Robert Burns and His Masonic Poems
To most readers of poetry, the name of Robert Burns brings to mind "The Cotter's Saturday Night," "Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled " and "Tam o'Shanter," but scattered about among Burns' poetry are several pieces which have the true Masonic ring, and can only be properly understood and appreciated by Masons, whilst many references to Freemasonry occur in other of the poet's writings.
Before dealing with these, a brief outline of the poet's life may not be considered out of place.
Robert Burness, or, as he afterwards preferred to be called, Robert Burns, the Great Poet of Scotland, was born in a clay cottage near the Bridge of Doon in Ayrshire, on January 25th, 1759. His father, William Burness, came from the North of Scotland, and after many years of vicissitude and wandering, settled down as nurseryman and gardener on Doonside. When Robert, who was the eldest child, was seven years of age, his father ventured on a small farm called Mount Oliphant, and the poet spent his time working on this farm until he was nineteen years of age, when the family removed to another farm called Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton. About this time Robert spent a year on a smuggling coast at a noted school, for the purpose of learning mensuration, surveying, &c., a knowledge of which was afterwards to fit him for his duties as an exciseman. He seems from his earliest years to have had a very imaginative nature, and to have the very seeds of poetry born within him. His frequent intercourse with Mrs. Betty Davidson, widow of a cousin of Mrs. Burns, helped materially to strengthen these. He declared that "she had the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf candles, dead lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants and enchanted castles," all of which made a deep impression upon his young mind, and take a prominent place in his poetry.
His work on the farm too, brought him into constant, daily contact with nature in her various moods, quickened his powers of observation, and led him to notice and love the common objects of the countryside. Many of his poems testify to this intimate acquaintance with the sights and sounds of nature. Take the following verses from his little poem
To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough
Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle!
or the well-known lines
To a Mountain Daisy
Wee, modest crimson-tipped flow'r,
Thou's met me in an evil hour;
For I maun crush amang the stoure
Thy slender stem:
To spare thee now is past my pow'r,
Thou bonie gem.
His pictures of rural life are all natural, he depicts no impossible men and women; the world he portrays is a real world, and his knowledge is derived from actual contact with it. His poems were not laboriously constructed, they came spontaneously and naturally, without effort. His "Tam o'Shanter" was written in a day, and many another of his poems, now world-famous, was thrown off in an hour or two. He sang of common country folk, for he lived among such, participating in their joys, sorrows, loves and sins.
Perhaps the most prominent of all was the social side of Burns' character. He loved to be amongst his fellow-creatures. Owing to his reputation for verses, a certain "logical talent" and strength of thought, he was always a welcome guest wherever he visited, and habits were formed which in after life proved so detrimental. Of his visit to St. Oswald's, he says, "There I learnt to fill my glass and to mix without fear in a drunken squabble."
Such, very briefly, was the character of a man, to whom Masonry was sure to appeal with irresistible force; the speculative mystery, the poetic rhythm of its ritual and the tie of brotherhood, were just the things to bring forth every better feeling of his nature, while the social functions of the Craft would appeal to his innate fondness for fun and revelry.
He was initiated in the year 1781 in St. David's Lodge, Tarbolton.  This Lodge had superseded, owing to want of harmony, the old Lodge of St. James', but the discord had not died out, and feelings rose to such a pitch in the new Lodge, that a division took place, and the old Lodge of St. James' was resuscitated. From the first Burns threw himself heart and soul into Masonry, and seems to have been one of the leaders in the reformed Lodge of St. James' in the year 1782. Two years later he was made Depute Master, and seems to have acted in that capacity in 1785 and 1786, for in the latter year he "passed" and "raised" his brother Gilbert.
By this time a crisis had come in Burns' affairs, and he determined to leave Scotland and settle in Jamaica, and by hard work endeavour to atone for the past. As he could not start immediately for the West Indies, Gavin Hamilton, writer to the signet and a member of St. James' Lodge, having heard some of Burns' poetry, proposed that the Brethren of the Lodge should defray the cost of publishing them. Under the auspices of the Lodge, Burns went to Kilmarnock in order to see the first edition — dated April 16th, 1786 — through the press. The Brethren at Kilmarnock gave the poet the very warmest welcome, and he was admitted a member of St. John's Lodge in that town on October 26th, 1786. They also assisted him with the first edition of his poems, which was successfully launched. The proceeds, however, were not sufficient to keep him in Scotland, and he was actually on his way to Greenock, to embark for Jamaica, when he received a letter from Dr. Blacklock — also a Mason — suggesting that another edition of the Kilmarnock poems should be brought out in Edinburgh. Burns thereupon went to the metropolis where he was received most enthusiastically, and another edition was brought out under Masonic patronage. The author, publisher, printer and engraver were all Masons, and the venture was such a success that the Jamaica project fell through.
Burns was admitted as a member of the celebrated "Canongate Kilwinning" Lodge, Edinburgh, on February 1st, 1787, but there is no reference, in the minutes of that date, to his appointment as a poet-laureate of the Lodge, although there is a painting by Watson, well-known to Scottish Masons, which depicts the scene. He was also, in 1787, made a Royal Arch Mason in St. Abb's Lodge at Eyemouth, without fees, the members considering it a great honour to them to be able to add his name to their roll.
A few words will suffice to record the remaining portion of the poet's career, over which, with kindly hands, a veil should be drawn — his failure as a farmer — his entrance into the Excise, for which his yearly salary was Fifty Pounds — his giving way to intemperate habits — and his untimely death in 1796.
Some of Burns' poems, as already stated, contain references to the Mason's Craft, and of these, a few of the more interesting ones will not fail to be acceptable to all Masons everywhere, as the productions of one who, whatever his failings, shed a lustre on Freemasonry by his poetic genius, which time cannot dim, and whose name will ever be held by Masons in honoured reverence.
The following poem contains no reference to Freemasonry, but is quoted to show how misfortune had driven the poet to emigrate. Four verses only are given out of the ten of which it consists.
On a Scotch Bard Gone to the West Indies
A' ye wha live by sowps o' drink,
A' ye wha live by crambo-clink,
A' ye wha live and never think,
Come, mourn wi' me!
Our billie's gien us a' a jink,
An' owre the sea!
Auld, cantie Kyle may weepers wear,
An' stain them wi' the saut, saut tear;
'Twill mak her poor auld heart, I fear,
In flinders flee:
He was her Laureat mony a year,
That's owre the sea!
He saw Misfortune's cauld nor-west
Lang mustering up a bitter blast;
A jillet brak his heart at last,
Ill may she be!
So, took a berth afore the mast,
An' owre the sea.
Jamaica bodies, use him weel,
An' hap him in cozie biel:
Ye'll find him aye a dainty chiel,
An' fou o' glee:
He wad na wrang'd the vera deil,
That's owre the sea.
The following "Farewell" is the gem of Burns' Masonic poetry. It was written when his arrangements for leaving the country were complete, and he was expecting to enter upon his journey immediately. His relations with the brethren of the St. James' Lodge seem to have been of a particularly enjoyable nature, and the parting would have been a sorrowful one for all of them. The separation, however, was spared them, but the Farewell verses remain for the enjoyment of all Masons.
Farewell To The Brethren Of St. James Lodge, Tarbolton
Adieu! a heart-warm fond adieu;
Dear brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favoured, 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 cheerful, festive night;
Oft, honour'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 honour'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 well-known poem of "Death and Dr. Hornbrook" had a Masonic origin. The original of Hornbrook was a schoolmaster named Wilson a member of the Lodge at Tarbolton, who had taken to reading medical books, and talked loudly of his medical knowledge and skill. In this poem Burns held him up to such ridicule, that Wilson left the district and settled in Glasgow. The poem itself has no references to Freemasonry in it, therefore it is not given.
The following song is quoted, because the trio consisted of three Masons, each of whom contributed to the merry meeting. Burns wrote the song, Allan Masterton added the music and William Nicol found "the maut." Burns wrote concerning this somg: — " The air is Masterton's, the song mine. The occasion of it was this: Mr. William Nicol, of the High School of Edinburgh, during the autumn vacation, being at Moffat, honest Allan, who was at that time on a visit to Dalswinton, and I, went to pay Nicol a visit. We had such a joyous meeting, that Mr. Masterton and I agreed, each in our own way, that we should celebrate the business."
The Happy Trio
O Willie I brew'd a peck o' maut,
And Rob and Allen cam to see;
Three blyther hearts, that lee-lang night,
Ye wadna found in Christendie.
We are na fou, we're nae that fou,
But just a drappie in our ee;
The cock may craw, the day may daw
And aye we'll taste the barley bree.
Here are we met, three merry boys,
Three merry boys I trow are we;
And mony a night we've merry been,
And mony mae we hope to be!
We are na fou, &c.
* * * * * * *
Wha first shall rise to gang awa,
A cuckold, coward loun is he!
Wha first beside his chair shall fa',
He is the King amang us three.
We are na fou, &c.
Ye Sons of Old Killie
This song was sung at a festive meeting of the Kilmarnock Masonic Lodge in 1786, presided over by William Parker, the Master.
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 thee Muse you well may excuse
'Tis seldom her favourite passion.
Ye powers who preside o'er the wind, and the tide,
Who mark'd each element's border;
Who formed this frame with beneficent aim,
Whose sovereign statute is order:
Within this dear mansion, may wayward Contention
Or wither'd Envy ne'er enter;
May secrecy round be the mystical bound,
And brotherly Love be the centre!
Tam Samson was a well-known Kilmarnock sportsman and a member of the local Masonic Lodge. When shooting moor-fowl in the year 1786, he had an idea that it would be his last season, and expressed an ardent desire to die and be buried on the moors. On this hint Burns composed his elegy and epitaph. Only three verses are given here out of seventeen.
Tam Samson's Elegy
Kilmarnock lang may grunt an' grane,
An' sigh, an' sab, an' greet her lane,
An' cleed her bairns, man, wife, an' wean,
In mourning weed;
To Death she's dearly pay'd the kane,
Tam Samson's dead!
The Brethren, o' the mystic level
May hing their head in woefu' bevel,
While by their nose the tears will revel,
Like ony bead;
Death's gien the Lodge an unco devel;
Tam Samson's dead!
* * * * * * *
Tam Samson sent for the poet to prove that he was still living, whereupon Burns wrote another verse, as follows: —
Go, Fame, an' canter like a filly
Thro' a' the streets an' neuks o' Killie;
Tell ev'ry social honest billie
To cease his grievin';
For, yet unskaithed by Death's gleg gullie.
Tam Samson's leevin'!
The Verses written at Selkirk, with the refrain " Willie's awa!" had reference to Mr. William Creech, his publisher and a Brother Mason, who had gone on a journey to London. In enclosing the verses to Mr. Creech, Burns wrote: "The enclosed I have just wrote, nearly extempore, in a solitary inn in Selkirk, after a miserable wet day's riding." They are interesting as showing the high appreciation in which he was held by the poet, but there is nothing Masonic in them.
Among the members of St. James' Lodge, Tarbolton, to which Burns belonged, was Dr. Mackenzie of Mauchline, and the annual procession of the Lodge on St. John's Day was announced to him by the poet in the following rhymed note, which is dated in the Masons' style.
To Mr. Mackenzie, Surgeon, Mauchline
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' the 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. Robert Burns.
The Big-Bellied Bottle
(A Stanza added in a Mason's Lodge.)
Then fill up a bumper and make it o'erflow,
And honours masonic prepare for to throw;
May ev'ry true Brother of the Compass and Square
Have a big-belly'd bottle when harass'd with care.
Many other isolated references to Freemasonry occur in other poems, among which the following may be noted: —
"Low lies the hand that oft was stretch'd to save."
"The drooping arts surround their patron's bier,
And grateful science heaves the heartfelt sigh."
(These two passages are taken from the " Elegy on the Death of Sir James Hunter Blair," a member of the mystic brotherhood, and a partner in the eminent banking-house of Sir William Forbes and Co., Edinburgh.)
"That hour, o'night's black alch the key-stane."
"If friendless, low, we meet together
Then, Sir, your hand — my Friend and Brother!"
"For a' that and a' that,
It's coming yet, for a' that,
That man to man, the warld o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that."
"A' ye whom social pleasure charms
Whose heart the tide of kindness warms
Wha hold your being on the terms,
'Each aid the others.'
Come to my bowl, come to my arms,
My friends, my Brothers."
The following poem on "The Mason's Apron " appeared in The Freemason of October 18th, 1902, as one of Burns', although it is not included in the poet's published works: —
The Mason's Apron
There's mony a badge that's unco braw,
Wi' ribbon, lace and tape on;
Let Kings and Princes wear them a',
Gie me the Master's apron!
The honest Craftsman's apron,
The jolly mason's apron,
Bide he at hame, or roam afar
Before his touch fa's bolt an' bar
The gates of fortune fly ajar,
'Gin he wears the apron!
For w'alth and honor, pride an' power,
Are crumbling stanes to base on;
Fraternity sh'u'd 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!
Gudewives and bairnes blithely sing
Ti' the ancient badge wi' the apron string
That is worn by the Master Mason! "
The foregoing will give some idea of Burns' contributions to Masonic poetry.
- Burns was introduced to the Lodge by John Rankine, to whom he subsequently addressed several of his poems. ↩
- Burns was Depute Master of the Lodge, Major-General James Montgomery being the Master. ↩
- William Wallace, Grand Master of St. David's Lodge. ↩