Brither Rabbie Burns – A Son of Light
Brither Rabbie Burns – A Son of Light
If in this vale of humble life,
The victim sad of fortune’s strife,
I, thro’ the tender, gushing tear,
Should recognise my master dear;
If friendless, low, we meet together,
Then, Sir your hand – my friend and Brither.
Robbie Burns was born on the 25th January 1759, a particular auspicious date as it was also the night that Halley’s Comet became visible to the naked eye over Scotland. This was the same comet which led the Wise Men to the Stable in Bethlehem at the Birth of Our Lord. So it should come as no surprise that, as a result of his birth, Burns was always regarded as special; by his family, friends and acquaintances and was viewed by all, as “A Man of Destiny”.
The truth of this statement should be obvious to all, and clearly the spirit of Robbie Burns has some magical power that survived his early death and continues to live and grow around the globe some two hundred and fifty years later. Who else can still fill hundreds of dining rooms worldwide every year in a mark of respect and fellowship, as they celebrate some of the many facets of his life and work.
Burns was Entered an apprentice in the Lodge of St David, Tarbolton on the 4th July 1781. He received his first degree from Bro Alexander Wood, a local tailor of Tarbolton. The original Lodge in Tarbolton was St James Lodge issued with a charter by Mother Kilwinning in the year 1771. This Lodge was only in existence for a couple of years when there arose a difference of opinion between Lodge members which led some of the Brethren of St James to withdraw and form a new Lodge called St David. By June 1781, matters had started to heal and both Lodges came together under the old St James charter, but agreed that the Lodge name should change to St David. This was the Lodge that Burns originally joined. At the time of his initiation into the mysteries of Masonry, Burns was 23 years old and lived with his father at Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. A few days after his initiation, Burns set off to Irvine to learn the art of flax dressing, with the view of being able to dress flax, which he and his brother Gilbert proposed to grow on his fathers farm.
Some writers claim that Burns joined Masonry in Irvine, but there is no proof of this statement. We do know that neither of the two Irvine Lodges – St Andrews or Lodge Navigation had any record of his membership. However, as a curious new member he may well have attended one or both of these Lodges as a visitor. What is known is that Burns travelled back to Tarbolton from Irvine on 1st October 1781, when he was Passed and Raised to the Sublime Degree of Master Mason.
Burns was very much involved in his Masonry at Tarbolton, and when a few of the Brethren again withdrew, Burns joined their number and played his part in the formation of a new Lodge, warranted under The Grand Lodge of Scotland. This new Lodge, known as St James began life as Lodge number 178. Today this Lodge still exists, although it now works under Lodge number 135. This lodge met in a back room of a small local inn, known as The Cross Keys. The painting above of the Inn was painted by Monro S. Orr. Burns was very active in this Lodge and acted as Secretary and Depute Master on numerous occasions. Indeed, the Grand Lodge of Scotland have exhibited some of the Minutes written and signed, in recent exhibitions at Great George Street,
In February 1784 Burns father died, harassed and broken down by poverty, and the vexation arising from a law-suit with his landlord. This event induced Burns and his brother Gilbert to take the lease of a farm at Mossgeil, in the parish of Mauchline, several miles from Tarbolton. This however did not prevent his frequent attendance at Lodge and his ongoing involvement with the Craft. It is evident from the Minutes that he frequently presided at the meetings of the Brethren, and he himself records that :-
Oft honoured with supreme command,
Presided o’er the Sons of Light.
It seems that Brither Robbie was a quick learner and qualified himself to discharge the duties incumbent of a Mason. Not only was he able to preside over the Brethren, and satisfy all visitors with his knowledge and competence, but he also took a chief part in the initiation of Candidates and the instruction of his Brethren in the principles of Freemasonry.
For this purpose he was not content with the meetings of the Brethren in the Lodge Room at Tarbolton, but he began to hold additional meetings, for Masonic instruction at Mossgiel, where many of the more enlightened and zealous Brethren went to converse with the bard on the sublime mysteries and noble virtues of our ancient Order. The first person that Burns initiated was Matthew Hall, a musician, who made his living, by playing in gentlemens houses, around the town of Ayr and who lived to an extreme old age at Newton-on-Ayr. Right up to the time that he died, Matthew Hall was very proud of the fact that Burns tried his prentice han on him, as an instructor in the art and mystery of Freemasonry. It was around this time that Rabbie brought in his Brother Gilbert to the Lodge.
The annual Installation meeting and procession of the St James Lodge took place annually on the 24th June , the anniversary of St John the Baptist. These were important days for the Lodge and a good attendance was important. As a senior officer in the Lodge, Robbie did his best to encourage the members to attend, by sending them personalised notes. One surviving example, sent to his friend Dr Mackenzie of Mauchline reads as follows :-
Friday first’s the day appointed
By the Right Worshipful anointed,
To hold our Grand procession;
To get a blad o’ Johnie’s morals,
And taste a swatch o’Manson’s barrels,
I’d a way of our profession.
The Master and the Brotherhood
Would a’be glad to see you;
For me, I would be mair than proud
To share the mercies wi you.
If Death, then, wi skaith, then,
Some mortal heart is hechtin;
Inform him, and storm him,
That Saturday you’ll fecht him.
Mossgiel, An.M. 5790.
Burns was an active visitor to Lodges throughout the Province of Ayrshire and we know that on one occasion, at least, he paid a visit to Lodge Kilmarnock Kilwinning, presided over by his friend and benefactor Mr William Parker. We know all of this because of one of his poems entitled – The Sons of Old Killie, which reads as follows :-
Ye sons of old Killie, assembled by Willie,
To follow the noble vocation;
May secrecy round, be the mystical bound,
And brotherly love be the centre.
It was around this time, in 1786 that the farming endeavours in Mossgiel were not prospering and Burns found himself heartbroken after parting from Jean Armour, that he decided to seek other employment and accepted an offer from Dr Douglas to act as his bookkeeper in his estates in Jamaica. This was to be the inspiration of his most famous Masonic poem, entitled The Farewell to the Brethren of St James’s Lodge Tarbolton. :-
Adieu, a heart warm, fond adieu,
Dear brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favored, ye enlightened few,
Companions of my social joy!
Tho' I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing fortune's sliddery ba',--
With melting heart and brimful eye,
I'll mind you still, though far awa'.
Oft have I met your social band,
An' spent the cheerful, festive night;
Oft, honored with supreme command,
Presided o'er the sons of light;
And by that Hieroglyphic bright,
Which none but Craftsmen ever saw,
Strong memory 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 the unerring line,
Still guided by the plummet's law,
Till order bright completely shine,
Shall be my prayer when far awa'.
And you farewell, whose merits claim
Justly that highest badge to wear,--
Heaven bless your honored, 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.
But thankfully he did not leave his home at that time as his first book of poems sold some 600 copies in a few weeks, giving him a certain amount of celebrity and enough financial security to allow him to stay. His fame gave him the opportunity to travel to Edinburgh where he initially stayed with a friend from Mauchline, a Mr John Richardson, law student, who arranged accommodation for Burns with his landlady Mrs Carfrey, at Baxter Close in the Lawnmarket. Two days after his arrival, on St Andrew’s Day The Grand Lodge of Scotland met in the aisles of The High Church to elect the office bearers for the ensuing year. The Hon Francis Charteris, younger of Amisfield was installed as Most Wor Grand Master, and afterwards the Brethren walked to St Andrew’s Church, to hear a sermon preached by the Rev James Wright of Maybole.
Brethren from the country were invited to attend and it is likely that Burns trod the streets of Auld Reekie, for the first time in the garb of a Mason. This gave him the opportunity to meet many Masons from the town, and one week later he attended his first meeting at Canongate Kilwinning. This first appearance on the 7th December 1786 was again in the company of a delegation from Grand Lodge and delegations from Mary’s Chapel, The Journeyman Masons, St Lukes, Raglan Royal Arch and Edinburgh Royal Arch.
By now Burn’s fame was continuing to grow and he was quickly becoming the toast of Edinburgh’s literary set. On the 1st February 1787 Burns was proposed and seconded, that he be assumed to be a Brother of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge. This motion was Passed and as Burns was in attendance, he was welcomed into the Lodge. At the March meeting of The Canongate Lodge, there was a full turnout of Brethren to transmit a letter of congratulations to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales who had been initiated into the Mysteries of Masonry in the Star and Garter lodge in London on the 6th February 1787.
It was at this March Meeting that tradition records the appointment by general acclaim of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge. The famous painting of the Lodge and all its members was completed after the event and included many famous and prominent Scottish Freemasons, who may not all have been present on the night. None the less, this is one of the truly iconic images of Burns as a Freemason, and copies of this painting can still be seen all around the world, right up to the present day.
Brethren, we have great pleasure in presenting this little tribute to the life and times of Rabbie Burns, the Freemason’s poet and we hope that you all enjoy your Burn’s Night suppers tomorrow night. It was the literary critic Thomas Carlisle who said of Burns that he not only appears as a true British poet, but as one of the most considerable British men of the eighteenth century. We would certainly support that view and commend his poetry to the consideration of all thinking people.
1/. Burns as a Mason – A Lecture delivered on Thursday the 9th December 1858 before the Lodge of Journeymen Masons, Edinburgh No 8 and published at their request by Bro William Hunter R.W.Master of that Lodge.
2/. Burns and Freemasonry – Reprinted from The Scottish Masonic Historical Directory 1901.
3/. The Auld Ayrshire of Robert Burns by T.F.Henderson 1906.
4/. Carlyle’s Essay on Burns first appeared in The Edinburgh Review for 1828. This publication of the Essay by Carlyle has been published by Blackie & Son Ltd of London and Glasgow was published in the 1920’s as a part of their Standard English Classics
5/. Brithers A’- A Minute a Day with Burns by Peter Esslemont May 1933.
6/. Masonic Edition – Robert Burns The Complete Works and Letters published by Collins Clear Type Press.
7/. The Stars of Robert Burns by Catherine Smith PhD 2008.
8/. A Burns Miscellany from the National Collections 2010.