Robert Burns: Scotland’s Masonic Bard

Robert Burns was initiated an Entered Apprentice in Lodge St David Tarbolton on the 4th July 1781ce when he was 23 years old.

His initiation fee was 12s 6d (62.5 pence new money) and paid on the same day.

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 1677ce from the Kilwinning Lodge which they claim to be the oldest lodge.

 In 1773ce, 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 1781ce, nine days before Robert Burns was made a Entered Apprentice.

However, while St James 178 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 in 1st October 1781ce.

The lodge record book, reads as follows: Robert Burns in Lochy was passed and raised, Henry Cowan being Master, James Humphrey Sen. Warden Alex Smith Jnr. Warden Robt Wodrow Sec. and James Manson Treas. and John Tannock Taylor and others of the brethren being present.

Manson and Wodrow would later take the regalia of St James’s lodge from the charter chest, which contained the minute books, archives and other belongings and was stored at John Richard’s Inn ( Richard was a Steward of Lodge St David 174) 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 17th June 1782ce and Robert Burns went with Lodge St James 178 and on the 27th July 1784ce he was elected Depute Master of the lodge at the ripe young age of 25. Sir John Whiteford was the Right Worshipful Master of the Lodge, but it was a honourary position, and the in reality the Depute Master was in charge. Robert Burns was faithful to the Lodge attending regularly and three minutes were completed 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 1786ce, Robert spelled it the same way. On 1st March 1786ce Robert’s brother Gilbert received his 2nd degree and 3rd degree; both signed their names as Burns.

1786ce was not a happy year for Robert Burns financially or emotionally. Tradition says that Burns recited his Farewell 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 1786ce his Kilmarnock edition of poems was established, by a brother freemason and 350 brethren of Lodge St John Kilmarnock subscribed to a copy.

In October he was made an Honourary Member of Lodge Kilmarnock Kilwinning St John. In honour of the Lodge and its Right Worshipful Master Major William Parker he wrote the following song

 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 swage and drew his gauge,
I wondered at my Mason.

So pleased was I to see him ply
The tools of his vocation,
I beg’d for once he would 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.

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 plummets strong he downward hung
A noble jolly brace on;
And off a slant his broacher sent
And drove it like 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.

But the tempered steel began to fail,
Too soft for the occasion.
It melted lean he drove so keen,
My gallant noble Mason.

What farther passed is here locked fast,
I’m under obligation.
But fill to him, up to the brim,
Can make a Maid a Mason.

Burns’s rise in popularity for his poems also contributed to his rise in Freemasonary.

At a meeting of Lodge St Andrew in Edinburgh in 1787ce, at which the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland were present, Burns was toasted by the the Worshipful Grand Master Most Worshipful Brother Francis Charteris with the words ” Caledonia and Caledonia’s bard Brother Robert 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 office bearers of the Grand Line.

In February 1787ce Robert Burns was made the Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2 Edinburgh.

When Burns moved to Dumfries, he joined Lodge St. Andrew on St John Day, 1788ce and once again showed a great enthusiasm for his lodge.

 In 1792ce, he was elected Worshipful Senior Warden and served a one-year term. This was the last masonic office he held before his death in 1796ce. He was 37 years old.

Freemasonary’s influence on Burns’s poetry is quite visible: Poems such as Libel Summons and A Mans a Mans for a That.  Auld Lang Syne is a concrete expression of his love of mankind and his ideal of international brotherhood

No man is a failure when he has his friends