Burns’ Farewell to Freemasonry

Robert Burns is one of the UK’s most treasured wordsmiths and ranks alongside William Shakespeare for his contribution to classical texts of the British canon. Burns was a prolific poet and his compendium of works include Tam O’ Shanter and Auld Lang Syne.

Born in Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland in 1759, Burns’ early life was marred by poverty and hardship, and he had very little significant schooling. Much of the education he received was second-hand from his father, and he spent a large amount of his time involved in manual labor in the fields around his homestead.

Burns lived a somewhat transient existence, moving around the Scottish countryside throughout his life. He was sympathetic to both the French and American revolutions and was considered somewhat of a radical at the time for his political views.

Although widely derided at the time for some of his views, it would be fair to describe Burns as a progressive in some respects, and he expressed much of his ideology in his writings. One of Burns’ most popular works, Auld Lang Syne, is thought to be about the spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood that the secret society of Freemasonry is founded upon.

Burns’ Farewell to Freemasonry

Brother Robert Burns

Given the significant impact that Burns has had on the cultural identity of Scotland, and the fact that his works have stood the test of time, few realize that he was in fact a thriving member of the nascent Masonic movement.

He was initiated as an Entered Apprentice at the Lodge of St. David in Tarbolton on 4th July, 1781 at the age of 23. Burns’ rise in popularity as a poet also contributed to his rise in Freemasonry. At a meeting of Lodge St. Andrew in Edinurgh in 1787, at which the Grand Master and Grand Lodge of Scotland was present, Burns was toasted by the Worshipful Master in the following way:

Caledonia, and Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns!

Before his untimely death at the tender age of. 37 in 1796, Burns attended many Masonic ceremonies and meetings in the South and West of Scotland. He was a Senior Warden of the Lodge of St Andrew, Dumfries, up until the day he died.

Freemasons can see reference to the fraternity in some of Burns’ most esteemed works. Easily the most prevalent example of this is his aptly titled:

The Farewell to the Brethren of St. James’ Lodge, Tarbolton

Adieu! A heart-warm fond adieu;
Dear brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favoured, enlighten’d few,
Companions of my social joy;
Tho’ I to foreign lands must hie,
Pursuing Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’;
With melting heart, and brimful eye,
I’ll mind you still, tho’ far awa.

Oft have I met your social band,
And spent the cheerful, festive night;
Oft, honour’d with supreme command,
Presided o’er the sons of light:
And by that hieroglyphic bright,
Which none but Craftsmen ever saw
Strong Mem’ry on my heart shall write
Those happy scenes, when far awa.

May Freedom, Harmony, and Love,
Unite you in the grand Design,
Beneath th’ Omniscient Eye above,
The glorious Architect Divine,
That you may keep th’ unerring line,
Still rising by the plummet’s law,
Till Order bright completely shine,
Shall be my pray’r when far awa.

And you, farewell! Whose merits claim
Justly that highest badge to wear:
Heav’n bless your honour’d noble name,
To Masonry and Scotia dear!
A last request permit me here, –
When yearly ye assemble a’,
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the Bard that’s far awa.

This is a Burns’ way of indicating that he is leaving the fraternity behind, and there are many clues throughout the poem about his association with the lodge, most obviously when he writes ‘dear brothers of the mystic tie.’ Many Freemasons also revel in the following excerpt:

May Freedom, Harmony, and Love,
Unite you in the grand Design,
Beneath th’ Omniscient Eye above,
The glorious Architect Divine.

In referring to the values of Freedom, Harmony, and Love, Burns reminds Masons of the importance of living a life true to the Masonic values. Indeed, he then directly refers to the glorious Architect Divine, which Masons today understand to be the Supreme Being, or the Grand Architect of the Universe.

Moreover, the final verse sees Burns plead with the fraternity to remember him:

A last request permit me here, –
When yearly ye assemble a’,
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the Bard that’s far awa.

We can see from the tone of the poem that Burns thought very highly of his role within Freemasonry, and he is clearly upset that life may continue with him outside of the Masonic realm.

Another of Burns’ work that is a direct reference to his involvement in Freemasonry is entitled simply:

The Master’s Apron

Ther’s mony a badge that’s unco braw; 
Wi’ ribbon, lace and tape on; 
Let kings an’ princes wear them a’ 
Gie me the Master’s apron!

The honest craftsman’s apron, 
The jolly Freemason’s apron, 
Be he at hame, or roam afar, 
Before his touch fa’s bolt and bar, 
The gates of fortune fly ajar, 
´Gin he but wears the apron!

For wealth and honor, pride and power 
Are crumbling stanes to base on; 
Fraternity suld rule the hour, 
And ilka worthy Mason! 
Each Free Accepted Mason, 
Each Ancient Crafted Mason.

Then, brithers, let a halesome sang 
Arise your friendly ranks alang! 
Guidwives and bairnies blithely sing 
To the ancient badge wi’ the apron string 
That is worn by the Master Mason!

As we know, the apron is a significant symbol in Freemasonry. The modern-day apron is derived from the working apron of the ancient stonemasons who built iconic castles and cathedrals in days past. They also wore white leather gloves when working to protect their hands from lime. In addition to the white Masonic apron, white gloves are another badge of Freemasonry in the present day.

Traditionally, stonemasons wore aprons to protect themselves against flying pieces of stone while they were working, so they were of practical significance. Stonemasons also wore aprons to carry tools that were integral to their working life. Historically, the apron was made of heavy leather as it was a practical piece of clothing. Today the apron is purely symbolic and is worn by freemasons at meetings and events, and the Masonic apron is an emblem of purity and the bond of friendship and peace.

Burns talks more to the symbolic meaning of the apron, which he writes about in this particular piece. While this is a quite deliberate homage to Freemasonry by Burns, many of his other works are a little more subtle when referring to his affection for his brother Masons. One such example is his work, entitled:

A Man’s a Man for a’ that

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that,
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A Prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that!
But an honest man’s aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ Sense an’ pride o’ Worth
Are higher rank than a’ that.Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Within this poem, we learn of Burns’ inspiration to call for the rights of his fellow man. This is a direct linkage to Burns’ appreciation of the revolutions in France and America and is evidence of his empathy to his fellow man.

The legacy of brother Robert Burns

The legacy of brother Robert Burns

Such is the esteem with which Robert Burns is held within Masonic circles, that brothers across the world pay tribute to the bard in Masonic ceremonies and publications. Take the following as a prime example, entitled:

America’s Masons to Robert Burns

The sun is uprising on Scotia’s far hills
Day’s labor is opening, the Grand Master wills,
But Lodge-lights are gleaming in cheerfulness yet,
Afar in the west where we Masons have met.

There’s song for the tuneful, kind words for the kind,
There’s cheer for the social, and light for the blind:
But when we uprising, prepare us to go,
With one heart and feeling, we’ll sing thy Adieu.

A melting farewell, to the favored and bright,
A sorrowful thought, for the sun set in night,
A round to the bard whom misfortunes befell,
A prayer that thy spirit with Masons may dwell.

When freedom and harmony bless our design,
We’ll think of thee, Brother, who loved every line:
And when gloomy clouds shall our Temple surround
Thy brave heart shall cheer us where virtues were found.

Across the broad ocean two hands shall unite,
Columbia, Scotia, the symbol is bright!
The world one Grand Lodge, and the heaven above,
Shall witness the triumph of Faith, Hope, and Love.

And thou, sweetest Bard., when our gems we enshrine,
Thou jewel the brightest, most precious, shalt shine,
Shall gleam from the East, to the far distant west,
While morning shall call us, or evening shall rest.

Robert Burns is one of the most well-renowned Masons of all time. His legacy is rich, meaningful and significant. What is also unique about Burns’ life is the fact that he was a proud Mason and his writings very much allude to this fact.

We can be most proud of his ‘Farewell’ to Freemasonry, as it’s an excellent historical record of his feeling for the fraternity. We’re delighted that Burns decided to write extensively about his fondness of Freemasonry, and Masons the world over will continue to toast him and his extensive legacy.