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Robert Burns had contact with members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning long before he ever set foot in Edinburgh.

Perhaps the first was Sir John Whitefoord of Ballochmyle, who was initiated into Freemasonry in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on 12 February 1765. There is an unsigned letter in Robert Burns’s handwriting to Sir John Whitefoord, presumably written for the Senior Warden of Lodge St James Tarbolton, Burns’s adopted Lodge, lamenting the difficulties that the Tarbolton Lodge had got into and requesting him to help.

The Ballochmyle Estate owned by Sir John Whitefoord was close to Mossgiel and Robert Burns frequently walked in the grounds. Sir John was probably the first of the landed gentry whom Robert got to know personally and his contacts were later to be of benefit to him.

However, Sir John Whitefoord lost a great deal of money in the collapse of the Ayr bank, Douglas, Heron & Co, to the extent that he had to sell the Ballochmyle estate to Sir Claud Alexander.

Therefore, by the time that Robert Burns arrived in Edinburgh in November 1786 and wrote to him, Sir John acknowledged that his influence was not what it once was.

The second member of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning who had an influence on Robert Burns was Dugald Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University. He had heard of Burns when his blind friend Dr Thomas Blacklock, a member of The Lodge of Holyroodhouse (St Luke’s) No 44, had asked him to read him some poems from the Kilmarnock Edition which had been sent to Blacklock for his opinion by the Rev George Lawrie, minister of Loudoun parish close to the Burns’s farm at Mossgiel.

Prof Dugald Stewart had an estate in Catrine on the River Ayr near Mossgiel and was a close friend of Dr John Mackenzie, Burns’s family doctor. Through Dr Mackenzie, Prof Stewart invited Robert Burns to dinner at Catrine on Monday 23 October 1786. Just over a month later, Robert Burns arrived in Edinburgh. Although there were many factors in his decision to go there, the influence of these two members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning was significant.

According to the minute books, Professor Dugald Stewart was initiated into Freemasonry in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning on 4 December 1775.

Other Freemasons involved with Lodge Canongate Kilwinning who were influential in persuading Robert Burns to investigate a second edition of poems to be published in Edinburgh were James Dalrymple of Orangefield and his first cousin the earl of Glencairn.

It is understood that both were members, although they, like so many other notable members are not mentioned in the minutes of the Lodge.  It is evident that they regularly attended Lodge Canongate Kilwinning.

Robert Burns arrived in Edinburgh on 28th November 1786 and wrote to John Ballantine on 13th December, listing Edinburgh Society members to whom he had been introduced which included Professors Stewart, Blair and Mr. Mackenzie-the Man of Feeling, whom he referred to as “literati”, as well as Patrick Miller, Henry Mackenzie, Duchess of Gordon, Countess of Glencairn, Lord Glencairn, (Introduced to Burns by Mr Dalrymple of Orangefield on 7th December at Canongate Kilwinning) Lord and Lady Betty (Glencairn’s sister), Sir John Whitefoord, Henry Erskine and others. Several of those mentioned were members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning.

Robert Burns attended Lodge Canongate Kilwinning and was assumed a member. 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. This is not unusual and does not necessarily imply that he only made one visit to the Lodge. Some Burns biographers suggest that he attended the meeting of the Lodge on the 7th December 1786.

“At a meeting of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge of Freemasons, held on the 7th December 1786, Burns was, by Mr. Dalrymple of Orangefield, , introduced to Henry Erskine as the Past-Master from this time Mr. Erskine took a deep interest in his concerns, and afterwards became his correspondent.” (‘The book of Robert Burns 1890 volume II, page 338’ by Rev. Charles Rogers D.D.,LL.D. Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland)

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.

Tradition has it that Robert Burns was inaugurated as Poet Laureate of the Lodge on 1st March 1787 (see About The Inauguration Painting). The minute of that date does not mention Robert Burns but there was no doubt amongst the members of the Lodge at the time and subsequently that Burns was its first Poet Laureate.

An eminent QC, R W MacLeod Fullarton made a full and concise analysis of the matter in his Preface to Hugh C Peacock’s book on the subject (see “Robert Burns Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning”) he concludes:-

“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 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.”

Fullarton was also a Master Mason of the Lodge as well as Grand Bard of The Grand Lodge of Scotland. Hugh C Peacock’s publication “ROBERT BURNS POET-LAUREATE OF LODGE CANONGATE KILWINNING FACTS Substantiating his Election and Inauguration ON 1ST MARCH 1787” is the most extensive and concise study of the matter in existence today.

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. Charles More was however adamant that Burns was made Poet Laureate of The Lodge.

Controversy over the matter of Robert Burns as the Lodge’s first Poet Laureate did not exist until almost 100 years after the event and, more importantly, decades after those members of the Lodge who were eye witnesses to the event were long since deceased.

The minute books of the Lodge confirm that Burns was made a member, and, according to the details produced by Hugh C Peacock, assisted by Allan McKenzie, show many further evidences that Burns was its first Poet Laureate. Many of the people who played a significant part in Burns’s career were also members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning and we trust that this will be apparent from the details of the characters depicted in the painting. 

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