Born on 25th January 1759, in the parish of Alloway, Ayrshire, Burns was the eldest of seven children to William Burness and Agnes Brown (or Broun). Well educated in a variety of subjects, from Scottish history and folklore to literature, Burns was forced to assist his father in working on the family farm, and took over at 25 when his father died in 1784.
By 28, Burns was beginning to be well known in his literary career; In 1786 he published “Poems: Chiefly in Scottish Dialect”, which was expanded in 1787 and again in 1793 (Ibid.). Beginning in 1786, Burns would spend much time in Edinburgh among the elite and intellectuals of Scottish society, although Burns felt that they were only patronizing him because his soul of literary genius lied within the body of a country bumpkin. He returned to Ayrshire and unsuccessfully tried farming; in 1791 he became an exciseman, or customs agent, and joined the local yeomanry unit, the Dumfriesshire Volunteers. However, the physical and mental toll of his hard life, plus growing financial burdens, weakened him, and in 1796, Burns died of rheumatic heart disease, caused by his lack of a healthy diet in his younger years.
However, physical and financial matters were not the only things that troubled Robert; The Kirk of Scotland (The Presbyterian Church) and it’s opposition to his lifestyle was another. In particular, Burns’s sexual escapades caused much hostility between him and the church. Burns fathered a number of illegitimate children, including one by his future wife, Jean Armour, the daughter of a Master Mason. Burns wanted to marry Jean; her father refused and Burns and Jean appeared for penance in church to “receive public reproof for the sin of fornication” Burns would continue his rampant sexual activities right up until several years before his death. He never stopped his literary war against Scottish Calvinism, and lampooned it in a number of poems, including “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, “The Holy Fair”, and others.
Besides his rather libertine actions with women, Burns was also a political radical, and a rather strange mix at that. From reading Scottish history, Burns became an ardent nationalist, writing many romantic ballads about Scottish attempts to secure their independence from the English, from Robert the Bruce to Bonny Prince Charlie. This can be seen in poems like “Scots wha Hae”, “Charlie is My Darling”, “The White Cockade”, and many others.
Burns combined his Jacobite sympathies of the past with Jacobin politics of the present. He vocally supported the French and American Revolutions, which aroused suspicion of his loyalties, especially when in the service of His Majesty’s government as an excise man, although Burns did recant his French tendencies when Britain and France went to war in 1792 . And while Burns may have been inspired by the French Revolution, his involvement in Freemasonry certainly played a large part in his opinions in favour of both secular and religious equity.
Freemasonry was very popular in Protestant Europe during Burns’s time, especially in the British Isles, where the first Grand Lodge was formed in London on 24th June 1717. Scotland’s connections with Freemasonry go even farther back, but to use an old cliche, “that’s another story”. Freemasonry inspired the revolutionary efforts of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who would fight not only in the American Revolution, but in the French Revolution as well. In England, while Freemasonry tended to be part of the status quo of the gentry, it still tolerated different religious beliefs, even though the government and the state church did not. Jews, Roman Catholics and Dissenter Protestants were all admitted, even though members of these same religious groups could not hold political office under the Test Act, which required all office holders to be members of the Anglican Church.
The Reverend James Anderson, a Presbyterian Minister, wrote a new Book of Constitutions for the UGLE in 1721, while he was living in London, and would be excluded from all other aspects of English political and religious life due to his church membership. Yet Anderson’s Constitutions are the cornerstone for Masonic bodies the world over; In 1729, the United Grand Lodge of England elected the Duke of Norfolk, a Roman Catholic as the Grand Master-Two clear examples of Freemasonry’s ecumenicalism in an age that still knew the bitter sting of religious intolerance and bigotry.
ROBERT BURNS’ MASONIC HISTORY
Robert Burns was initiated an Entered Apprentice in Lodge St. David, Tarbolton on 4 July (ironic date) 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 lodges 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 lst 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 (ironic name!) being Master, James Humphrey Senr. Warden, and Alexr. Smith Junr. Do., 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 (McLeod, p. 169). 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.
ROBERT 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” (p. 332). 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 seem 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 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.