record this event as follows:

Eyemouth, 19 May, 1787. At a general encampment held this day, the following brethren were made Royal Arch Masons: namely, Robert Burns, from the Lodge of St James, Tarbolton, Ayrshire, and Robert Ainslie, from the Lodge of St Luke, Edinburgh .... Robert Ainslie paid One Guinea admission dues, but on account of Robert Burns' remarkable poetic genius, the encampment unanimously agreed to admit him gratis, and considered themselves honoured by having a man of such shining abilities for one of their companions.[23]

As an active Freemason, Burns was a valuable asset to the Masonic community since his fame helped to attract recruits. Many people who joined the craft probably did so in the hope that they would be mentioned in his verse since this was where Burns often commemorated his Masonic brethren. Some, however, were lampooned such as James Humphrey of Mauchline who had acted as Senior Warden during the poet's initiation. In his epitaph, Burns addressed Humphry as the "Noisy Polemic" and even goes on to denounce him as "a bleth'ran bitch". One of Burns's patrons was Tam Samson, a prominent member of the lodge. Burns responded ambivalently to his patronage by writing a mock elegy for him nearly ten years premature entitled "Tam Samson's Elegy" which contained the following lodge lament:

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!

The lodge secretary, the school teacher, John Wilson, was ridiculed by Burns as "Dr Hornbook". The animosity between Burns and Wilson erupted during a lodge meeting which provoked Burns to revile his rival in "Death and Doctor Hornbook":

The Clachan yill had made me canty,

I was na fou, but just had plenty

Unfortunately the poet's willingness to attack a rival-brother in verse meant that the private disputes within the lodge could be amplified into the public forum of his poetry. This was contrary to the regulations governing the lodge which specified:

Whereas a Lodge always means a company of worthy men and circumspect, gathered together in order to promote charity, friendship, civility nd good neighbourhood, it is enacted that no member of this Lodge shall speak slightingly, detractingly or calumniously of any of his Brethren behind their backs, so as to damage them in their professions or reputations without any certain grounds, and any member committing any such offence must humble himself by asking on his knees the pardon of such person or persons as his folly or malice hath aggrieved.[24]

It was more usual to find Burns unashamedly using his poetic licence to praise his fellow-Masons. The tone of his Masonic poetry is joyful and hymnal as in the poem "To Dr John Mackenzie" (AD. 1786). This is also dated "An. M. 5790" which refers to the calendar used in the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. "An. M." is an abbreviation of Anno Mundi, "In the Year of the World", a Hebraic system of dating which involves adding 3760 to the A.D. year. Though Burns claims to be using an An. M. date, he is actually using the A. L. (Anno Lucis) "Year of Light" system which is found by adding 4004 to the ordinary calendar year. It is appropriate that Burns has used a Masonic date in a verse-epistle inviting Dr Mackenzie of Mauchline to the Freemasons' annual procession which traditionally took place on Midsummer Day, 24 June:

Friday first's the day appointed

By our Right Worshipful Anointed,

To hold our grand Procession,

To get a blade o' Johnie's Morals,

And taste a swatch o' Manson's barrels,

I' the way of our Profession:

Our Master and the Brotherhood

Wad a' be glad to see you;

For me, I wad be maier than proud

To share the MERCIES wi' you

If Death, then wi' skaith then

Some mortal heart is hechtin,

Inform him, an' storm him,

That SATURDAY ye'll fecht him.

The Mason's parade had been banned by Grand Lodge in 1747 in order to deter the derisive mock-Masonic processions which were conducted by rival organisations such as the Gormogons. In Hogarth's engraving of a parade, The Mystery of the Masons brought to Light by the Gormogons (1724), a monkey is dressed in apron and gloves as a visual pun on the Gormogons aping Freemasonry![25] A further regulation issued in 1754 expressly prohibited a brother from attending any public procession dressed in his Masonic regalia.[26] The Antients, however, only forbade parades in 1799 for a few years and then gave permission before for them to continue. This is one indication that Burns was aligned with the Antients since his poem was written in 1786 at a time when processions had been outlawed by the Moderns. One cause of dissension between the two factions had been the neglect of saints' days which the Antients had re-instated within the Masonic calendar. One of the most important festivals was June 24, the traditional birthday of St John the Baptist which, as Burns indicates in his epistolary verse, was celebrated by a ceremonial procession:

Tarbolton, twenty-fourth o' June,

Ye'll find me in a better tune.

The date was also commemorated as the day on which Grand Lodge had met to appoint the first Grand Master in 1717. The Antients continued to install his successors on this feast-day. The reason why St John was such a prominent Freemasons' saint remains unclear. During the seventeenth century English Masons had been called "St John's Men" or "St John's Masons" while in Scotland the connection between craft Masonry and the celebration of St John was even more pronounced.[27]

Burns's "St John's Day" invitation suggests that he was an active participant in these proceedings. And by appearing publicly as a Mason, Burns demonstrated that he was not in any way secretive about his membership. Indeed, through his poetry he openly acknowledged the benefits he derived from the fellowship of the lodge by exhibiting pride in his Masonic allegiance.

The Patronage of the Lodge

During the eighteenth century, Freemasonry increased its sphere of influence by becoming accessible to a cross-section of trades and professions. In becoming a speculative order, Masonry could now admit both the artist and the artisan. Grand Lodge was determined to diminish its more sinister role as a secret society by stressing the craft's commitment to public life. Gradually Masonry emerged as a benevolent and charitable body which was also a source of patronage for the arts. In Burns's day, Freemasons who were patrons of the Drama appeared at theatrical performances in full Masonic regalia. Artists and writers such as Hogarth and Defoe may have been among those commissioned to rebuild the face of Freemasonry so that it could eventually project a public image which would make it acceptable as a social institution. By 1743 there was particular urgency for reform since Masonry had fallen into disrepute. The popularity of the Freemasons had waned so drastically that Walpole concluded that "nothing but a persecution could bring them into vogue again".[28] The "persecution" materialised in the form of a pamphlet war waged against the fraternity during the 1740s. Some pamphlets were exposés produced in response to the growing public curiosity concerning the activities of the brotherhood. Other anti-Masonic pamphleteers alleged that the craft promoted bribery and corruption, drunkenness and debauchery. Though many of these accusations were groundless, the society was certainly in need of reorganisation and general improvement.

It has been suggested that Hogarth had been encouraged by his Masonic superior, James Thornhill, to satirise the craft in order to stimulate much needed reform.[29] Through paintings and engravings, such as The Mystery of the Masons brought to Light by the Gormogons (1724), and Night, from the series The Four Times of Day (1738), Hogarth graphically presented the social abuses associated with the fraternity. He was able to reach a wide audience by exhibiting his work at Vauxhall Gardens which effectively became an early public art gallery. Therefore, Hogarth was able to communicate to fellow-Masons by incorporating within his art secret codes and signals taken from craft ritual and myth which would be intelligible to the initiated. Early speculative Masons were anxious to preserve the secrecy of their rites and symbolism under threat from the vogue for exposures pouring from the press. The most effective of these was a pamphlet entitled Masonry Dissected written by a renegade Mason called Samuel Prichard. It is likely that Defoe had been assigned by Grand Lodge to reply to Prichard's exposé. Defoe's pamphlet, The Perjured Freemason Detected (1730), attacks Prichard as a perjurer and sets out to invalidate his findings.[30] Undoubtedly lodge officials recognised the importance of the artist and writer as a spokesman who would help legitimise Masonic activities toward social acceptability. Strategically the cultivation of the arts was useful in spreading Masonry to all branches of society. Indeed the potential power of the poet to influence public opinion would have favourably disposed Grand Lodge to patronise Burns as a future ambassador for Freemasonry.

Ideologically, the lodges represented an important alternative to the system of aristocratic patronage. Freemasonry provided a platform for the assertion of bourgeois values during the Enlightenment which helped free the poet and painter from subservience to the ruling classes. Ironically, the aristocracy had established itself within this system of equality and fraternity from the onset. Stephen Knight suggests that the installation of Anthony Sayer, a non-aristocrat as the first Grand Master, was a tactic intended to play down the extent of aristocratic influence:

The upper classes kept a low profile. They backed the creation of a central organization welding individual Lodges together, but evidently wanted this done before they assumed control. Of the four original London Lodges, the first three contained not one "Esquire" between them, whereas Lodge Original No. 4 was made up of seventy-one members of whom, in 1724, ten were nobles, three were honourable, four were baronets or knights, and two were generals.[31]

The first noble to be installed Grand Master was the Duke of Montague in 1721. Throughout the next decade he was followed by ten Grand Masters, seven of whom were members of the aristocracy. Among these was Lord Byron (the great-uncle of the poet) who became Grand Master in 1747. The headship of the English Freemasons was even extended to royalty when the younger son of George II, the Duke of Cumberland, took up the office in 1782. A royal precedent had already been set by Frederick, Prince of Wales, who in 1737 became an accepted Mason. Fifty years later Burns was amongst those who celebrated the initiation of the future kings, George IV and William IV, into the craft. Burns recognised the central importance of the monarch to Masonry and even described King George III in Masonic language as the sacred key-stone of our Royal Arch Constitution. But when George was treated for insanity in 1788 Burns revised his views and confessed "it is altogether impossible that [he is] such a man as I can appreciate."[32] Surprisingly the Masonic spirit with its revolutionary values of liberty, equality and fraternity did not militate against an aristocratic leadership. Smart typified such traditionalism by boasting of the fraternity's regal and imperial connections in his lodge song:

With us mighty MONARCHS have sided,

And EMP'RORS are writ in our ROLLS.

For Burns, aristocratic and Masonic patronage converged. An example of this occurred when James Dalrymple of Orangefield introduced him to his future patron, Lord Glencairn, during a meeting of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge in 1786.[33] Other aristocrats Burns encountered through Masonry included; Lord Torphichen, Lord Pitsligo, Lord Elcho, the Earl of Eglinton and the Earl of Glencairn. In being flexible enough to accommodate the Masonic fraternity, the British ruling classes were instrumental in converting this former quasicraft guild into a bulwark of the social hierarchy. The protean character of Freemasonry enabled it to assimilate and then reproduce the social values outside. In France, during the welter of social upheaval the lodges provided a focal point for the bourgeois Revolution whereas in Britain Masons mirrored and then reinforced the class-system itself. The middle classes were attracted to Masonry because it fostered Enlightened individualism. Selfinterest was enshrined within the Mason's insurance scheme which was guaranteed to help brethren in distress. The fraternity also had a kinship with the friendly societies.[34] These working-class combines, out of which developed the trades' union movement, bore a family resemblance to the Masonic underground co-operatives which set out to provide collective support for the individual.

In Burns's case, Freemasonry had put him into contact with influential people such as Gavin Hamilton and James Dalrymple. The lodges helped to launch his poetic career as a poet by campaigning for subscribers in order to meet the publishing costs of his volumes of poetry. Gavin Hamilton, a fellow Mason, was influential in getting St James's lodge to provide funds for the publication of Burns's first book, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). The poet dedicated the edition to Hamilton, his "Friend and Brother", who he described as:

...the poor man's friend in need,

The GENTLEMAN in word and deed.

The book was published in Kilmarnock where the local brethren admitted Burns into St John's lodge on 26 October 1786. This was the first time in Masonic circles that Burns was acknowledged as a poet since he was described in the lodge minutes as Robert Burns, poet, from Mauchline, a member of St James.[35] The Kilmarnock members accepted 350 copies of the book which became known as the Kilmarnock edition.[36] The Right Worshipful Master subscribed to 35 copies and another brother to 75. Unfortunately, the Kilmarnock publishing venture was not sufficent to ensure Burns's financial stability so, in 1787, another edition of the poems was brought out. From this Burns earned 500 pounds though he forfeited copyright. The book was published in Edinburgh under Masonic patronage. The printer, William Smellie, and the engraver, Alexander Nasmith, were both Masons while the publisher, John Wilson, was a member of the Kilmarnock Lodge. The volume, which was known as the Edinburgh edition, was a reprint of the Kilmarnock version with a hundred pages more including twenty-two additional poems not all of which were new. The publisher of the Edinburgh edition was William Creech who Burns had met at a Masonic meeting. Creech became the subject of two of Burns's poems including a satirical lament for his absence. Since the majority of Burns's friends and business acquaintances were Freemasons, it is likely that the moral imperative to help a fellow-Mason operated to Burns's advantage. For example, some enthusiastic brothers even bought volumes of his poems to swell book-sales. Robert Aiken, mentioned in "Holy Willie's Prayer" and dubbed "Orator Bob" in the poem "The Kirk of Scotland's Garland — a New Song" boasted of having "read Burns into fame" by obtaining 145 subscribers for the Kilmarnock edition.[37] In the literary world, Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling (1771) was also a Freemason who favourably reviewed his first volume of poems in The Lounger (9 December 1786)[38] The poet was also admired by Walter Scott, another Mason, who on seeing Burns's portrait in a lodge room remarked:

I am much gratified by the sight of the portrait of Robert Burns. I saw that distinguished poet only once, and that many years since, and being a bad marker of likenesses and recollector of faces, I should in an ordinary case have hesitated to offer an opinion upon the resemblance, especially as I make no pretension to judge of the fine arts. But Burns was so remarkable a man that his features remain impressed on my mind as I had seen him only yesterday, and I could not hesitate to recognise this portrait as a striking resemblance of the poet, though it had been presented to me amid a whole exhibition.[39]

Like Burns, Scott's work had been influenced by the craft. In Ivanhoe (1819) Scott is concerned with the Knights Templar who figured in legendary histories of the craft from which developed Templar Masonry. The later novel, Anne of Geierstein (1829) also deals with a secret society which is loosely based on the Freemasons.[40] These literary examples illustrate that Freemasonry not only furnished the writer and artist with a source of patronage but also provided material and inspiration for works of art. In addition to this a beneficial reciprocity operated between Burns and the brotherhood. As he indicated through his poetry, any system of patronage works best when it is of mutual advantage to both parties "sic Poet an' sic Patron".

The Mason's Apron *

The literary influence of Freemasonry on the Scottish Enlightenment is best demonstrated through Burns's poetry. An explicitly Masonic poem, attributed to Burns, is "The Master's Apron" which appeared in The Freemason for October 1902:

Ther's mony a badge that's unco braw;

Wi' ribbon, lace and tape on;

Let kings an' princes wear them a'

Gie me the Master's apron!

 

The honest craftsman's apron,

The jolly Freemason's apron,

Be he at hame, or roam afar,

Before his touch fa's bolt and bar,

The gates of fortune fly ajar,

'Gin he but wears the apron!

 

For wealth and honour, pride and power

Are crumbling stanes to base on;

Fraternity suld rule the hour,

And ilka worthy Mason!

Each Free Accepted Mason,

Each Ancient Crafted Mason.

 

Then, brithers, let a halesome sang

Arise your friendly ranks alang!

Guidwives and bairnies blithely sing

To the ancient badge wi' the apron string

That is worn by the Master Mason![41]

The poem is filled with references to Masonic symbolism and craft ritual which would be instantly intelligible to the initiated. Through the secret figurative language of the lodge, Burns venerated the "badge" of Freemasonry, the Mason's apron. The antiquity of this item of Masonic regalia is evident from the last two lines where Burns refers to "the ancient badge" worn by the "Master Mason". The Mason reader would be reminded here of the apron worn by Hiram Abif, the legendary founder of the brotherhood, who was also the chief architect of King Solomon's Temple. The importance of the apron to Freemasonry had emerged from its use in the operative craft as protective clothing for the "Ancient Crafted Mason". From this functional origin the apron, which was traditionally made out of lamb-skin, had taken on an emblematic significance which evoked the purity and moral integrity of the craftsman.

As an apprenticed tradesman, Burns would have appreciated the operative purpose of the apron which functioned in the lodge-room to identify a member's rank and duties within the order. This information was communicated by the "ribbon, lace and tape" which also served to decorate the apron. In the first line of the poem, Burns voices his disapproval of elaborate aprons as "unco braw". Yet, towards the end of his life in 1790, Burns modified his ascetic tastes sufficiently to accept a decorative apron from the composer and lyricist, Charles Sharpe. In the presence of his fellow-Masons at the Globe Tavern, Dumfries, Burns was presented with the apron of

chamois leather, very fine, with figures of gold, some of them relieved with green, others with a dark-red colour [while] on the under side of the semi-circular part which is turned down at the top is written in a bold, fair hand: "Charles Sharpe, of Hotham, to Rabbie Burns. Dumfries, Dec. 12, 1791."[42]

By appropriating the elaborate apron to Kings and Princes in line three of the poem, Burns demonstrates his awareness of the link between royalty and the craft. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the egalitarian ideals of Freemasonry by praising the Master and honest craftsman above kings and princes. In doing so he pays homage to the second and third degrees of the brotherhood, that of the Fellowcraftsman and Master Mason.

The apron was symbolic of the fraternal spirit of the craft expressed through the hospitality which was extended to every member. The Masonic network which was spreading throughout Europe came close to translating into actuality the Enlightenment concept of Universal Benevolence. As Burns notes in "The Master's Apron":

Be he at hame, or roam afar,

Before his touch fa's bolt and bar,

The gates of fortune fly ajar

'Gin he but wears the apron!

The apron signified the secret knowledge possessed by the Freemason which enabled him to gain access into any Masonic lodge through the use of grips, pass-words and signs. According to Burns, the power and influence of the fraternity ranked before wealth and honour, pride and power. These secular goals are dismissed as "crumbling stanes" which provide powerful metaphors for Freemasonry whose legendary past had cultivated the skills of the stone-mason. King Solomon's Temple stood at the heart of Masonic mythology having been transmuted into the spiritual ideal of the temple of "living stones".[43] The vitality of the Freemason as a living stone eager to rebuild the temple of mystical Enlightenment contrasted with the false values of wealth, honour, pride, and power which are seen as crumbling stones. The revolutionary message of Freemasonry as a vast edifice which encompassed an alternative system of morality signified a movement intent upon reforming the spiritual destiny of mankind through the central image of the builder. Hence Burns's attempt to arouse his fellow-Masons, their wives and children, to sing a hymn of praise to the uniform of the master-builder, the Mason's apron.

Burns may be seen wearing an apron in a portrait painted after his election to the office of Depute-Master of St James's lodge. His apron is distinguished by a flap which in the operative craft was designed to protect the worker's clothing. Speculative Masons disputed whether or not to wear the triangular bib inside or outside their apron. Jones draws attention to an expose of 1772 where the initiate was reported to say: "I tied the apron round my waist, with the flap on the inside, an apprentice not being entitled to wear it otherways".[44] The portrait of Burns shows that he had exercised his right as Master Mason to wear the flap externally. Emblazoned on this bib is his Mason's Mark, a reminder of the society's operative roots when stone-masons inscribed their signature or mark onto the part of a building they had completed. For Burns the Mason's Mark was synonymous with his word of honour as inscribed in the Bible which he gave to his sweetheart, Mary Campbell.[45] Burns dedicated to Campbell the song, "Highland Lassie O", where he wrote:

She has my heart, she has my hand,

By secret Truth and Honor's band.

The "secret truth" may refer to the Masonic pledge represented by his Mason's Mark which he reproduced along with his autograph and texts from Leviticus and Matthew in Highland Mary's Bible. According to tradition the couple exchanged bibles, and Mary's Bible in two volumes, which originally belonged to Burns, is now preserved at the poet's monument in Alloway. It is interesting to note that a number of records reveal how Burns failed to reproduce his Mason's Mark consistently. One controversial reason for this has been put forward by Peter Watson who, after examining the Minute Book of Burns's lodge, came to the conclusion that, when the poet wrote out his name and Mason's Mark, alcohol had impaired his judgment:

Amongst a long list of signatures of members, many of them having their Mason's marks attached, we find Burns signing himself in full "Robert Burns", and adding his Masonic mark of nine points in the same line. This signature had less resemblance to the familiar and undoubtedly genuine form than many of the others, but there is no date to it, and it is just possible that the conditions under which he signed were what the lodge might term "unfortunate".[46]

"Tis wine ye masons makes you free"[47]

As the "unfortunate" conditions mentioned above suggest, Burns may have been intoxicated at the time when he signed the Minute-Book. Such indulgences were certainly exacerbated by the conviviality of his fellow-Masons. In the "Epistle to J. Lapraik, An Old Scotch Bard", Burns celebrates the fellowship of the lodge:

But ye whom social pleasure charms,

Whose hearts the tide of kindness warms,

Who hold your being on the terms,

"Each aid the others,"

Come to my bowl, come to my arms,

My friends, my brothers!

The Masonic authorities had been alerted to the problems caused by drunkenness during lodge meetings. For example, one of the rules of St James's lodge even attempted to curb some of the more adverse effects of excessive drinking:

If any Brother be so unfortunate as to have disordered his senses by strong liquors and thereby rendered himself incapable of behaving himself decently, peaceably and kind towards those around him, such Brother coming to the Lodge in that condition to the disturbance and disgust of his Brethren, 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 by the Lodge on him as to them may appear proper to his crime, and deter him from it in all time coming.[48]

Burns's drinking habits were well established outside the lodge. During his youth he had helped found the all male "Bachelors' Club" which levied a threepenny subscription for drinks, supplemented further by fines for non-attendance. Later, while visiting Edinburgh, Burns found that he preferred the atmosphere of the tavern to that of society's drawing rooms. Consequently he began to patronise Dawney Douglas's tavern in Anchor Close where the drinking club known as the Crochallan Fencibles met.[49] But Burns recalled it was at St Oswald's where he really seasoned his drinking habits so that he could "look unconcernedly on a large tavern bill, and mix without fear in a drunken squabble".[50] In the Bacchanalian eulogy, "Scotch Drink", Burns praises Scotland's national drink, whisky:

Fortune, if thou'll but gie me still

Hale brecks, a scone, an' Whisky gill,

An' rowth o' rhyme to rave at will,

Tak a' the rest,

An' deal't about as thy blind skill

Directs thee best.

Burns even campaigned through his poetry for reforms to the drinking laws as in "The Author's Earnest Cry and Prayer," to the Scotch Representatives in the House of Commons", where he begged for a repeal of the heavy taxes on whisky. Bouts of excessive drinking marked the period of dissipation which had been triggered off by his personal problems with Jean Armour, the daughter of a Master Mason. In his "Second Epistle to Davie", Burns celebrates the love of women and the fellowship of men, specifically the Freemasons' fraternity:

Whyles daez't wi' love, whyles daez't wi' drink,

Wi' jads or masons;

The connection between wine, women and Masonry during the eighteenth century is evident from a number of bawdy Masonic drinking songs. Invariably the Masons' working tools were subject to sexual innuendo while aspects of ritual and symbolism were used to evoke erotic imagery. Perhaps saucy lyrics were intended to compensate for the exclusion of women from the lodge-room. But it is more likely that the brotherhood hoped to counter their enemies' accusations of sodomy by asserting their heterosexual virility. A bawdy poem attributed to Burns called "A Masonic Song", describes how a Mason provides evidence of his initiation through his sexual prowess:

A Masonic Song

It happened on a winter night

And early in the season

Some body said my bonny lad

Was gone to be a Mason.

Fal de ral etc.

 

I cryed and wailed but nought availed

He put a forward face on

And did avow that he was now

A free accepted Mason.

 

Still doubting if the fact was true

He gave me demonstration

For out he drew before my view

The Jewels of a Mason.

 

The Jewels all baith great and small

I viewed with admiration

When he set his siege and drew his gage

I wondered at my mason.

 

His compass stride he laid it wide

I thought I guessed the reason

But his mallet shaft it put me daft

I longed to be a Mason.

 

Good plumets strong he downward hung

A noble jolly brace on

And off a slant his broacher sent

And drove it like a mason.

 

But the tempered steel began to fail

Too soft for the occasion

It melted plain he drove so keen

My galant noble Mason.

 

So pleased was I to see him ply

The tools of his vocation

I beg'd for once he wuld dispense

And make a Maid a mason.

 

Then round and round in mystic ground

He took the middle station'

And with halting pace he reached the place

Where I was made a mason.

 

Then more and more the light did pour

With bright Illumination

But when the grip he did me slip

I gloried in my mason.

 

What farther past is here lock fast

I'm under obligation

But fill to him up to the brim

Can make a maid a mason.[51]

Throughout this poem Masonic terms are used as sexual metaphors. These include jewels which denote rank and office and the broacher or broached thurnel which is a conical stone chisel. Burns also exploits the phallic symbolism of the plummet or plumb-line, the 'gage' referring to the 24-inch gauge used by the Entered Apprentice and the shaft of the "mallet" or hammer associated with the Master of the lodge. The Masons' clandestine communication through the use of body language is parodied by the image of the "compass stride" in stanza five while the secret "grip" or handshake is ridiculed in stanza ten. The poem culminates in a description of the sexual act which caricatures Masonic initiation by punning on the expression "made a Mason". G. Legman dismisses the homosexual undertones of the poem as factitious "homoerotic mummery"[52] which may have been intended to clash with its feminine perspective for comic effect.

Apparently Burns composed the "Masonic Song" extempore at a lodge meeting. The Masonic environment provided Burns with poetic inspiration because it was able to accommodate his defiance of the social and moral order outside. On another occasion at St Andrew's lodge in Irvine, he added a stanza to his song "No Churchman am I" which eulogised the drinking habits of the Freemasons:

A Stanza added in a Mason Lodge

Then fill up a bumper and make it o'erflow,

And honours masonic prepare for to throw;

May ev'ry true Brother of th' Compass and Square

Have a big-belly'd bottle when harass'd with care.

According to William Harvey, such drinking appliances as the "pint-stoup and the toddy-ladle were the working-tools of all the Degrees"[53] which suggests that Freemasonry had degenerated into a drinking club. Even the initiation fee for a candidate admitted by Burns was donated towards "defraying the expenses of the night".[54] For Burns imbibing was essential to social conviviality and as such the most apt expression of the fraternal bond. He communicated these beliefs in verse:

But a club of good fellows, like those that are here,

And a bottle like this, are my glory and care.

Henry Mackenzie, however, took a more sombre view of the effect of alcohol on Burns believing that the poet had been "seduced by dissipated companions" and after he got into the Excise addicted himself to drunkenness".[55]

Throughout his life, Burns cultivated his drinking habits within Masonic lodges. During the eighteenth century, Freemasons had acquired a reputation for excessive drinking. In the treatise, Ebrietatis Encomium or the Praise of Drunkenness (1723), chapter fifteen is dedicated to "Free masons and other Learned Men that used to get Drunk". Opponents of the craft suggested that the Masons had derived their epiphet "free" from their cult of imbibing. One comic couplet traces the semantics of "free" to a Bacchanalian source:

'Tis Wine, ye Masons, makes you free,

Bacchus the father is of Liberty.[56]

By the 1730s the public image of Freemasonry reeled towards one of institutionalised drunkenness. Hogarth caricatured the popular view of the drunken Mason returning from the excesses of a lodge-meeting in his engraving Night. In the fore-ground is Sir Thomas De Veil, a past Master of Hogarth's lodge.[57] De Veil is being physically supported by Sir Andrew Montgomery who was the Grand Tyler of the Grand Lodge of England. Ironically, De Veil who was a reputed drunkard was also a magistrate whose duties included the enforcement of the Gin Act (1736)![58] The drinking habits of the brotherhood were also ridiculed in "A Letter from the Grand Mistress of the Female Free-Masons" (1724). As the contents of the letter reveal, the Grand Mistress of the Female Freemasons has been misinformed about Freemasonry by the male Mason who formed and instructed the womens' lodge. The reason why his knowledge of Masonry is so erroneous was because his initiation at the lodge in Omagh, Ulster, had been abruptly curtailed. Apparently the brethren were so "far gone in Punch and Whisky"[59] that they had been unable to proceed with the ceremony.

Burns promoted the typological view of the "merry mason" throughout his verse. He referred earlier to the relationship between Masonry and drinking in the rhyming invitation to Dr Mackenzie where he invites him to "taste a swatch" or sample "o' Manson's barrels" which he proclaims to be "I' the way of our profession." A more subtle link appears in a Scots poem, described by William Harvey as "a symposium of fun, Freemasonry, and whisky"[60] which begins:

Frae wast to south, tell ilka callan'

The corps maun anchor at Crochallan.

"And wha gaes there" thrice Millar gruntit;

"I," rattlin' Willie roared and duntit.

As twal is Tron'd we a' link out;

The moon — a ragged washin' clout

Glints shame-fac'd to ae wankriff starrie;

The nicht's been wat — thc caus'y's glaurie.

In Davie's straucht, and numbering aicht,

A bowl's filled to the rarest

For sang or story; — or wha glory

In drinkin' to the fairest.

These verses commemorate how Burns and Jo Millar, the Junior Warden of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, celebrated the initiation of John Gray. In this poem Burns manages to convey the drunken atmosphere of these festivities through word-play on Hiram Abif and King Hiram of Tyre. The content of the "sang or story" is a retelling of one of the "tales of Tyre" narrated by William Cruickshank who was one of Burns's drinking companions:

Now tales o' lyre, for buikless billies,

Are tauld by rival pedant Willies;

How Thebes' King, when tir'd o' Sidon,

Erected Tyre-folk to reside in;

Nic Willie wond'rin wha could hire him,

If't hadna been the first King Hiram,

"O ye donnerill!" cried the Coronel,

"Twas the hindmost King o' Tyre,

"Twas nae Hiram, but King Iram,

For he finished it — wi' fire.

In the last two lines Burns puns on the burning of lyre and the fires of whisky. The poem was written as a reply to Cruickshank whose friendship Burns declared was as "dear to me as the ruddy drops that warm my heart'.[61] The beginning of the final stanza suggests that Cruickshank had witnessed the poet's inauguration as Poet-Laureate which allegedly had taken place at the same time as Gray's initiation:

But Latin Willies reek noo raise,

He'd seen that nicht Rab croun'd wi' bays.

 

In recognition of Cruickshank's reputation as a Classics scholar, Burns concluded his poem with a Latin joke:

If ye wad tell, Cruik, speer at hell

Pro Iram coram Draco.

He continued the theme through a Masonic couplet:

When Draco and when Iram flourished

And if they baith freemasons nourished?

Burns viewed the temple-building period of the ancient world mentioned in the poem as a golden age for the Freemasons hence his attempt to unite past and present by celebrating the conviviality of the craft through the images of its own antiquity. The institutionalised festivities of the lodge which sanctioned the consumption of alcohol enabled Burns to indulge in a bacchanalian forgetfulness by overlooking the warning he once wrote on a tumbler at Ryedale:

There's death in the cup — sae beware!

Nay, more — there is danger in touching;

But wha can avoid the fell snare?

The man and his wine's sae bewitching!

Brothers of the Mystic Tie [62]

Burns praises the fraternal spirit in two of his Masonic songs, "The Sons of old Killie" (1786) and "The Farewell. To the Brethren of St James's Lodge, Tarbolton". In the latter his fellow-Masons are praised as "Companions of my social joy!" while the lodge meeting takes place on "a chearful [sic] festive night" attended by a "social Band". For Burns Freemasonry was a compound of mysticism and conviviality which he presents in his address to his "brothers of the mystic tye!"

The Farewell. To the Brethren of St. James's Lodge, Tarbolton

Tune, Goodnight and joy e wi' you a'

ADIEU! a heart-warm, fond adieu!

Dear brothers of the mestic tye!

Ye favour'd, 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 chearful, festive night; Oft, honor'd with supreme command,

Presided o'er the Sons of light:

And by that Hieroglyphic 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,

Justly, that highest badge to wear!

Heav'n bless your honor'd, noble Name,

To MASONRY 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'.

The mood of these verses is sorrowful since they concern Burns's farewell to Scottish Freemasonry. He had recently completed all his arrangements for emigration to Jamaica where he intended to start work on a plantation as a book-keeper. The reason for his hasty departure was to escape the scandal involving Jean Armour, who was going to give birth to Burns's illegitimate twins. Burns was determined to escape the disapproval of the Kirk whom he pictured as a clan of "holy beagles" and a "houghmagandie pack" who would "sniff the scent" of the "old fox" Burns who intended "to earth among the mountains of Jamaica".[63] Though glad to leave behind the Kirk, Burns regretted abandoning his Fellow-Masons:

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'.

Burns's paternalistic tone in "I'll mind you still, tho' far awa'." reflects his sense of responsibility as the Depute-Master of the lodge. The Master was Major-General James Montgomerie whose constant absences from Masonic gatherings meant that Burns had often been in sole command. Consequently he reminds the brethren in stanza two of the times when he was "honor'd with supreme command" and "presided o'er the Sons of light". In turn, the poet claims that after his departure he will remember the lodge through the Masonic symbol of the compass and square "that Hieroglyphic bright/ Which none but Craftsmen ever saw!" Since the Freemasons' code of ethics was symbolized by the craftsman's working tools, Burns urged his fellow-Masons to follow the plummet's "unerring line" so that order may reign over the lodge. This symbolism is derived from the Masonic version of the creation myth. As mentioned earlier the "Great Architect of the Universe" was believed to have measured out the cosmos with the craftsman's working tools. Thus Freemasons unite in the grand design of their craft as a tribute to the Creator. As a microcosm of the divine harmony, the lodge room is watched over by the Masonic-Christian insignia of the "Omniscient Eye" which is displayed on the ceiling. In the last stanza Burns addresses his final farewell to a secular overseer, William Wallace, Sheriff of Ayr, the Grand Master-Mason of Scotland:

And You, farewell! whose merits claim,

Justly, that highest badge to wear!

Heav'n bless your honor'd, noble Name,

To MASONRY and SCOTIA dear!

Departure is also the key-note of the Masonic song "The Sons of old Killie" which Burns wrote shortly before leaving Kilmarnock for Edinburgh in 1786. At a lodge meeting held at the Old Commercial Inn, Croft Street, Burns sang this lyric in gratitude to the brethren of Kilmarnock lodge for making him an honorary member.

The Sons of old Killie

Tune —Shawnboy

 

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.

I've little to say, but only to pray,

As praying's the ton of your fashion;

A prayer from the Muse you well may excuse,

'us seldom her favourite passion.

 

Ye powers who preside o'er the wind and the tide,

Who marked each clement's border;

Who formed this frame with beneficent aim,

Whose sovereign statute is order;

Within this dear mansion may wayward contention

Or withered envy, ne'cr enter;

May secresy round be the mystical bound,

And brotherly love be the centre! [64]

In the first line of the song Burns addresses the brethren of "Killie" (a contraction of Kilmarnock) who have been assembled by "Willie" or William Parker, the Master Mason. The metaphor "sons" has Masonic significance since Freemasons were known traditionally as "Widow's sons" in imitation of Hiram Abif. A sense of tradition was important to those who had chosen "To follow the noble vocation" of Freemasonry. The "thrifty old mother" mentioned in line three refers to Kilmarnock as a mother-lodge which is the term given to the place of a brother's initiation. Family imagery is continued towards the end of the poem through an invocation of brotherly love which is represented by the Masonic symbol of the point-within-the-circle. This image of harmony would have reminded Burns of the problems caused by internal discord which had split up the Tarbolton lodge in 1773. The point-within-the-circle was also symbolic of the Creator as a configuration of the finite within the infinite signified by the circle, the figure of eternity. The Masons had derived their mystical teaching from the Hermetic tradition of the Renaissance. The point-within-the-circle had been transmitted from alchemy where it had functioned as the chemical symbol for gold.[65] The four elements of earth, fire, water and air which were essential to the process of transmutation of base metal into gold are mentioned at the beginning of the second stanza:

Ye powers who preside o'er the wind and the tide,

Who marked each element's border.

The spiritual dimension of alchemy signified the process towards purity and the integration of fallen man with nature, the goal of the Freemasons preserved through the "secresy" of the "mystical bond".

The mysticism and paganism of Freemasonry would suggest that Burns had rebelled against his own religious upbringing by belonging to an organization which contained anti-Christian elements. Nevertheless, in "Address to the Deil" he ridicules the rumours that Masons conjured up the devil in their ceremonies:

When MASONS' mystic word an' grip,

In storms an' tempests raise you up,

Some cock, or cat, your rage maun stop,

Or, strange to tell!

The youngest Brother ye wad whip

Aff straught to Hell.

Burns's father, William, had been a devout Christian who had written for his children A Manual of Religious Belief for the Instruction of Children (1875). Perhaps Burns was thinking of his father when he wrote in "A Masonic song":

It happened on a winter night

And early in the season

Some body said my bonny lad

Was gone to be a Mason. [66]

As a Presbyterian, Burns would have been subject to the influence of a powerful religious body, the Kirk.[67] In 1707 the Treaty of Union posed a threat to the power of the Kirk through moves on the part of the "heritors" to appoint officials of the Church of Scotland by patronage instead of by election. At a time when the Kirk was struggling to maintain a grip on the community Burns may have sought in Freemasonry an alternative to the authority of these Scottish patriarchs. Even though there must have been an overlapping membership, Burns's defection to the Masons could be interpreted, in symbolic terms at least, as an act of betrayal in view of the official complaint made against the fraternity by the Presbyterian Church. After a Synod held in 1745, the Presbyterians passed an act of the assembly in 1757 repudiating the Masons' oath. This they denounced as a mixture of profane and superstitious devices: "Whereas an oath is one of the most solemn acts of religious worship, which ought to be taken only upon important and necessary occasions and to be sworn in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness."[68] The Synod also objected to the penalty for perjury as well as to the tenet that the neophyte was swearing allegiance to a set of principles which were, as yet, unknown to him:

If that oath was not administered to them, without letting them know the terms of it, till in the act of administering the same to them? If it was not an oath binding them to keep a number of secrets, none of which they were allowed to know before swearing the oath? If, beside a solemn invocation of the Lord's name in that oath, it did not contain a capital penalty about having their tongues and hearts taken out in case of breaking the same? If the said oath was not administered to them with several superstitious ceremonies; such as, the stripping them of, or requiring them to deliver up, any thing of metal which they had upon them, — and making them kneel upon their right knee bare, holding up their right arm bare, with their elbow upon the Bible, or with the Bible laid before them, — or having the Bible, as also the square and compasses, in some particular way applied to their bodies? and, if among the secrets which they were bound by that oath to keep, there was not a passage of scripture read to them, particularly I Kings vii, 2i with or without some explication put upon the same, for being concealed.[69]

Freemasonry had been condemned by orthodox Christians as a Gnostic heresy mainly because Grand Lodge had excluded Christianity from Masonic ritual. The craft's first official historian, the Scottish Mason, James Anderson, only mentions Christianity during a passing reference to the historical Christ as the Messiah and the great Architect of the Church who was born during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Eighteenth-century thinkers strongly identified with this period of Ancient Rome which may be why Anderson makes the outlandish claim that the Emperor Augustus was an early Grand Master. Freemasonry drew on the classical characteristics of the Augustan world-picture which developed into the cultural panoply of the Enlightenment. Deism, which attracted Enlightened thinkers, was adopted as the creed of the Freemason. In Anderson's Constitutions, the section dealing with the "Charges of a Free-Mason' opens: "It is now thought more expedient only to oblige them [the Freemasons] to that religion in which all men agree, leaving their particular opinions to themselves".[70] The Deistic belief in a supreme being was galvanised by the Masons into a veneration for the Great Architect of the Universe. Philosophers such as Locke and Voltaire having become Deists made overtures towards Freemasonry as a uniform belief-system[71] which in some respects was a microcosm of the Enlightenment. Burns addresses his brothers of the mystic tie as "Ye favour'd, ye enlighten'd few" which points to the relationship between mystical initiation and illumination through the light of reason which had already begun to dawn in the lodges:

Where scepter'd Reason from her Throne,

Surveys the Lodge and makes us one.[72]

The paradigm of Aufklarüng built upon the paradox between elitism and egalitarianism was contained within the deeper structures of the secret societies which proliferated during the Golden Age of the Scottish Enlightenment. Appropriately it was a secret society which set out to define the term "Enlightenment" in 1783.[73]

In an analogy of universal Enlightenment, every candidate for Masonic initiation was taken out of the darkness and received into the light of Freemasonry. The metaphor of Enlightenment was realised through ritual illumination since the initiate was blindfolded before being dazzled by brilliant artificial lights. The privileges of Freemasonry were then extended to the neophyte. Paradoxically, the Enlightenment spawned elitist sects and attitudes which set out to diffuse egalitarian ideals. According to Herbert Grierson and J.C. Smith, Burns encapsulated the development of the democratic spirit, yet he chose to be one of the "favour'd" and "enlighten'd few"[74] of a secret society. His social poetry had christened him the poet of the people even though his Masonic verse was addressed to a highly selective audience, his fellow-Masons. Burns's career as a poet reflected the polarized forces of equality and exclusivity contained within Freemasonry which in turn mirrored the culture of the Enlightenment itself. Even though the Masonic network represented an ideological alternative to society it also intensified and endorsed some of its values such as aristocratic patronage and the existing social hierarchy.

The impact of Masonry upon Burns's career may be seen as a mixed blessing. While the lodge might have indulged Burns's weakness for hard drinking, membership also provided patrons and contacts who helped to further his career. The lodge ensured that Burns would never have to endure the solitary life of the garreted poet who was without friend or patron. Freemasonry also helped cultivate Burns as a poet of the Anglo-Scottish vernacular by encouraging him to continue writing Scots poetry. In this way the Masons kept Burns in touch with his cultural roots which helped him retain his identity as the ploughman poet. Burns was an active Mason until the end of his life. He became an honorary member of Loudon Kilwinning Lodge at Newmilns on 27 March 1786, and of St John's Kilwinning, Kilmarnock Lodge on 26 October 1768. On St Andrew's Day (30 November) 1792 he was elected Senior Warden at St Andrew's lodge, No. 179 in Dumfries which he frequented from December 1791 to April 1796 just three months before his death.[75] Eventually the lodge was named after Burns in recognition of his contribution to Freemasonry. In view of the poet's circumstances and immediate environment it was inevitable that he would be attracted to the Masons. According to one commentator:

One prime factor which assisted to unite all classes in eighteenth-century Scotland into a recognised brotherhood, and provided the opportunity and sanction for voluntary cooperation, was the bond of Freemasonry; not Freemasonry as we know it to-day with all its modern trappings and symbolic teaching, but the earlier jolly Brotherhood with its gatherings at the local inn. There is no cause for wonder or surprise that in the fulness of time Robert Burns became a Freemason: the wonder would have been if he had not.[76]

Freemasons themselves have little doubt that the craft exerted a considerable influence on the life and work of Burns and that in his "best and most serious writings, in the highest flights of his genius, the spirit of Masonry is ever present, leading, directing, dictating, inspiring.[77]

Notes

[1] Burns, The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, ed. James Kinsley, 3 vols (Oxford, 1968), I, p.271. All references following quotations will be taken from this edition which will be referred to hereafter as Burns, Poems. A version of this chapter was submitted to the Scottish Literary Journal for inclusion in a special Burns issue for 1986 to commemorate the bicentenary of the Kilmarnock edition.

[2] James Gibson, Robert Burns and Masonry (Liverpool, 1873), p.11.

[3] An exception to this is L. M. Angus Butterworth, Robert Burns and the eighteenth-century revival in Scottish Vernacular Poetry, (Aberdeen, 1969), pp.246–56. Hereafter cited as Butterworth, Robert Burns.

[4] Burns's fellow-Masons in Ayrshire included Sir John Whitefoord, Sheriff Wallace of Ayr, John Ballantine, Professor Dugald Stewart, Dr John Mackenzie of Mauchline, William Parker of Kilmarnock, Alexander Wood, James Humphry and John Wilson, the schoolmaster. Burns also joined the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge No. 2 in Edinburgh whose members included Patrick Miller of Dolswinton, Alexander Cunningham the lawyer, William Nicol the school master, Alexander Namyth the painter, William Creech the publisher and Henry Mackenzie the author of The Man of Feeling. See Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopaedia, (London, 1980), p.137.

[5] Dudley Wright, Robert Burns and His Masonic Circle (London, 1929), p.8.

[6] For an account of Irvine see Charles S. Dougall, The Burns Country (London, 1904), pp.232–3.

[7] Wright, Robert Burns and his Masonic Circle, p.10.

[8] Letters of Robert Burns, ed. J. De Lancey Ferguson, 2 vols (Oxford, 1931), I, p.13.

[9] Hans Hecht, Robert Burns: The Man and his Work (London, 1936), p.32.

[10] The Life and Work of Robert Burns, ed. Robert Chambers, revised William Wallace, 4 vols (London, 1896), I, pp.377–8.

[11] Ibid., p.129.

[12] William Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason (Dundee, 1921), pp. 17–18.

[13] See David Daiches, Robert Burns, (London, 1966), p.214.

[14] Letters of Robert Burns, ed. Ferguson, 1, p.67.

[15] See frontispiece which has been included by kind permission of The Grand Lodge of Scotland. For an account of those who attended the ceremony including Boswell see James Marshall, A Winter with Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1846). Unfortunately this booklet is unreliable. For example, the antiquarian, Francis Grose, is mentioned as present but he did not become a Mason until 1791.

[16] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, p.39.

[17] David Murray Lyon, History of the Lodge of Edinburgh, (Mary's Chapel) No. 1 (London, 1900), pp.365–7. For a contrasting view see Hugh C. Peacock and Allan Mackenzie, Robert Burns Poet-Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning: Facts Substantiating his Election and Inauguration on 1st March 1787 (Edinburgh, 1894).

[18] Wright, Robert Burns and Freemasonry (Paisley, 1921), p.72.

[19] See Secret Societies, ed. Norman Mackenzie (London, 1967), p.166.

[20] Early Masonic Pamphlets, p.31. See Tom Crawford, "Political and Protest Songs in Eighteenth-Century Scotland 11 : Songs of the Left" in Scottish Studies, XIV (1970), pp. 105–31.

[21] Margaret C. Jacob, The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons and Republicans (London, 1981), p.127. For an earlier example of this practice see Douglas Knoop and G.P. Jones, The Scottish Mason and the Mason Word (Manchester, 1939), pp.49–50.

[22] Secret Societies, ed. Mackenzie, p.166.

[23] Wright, Robert Burns and Freemasonry, p.73.

[24] Fred J. Belford, "Robert Burns — Freemason", Year Book of the Grand Lodge of Antient, Free and Accepted Masons of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1955), p.87.

[25] The engraving was advertised in the Daily Post, 2 December 1724 as: "a curious print, engrav'd on a copper plate, by Ho ---ge, taken from an original painting of Matachauter, by order of the Mandarin Hang-Lhi, grav'd at Pekin, and a number of them brought over from thence, by a merchant in the ship Cambridge". This is a response to a contemporary hoax concerning Gormogon satires of the Masons which took the form of two letters signed by the "illustrious Mandarin Hang Chi" appended to an essay on the subject by Aaron Hill in his journal, The Plain Dealer, 14 September 1724. The verses accompanying Hogarth's engraving highlight the mock-rivalry between the Masons and Gormogons:

From Eastern Climes, transplanted to our coasts,

Two Oldest Orders that Creation boasts

Here meet in miniature, expos'd to view

That by their Conduct, Men may judge their due.

The Gormogons, a Venerable Race

Appear distinguished with peculiar Grace.

What Honour! Wisdom! Truth! & Social Love!

Sure such an order had its birth above.

But mark Free Masons! What a farce is this?

How wild their myst'ry! What a bum they kiss

Who would not laugh when such occasions had?

Who should not weep, to think ye World so Mad.

[26] See Pick and Knight, The Pocket History of Freemasonry, p.86.

[27] See Jones, The Freemasons' Guide and Compendium, p.338.

[28] Horace Walpole included this remark in a letter to Horace Mann dated 4 May 1743, No. 113 in the Letters of Horace Walpole, I (London, 1886), p.244.

[29] See Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 2 vols (London, 1971), 1, p.130.

[30] This Masonic pamphlet has been ascribed to Defoe. See John Robert Moore, A Checklist of the Writings of Daniel Defoe (Bloomington, 1960), p.227.

[31] Stephen Knight, The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons (London, 1984), p.25.

[32] J. De Lanecy Ferguson, Robert Burns: Pride and Passion, (New York, 1939), pp.296–7.

[33] See the poem Burns dedicated to Glencairn, "Verses intended to be written below a noble Earl's picture" in Burns, Poems, I, p.312.

[34] See E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, pp.460–1.

[35] Wright, Robert Burns and Freemasonry, p.45.

[36] For a discussion of the Kilmarnock edition see Robert T. Fitzhugh, Robert Burns: The Man and the Poet (London, 1971), pp.107–23.

[37] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, p.61.

[38] See Robert Burns: The Critical Heritage, ed. Donald A. Low, (London, 1974), pp.67–71.

[39] Belford, Robert Burns — Freemason, p.91.

[40] See Henry Lovegrove, 'Three Masonic Novels", Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, xxxii (1919), p.79.

[41] A Treasury of Masonic Thought, ed. Glick, p.85.

[42] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, pp.54-S.

[43] De Quincey, Works, ed. Masson, XVI, p.413.

[44] Jones, The Freemasons' Guide and Compendium, p.459.

[45] See Hugh Douglas, Robert Burns: A Life (London, 1976), p.80 and Yvonne Helen Stevenson, Burns and Highland Mary (Ayr, 1979) and Fitzhugh, Robert Burns, pp.98–107.

[46] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, pp.51–2.

[47] Early Masonic Pamphlets, p.109.

[48] Belford, Robert Burns — Freemason, p.87.

[49] See Hecht, Robert Burns, pp.142–3. 50. Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, pp.64–5.

[51] G. Legman, The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography (London, 1970), pp.140–41.

[52] Ibid., p.142.

[53] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, p.65.

[54] Loc. cit.

[55] Burns as Others saw Him (Edinburgh, 1959), p.3.

[56] Early Masonic Pamphlets, p.109.

[57] In the Engraved List of 1729, De Veil is listed as a member of the Vine, Holborn in 1729, a lodge which Hogarth joined in 1731. See Derek Jarrett, The Ingenious Mr Hogarth (London, 1976), pp.53–5.

[58] De Veil's hypocrisy was sharply criticized in the anonymous pamphlet The Justice and the Footman (London, 1744) which in turn gave rise to the defence by Taswell, The Deviliad: An Heroic Poem (London, 1744).

[59] Swift, Prose Works, V, p.325.

[60] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, p.71. Here the poem is quoted in full on pp.71–2.

[61] Ibid., p.70.

[62] Burns, Poems, I, p.271. The music accompanying "The Farewell. To the Brethren of St James's Lodge, Tarbolton" is reproduced from ibid., I, p.270 with kind permission of Oxford University Press. The poem inspired the following imitation by A. Glass of the Ayr Operative Lodge which appeared in The Freemason of 5 August 1871 and was then reproduced by Wright, Robert Burns and his Masonic circle, pp.24–5.

I've sat beneath the old rooftree

Where Burns oft spent the festive night,

As happy as a king could be

Amang the honoured Sons of Light.

To me it was as Mecca's shrine

To ardent Eastern devotee,

Where Scotias's minstrel passed langsyne

So many hours of joyous glee.

 

What hallowed recreations throng

Around that spot, endeared to fame?

What happy scenes of love and song

Are conjured up in Burns's name?

What mystic fane, however grand,

Can with the lowly Lodge compare,

Where, honoured with supreme command,

Presided Fame's eternal heir?

 

Along the corridors of Time

For ever sweep his deathless lays,

And Scotia's sons, in every clinic,

Sing sweetly of their native braes;

In fancy, rove whaur Lugar flows,

Where hermit Ayr delights to stray

Or bonny Doon in beauty goes

Past hoary, haunted Alloway.

 

Nor sylvan bower, nor tiny flower,

That blooms where wimplin' burnie strays

But he possessed the innate power

To twine around them fadeless bays.

In Nature's Lodge, supreme and grand,

He sat as Master in the chair

And shed a glory o'er the laud

That time nor change can e'er impair.

 

His was the keen, prophetic eye,

Could see afar the glorious birth

Of that Great Power, whose mystic tie

Shall make One Lodge of all the earth;

Shall usher in the reign of light,

Ring out the false, ring in the true,

Cause man to walk square and upright,

And wisdom's path of peace pursue.

[63] J.G. Lockhart, Life of Robert Burns (London, 1976), pp.61–2.

[64] The music is reproduced from Burns, Poems, I, p.299 with kind permission of Oxford University Press. Burns quotes the end of his poem in a letter to St James's lodge, Tarbolton, where he apologises for not being able to attend the quarterly meeting saying "If I must be absent in body, believe me I shall be present in spirit...,

Farewell!

Within this dear Mansion may wayward Contention

Or withered Envy ne'er enter

May Secrecy round be the mystical bound,

And brotherly Love be the Center!!!

See Letters of Robert Burns, ed. Ferguson, I, p.118.

[65] See F. Sherwood Taylor, The Alchemists (London, 1976), p.51.

[66] Burns's eldest son became a Mason at the Old Lodge of Dumfries. See Dudley Wright, Robert Burns and his Masonic Circle, pp.128–9.

[67] See A. Burns Jamieson, Burns and Religion (Cambridge, 1931), pp. 14–26, 35–6, and Alexander Webster, Burns and the Kirk (Edinburgh, 1888).

[68] "Act concerning the Mason-Oath", p.433.

[69] Loc. cit. For the controversy concerning these and other issues see Walton Hannah, "Should a Christian be a Freemason?", LIV, No. 367, Theology (Jan., 1951), pp.3–10. See also the reply by J.L.C. Dart "Christianity and Freemasonry", LIV, No. 370, Theology (April, 1951), pp.130–36.

[70] Anderson, Constitutions (1723), p.351.

[71] Sec Claude E. Jones, "John Locke and Masonry", Neuphilologische, LXVII (1966), pp.728l. For an account of Voltaire's association with Freemasonry see Shackleton, "The Encyclopédie and Freemasonry", The Age of Enlightenment, ed. Barber, et al., p.235. See Knoop and Jones, Freemasonry and the Idea of Natural Religion, (London, 1942).

[72] James Anderson, The New Book of Constitutions (London, 1738), p.209.

[73] See The Age of Enlightenment: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Texts, 2 vols, ed. Simon Eliot and Beverley Stern (London, 1979), II, p.249.

[74] See Herbert J.C. Grierson and J.C. Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (London, 1947), p.285.

[75] See Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopaedia, p.138.

[76] Belford, Robert Burns — Freemason, p.82.

[77] Harvey, Robert Burns as a Freemason, p.64.

 

Roberts, M. (1986). British Poets and Secret Societies. London: Croom Helm.

* Since this article was written, it has been proven that Burns did not in fact write the poem, The Mason's Apron - webmaster

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