About the Inauguration Painting
There is no doubt that Robert Burns was a member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning. The minutes of the meeting on 1st February 1787 record the event: "The RW 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, submitted that he should be assumed a member of this Lodge, which was unanimously agreed to and he was assumed accordingly".
There is no other reference to Robert Burns in the minutes of the Lodge during his lifetime but this is not unusual and does not necessarily imply that he only made one visit to the Lodge. While the minutes in the 1750s and 1760s listed each member and visitor attending each meeting, this practice unfortunately died out in the 1770s, probably because of the increasing work involved as meetings became more and more popular.
The minute of The Lodge meeting of 1st March 1787 was signed by Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch as Master and Charles More as Depute Master suggesting that it was a Regular Meeting of the Lodge and may not therefore have been such a Grand Event as some would have us believe. There is no reason to doubt that the ceremony took place less formally during Harmony and in a more jovial setting. This was not uncommon at such meetings where the formal ceremonies and the informal gathering took place in the same room. Minutes were not usually taken by Secreataries during Harmony, especially at the time when Burns was a member of the Lodge and long after. At the very end of the 19th century basic comments appeared about the Lodge harmonies and details of toasts and other matters appeared later and throughout the early part of the 20th century in various forms, dependant on the Secretary of the day.
It is claimed that there is no reference to Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning until after his death, indeed until 1815 when a subscription was started for the erection of a mausoleum to the memory of Burns "who had been Poet Laureate to the Lodge". This is not strictly the case as there is reference within the Lodge minutes to indicate Burns’s being referred to as Poet Laureate as far back as 1802. There is of course also the word of those members and eye-witnesses who were present when the event took place. The resolution to contribute to the Mausoleum Fund was signed by Charles More who, as Depute Master, had signed the minute of the meeting of 1st February 1787 when Burns had been assumed a member.
There is seemingly no apparent record of Robert Burns having mentioned the Inauguration directly in any of his letters which might be explained by the fact that he did not mention other accolades (such as receiving the Freedom of the Burgh of Dumfries). It is possible that he considered Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning of less significance than being toasted "Caledonia's Bard". Burns may also have been reluctant to write about such an event or such an honour given that Canongate Kilwinning was perceived to be a Lodge of “Jacobite Gentlemen”. At that time there was still political unrest from the last uprising and given that Burns’s political tendency was that of caution, he may not have been openly inclined to write about it. It is worth noting that in all the letters of Burns that have been published, so far around 540, very few mention his Masonic activities.
In 1845, James Marshall, a member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, suggested to the members of the Lodge that the Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning would be a fitting subject for a painting. To undertake the work, he recommended Stewart Watson RIA, also a member of the Lodge, who had recently returned from Italy where he had spent a number of years pursuing his profession. It appears that Marshall offered to pay for the commission, but would have the right to sell the limited edition engravings of the painting. Stewart Watson was given access to the documentation and of course had access to members so he was able to build up an image of the event. The finished painting was ultimately donated to Grand Lodge in 1864, on behalf of the late Chevalier James Burnes who was a member of the Lodge and a descendant of Robert Burns.
This proposal seemed to please everybody. The members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning simply viewed it as confirmation of an event that had taken place, Watson got a commission, Marshall got a business opportunity to sell the engravings and ultimately Grand Lodge received a fine Masonic painting. Undoubtedly Grand Lodge was happy to accept the painting because it still proudly hangs in its Museum which is open to the public. To assist the sale of engravings, Marshall produced a book titled "A Winter with Robert Burns" which gives an account of Robert Burns's stay in Edinburgh and of course states that the Inauguration took place. The book provides interesting insights into many of the characters depicted in the painting.
Criticism of the painting loomed towards the end of the nineteenth century, when Murray Lyon stated “neither the minute of that date, nor of any other during Burns's lifetime, contains any record whatever of the existence of such an office as Laureate of the Lodge, or of that distinction being conferred on Burns.” It should be noted that this is as stated in Lyons second edition of his “History of The Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No.1"circa 1894. The same subject in his first edition published in 1873, prior to his becoming Grand Secretary, is not condemnatory of the Laureateship and one can say it was supportive. Later and for whatever reason, perhaps due to the intervention of William Officer, his attitude towards the Laureateship and the Inauguration painting became more hostile when, in 1892 he drew attention again to the painting "purporting to represent the installation of the Poet Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2". He suggested that Grand Committee should amend the inscription. A special Sub-committee was appointed to consider and report on the matter to Grand Committee. On behalf of Canongate Kilwinning Allan Mackenzie PM submitted evidence to Grand Committee to show that the event had taken place while Murray Lyon submitted a list of evidence to the contrary, evidence which lacked the substance to prove the event was not genuine. Ultimately the report found that there was not sufficient evidence to the contrary to change the inscription on the painting and it remains unaltered to this day. Grand Committee resolved on 26th September 1895 "... having considered the Report of the Sub-Committee re the picture in the Board Room of Grand lodge inscribed:- 'The Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet laureate of The Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, Edinburgh, 1st March 1787. Presented by James Burnes, K.H., F.R.S., etc., To the Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1862.' and 'Facts' brought before them anent the same, refuse to recommend any alteration on the said inscription".
The result is that while the painting is recognised around the world, some of its impact may have been lost because of the controversy caused by Murray Lyon, and William Officer. Consequently, it is sometimes dismissed as fictional in its entirety. Many of the characters depicted in teh painting were members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning and are referred to in the minute books. A study of the characters in the painting reveals insights into the extent of contacts that Robert Burns made through his membership of Freemasonry in general, but also of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in particular. While Burns's contact with each character has been well documented in biographies over the centuries, what is less well known is the extent of the informal contact he had with them through the meetings of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in The Chapel of St John in the Canongate.
Perhaps more importantly, on the issues of Burns never having said or written that he was Poet Laureate, it is reported that he did confirm he was “chosen as Poet Laureat (sic)”. In a recent biography of Burns, namely “The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography” by Robert Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews, the author mentions a meeting between the 24 year old Rev. James MacDonald, one time Minister at Anstruther, and Burns - a meeting which no other biographer of Burns had picked up on. Crawford writes:-
“But he still had spirit. On 2 June he was paid in full for the previous six weeks' Excise work; James Currie pointed out that this was due to 'the kindness of Mr Stobbie, a young expectant in the Excise, who performed the duties of his office without fee or reward'. What no previous biographer has realised is that on 1 June Burns had a visitor. The Gaelic-speaking Reverend James Macdonald, recently licensed as a Kirk minister, was a well-travelled twenty-four-year-old Hebridean-born admirer of Ossian with an interest in the Jacobites. Knowledgeable about farming, and a great lover of poetry, Macdonald was also devoted to the example of William Wallace. Later (in 1798) aware of being called by 'the hard names of Jacobin, democrat, etc.', Macdonald in 1796 was no fan of ‘aristocratical arrogance’. He came to meet Burns just after making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of his 'favourite Bard', Thomson. Macdonald and Burns were made for each other. They hit it off from the start on 1 June. Macdonald's journal, written up in Sanquhar next evening and here quoted from manuscript, is a key document not only for its perception of Burns's politics but also because it is the last extended account of his conversation written during the bard's lifetime.”
Crawford then goes on to quote the part of MacDonald’s Journal which deals with his meeting with Burns on the 1st June 1796. It is here transcribed in full:-
“Yesterday Burns the Ayrshire Poet dined with me; and few evenings of my life passed away more to my satisfaction. He looks consumptive, but was in excellent spirits, and displayed as much wit and humour in 3 hours time as any man I ever knew. He told me that being once in Stirling when he was a young lad, & heated with drink, he had nigh got himself into a dreadful scrape by writing the following lines on the pane of a glass window in an Inn
Here Stewarts once in triumph reign'd,
And laws for Scotland's weal ordain'd;
But now unroof’d their Palace stands,
Their Sceptre's fall'n to other hands;
Fall'n indeed unto the Earth
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth;
And since great Stewarts' line is gone,
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race to honour lost,
Who know them best dispise them most.
These lines are a proof of Burn's (sic) rashness & folly. He promised to send me an ode he composed when chosen poet Laureat to a Meeting of Jacobite Gentlemen once in Edin(burg), when old Farquharson of Monalterie happened to meet with a poor Man who had fought by his side at the Battle of Culloden, which circumstance when he mentioned it brought the tears into the Poets Eyes. He told many anecdotes of himself and others in the very best & most genuine spirit of pleasantry. The landlord of our Inn commonly known by the name of the Marquiss Johnstone, is also a good humoured fellow, and served as a whetstone for Burn's (sic) Wit. They are both staunch republicans. Burns repeated an ode he composed on the Pretender's birth day, replete with grand imagery & brilliant expression. I am sorry I do not remember the words of the ode, one simile which referred to the Swiss Avalanche was sublime. He promised to send me a copy of it. At parting the poor Poet with tears in his Eyes took an affectionate leave of me. He has vast pathos in his voice, and as he himself says in his Vision, 'His eye e'en turn'd on empty space, beams keen wi' honour.' I am happy to have seen, and enjoyed the company of this true heaven born Genius, whose conversation is at least correspondent to his published thoughts, and whose personal appearance and address, partake more than is generally allowed of, those of the Gentleman & of the scholar.”
Crawford goes on to write:-
“Although Macdonald thought he looked ‘consumptive’, clearly Burns, while more than usually close to tears, momentarily forgot his illness. He evidently enjoyed the company of his radically minded visitor and of the publican Johnstone whom he called 'a mock Marquis' and whose pub was in a Dumfries alley called 'The Marquis's Close'. Relishing a sense of his rebellious past, Burns's conversation moved readily from Jacobite convictions to Jacobin, republican ones - a movement often perceptible in his work: that is one reason for the significant number of Jacobite songs among the last ones he contributed to the Scots Musical Museum. This evident republicanism maintained in private right to the end of his life accords fully with a letter written to Maria Riddell and assigned by editors to around 1 June: Robert tells Maria he is 'rackt… with rheumatisms', but may see her that Saturday at a gathering she is holding to mark the King's Birthday”.
There has been much said about the title “Poet Laureate” to the extent that at the time, 1787, it was not in vogue nor in use in Masonic terms as part of any lodge or any office within a lodge in existence. Contrary to this misconception Burns was accustomed to referring to himself and being referred to as “Laureate” and “Poet Laureate” with his Masonic and other friends. In his own works, before and after the date of his inauguration at Canongate Kilwinning, for example in a Stanza written by Burns to Gavin Hamilton on 3rd May 1786 he refers to himself as “Laureate”. Specifically it reads:-
“To phrase you, an' praise you,
Ye ken your Laureat scorns:
The PRAY'R still, you share still,
Of grateful Minstrel Burns”.
In July of 1786 in a playful ode “ON A SCOTCH BARD, GONE TO THE WEST INDIES” Burns wrote:-
Auld cantie Kyle may weepers wear.
And stain them wi' the saut, saut tear;
'Twill mak her poor auld heart, I fear.
In flinders flee;
He was her laureat monie a year,
That 's owre the sea.
Another example is in his “EXTEMPORE” to Gavin Hamilton, “Stanzas on Naething”
“The Poet may jingle and rhyme,
In hopes of a laureat wreathing,
And when he has wasted his time,
He's kindly rewarded with – naething”.
This poem is believed to have been written towards the end of 1786 and although it is undated, there are a few clues in it. Burns uses the lines, 'And now I must mount on the wave’, 'My voyage perhaps there is death in,' a reference perhaps to his leaving for Jamaica which would date it about August/September that year. However, it certainly uses the term laureate and confirms that Burns was in fact accustomed to describing himself as such.
There is a more contemporaneous and exact example where Burns referred to himself fully as “Poet Laureat”. In a letter he wrote on the 20th November 1786, only a few weeks before he first visited Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, where he met with Dalrymple, and less than six weeks from when he was assumed a member, he wrote from Mauchline to William Chambers and John Mc Adam:-
“In the Name of the Nine. Amen.
We, Robert Burns, by virtue of a warrant from Nature,
bearing date the twenty-fifth day of January, Anno Domini
one thousand seven hundred and fifty nine, Poet Laureat
and Bard-in-Chief, in and over the districts and countries of
Kyle, Cunningham, and Carrick, of old extent,—To our
trusty and well-beloved William Chalmers and John
M'Adam, students and practitioners in the ancient and
mysterious science of confounding right and wrong.
Right Trusty,—Be it known unto you, That whereas
in the course of our care and watchings over the order and
police of all and sundry the manufacturers, retainers, and
vendors of poesy ; bards, poets, poetasters, rhymers,
jinglers, songsters, ballad-singers, etc., etc., etc., etc., male
and female—We have discovered a certain nefarious,
abominable, and wicked song or ballad, a copy whereof we
have here inclosed ; Our Will therefore is, that Ye pitch
upon and appoint the most execrable individual of that
most execrable species known by the appellation, phrase,
and nickname of The Deil's Yell Nowte and after having
caused him to kindle a fire at the Cross of Ayr, ye shall, at
noontide of the day, put into the said wretch's merciless
hands the said copy of the said nefarious and wicked song,
to be consumed by fire in presence of all beholders, in
abhorrence of, and terrorem to, all such compositions and
composers. And this in no wise leave ye undone, but have
it executed in every point as this our mandate bears, before
the twenty-fourth current, when in person We hope to
applaud your faithfulness and zeal.
Given at Mauchline this twentieth day of November,
Anno Domini one thousand seven hundred and eighty-six.
God save the Bard!”
The following first two stanzas from “tattered rhymes” enclosed in a letter sent to William Dunbar on the 30th April 1787 apparently commemorate how Burns and John Millar, the Junior Warden of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, celebrated the raising of John Gray. (Passed and raised at Canongate Kilwinning on 1st March 1787 the same night of Burns Inauguration). In this ode Burns manages to convey the drunken atmosphere of these festivities through word-play on Hiram Abif and King Hiram of Tyre. The content of the "sang or story" is a retelling of one of the "tales of Tyre" narrated by William Cruickshank who was one of Burns's drinking companions:-
Frae wast to south, tell ilka callan
The corps maun anchor at Chro callan.
" And wha gaes there ?" thrice Millar gruntit ;
"I," rattlin' Willie roar'd, and duntit.
As twal is Tron'd we a' link out ;
The moon—a ragged washin' clout—
Glints shame-fac'd to ae waukriff starrie :
The nicht’s been wat—the caus'y's glaurie.
In Davie's straucht, and numbering aicht,
A bowl's filled to the rarest
For sang or story ;—or wha glory
In drinkin' to the fairest.
Soon cheeks and e'en begin to glisten
Glibgabbet a', and nane to listen.
Now tales o' Tyre, for buikless billies,
Are tauld by rival pedant Willies ;
How Thebes' king, when tir'd o' Sidon,
Erected Tyre—folk to reside in ;
NIC WILLIE wond'rin' wha could hire him,
If't hadna been the first King Hiram.
"O ye donneril !" cried the Coronel,
'Twas the hindmost king o' Tyre.
'Twas nae Hiram, but King Iram,
For he finish'd it—wi' fire."
From an oration recently given at Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on the 22nd January 2014, by Stewart Donaldson (Lodge Historian of Lodge Stirling Royal Arch No.76), Donaldson explains, in Lowland Scots Dialect, his take on the Laureatship affair and the masonic significances and connection with Lodge Canongate Kilwinning as follows:-
"You know, there has been more words written and more words spoken about Robert Burns than any other Scotsman in History, and probably more than any other person in the History of the World, and if you were to take the number of people here tonight, and multiply it by the number of Burns suppers that each of us have been to, then it would run into tens of 1000’s of immortal memories that we must have heard, all on a variety of different subjects regarding the life and works of Robert Burns. And there is probably not much that I could tell most of you regarding the poet that you’ve not heard before, especially regarding his membership in Freemasonry and this Lodge in particular. Its well documented the Burns was admitted a member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in 1787, every person here (perhaps with few exceptions) knows of the controversy surrounding his admission and his alleged inauguration as the Lodge’s poet-Laureate, a controversy which began in the late 19th century and that still rages today more than 125 years later. The Scottish Masonic Community and Burns Scholars then and now are divided on the issue, was he or was he not the first Poet-Laureate of this Ancient and Honourable Lodge? I am utterly convinced he was, and allow me to share with you my reasoning behind this conviction.
The famous painting of 1845 by Stewart Watson inscribed, "The Inauguration Of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No 2, 1st March 1787" which hangs in the Grand Lodge of Scotland caused a debate. The secretary of the Grand Lodge in 1873 who happened to be a Masonic Historian and Author, said of this painting, whoa, this inauguration didnae happen, this picture is load a nonsense, and he wanted the Grand Committee to change the inscription. Well as you can imagine, this caused an uproar within the membership of Canongate Kilwinning, and it came to a head some 20 years later. The gist of the matter was that the Bro. Grand Secretary reported the Robert Burns was never the poet-laureate of No. 2 because there is no mention of it in their minute books, no mention in the Grand Lodge records and Burns himself never mentioned it, and it is a figment of the brethren of Canongate Kilwinning’s imagination, end of story! He even accused the Lodge of hiding the Minute relating to the date the 1st of March when the inauguration was supposed to have happened to substantiate the claim.
Well, Brethren, Lady, and Gentlemen, Lodge Canongate Kilwinning wasnae going to take this lying down, and a series of correspondence flew back and fro to Grand Lodge, to masonic magazine’s and periodicals, even to the Scotsman newspaper with them defending their stance and their opponents continuing to maintain it was a myth. And this debate has raged on ever since for well over 125 years with division still on either side, the naw he wisnae’s and the aye he wis, and this is where I come in.
Of course the representation as portrayed in Stewart Watson’s painting did not take place, he was using artistic license, as there are people in the painting that were not alive at this period, some no even masons, and the content of this painting is much the same as the famous 1851 painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware on a boat in 1776 which shows the US stars and stripes flag being held aloft which did not even exist then. Or the famous painting of The Death of Nelson on HMS Victory which shows Hardy standing beside the Admiral at the moment of Nelson’s death, Hardy was not present when this happened, it just makes these paintings look better, and they have become accepted as actual representations of what took place, just the same as Watson’s painting of Burns. And yet, its this painting depicting Burns being inaugurated that has caused the most damage to the creditability of him ever having been the Poet-Laureate of this Lodge. And a succession of Burns authors whether Masonic or not, have since then used this painting and the then Grand Secretary’s report as being actual proof that Burns was never the poet-laureate of this ancient and honourable Lodge. Well it’s not the creditability of this Lodge that should be held in question but rather the reliability of the evidence given by Masonic authors as to Robert Burns, for you see we now know that some of them just didn’t get it right. Modern day researchers are now disputing much of what was written about Robert Burns by Victorian authors and maintaining that most of what was reported by them was just repeating and rehashing the words of authors that came before them, and who didnae get it right in the first place, let me explain.
The student of Robert Burns today has a powerful tool that our scholarly predecessors’ didn’t have, the wonderful modern invention called Google, and at a click of a mouse button we can access books written about Burns that at one time were only available from library’s, private collections and such like. We can call up different books from the first one written right up to modern day authors and do cross-referencing and check the authenticity of their sources, and this has opened up a new world in researching Robert Burns, and hardly a year goes by now, that some Burns student is uncovering something new about the Bard and proving that authors before us were in fact mistaken in some of the facts they wrote about him. But it just wasn’t 19th century authors that got it wrong!
A famous Burns Masonic scholar from the 1970’s and 80’s wrote a masterly piece of work about Burns and Freemasonry in which he castigates the famous 1920 William Harvey account of Burns and Masonry in Ayrshire. In fact I once met this gentleman and he was quite vitriol in his dislike for Harvey for getting it wrong. Sadly this gentleman is no longer with us, and how I wish he was, for at the end of the essay about Burns Masonic life published in the GLOS yearbook, he wrote in this describing Burns,
Indeed, only a lover of the Craft could have written so freely and so uninhibitedly of the badge we are so proud to wear: The Master’s Apron.
‘Theres 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.”
Unfortunately, we now know that Robert Burns did not write this, and I have used this example only to show that even modern day respected Burns Masonic scholars as well as Victorian ones occasionally can and do get their facts wrong, which brings me nicely to my research and one poem in particular.
During the late 18th century, Edinburgh was a hotbed of Gentlemen’s clubs, with names like, The Beggars Benison, the Poker Club, the Wig Club and The Crochallan Fencibles. The membership of these and the many other clubs consisted of the Literati and Gliterati of Edinburgh’s Society, which drew their members from various groups and professions within the City. Research has shown the Crochallan Fencibles took it’s membership from Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, indeed 16 men so far identified as members were all prominent Brethren of the Lodge. Robert Burns was one of these members of the Fencibles, and mentions them in a number of poems and songs. Principally a drinking and debating club the fencibles met at Daniel Douglas’s tavern down the Anchor Close, Burns had been introduced by William Smellie the printer who’s shop was in the same close and it was there that Burns spent many happy hours in the company of the Cannongate Kilwinning Masons who would gather there, more than likely after the Lodge meeting was brought to a close. This was Burns at his best, in the company of Masons with a punch-bowl of whisky close-by, setting the world to right and most of all singing a collection of songs, probably with each member trying hard to outdo the other, and Burns outshining them all with his collection of Merry Muses.-
It was in this atmosphere that Burns wrote a song which although untitled has become known as the Crochallan Fencibles song and it is this song that I believe holds the key to Burns having been invested as the Poet-laureate of this Lodge. Unfortunately time will not permit me to go into the fine detail regarding this song, and the many different pointers within it as to proving his being inaugurated, and I can really only give you a taste of what research has thus far thrown up!
The song begins;
Frae west to south, tell ilka callan
The corps maun anchor at Chro callan.
" And wha gaes there ?" thrice Millar gruntit ;
"I," rattlin' Willie roar'd, and duntit.
"This song is a wonderful play on words and its full of hidden Masonic references and cryptic messages from beginning to end, the opening lines explain that members of the crochallan fencibles from various parts are gathered together at the Anchor Close, frae West to South, tell ilka Callan, the Corps maun anchor at Chro callan. However, the very first line of this song doesn’t make any poetic sense, why would the author use the cardinal points West to South to describe the gathering, when it would much easier for him to use in the context, from North to South of even from East to West, which fits into the framework of the song much better, why would Burns have done this? Well the answer is to be found in the next two lines of the first verse and shows just how clever and how wonderfully complex this song really is, and if they are narrated in the manner in the way in which they were meant to be, it all becomes much clearer.
" And wha gaes there ?" thrice Millar gruntit ; "I," rattlin' Willie roar'd, and duntit.
Now it is beginning to make sense, in these four lines Burn is describing a gathering of Masons, perhaps after the official business of the Lodge has ended, and a meeting of the Canongate Kilwinning Masons at that, but how do we know this? Well, the first name mentioned is Millar. John Millar was the Junior Warden of Canongate Kilwinning, the second name is Willie Dunbar, called rattlin’ roarin Willie by Burns, and he was the Senior Warden of the Lodge, and now we find out why Burns used the points west and south, for where do these Brethren’ sit in the Lodge, why of course, the West and South! And these Crochallan fencibles held these offices at the time of Burns admission into the Lodge and the subsequent inauguration that this song goes on to describe. Burns was being very clever, and writing cryptic clues that only brethren of the mystic tie would understand."
Donaldson goes into further detail on the significances of the manner in which Burns cryptically goes on to describe the night he was made Poet Laureate:-
"And more, there are eight men referred to in this song, Burns and seven others, and all are members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, the next verse tells us that the time is midnight, the tavern is being shut and the eight of them move off in search of another drinking establishment, where the entertainment continues, with songs and stories, and various toasts being drunk, all of which has been wonderfully described as a symposium of fun, freemasonry and whisky. The song continues with laughter and a heated debate between two of members of the Lodge, Willie Nicol and Willie Dunbar and then in the third verse the other players in this setting get involved, with Burns debating with one John Gray. Burgh Jock as Burns called him joined Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on the 1st March 1787, the same night that tradition has it was the inauguration of Burns as Poet-Laureate, and here we find Gray mentioned at this gathering of Masons, it is my contention that this is that same night. Willie Cruikshank, the Latin Master of the High School also a member of the Lodge becomes involved in the ongoing discussion regarding freemasonry and then in the last verse we find perhaps the most overwhelming evidence of Burns being made the Lodge Poet-laureate.
“But Latin Willie’s reek noo raise, He’d seen the nicht Rab crown’d wi bays.”
There is no doubt that this song is an account of a meeting of the Canongate Kilwinning brethren, there is no doubt that the evidence shown within the lines (written by the Bard himself) is overwhelming in support that Burns was indeed the poet-laureate of the ancient and honourable Lodge, and this is only a taste of what this poem has thrown up, far too much for me to go into tonight, as time must draw a close on this oration, you’ll be glad to hear. Although there is one final detail that I feel I must share with you regarding the seven Brethren mentioned in the poem that were there the night in the company of Burns, as I’ve already indicated they were all Members of Canongate Kilwinning, and all Crochallan fencibles, and what’s more, those seven Brethren that “seen the nicht Rab crown’d wi bays” are all depicted in Stewart Watson’s painting, witnessing the Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet-laureate! Yes, the artist was using artistic license, one which provoked controversy by offending those who resent the reinterpretation of their beliefs. Artists often respond to these criticisms by pointing out that their work was not intended to be a verbatim portrayal of something previous and should be judged only on artistic merit.And Watson did exactly this, when he painted this portrayal in 1845 he knew that Burns had been created the Poet-Laureate that night in 1787 and had been witnessed by these Brethren, he just thought it would look better if it was in the Lodge room surrounded by the glitterati of Edinburgh.
I don’t need to prove to the Brethren of this Lodge that Burns was their first poet-laureate, they know it in their hearts to be true, every Brother since him that has held this office has recognized Burns to have been at the head of that exclusive list, the research for the irrefutable proof of this continues, proof, that Brethren, Lady, and Gentlemen is within the thickness of a cat’s whisker of being acknowledged and found to be fact. Supposition is now making way to undeniable truth.
In closing, yes, many writers have disputed this to be the case, one such writer stated in 1929, “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.”Again he was only repeating the account from 50 years previous, I hope that I have shown tonight that we are uncovering new information all the time about this event that shows there are more facts to prove it to be true, than there are facts to show it was a myth."
Donaldson has clearly reconginsed the full masonic significances and undeniable link to Burns Laureatship of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in the verses Burns sent to one William Dunbar.
In the last two lines of the second verse Burns puns on the burning of Tyre and the fires of whisky. The poem was written as a reply to Cruickshank whose friendship Burns declared was as "dear to me as the ruddy drops that warm my heart', “the Coronel” being direct reference to William Dunbar.
The final two verses of the ode are transcribed below.The beginning of the final stanza suggests, as emphasisd by Stewart Donaldson, that Cruickshank had witnessed the poet's inauguration as Poet-Laureate which took place at the same time as Gray's raising and is another well known, though cryptic, reference to the Inauguration itself:-
By this time Burgh Jock's a-storm
For Rab had rais'd Jock's fiend, Reform ;
" What wad ye hae, ye hell-cat heathens
WILL answer'd JOCK—" The Sett of Athens,
Whare yearly Archons were elecit,
And people's richts were mair respecit,
They manag'd town affairs fu' gaylie,
Wi' ne'er a king, or lord, or bailie.
Now, by your schule, misshankit fule,
What has your scheme to crack o’?
Your best tap-sawyer was a lawyer,
The bluidy Archon Draco."
But Latin WILLIE'S reek noo raise,
He'd seen that nicht RAB crown'd wi' bays,
And heard the corps, wi' ready roar,
Be-knappin' a' his classic lore.
Still CRUIKIE offers NIC a wage,
Which best could tell the very age
When Draco and when Iram flourished,
And if they baith freemasons nourished ?
NIC, no that lame, cries--" Wha's for Name ?"
" I go," says ane, " and a' go ;"—
" If ye wad tell, Cruik, speer at hell,
Pro Iram coram Draco."
In recognition of Cruickshank's reputation as a Classics scholar, Burns concluded the ode with a Latin joke.
In its entirety this is undoubtedly the “ode” Burns refers to in his conversation with the Rev. James MacDonald in 1796. Its Masonic references and reference to Burns being made Poet Laureate are obvious. On conclusion therefore it is clear that Burns did write about his Laureatship of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in addition to having spoken about it. His discussion with MacDonald, recorded the day after it took place, by the young journalist is as contemperaonious as any Historian would require as proof.
Had the ode been written in commemoration of an event at a “Dinner” it would not have been referred to by Burns as a “Meeting” as he described it to MacDonald, nor would it be likely to have included so many Masonic references. It is evident that this is derived from a Masonic meeting on the occasion of which he was conferred or “chosen” as Poet Laureate and Gray was raised. It can be deduced that the night went on beyond this meeting up the High Street and on to “Anchor close” where his friends from the Corps would gather.
It is clear that MacDonald was in search of Jacobite stories and all things Jacobite. Burns, being aware of this, duly obliged with some moments from his life coupled with mention of relevant verses. "Latin Willie" was clearly full of Masonic and Masonic meeting references but Burns told it to MacDonald as Jacobite, knowing full well he was giving him what he wanted. Reciting the "Ode" to MacDonald would have revealed Burns's Masonic tendencies and there was no reason for Burns to bring up Freemasonry under the circumstances. MacDonald was not a member of the Craft and consequently no discussion on Freemasonry took place. There was also no mention during this meeting, as some historians have falsely claimed, of Burns being proclaimed “Caledonia’s Bard” as this obviously took place at a Masonic event. Ultimately Burns did not send either of the odes, as promised, to MacDonald, perhaps thinking better of it!
Just as clearly, Burns was obviously at a Dinner to celebrate the Young Pretender’s Birthday on 31st December 1787 and he mentions it to MacDonald. He does not however refer to this event as a meeting and the “ode” in question is written as a toast to Charles Edward Stuart. It was also written long after the Inauguration event, nine months or so later, and simply cannot be confused or mixed up with it. The ode in questions reads:-
BIRTHDAY ODE FOR 31ST DECEMBER 1787
(Prince Charles Edward Stuart was born on 31st December 1720)
Afar the illustrious Exile roams,
Whom kingdoms on this day should hail,
An inmate in the casual shed,
On transient pity's bounty fed,
Haunted by busy Memory's bitter tale!
Beasts of the forest have their savage homes,
But He, who should imperial purple wear,
Owns not the lap of earth where rests his royal head;
His wretched refuge dark despair,
While ravening wrongs and woes pursue,
And distant far the faithful few
Who would his sorrows share!
False flatterer, Hope, away,
Nor think to lure us as in days of yore!
We solemnize this sorrowing natal day,
To prove our loyal truth—we can no more—
And, owning Heaven's mysterious sway,
Submissive, low, adore.
Ye honor'd, mighty Dead,
Who nobly perish'd in the glorious cause,
Your King, your Country, and her laws:
From great Dundee, who smiling Victory led
And fell a Martyr in her arms
(What breast of northern ice but warms!),
To bold Balmerino's undying name,
Whose soul of fire, lighted at Heaven's high flame,
Deserves the proudest wreath departed heroes claim!
Not unrevenged your fate shall lie,
It only lags, the fatal hour:
Your blood shall with incessant cry
Awake at last th' unsparing Power.
*As from the cliff, with thundering course,
The snowy ruin smokes along
With doubling speed and gathering force,
Till deep it, crushing, whelms the cottage in the vale,
So Vengeance' arm, ensanguin'd, strong,
Shall with resistless might assail,
Usurping Brunswick's pride shall lay,
And Stewart's wrongs and yours with tenfold weight repay.
Perdition, baleful child of night,
Rise and revenge the injured right
Of Stewart's royal race!
Lead on the unmuzzled hounds of Hell,
Till all the frighted echoes tell
The blood-notes of the chase!
Full on the quarry point their view,
Full on the base usurping crew,
The tools of faction and the nation's curse!
Hark how the cry grows on the wind;
They leave the lagging gale behind;
Their savage fury, pityless, they pour;
With murdering eyes already they devour!
See Brunswick spent, a wretched prey,
His life one poor despairing day,
Where each avenging hour still ushers in a worse!
Such Havoc, howling all abroad,
Their utter ruin bring,
The base apostates to their God
Or rebels to their King!
*MacDonald recollecting the part of the Birthday Ode in which Burns’s use of simile that refers to a Swiss Avalanche is highlighted above. The avalanche is the “snowy ruin ……gathering force”.
There is no doubt that in addition to Burns’s referring repeatedly to himself as “Laureat” or “Poet Laureat” around the time of his inauguration that he did say, according to James MacDonald, that he was “chosen as Poet Laureate”! This was written on 2nd June 1796 the day after his meeting with Burns and therefore firmly “in Burns Lifetime”. The title Poet Laureate used on him and by him was obviously very commonplace in the fascinating world of Burns.
It is not unreasonable to suggest that, given that it is clearly proven that Burns was accustomed to referring to himself in this way, the notion of Burns’s being the Lodge’s Poet Laureate may very well have emanated from the Bard himself! It is worth noting that on Burns first visit to Edinburgh it was uppermost in his mind to pay homage to a man he greatly admired, Robert Ferguson, by visiting his grave in the Canongate Kirk graveyard. Ferguson was referred to as the ‘laureate’ of Auld Reikie. Was it an aspiration of Burns to follow in Fergussons footsteps? It is clear that if Burns already thought of himself, perhaps desirously, as a “Poet Laureate”, why then is the notion of his being made so in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning at that time, 1787, deemed by anyone to be so unlikely or, indeed, a Myth?
The following poem, which was published in the Edinburgh Evening Courant about Burns of
23rd June 1787, also contains reference to Laureate:-
"I'm no for riving off your brow
The laurel folks hae thocht your due,
But gin a while you left the plough
T' tend the College.
Why should you smore the thing that's true
Wi' a' your knowledge?"
Was Burns here referring to his friends in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning "the Laurel folks"?
One other interesting historical fact on the Canongate’s Masonic doorstep. In December 1787, several months after the Inauguration of Robert Burns took place, Gavin Wilson, a well known musician of the time and member of Lodge St David No.36, sought to promote his publication of Masonic songs and music by advertising in the Edinburgh Evening Courant of 15th December 1787. The advert read:-
It should be noted that the Lord Elcho mentioned in the advertisement above is the same Francis Charteris, who conferred on Robert Burns the title “Caledonia’s Bard” some months earlier.
Following this his work was published in early 1788 and the same claim is made on the title page that he was Poet Laureate of Lodge St David No.36.
There is, apparently, no record of any election of a Poet Laureate in Lodge St David nor is there any minute of anyone in the Lodge being installed into such an Office, at that time. Where then did the notion of this title come from? Was he, Gavin Wilson, perhaps present at the Inauguration of Burns or was he indeed installed into such an Office but it was not recorded? Evidently such an appointment was deemed outside the “usual business” and might not be minuted but the link to our very own first Poet Laureate is undeniable. Siginificantly there are records of Lodge St David which lists six Poets Laureate from 1834-1848 and perhaps again in more recent times. It is believed that Wilson frequented Lodge Canongate Kilwinning around the time Burns was in Edinburgh and actually lived in Old Playhouse Close, adjacent to the Chapel of St John.
As a general and final observation there appears to be no further references to Burns, by himself or others, as “Laureat” or “Poet Laureat” outwith the period 1786-1788. The only known conteparaneous reference beyond this date is as recorded by the Journalist the Reverend James MacDonald the day after his meeting with Burns on the 2nd June1796, some six weeks before the death of Burns!