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The inauguration painting

The painting “The Inauguration of Robert Burns as Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning 1st March 1787” has evoked some controversy, circa 1873 onward, but members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning at the time were adamant that Robert Burns was given the accolade of Poet Laureate of the Lodge. Some say the event did not take place. Who are they and what are the facts that have given rise to these claims?


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. As is the practise to this day, minutes are not taken during Harmony and nothing is ever recorded officially by the Lodge Secretary.


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 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 Committee was appointed to consider and report on the matter. 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 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 but the fact is many of the characters it depicts 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 issue 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” 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 ScotsMusical 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.”


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 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 but indirect 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.


Had this 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 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?”


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 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. 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 observation there appears to be no further references to Burns, by himself or others, as “Laureat” or “Poet Laureat” outwith the period 1786-1788 or until his meeting with MacDonald in 1796!

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