Robert Burns 1759-1796
In view of Burns Night 2022
When one thinks of Robert Burns, there is a tendency to consider him as a simple romantic with an eye on righting social injustice. Because of this and through his working class roots he became known as ‘the ploughman poet’.
Born in Alloway in Ayrshire, being the eldest of 7 children, he spent the first part of his childhood in the house that is now the Burns Cottage Museum. They lived there as a family until the Robert was aged 7, and his father took over the tenancy of a farm just southeast of his birthplace.
The family name was originally Burness and the father William Burnes/s, but the name was later simplified to Burns. His father died in 1784, with Rabbie taking over the farm. His mother Agnes was a Broun whose family/clan can trace their origins back to France and 1073 (Le Brun).
Interestingly the Arms of Carruthers of Mouswald and its last Chief Sir Simon, mirrored exactly those of their Chiefly line; the Brouns of Colstoun. As two arms could not be the same, if Sir Simon had survived and the House of Mouswald had remained our chiefs, it would have been interesting to see what our chief’s arms would have been today expeciakly after the Lyons Act of 1672.
As we know, Holmains kept the fleur de lys of Mouswald and conjoined them with the engrailed chevrons of the ancient Carruthers arms, which are still carried by the chief to this very day.
As we are an ancient Dumfriesshire family, the other link with Carruthers is that Burns himself took over a farm in the county but in Nithsdale, on the opposite side of the river from Annandale, ancient home of our family. It was here he wrote one of his most famous works, ‘Tam ‘o’ Shanter’.
In his day Burns was also a known supporter of both the French Revolution, mirroring the call among many of his peers of the time for Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, as well as the American Revolution
Interestingly, he was also a supporter of the Jacobite cause, as were our own Chiefs, Carruthers of Holmains. The jacobite in him is reflected in such works as ; ‘It was A’ for oor rightful King’, ‘Charlie is my Darling’, ‘The White Cockade’, Ye Jacobites by Name’, ‘Scots Wa Hae’ and many others.
By the age of 28, Burns’s work started to become noticed and was gradually accepted into the Literary elite of Edinburgh, who offered him great support. He wrote many a verse in the Scots language of the day, covering ; ‘Address to a Haggis’, ‘To a Mouse’ ‘Tam ‘o’ Shanter’, and ‘A Man’s a man for Awe That’ to name but a few
While many of his songs are still sung to this day reflecting his fervent belief in the equality of man and his dislike of religious hypocrisy and Calvinism, some remain more poignant than others, reflecting his own ideals. These were the same ideals, it is said, that were augmented by being a Scottish Freemason – he enjoyed not only its brotherhood and comradery but just as importantly its teachings and willingness to offer charitable support to those in need. Freemasonry remained important throughout his adult life and some of his work reflects his deep love of ‘the Craft’ and its principles. Burns died on the morning of the 21st July 1796 , aged 37 – in relationship to our family, this was during the time of chiefship of John Carruthers 12th of Holmains, 8th Baron
Burns died on the morning of the 21st July 1796 , aged 37, in relationship to our family, this was during the time of chiefship of John Carruthers 12th of Holmains, 8th Baron.
Returning to the subject of trying to offer the different facets of Burns life at this time of year, we are privileged to have amongst our ranks one of the foremost Burns scholars alive today. Again this piece was submitted by the author, Professor Gerard Carruthers’ with permission to reproduce it here.
Rabbie Burns; the poet, the Freemason by Professor Gerard Carruthers
Robert Burns (1759-96) was very proud of being a freemason and ‘the craft’ was highly useful to him.
We must remember in the context of the eighteenth-century that the poet was never in his life entitled to a political vote.
Smart, aspirational young men like Burns needed other levers to improve their lives and freemasonry was one of these.
He was initiated into masonry on 4th July 1781 at Lodge St David in Tarbolton, Ayrshire, in 1783, becoming Depute Master, a position which he held until 1788. His Depute Mastership coincided with his taking of a farm (as head of the household) along with his brother Gilbert at nearby Mosgiel in Ayrshire.
In 1786 his growing status helped him to produce his first book at Kilmarnock, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, by subscription. Many of these subscribers were fellow masons keen to support the enlightened, often satirical view of the world that the book encompassed.
These men included steadfast friends with whom he would correspond for most of his life, including John Ballantine, Gavin Turnbull (a fellow poet at a time when poetry was frowned upon in general by the more puritanically religious of Ayrshire) and Gavin Hamilton one of the most energetic collectors of subscribers for the ‘Kilmarnock edition’ as Burns’s first book came to be known.
To some extent in Ayrshire, as elsewhere, freemasonry was viewed suspiciously and was seen as an alternative worldview even by the more traditional Calvinism that Burns mocked in poems such as ‘The Holy Fair’ and ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’.
We find a glimpse of masonic reputation for alternative (black magic) ritual being lampooned by Burns in his poem, ‘Address to the Deil’ where the narrator tongue-in-cheek panders to the common fear of masonic mischief: ‘when Masons’ mystic word an’ grip/In storms an’ tempests raise you up.’
As well as in his home county, so too in Edinburgh and later again in Dumfriesshire, Burns’s subsequent career as a poet and also within the excise service derived powerful support and patronage from freemasonry.
As well as allowing him access to lawyers (like Hamilton) and merchants, the craft also provided him intimacy with celebrated philosophers like Dugald Stewart, the novelist Henry Mackenzie, and aristocrats like the Earl of Glencairn, a key driver in Burns’s obtaining a commission in the excise service in 1788.
Propelled by a famous review by Henry Mackenzie in which he called Burns, ‘this heaven-taught ploughman’, Burns produced an enlarged ‘Edinburgh edition’ of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in 1787.
Burns collected many masonic subscriptions for this second book while he moved to the capital (Edinburgh) for a period. Here, in 1787, he was inducted into Canongate Kilwinning lodge, although dispute remains over whether he was made its ‘poet laureate’ or not. A later painting by William Stewart Watson celebrates Burns in Canongate Kilwinning:
Painting can be found here: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/8197
Freemason’s continued to play a strong part in Burns’s life with one, the antiquarian Francis Grose, commissioning and publishing the poet’s masterpiece, ‘Tam o Shanter’ (1790), a text with many masonic undertones deployed comically in its structure.
One of Burns’s most famous songs. ‘Is there for honest poverty’ (‘a man’s a man’) skilfully combines Jacobitism, reformist politics (in the period of the French Revolution) and masonry in its appeal to ‘brotherhood’: ‘that man to man the world o’er/shall brithers be for a’ that.’
Burns celebrated a famous fellow mason in his birthday ode for George Washington, written in 1794 but never published in full in the poet’s lifetime as support for the early American republic was slightly risky for government employee, Burns.
Another of Burns’s songs, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, the second most sung song in the world after ‘Happy Birthday’, is influenced by the camaraderie that Burns found in masonry.
It is a strong feature of Burns Suppers performed at most of them for their finale. And it was the Burns Supper as much as the poet’s works, shaped as it was by masons and their ritualistic outlook that propelled Burns’s reputation around the world during the nineteenth century and down to the present day.
Carruthers and Burns heritage and history- a similarity.
Falsehoods by the unscrupulous for their own ends have it seems haunted the works of Burns through the ages. Although the jury may be out on some claims and some may even simply misconstrue them, good research based on current evidence always helps to point the way to the truth.
It is therefore important to recognise that not all out there is actually based on facts, and this is highlighted in this excellent piece from YouTube by Gerard Carruthers which clearly shows this in relation to Rabbie Burns.
The fakers and forgers link with Burns is therefore sadly mirrored in the claims relating to misuse of our own family DNA, History and genealogy. This as we know is just as falsely portrayed by those with agendas not in the best interest of the Carruthers name and we continue to warn you of the same.
The Author of the piece on Burns is Gerard Carruthers, who is the Francis Hutcheson Professor of Literature at the University of Glasgow.
For those interested on further information on the subject, his ongoing monograph, Robert Burns, Patronage, Fraternity and the People features a long chapter on freemasonry.