Robert Burns Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning
(Portrait & Frame with Inscribed Glass of Burns beleived to have been purchased by the Lodge in 1802.)
Much has been said on the subject in recent years regarding Burn’s Laureateship but very little has been said of the extensive work on the subject by Hugh C Peacock Past Depute Master and Secretary of the Lodge 1872-73 and many years subsequently. The Book entitled “Robert Burns Poet-Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning Facts substantiating his Election and Inauguration on 1st March 1787”. The book was published in 1894 and, following the death of Peacock en route to a committee meeting, was completed by Allan Mackenzie who had been assisting in its compilation. The picture shown above was extracted from the book and its significance is fully explained by Peacock. All the details of correspondence between D Murray Lyon and Peacock/Mackenzie are detailed in the book and the evidences produced by Peacock in this publication are overwhelming. The Preface to Peacocks book written by R W Macleod Fullarton QC gives a concise view of the facts for - and the lack of facts against - the Inauguration of Canongate Kilwinning’s first Poet Laureate. The full text of Fullarton’s Preface, written in 1894, verbatim is as follows:-
“I have been asked by some of the principal Office-bearers, past and present,
Of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2, to write a few words by way
Of Preface to the statement of the evidence, compiled mainly by Brother
Allan Mackenzie, as to the formerly undoubted, but recently controverted
fact that Robert Burns held the Honorary Office of Poet Laureate of
that Lodge. I have accordingly gone carefully through that evidence, which
is so well arranged, so exhaustive, and I may add so conclusive, that it
might well be left to speak for itself. I propose, therefore, to confine my
remarks to the most salient points in the evidence, and to the nature of
the case sought to be made against the hitherto received tradition. And first,
as to the positive evidence of the fact. Not, certainly, the oldest, but certainly
the principal document in its support, is the Resolution passed on the 8th
June 1815, and duly recorded in the Minutes of the Lodge, authorising a
Subscription for a Mausoleum to Robert Burns, who is therein described
as one " who had been Poet Laureate of the Lodge" This resolution was
seconded by Charles More, who was a prominent official of the Royal Bank
of Scotland, who had been Depute Master of the Canongate Kilwinning
Lodge, No. 2, both before and in the year 1787, (in which year Robert
Burns joined the Lodge as an Honorary affiliated member, and is traditionally
alleged to have been also appointed Poet Laureate of the Lodge), and who
had continued in unbroken connection with the Lodge from that time to
the signing of the Minute of 8th June 1815. Surely, if any man must have
known whether this statement of the resolution was accurate or not, that
man must have been the seconder, Brother Charles More. But it does not
stop there. At the time when this resolution was passed, the Lodge included
amongst its members about one hundred persons, who had been members
before and during the events of 1787, many of whom had continued members
down to 1815. A number of those must in the nature of things have been
present at the Meeting at which the resolution was passed. Moreover, this resolution
was sent round with a subscription list to all the members, so that
it must have come to the knowledge of those members who were not present.
Amongst the one hundred members referred to were many who knew Robert
Burns intimately, including Louis Cauvin, Burns's French Teacher ; Alexander
Nasmyth, who painted his portrait ; Lord Balcarres, Dugald Stewart, Sir John
Sinclair of Ulbster ; Sir Hay Campbell, President of the Court of Session ;
Dr. Andrew Duncan; Sir Henry Jardine, R. W. Master, 1790; Sir Charles
Hope of Granton, President of the Court of Session, who survived till 1851 ;
and many others. A Committee was appointed to carry out the object of
this resolution, and on the 2nd January 1817, George Simson, Esq., Past Master
of the Lodge, who appears to have acted as the Secretary, wrote to George
Burnet, Esq., Advocate, R. W. Master of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge, as
follows :- I beg leave to report to you that having been furnished by your
Secretary with the sum of Twenty Guineas voted by the Lodge as a contribution
towards the erection of a Mausoleum to the memory of our late Poet
Laureate, Burns, I, in obedience to the instructions of the Committee, remitted
that sum to the Rev. Dr. Duncan, Dumfries." From this it is evident that
after eighteen months' publicity amongst all those most likely, nay certain to
know whether the statement which constituted the express ground and plea
on which their subscriptions were solicited was true or false, not only had
none denied it, but the Lodge itself had formally ratified and adopted it on
a second occasion by voting twenty guineas to the fund on this very ground
and title. A goodly number of these hundred members must have been still
alive in 1835, when Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, was elected to succeed Robert
Burns as Poet Laureate, and when at his initiation or on the occasion of his
being made a Mason, he expressly acknowledged the compliment of being
asked to succeed Robert Bums, and the Lodge toasted the memory of
Burns as "the last Poet Laureate of the Lodge" Nay, some of them, e.g.
Sir Charles Hope were alive in 1845, when the Lodge resolved to commemorate
the event by a Picture. All this is on record, nor is it contested that the
tradition has been handed down continuously to the present time.
There is, however, one piece of documentary evidence older than any of
the above entries, though not, of course, as old as the memory and knowledge
of the persons above-mentioned, who were all members and contemporaries
of Burns in 1787. This is the engraved portrait of Burns still hanging in
the Lodge, and which appears to have been placed there in the beginning
of this century, within a few years of his death. That portrait bears a
contemporary Inscription, describing him as Poet Laureate of the Lodge.
This carries the documentary evidence of the tradition back to the very
beginning of the century; but the evidence does not stop there. It appears
that Brother William Petrie, who was connected with several Lodges, and
down to a date shortly before his death in 1845, was one of the Tylers
of the Lodge, bore testimony to the fact of having been present at the
inauguration of Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge No. 2. It is true
that Brother William Officer rejects this direct and specific evidence, on
the ground that as Petrie is not recorded in Grand Lodge Books as a
member of No. 2, he cannot have been a member of No. 2. But in
another place (see his letter of I2th January 1889) he himself demolishes
his own argument by frankly admitting that " The registration of the
members of the Lodge (No. 2) in the Register of Grand Lodge in the
beginning of the present century was irregular." The same applies to the
Minutes of No. 2 in the year 1787, and all the neighbouring years as
Brother Mackenzie has conclusively shewn.
Neither Brother Officer nor any other person has adduced a single
fact to lead one to suppose that Brother Petrie was not a truthful person
or that he had any motive to give false evidence. His evidence is in
entire accordance with all the current of tradition and of authority above
referred to ; and in the absence of any positive evidence to the contrary
is worthy of confidence and respect.
One remark falls to be made with regard to the whole of the above
evidence. It is of a positive character, and is such as reasonable men are
in the habit of accepting as sufficient in the absence of any positive evidence
to the contrary. Is there any positive evidence to the contrary? None
whatever. Those who, in recent times, have attacked the long received
tradition, and in particular, Brothers Officer and Murray Lyon, rely wholly,
not on the presence of any, even the smallest contrary evidence, but only on the
absence of certain records, which, if they existed, would give contemporary
corroboration to the positive evidence adduced. That this is no exaggeration
will be seen at a glance, if we consider the principal arguments put forward
by them by way of "disproof" of the received tradition. These are:-
1. No contemporary entry of the appointment in the Minutes of No. 2.
2. Before such appointment the office must have been created ; and
this could not be done without the consent of Grand Lodge.
There is no entry of the creation, or of such consent.
3. If created, it must be annual, and re-election must be annual :
whereas there is no entry of any further election till 1835, when
(as they allege) the office was created.
4. Burns himself does not mention it.
5. The testimony adduced to prove it is not contemporaneous.
It is obvious that all this amounts to no more than pointing out what
additional evidence would in their judgment place the tradition beyond all
possible doubt. Not one of the five points, nor all of them together, is
logically inconsistent with the truth of the positive evidence adduced.
But let us look more closely at the five points seriatim.
1. "No contemporary Minute of the appointment."
This is plainly their principal, one may say their only material point.
If such a Minute existed, where would be their case ? And yet, so
far is such an entry from being necessary to satisfactory evidence of the
transaction it professes to record, that in English Common Law such an
entry is not admissible as any evidence at all of the transaction. The only
use that could be made of it would be to refresh the memory of the person
who had made the entry, as to his own recollection of the transaction
which he recorded, and then only if he had been present at the transaction.
Brother Petrie's evidence, on the contrary, though given many years after,
would have been admissible primary evidence of an eye-witness. No doubt,
however, apart from legal rules of evidence, the absence of any entry is a
suspicious circumstance, provided it appears that the books have been regularly
and carefully kept. If it appears they have been irregularly and
carelessly kept, such omission would carry no weight. Which, then, is the
case here ? Brother Mackenzie has conclusively shewn by many instances
that the Books of No. 2 were at this time most carelessly and irregularly
kept. I refer for brevity to his statement, and will quote only one instance.
The Hon. Henry Erskine is entered as elected to the chair on 24th
June 1780, but no previous Minute exists to show that he ever joined the
Lodge. This is the exact converse of Burns' case, where his admission as
Honorary member is recorded, but not his appointment as Poet-Laureate.
It is worthy of note that the omission to record the act of making a man
a Mason, or of admitting him member of a Lodge, is a much more serious
omission than the omission to record a merely honorary appointment within
the Lodge, which is in no way essential to the practical working of the
Lodge, and might fall into desuetude without affecting that working. In
point of fact, not only after Burns's death was this office left unfilled,
but twice or thrice after 1835, when Brothers Officer and Murray Lyon
admit it was in existence, the Lodge omitted to fill it up, though careful
to fill up those offices which are essential to the practical working and
constitutional completeness of the Lodge. These omissions are duly shewn
in a table of appointments inserted in Brother Mackenzie's statement. May
I here be permitted to suggest that the admirable and scrupulously exact
manner in which Brother Murray Lyon keeps the Books of Grand Lodge,
tends perhaps to make him too exacting in his demands upon the past.
2." Before Burns could have been appointed, the office must have been
created, and this required the consent of Grand Lodge, which has
no record of such consent."
This is merely an erroneous and very pedantic objection. Where is the
rule of Grand Lodge forbidding any Lodge to appoint an Honorary Poet
Laureate without previous solemn creation of the office with the consent of Grand
Lodge? Moreover, it proves a great deal too much, and is in fact contradicted
by Brothers Officer and Murray Lyon themselves. They both assert that
the office was created in 1835, and has existed since then to the present
time. They deny that it existed before the appointment of Hogg. Was
the appointment of Hogg preceded by any " creation of the office ? Is
there any record in Grand Lodge of any previous application to Grand Lodge
for its consent to "create the office?" Or do our incredulous Brethren
suggest that such application and consent was doubtless made and given,
though the officials of Grand Lodge omitted to record it ? If they don't,
they give up this objection as untenable. If they do, why are they so ready
to believe an unrecorded transaction which has no tradition and no vestige of
evidence to support it, whilst they find it so impossible to believe an unrecorded
transaction which has both evidence and tradition in its favour? If they
answer " no such consent was asked or granted, because both Canongate
Kilwinning, No. 2, and Grand Lodge supposed it had been obtained in 1787,"
this would still be fatal to the actual existence of the office ; moreover, they
must admit that Grand Lodge assented to the truth of the tradition, and
either thought its consent unnecessary, or that it had been given in 1787,
though unrecorded, thus regarding the record as not essential nor conclusive.
Moreover, Grand Lodge must have considered that such office did not cease
to exist, though unfilled for more than 35 years, in other words, that it
need not be filled up annually.
3." If created, it must be annually vacated and filled, whereas no further
election till 1835."
This is sufficiently answered by the remarks just made. No one took
that view in 1835, nor since. The office had then been vacant at least since
Burns's death. The refilling of it then by Hogg was public and notorious,
and the power of the Lodge to refill it was unquestioned, and, I may add
unquestionable. The Lodge has, since then, several times omitted to fill it,
when vacant, and have afterwards filled it, as of right, and without question.
The truth is, this objection also is both erroneous arid pedantic. It loses
sight of the distinction between a mere honorary and non-essential office,
and those which are essential to the proper constitution and working of a
4." Burns himself does not mention it."
This objection is so trivial that it seems hardly worth answering, but
as it is much insisted on, I may point out that they have not the least right
to say Burns never mentioned it. All they can say is that in the very
limited number of letters of his which have been preserved and published,
such mention does not happen to occur. What sort of argument is that ?
They suggest that Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2, was so distinguished a
Lodge, it was impossible he should not have mentioned it at the time. Well,
perhaps he did. How can they prove he did not ? But let me ask them
this: In February 1787, they themselves admit that this distinguished Lodge
did Burns the distinguished honour of electing him an honorary member.
Where does Burns mention this fact ? And if Burns does not mention this
honour, why should he mention the other? Perhaps, on second thoughts,
they may suggest that the entry of February 1st 1787 cannot be true,
because, if true, Burns must have mentioned it ! That would at least make
their argument consistent.
5. "The testimony adduced is not contemporaneous"
That depends upon what "contemporaneous" evidence means. If it
means what it means in ordinary usage, in Courts of Law, or in historical
evidence, then it is contemporaneous i.e. it is evidence derived from the
assertions, or the acts of contemporaries who were, in a position to know, or
who claim to have such knowledge. Brother Charles More and Brother
Petrie are both of this class, and so are all those who were continuously
members of the Lodge during 1787, and thence to 1815, nay, some of them
to 1835, when Hogg was elected expressly as his successor, and even to 1845,
when the picture commemorative of it was sanctioned. The meaning which
our objecting brethren put on the word is singular. They say that Brother
Petrie's testimony that he was present and saw the fact is not contemporary,
because it (the testimony) was not given at the time of the occurrence itself!
That the witness was there at the time is nothing ! The question is, did he
give his evidence on the spot where and when the occurrence took place ! This
sense of "contemporaneous testimony," is unique, and the laws of time and
space and common sense are likely to keep it so.
To sum up, there is a large body of evidence, direct and indirect, including
the assertions, acts and conduct of those most likely to know and most
entitled to speak and to be believed. There is a continuous, and, till recent
times, unchallenged tradition resting on that evidence. On the other side
there is no evidence to the contrary, but only an eager insistence upon the
absence of certain additional evidence, mainly inadmissible in Law, even if it
existed, and all of it such as not to present any logical contradiction of any
part of the positive evidence in favour of the fact. It is not too much to
say that nothing could ever be proved, if the absence of additional proof
were admitted to countervail positive evidence of the fact.~”
R. W. MACLEOD FULLARTON,
M.M., No. 2, P.J. W., No. 770,
and Grand Bard, Grand Lodge of Scotland.
This is a succinct summation of the matter concerning Robert Burns’s being the First Poet Laureate of The Lodge.