Brother Robert Burns was born in 1759 and died at the young age of 37 in 1796. In his short life time he created a legacy that has lasted to this day. Burns, his songs and poems, are one of the ways by which Scots are known to have a different identity, a different culture, from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Sadly, few people are aware that Robert Burns was a Freemason and remained so all of his adult life, indeed he was Senior Warden of Lodge St Andrew, Dumfries, (dormant) when he died.
A Man's a Man for a' That
Few people are aware of the Masonic content of his Burn's work. One of his most famous: A Man's a Man for a' That, was sung at the official opening of the new Scottish parliament and delivered superbly by folk singer Sheena Wellington from a balcony overlooking the debating chamber. Freemasons, especially Scottish Freemasons, all over the world are intensely proud that a Masonic Anthem was chosen to mark this historic occasion. Freemasons everywhere will readily identify the Masonic significance of the words of Brother Robert Burns:
Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by -
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure, an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a' that?
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a that, an' a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that,
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie ca'd 'a lord',
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that?
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that,
The man o’ independent mind
He looks and laughs at a’ that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that!
But an honest man's aboon his might -
Guid faith, he mauna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that,
The pith o' sense an' pride o' worth
Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a' that)
That Sense and Worth o'er a' the earth
Shall bear the gree an' a' that!
For a' that, an a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That man to man the world o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.
Robert Burns and Freemasonry
During the last quarter of the 18th Century, Freemasonry was at the height of its popularity. To the Age of Enlightenment, its tenets seemed to promise brotherhood and intellectual equality. Scholars, philosophers, gentlemen, farmers and tradesmen were Masons in Scotland.
Robert Burns was initiated an Entered Apprentice in Lodge St. David, Tarbolton on 4 July 1781, at the age of 23. His initiation fee was 12s 6d, and paid on the same date. Like many other times in his life, Burns came into the lodge amidst a controversy. Originally, there had been only one lodge in Tarbolton, chartered in 1771 from the Kilwinning Lodge, which is said to be the oldest lodge in the world (again, another story worth telling, yet for another time).
In 1773, a group broke away from the lodge, forming Lodge St. David No. 174, and the original lodge became St. James Tarbolton Kilwinning No. 178, only to be reunited in 1781, 9 days before Burns's first degree. However, while St. James was clearly the older of the two lodges, St. David's name was used, and the seeds were sown for further dissension. Burns in the meantime was passed to the degree of fellowcraft, and raised to the degree of Master Mason on 1st October 1781. The Lodge record book, according to James Mackay's "Burns" reads as follows:
Robert Burns in Lochly was passed and raised, Henry Cowan being Master, James Humphrey Senr. Warden and Alexr. Smith Junr. Robt. Woodrow Secy. and James Manson Treasurer, and John Tannock Taylor and others of the brethren being present”.
Manson and Woodrow would later take the regalia of St. James's lodge from the charter chest (containing the minute-books, archives and other belongings) stored at John Richard's Inn (Richard was a Steward of Lodge St. David) after tricking Richard into a false errand with a couple of "gills" of punch. While originally ordered to return the regalia and other items by the Grand Lodge, it was eventually ruled that since the union of the 2 lodges were voluntary, then the separation was as well. The St. James lodge met again as a separate body on 17 June 1782.
Burns went with Lodge St. James, and on 27 July 1784, he was elected "Depute Master" of the lodge at the ripe young age of 25. Sir John Witefoord was the Worshipful Master of the lodge, but it was somewhat of an honorary position, and the Depute Master in reality was in charge. Burns was faithful to the lodge, attending regularly and 3 minutes were in his handwriting; 29 minutes were signed by him and also show when he changed his name; originally, his father spelled the last name "Burness"; before 1786, Robert spelled it the same way. On 1 March 1786, Robert's brother Gilbert received his 2nd and 3rd degrees; both Gilbert and Robert signed their last names as "Burns".
1786 was not a happy year for Robert financially or emotionally; Denied his love Jean, Burns had sought comfort with Mary Campbell (the famous "Highland Mary"), who reportedly bore Burns a child and died later that year from Typhus. Burns, in grief over the loss of two women, as well as facing child support payments for Jean's unborn child, decided to flee to Jamaica to avoid grief and an angry father (and brother!). Tradition says that Burns recited his "Farewell to the Brethren of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton" on the night of 23rd June, at the stated meeting of the lodge, in anticipation of his voyage to the West Indies.
However, Burns decided to stay in Scotland when in July 1786, his Kilmarnock edition of poems was published, by a brother Freemason, and 350 brethren of St.John's Lodge, Kilmarnock, subscribed to a copy. In October he was made an honorary member of Lodge Kilmarnock Kilwinning St. John, and wrote "Masonic Song" in honour of the lodge and its Worshipful Master, Major William Parker.
Burns's rise in popularity for his poems also contributed to his rise in Freemasonry. At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787, at which the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland was present, Burns was toasted by the Worshipful Grand Master, Most Worshipful Brother Francis Chateris, with the words "Caledonia and Caledonia's bard, Bro. Robt. Burns", which was met with a terrific response from the brethren. Burns was completely taken aback, and though trembling, returned the toast of the Grand Master, to response of 'Very Well Indeed' from some of the officers of the Grand Line. In February 1787, Burns was made the Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2, Edinburgh. Wallace McLeod, in his essay "Robert Burns", quotes the minute book, which states:
The Right Worshipful Master, having observed that Brother Burns was present in the lodge, who is well known as a great poetic writer, and for a late publication of his works, which have been universally commended, submitted that he should be assumed a [honorary] member of this lodge, which was unanimously agreed to, and he was assumed accordingly.
Tradition has it the Burns was installed as Poet Laureate at the March meeting of the lodge (as many paintings show), but lodge records disprove this, although some maintain that faulty records and Robert's modesty are responsible for it being left out of the lodge minutes and Robert's letters; Mackay doubts that Burns would have purposely left out such a high accolade to his work as a poet. When the first Edinburgh Edition of his poems was released in April 1787, and again, many subscribers were members of Canongate, including the publisher, printer and artist who supplied the frontispiece for the edition. Like his Kilmarnock edition, Freemasons assisted their brother and ultimately gave the world the gift of Burns's poetry.
Burns was exalted a companion in the Holy Royal Arch Degree in May 1787 at St. Ebbe's Lodge, Eyemouth. The companions unanimously agreed to admit Burns without paying the necessary fees, as they were greatly honoured to have such a great poet and man like Burns as part of their chapter. When Burns moved to Dumfries, he joined Lodge St. Andrew on St. John's Day, 1788, and once again, showed a great enthusiasm for his lodge. In 1792, he was elected Senior Warden and served a one-year term. This was the last Masonic office he held before his death in 1796. He was 37 years old.
Burns Masonic Influences
Freemasonry's influence on Burns's poetry is quite
visible. Besides the aforementioned works which specifically deal with the
craft, a number of poems have a strong dose of Masonic philosophy and ideals in
them. Fox mentions the poem "Libel Summons", which finds two brothers
in a court docket, one for hypocrisy and lying; the other for the neglect of
his duties. With these two brothers for examples, Burns reminds any brother
reading the work that the Masonic ideals of brotherly love, relief and truth do
not stop at the lodge-hall door, but should be shown to any person, regardless
of Masonic affiliation.
Masonic ideals can also be seen in "A Man's a Man for a' that", in which Burns speaks of a day when "man to man the warld o'er, shall brothers be for a' that!" Certainly the lodge inspired Burns in his call for the rights of man; Marie Roberts, in "Burns and the Masonic Enlightenment" states that Freemasonry not only spoke out for the ideals of "liberty, fraternity, equality", but also was responsible for the creation of nationalistic feelings and fervour, as a number of Freemasons played prominent roles in the American and French Revolutions. While Freemasonry did not produce the same feelings per se in Scotland, "it did help mobilise cultural nationalism in generating a since of national identity by supporting literary figures such as Burns". By supporting his works, Freemasons encouraged Burns in writing poetry in the Scottish vernacular, and kept him in constant contact with his cultural roots.
And yet a third influence might be seemed with Burns's works dealing with Calvinism and the Kirk of Scotland. Burns had always been on the side of liberal thinking within the Kirk, and detested the "Auld Lichts" or "Old Light" Presbyterianism with its conservative and puritanical outlook on life. While English and Scottish Freemasonry has always denied the Freemasonry is not a religion, and that good masons should also be good church-goers, certainly many conservatives in the Kirk viewed the lodge, with its ideas of a non-denominational deity and respecting the rights of all humans to worship their God as they saw fit as a danger to their established religion. For Burns, Masonry was everything that the Kirk was not.
His Masonic poems show his great love and admiration for the craft and its ideals; although he did hold his brothers to a high standard that some might argue that he did not keep himself, but whatever your opinions of Burns's passions, one must argue that Burns had the good of the fraternity in his heart. One matter that deeply troubled him was the use of the Lodge treasury for personal loans by the members. Burns viewed the monies not for the members personal use, but for times of "distress" or "old age"; coming to the relief of a brother was far more important than personal whims, which is no surprise, given Burns's childhood and ever-changing financial situation.
From what we have heard, there is no doubt that Burns had a very rough life. Burns found no comfort for his woes in the church or his society, but Freemasonry remained one of the most important aspects of his life. Even during the time when all others had abandoned and condemned him, the lodge still welcomed him as a brother, and he never forgot it. The "Farewell" to his brothers as St. James Lodge expresses a very sincere sadness in leaving Scotland and his brothers for Jamaica, and many have speculated that the support of his lodge brothers encouraged him to stay and produce some of his greatest works. Freemasonry provided Burns with an "alternative" form of patronage for his works free from aristocratic influence and restrictions imposed by the patron on the artist.
Above all else, Freemasonry's spirit of Brotherhood had a special place in Burns's heart. Roberts states that "For Burns, Freemasonry was a compound of mysticism and conviviality". This attitude is found in one of his most famous works, "Auld Lang Syne", a song that millions of people around the world know and love. We hear it at New Years and our moved by its message of old friends reminiscing about days past. T.G. Paterson, in "Auld Lang Syne and Brother Robert Burns" says:
For [Burns], "Auld Lang Syne" is a concrete expression of his love of mankind and his ideal of international brotherhood.
What a fitting tribute that Burns's song of International Brotherhood is sung the world over in the spirit that he wrote it. Also fitting is the fact that it is the last song in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life", the story of a man who gave up his personal dreams for others, and sees all of his friends come to his aid when he is in trouble. Burns and the character George Bailey share one thing in common, in that, when all seemed lost, friends rallied and aided in his relief. George Bailey's guardian angel Clarence states "No man is a failure when he has friends (which I might paraphrase 'Brothers'); a sentiment that would be heartily agreed with by Brother Robert Burns
Address To A Haggis
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race!
Aboon them a' yet tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o'a grace
As lang's my arm.
The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin was help to mend a mill
In time o'need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.
His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Then, horn for horn, they stretch an' strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad make her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scornfu' view
On sic a dinner?
Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckles as wither'd rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash;
His nieve a nit;
Thro' blody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!
But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs an' arms, an' hands will sned,
Like taps o' trissle.
Tam O' Shanter
"Of Brownyis and of Bogillis full is this Buke."
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors, meet;
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An' getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and stiles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.
This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he frae Ayr ae night did canter:
(Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonie lasses).
O Tam! had'st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate's advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum;
That frae November till October,
Ae market-day thou was na sober;
That ilka melder wi' the Miller,
Thou sat as lang as thou had siller;
That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on
The Smith and thee gat roarin' fou on;
That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday,
Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday,
She prophesied that late or soon,
Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon,
Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk,
By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk.
Ah, gentle dames! it gars me greet,
To think how mony counsels sweet,
How mony lengthen'd, sage advices,
The husband frae the wife despises!
But to our tale: Ae market night,
Tam had got planted unco right,
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi reaming sAats, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter Johnie,
His ancient, trusty, drougthy crony:
Tam lo'ed him like a very brither;
They had been fou for weeks thegither.
The night drave on wi' sangs an' clatter;
And aye the ale was growing better:
The Landlady and Tam grew gracious,
Wi' favours secret, sweet, and precious:
The Souter tauld his queerest stories;
The Landlord's laugh was ready chorus:
The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle.
Care, mad to see a man sae happy,
E'en drown'd himsel amang the nappy.
As bees flee hame wi' lades o' treasure,
The minutes wing'd their way wi' pleasure:
Kings may be blest, but Tam was glorious,
O'er a' the ills o' life victorious!
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white-then melts for ever;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the Rainbow's lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm. -
Nae man can tether Time nor Tide,
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
That hour, o' night's black arch the key-stane,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in;
And sic a night he taks the road in,
As ne'er poor sinner was abroad in.
The wind blew as 'twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow'd;
Loud, deep, and lang, the thunder bellow'd:
That night, a child might understand,
The deil had business on his hand.
Weel-mounted on his grey mare, Meg,
A better never lifted leg,
Tam skelpit on thro' dub and mire,
Despising wind, and rain, and fire;
Whiles holding fast his gude blue bonnet,
Whiles crooning o'er some auld Scots sonnet,
Whiles glow'rin round wi' prudent cares,
Lest bogles catch him unawares;
Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh,
Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry.
By this time he was cross the ford,
Where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd;
And past the birks and meikle stane,
Where drunken Charlie brak's neck-bane;
And thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
Where hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Where Mungo's mither hang'd hersel'.
Before him Doon pours all his floods,
The doubling storm roars thro' the woods,
The lightning’s flash from pole to pole,
Near and more near the thunders roll,
When, glimmering thro' the groaning trees,
Kirk-Alloway seem'd in a bleeze,
Thro' ilka bore the beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.
Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi' tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi' usquabae, we'll face the devil!
The swats sae ream'd in Tammie's noddle,
Fair play, he car'd na deils a boddle,
But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd,
She ventur'd forward on the light;
And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillon, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick, in shape o' beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw'd the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl. -
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw'd the Dead in their last dresses;
And (by some devilish cantraip sleight)
Each in its cauld hand held a light.
By which heroic Tam was able
To note upon the haly table,
A murderer's banes, in gibbet-airns;
Twa span-lang, wee, unchristened bairns;
A thief, new-cutted frae a rape,
Wi' his last gasp his gabudid gape;
Five tomahawks, wi' blude red-rusted:
Five scimitars, wi' murder crusted;
A garter which a babe had strangled:
A knife, a father's throat had mangled.
Whom his ain son of life bereft,
The grey-hairs yet stack to the heft;
Wi' mair of horrible and awfu',
Which even to name wad be unlawfu'.
Three lawyers tongues, turned inside oot,
Wi' lies, seamed like a beggars clout,
Three priests hearts, rotten, black as muck,
Lay stinkin, vile in every neuk.
As Tammie glowr'd, amaz'd, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The Piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew,
The reel'd, they set, they cross'd, they cleekit,
Till ilka carlin swat and reekit,
And coost her duddies to the wark,
And linkit at it in her sark!
Now Tam, O Tam! had they been queans,
A' plump and strapping in their teens!
Their sarks, instead o' creeshie flainen,
Been snaw-white seventeen hunder linen!-
Thir breeks o' mine, my only pair,
That ance were plush o' guid blue hair,
I wad hae gien them off my hurdies,
For ae blink o' the bonie burdies!
But wither'd beldams, auld and droll,
Rigwoodie hags wad spean a foal,
Louping an' flinging on a crummock.
I wonder did na turn thy stomach.
But Tam kent what was what fu' brawlie:
There was ae winsome wench and waulie
That night enlisted in the core,
Lang after ken'd on Carrick shore;
(For mony a beast to dead she shot,
And perish'd mony a bonie boat,
And shook baith meikle corn and bear,
And kept the country-side in fear);
Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.
Ah! little ken'd thy reverend grannie,
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie,
Wi twa pund Scots ('twas a' her riches),
Wad ever grac'd a dance of witches!
But here my Muse her wing maun cour,
Sic flights are far beyond her power;
To sing how Nannie lap and flang,
(A souple jade she was and strang),
And how Tam stood, like ane bewithc'd,
And thought his very een enrich'd:
Even Satan glowr'd, and fidg'd fu' fain,
And hotch'd and blew wi' might and main:
Till first ae caper, syne anither,
Tam tint his reason a thegither,
And roars out, "Weel done, Cutty-sark!"
And in an instant all was dark:
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied.
When out the hellish legion sallied.
As bees bizz out wi' angry fyke,
When plundering herds assail their byke;
As open pussie's mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When "Catch the thief!" resounds aloud;
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi' mony an eldritch skreich and hollow.
Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin!
In hell, they'll roast thee like a herrin!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin!
Kate soon will be a woefu' woman!
Now, do thy speedy-utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stone o' the brig;^1
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the keystane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie's mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.