Robert Burns and Freemasonry in Edinburgh

Bro. Dr. R. T. Halliday

Taking a comprehensive view, the Masonic career of Robert Burns, from his initiation at Tarbolton on 4th July 1781, till his death at Dumfries on 21st July 1796, may be divided into three stages. These are unequal in point of time and in importance; nor are they distinctive periods as they dovetail into one another. Yet they have each their own significance. In the first we have the humble ploughman in the natural rural element of his Ayrshire circle, hard pressed to maintain his own independence and that of his father's family, but surrounded by boon companions of a jovial country brotherhood. During this stage all his active Masonic work was done. In the second we find him in Edinburgh in a wholly different, and to him unnatural, atmosphere, lionised by the society of the day as the latest curiosity of that Metropolis, and flaunted for a time by Masonic associates of quite a dissimilar type. It was a brief but hectic interlude not inaptly described as "the circumstance of an opportunist", and though given a posthumous Masonic importance wholly unwarranted by facts, it involved no Masonic work of any kind. In the third stage the bard was back for a spell to the plough, tired and worried both physically and mentally, finally taking an official post which he had vainly calculated would bring him independence. Here he was again in his real Masonic element, but his day was far spent and his Masonic work practically over.

The Ayrshire period I have dealt with in an earlier paper [1] During this period Burns published "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect", the first or Kilmarnock edition of his works, and for this the Fraternity in Ayrshire were in large measure responsible. The second stage, the visits of the Bard to the Scottish Metropolis and his Masonic doings and interests there, was a natural though unforeseen corollary which merits some special reference. The third stage may claim a like attention at some future date.

His initial venture in publication provided Burns with a sadly needed twenty pounds with which he made preparation for his intended departure to Jamaica in the autumn of 1786, and, but for a series of accidental happenings which postponed his sailing week after week, Burns might even then have been lost to Scotland. But "the best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley". The delay gave time for more mature consideration and the decision to go to Edinburgh resulted.

Burns had several impelling reasons for that decision. The success of his first edition imbued him with the desire for a second, and we learn from his own pen of his futile endeavour to issue this in Ayrshire. But the poems had prompted Dr Thomas Blacklock to suggest that a further edition should be issued from Edinburgh; and this encouragement from, "one of a set of critics for whose applause I had not even dared to hope", stimulated Burns to consider this proposal seriously. There was also some expectation, to which at that time he had not given much heed, that influence might be available there to secure for him a position in the Excise Service. But strongest of all was his sense of his responsibilities to Jean Armour who had borne him twins on 3rd September. He had ever a commendable feeling of moral responsibility for his offspring. In a letter to Robert Aiken citing his uncertainties, disappointment, pride, remorse and general wretchedness, he wrote, "All these reasons urge me to go abroad, and to all these reasons I have only one answer, the feelings of a father. This overbalances everything that can be laid in the scale against it." He left Mossgiel on 27th November and reached Edinburgh the following day.

The move to Edinburgh for a man of Burns' temperament was a dangerous and fateful hazard. The fame of his poems had preceded him and he was introduced into clubs such as the Crochallan Fencibles and social circles as the Caledonian Hunt, where in that era of hard drinking and dissipation many would have completely lost their heads. "The Edinburgh of Boswell, Burns and Scott," wrote Professor Grierson, "was a centre of dissipation — drunken, immoral and pious, the different qualities blended sometimes in the most singular fashion." And Scott determined from his own close observation that his sons should never settle in Edinburgh if he could help it. Burns, however, kept steadily before him the main purport of his journey and set about the consummation of that business without delay. His Masonic associations again proved of value. James Dalrymple of Orangefield, a prominent Ayrshire Freemason, introduced him to the Earl of Glencairn and through him he met those" other luminaries in that galaxy of Scottish Craftsmen of which he for a time formed the centre of attraction" (Murray Lyon's History). By 7th December he was able to write to Gavin Hamilton, "My Lord Glencairn and the Dean of Faculty, Mr H. Erskine, have taken me under their wing. Through my Lord's influence it is inserted in the records of the Caledonian Hunt that they universally, one and all, subscribe for the second edition."

Mackenzie in his history of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge published in 1888, makes the assertion that "the first Lodge to which he (Burns) paid a visit was Canongate Kilwinning on 7th December, and after leaving it that night he wrote to his friend Gavin Hamilton." There is no record in the minute book of the Lodge of his presence nor does Burns mention such a meeting in his correspondence which at this time was voluminous and detailed. Where Mackenzie gleaned his information he does not state. But we know the source of this and other myths of the Bard's sojourn in Edinburgh to be Marshall's book, "A Winter with Robert Burns", probably the most unreliable concoction ever penned about him. Nor is Mackenzie trustworthy in other matters of detail. There are two inaccuracies in the opening paragraph of his chapter dealing with Burns. He notes that Burns was entered in Lodge St David's in 1781 and in 1784 was elected Depute Master. The name of the Lodge is St David and Burns never held office therein. He was one of the seceders who re-established the older Lodge St James, now No. 135, and in St James as Depute Master he "Presided o'er the Sons of Light". Here all his Ayrshire Masonic work was done. Murray Lyon states that, "an examination of the Canongate minutes shows that during Burns' residence in Edinburgh, 1786–87, the Lodge held only three meetings and at only one is Burns recorded as being present." This effectively disposes of the mendacious phrases "He was the life of the Lodge," and, "the seat he always resorted to."

The first Lodge he actually visited was St Andrew, now No. 48, and in a letter to James Ballantine, dated 14th January, he makes extended reference to this visit. "I went to a mason lodge yesternight, where Most Worshipful Grand Master Charters [2] and all the Grand Lodge of Scotland visited. The meeting was numerous and elegant; all the different lodges about town were present in all their pomp. The Grand Master, who presided with great solemnity and honour to himself as a gentleman and a mason, among other general toasts gave 'Caledonia and Caledonia's Bard, Brother Burns,' which rung through the whole assembly with multiplied honours and repeated acclamations. 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 that I could hear, 'Very well, indeed', which set me something to rights again." The argument has been advanced that this incident is not recorded in the minute of the St Andrew meeting, a statement strictly correct. But the minute records the visit of the Grand Master and the business transacted. Toasts follow at "Harmony" which it is unusual to record in minutes.

An outstanding Masonic incident occurred a fortnight later when Burns paid his sole recorded visit to Canongate Kilwinning Lodge on 1st February, which was duly chronicled as business in its minute book. The minute of that meeting is very explicit and is printed in extenso in Mackenzie's History. The paragraph referring to Burns is in these terms: "The Right Worshipful Master having observed that Brother Burns was at 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, and submitted that he should be assumed a member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to, and he was assumed accordingly." Thus he became an Honorary member of the Lodge. The History proceeds on the following page to relate that at the last monthly meeting of the season, held on 1st March, the Master conferred upon Burns "the title of Poet Laureate of the Lodge".

This statement of an obviously unconstitutional procedure has engendered perennial discussion in Masonic circles, fostered by its annual repetition in the Installation programme of the Lodge, probably in the expectation that by continued reiteration its authenticity may be eventually regarded as established. The topic has bulked so largely in Masonic annals and in books and papers on Burns, as to have become in certain quarters the preponderant feature of Burns's sojourn in Edinburgh. The cause of this notoriety was the painting of a picture by Stewart Watson in 1845 purporting to represent the scene of the Inauguration of Burns as Poet Laureate of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, prints of which have been broadcast throughout the world; and the concurrent issue of Marshall's volume already mentioned, "A Winter with Robert Burns", which gave biographical details of the personages depicted. These personages include some who were not members of the Order; one who did not set foot in Scotland until two years later; one who had left the country six years previously; and one who, never known to be a Freemason, was in his 108th year in 1787. It is noteworthy that the minute of this March meeting is not reproduced or quoted in Mackenzie's History and for a very excellent reason. This minute is also very explicit, much too explicit for satisfactory argument although argument there has been in abundance. it runs thus: "St John's Chapel, 1 March 1787. The Lodge being duly constituted, it was reported that since last meeting H. Dalrymple, Esq. (then follows a list of names) who all paid their dues to the Treasurer. No other business being before the meeting the Lodge adjourned." No mention is made of any election or inauguration of Burns, who as an Honorary member was not indeed eligible for office, nor of the institution of the new office of Poet Laureate; and two such remarkable items of business could not have escaped record if they had ever happened. But there was definitely other business. There is no mention of such an important meeting in Grand Lodge records; no registration of such a distinguished office bearer, If Grand Secretary Laurie, who published his "History of Freemasonry in Scotland" in 1804, makes no reference to an incident with which he must have been acquainted personally had it occurred. No items for the increased expenditure necessarily incurred in such a gathering appear in the Lodge accounts or elsewhere. Nor is there record of annual re-election as with other office bearers of the Lodge, and the Lodge had officially no Laureate for many years after Burns' day. The first mention of Burns in that capacity or of the office of Laureate occurs in the minute of 9th February 1815, when "the R.W. Master stated that he had observed a public subscription had been commenced for the purpose of erecting a Mausoleum to the Memory of Robert Burns, who was a member and Poet Laureate of this Lodge."

In another record, "The Book of Robert Burns", by Dr Charles Rogers, the date of this presumed inauguration is given as 25th June. This is demonstrably untenable as Burns on that date was on his West Highland tour and wrote to Robert Ainslie on the 28th from Arrochar after coming from Inveraray.

It is inconceivable that Burns himself would be silent over such an honour. In March 1787, he wrote to his friend, Mrs Dunlop, "The appellation of a Scottish bard is by far my highest pride." With such a pride the honour of a Laureateship in Edinburgh from the leaders of society would undoubtedly have evoked some record. Yet in none of his multitude of letters, nor in his Commonplace Book or Diary which he states he made his confidant, does he ever refer to the subject or even to Canongate Kilwinning Lodge.

The controversy had an important development in 1878 when Murray Lyon was about to publish his "History of Freemasonry in Scotland". Following up some information he had received, the Secretary of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, "felt it to be his duty", to request from the author an assurance that in his forthcoming work any references to Burns' connection with that Lodge would not discredit that connection. A lengthy correspondence ensued — lengthy at least on the side of the Secretary — and Mackenzie in his History devotes no less than a dozen pages to it. But we find what Murray Lyon cynically describes as that same "tendency to represent the traditions of the Craft as historical facts or so to embellish facts as to distort if not altogether to obliterate them." The arguments advanced by the Secretary are mere sophistry, the main line being that as statements which had been widely circulated had never been contradicted they must be assumed to be correct. No more absurd assumption could be imagined. The arguments adduced would never be accepted by any judicature and were amply refuted at a later investigation. Murray Lyon's conclusions were: When Marshall first made the assertion to a committee of the Lodge its records bear that his statement created surprise. 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."

The matter was not allowed to end there. There was a lengthy correspondence in the Masonic press and on 29th December 1892, Murray Lyon, who bad become Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, drew the attention of Grand Committee to the inscription under the picture by Stewart Watson which was then on the wall of the Committee Room, having been presented to Grand Lodge in 1863 by the family of the late Sir James Burnes, Physician to the Army in Bombay. Grand Committee thereupon appointed a Special Committee consisting of Brothers William Officer, David Sneddon and Allan Mackenzie to, "consider and report on the whole question". There was a long and critical enquiry followed by a detailed report which discredited not only the evidence advanced and the witnesses who supplied it, but also the picture and Marshall's volume. The witness, W. N. Fraser, for example, a Past Master of the Lodge, made the statement that, "the honour was fully appreciated by the Bard. He alludes to the circumstances in the following lines:

To please you, and praise you, Ye ken your Laureate scorns; The prayer still — you share still Of grateful minstrel Burns."

Yet we know that these lines were sent to Gavin Hamilton on 3rd May 1786, before Burns had thought of a visit to Edinburgh. Campbell, who averred that he had spent two happy days with Burns at Auchtertyre Castle, was born in 1776, according to the official register, and was therefore in his eleventh year when Burns was at Auchtertyre and did not join the Craft till 5th February 1801. Yet he said that he, "had had many opportunities of giving testimony in favour of the particulars referred to". The following were the conclusions of the Special Committee: "The Sub-Committee has bestowed much time and consideration on the matter remitted to it and enquired into it very fully. It regrets having to report:

1st. That in its opinion the statements made in 'A Winter with Robert Burns' as to the creation of, election to, and inauguration of the Poet as Poet Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge is fictitious.

2nd. That the office was not created during the lifetime of Burns and that consequently he was not elected to and was not inaugurated into it;

3rd. That the statement that Burns had been Poet Laureate of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge was first made by the publisher of an engraving of Burns in October 1798; and

4th. That the statement that he had been inaugurated into that office was first made in November 1845, by the author of 'A Winter with Robert Burns' and the painter of the picture representing the alleged inauguration."

This report was signed by William Officer and D. Sneddon; Mackenzie dissented, giving his reasons. But the inscription remains, with the picture, today.

The Edinburgh edition of Burns's poems was published on 21st April 1787, by Wm. Creech, the foremost publisher of the day and a member of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge. The printer was Wm. Smellie, also a member of the Craft and mainspring of the Crochallan Club. For the frontispiece Alexander Nasmyth, another member of Canongate Kilwinning and an artist of note, gratuitously painted the most reliable portrait of Burns from special sittings, and this was engraved for the volume by another member, John Beugo. These and other members of the Fraternity were the associates of Burns during this period, meeting, not in lodges, but in the popular taverns of the day such as John Dowie's in Liberton's Wynd or Dannie Douglas's Howff in Anchor Close. Hence the success of this second, as of the first, edition may be credited to Masonic influence.

Delays in reaching a financial settlement with the dilatory Creech kept Burns in the city much beyond his original intention. This was unfortunate because it was disconcerting to his muse and afforded time and opportunity for other matters than the contemplation of his future vocation. These do not concern us here. That he had no misgiving as to the temporary nature of his residence in Edinburgh is evident from his letters. To Dr Moore on 23rd April, he wrote, "I leave Edinburgh in the course of ten days Or a fortnight and after a few pilgrimages over some of the classic ground of Caledonia, I shall return to my rural shades in all likelihood never more to quit them." He set out on the first of these pilgrimages on 5th May, with Robert Ainslie, a member of Lodge St Luke, now No. 44, and toured the Border country. At Eyemouth they became Royal Arch Masons, Ainslie paying a guinea while Burns, "on account of his remarkable poetic genius", was admitted without fee. Th his diary of the tour, under date 19th May 1787, he notes, "Spent the day at Mr Grieve's — made a Royal Arch Mason at St Abb's Lodge (Eyemouth)." He returned to Edinburgh on 7th August, but Creech was still dawdling and Burns set about arranging for his longest tour. On 23rd August he wrote to the "Men and Brethren" of St James Lodge: "I am truly sorry it is not in my power to be at your quarterly meeting. If I must be absent in body believe me I shall be present in spirit," and he repeated a stanza of his former song:

"Within your dear mansion may wayward Contention
Or withered Envy ne'er enter;
May Secrecy round be the mystical bound,
And brotherly Love be the centre."

He set off on his Highland tour two days later with Willie Nicol. They visited Linlithgow and Stirling in each of which towns Burns is said to have attended a local Lodge. But here again the reports are but legendary. They were not recorded in any minutes nor are they mentioned in letters or Diary as they would have been if true. He returned to Edinburgh on 16th September.

This second winter which he was fated to spend in Edinburgh against all his inclinations had not the glamour of the first. The novelty had worn off both on the part of Burns and some of his former friends and he was worried by Creech's continued failure to settle accounts. Freemasonry never came into the picture; an accident kept him for a great part of the time indoors. He left Edinburgh in the middle of February 1788, after a temporary financial arrangement with Creech and returned home. There was a bitter taste in his mouth, evidenced by his feelings when he wrote of "the world of wits and gens comme il faut which I lately left and with whom I never again will intimately mix."

The Edinburgh periods in the career of Burns here touched upon were short but as already indicated were fateful, and beyond providing the original friendships which made them memorable, Freemasonry, as such, had no direct part. They were fateful for several reasons. They gave to the world at large the poems and in great measure the revealing letters of Burns. They afforded the opportunity for the display and the preservation for posterity of his supreme gift of song, by his association with James Johnson and the collaborating musician, Stephen Clarke, in The Scots Musical Museum. They introduced Burns to a new profession which was his stand-by in later years. And they led him into two branches of social life, the drawing room and the city tavern, which even on his own admission had fateful consequences; they "ate up slices of his constitution".

Another great poet has told us that there is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Burns did not reach that haven. Did he fail to take the tide at the flood or did the flood come too late, if indeed it ever came during his lifetime. Who can or dare venture to say? During the ages of this world many men have passed of whom it may with truth be said, "He being dead yet speaketh." High up on that list is Robert Burns.


[1] Published in "The Burns Chronicle." 1929.

[2] Francis Charteris, Lord Elcho, later 7th Earl of Wemyss.

From a paper read to the Masters’ and Past Masters’ Association of Renfrewshire West.