Burns’ Masonic Farewell

Reading Bro. Robert Burns’ Masonic Farewell

It is never too much to remember Bro. Robert Burns. Here is one of his finest poetical pieces, the Farewell he wrote for his Brethren of St. James’s Lodge, Tarbolton, in 1786 when he intended to emigrate to Jamaica.

Image from ‘Robert Burns as a Freemason’, William Harvey, Dundee, 1921.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Although so many have done it, you can’t talk about Robert Burns without referring to Freemasonry. Deep in his heart, Burns was Bro. Burns, a true Freemason.

Not only because he was initiated in July, 1781, by the Lodge St. David, Tarbolton, being the future Deputy Master of the Lodge St. James Kilwinning, Tarbolton, and a respected visitor at so many lodges, praised and toasted; and the Poet Laureate of the Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, Edinburgh, a companion in the Holy Royal Arch Degree, and the Senior Warden of the Lodge St. Andrew, Dumfries.



Image from ‘Robert Burns as a Freemason’, William Harvey, Dundee, 1921.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

With all its diversity, most of his life was the fruit of a Masonic culture. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity ran through his heart and poetry.

A passion for male friendship, free and straight talking, intellectual debate, that common field where enjoyment, love, and pleasure mix with freedom, harmony, and love. Freedom to praise his fellows of the Craft, but also to ridicule some of them, like the bleth’ran bitch Humphry, or Dr. Hornbook.

Even some of Burns’s controversial sides must be seen in this light. His New Licht religious elitism can be related to a masonic trait of the Sons of Light.

His A Man’s a Man for a’ that capacity to merge with patronage and nobility could be seen as a characteristic of the Scottish Freemasonry, where the poet and the painter could be seen side by side with the ruling classes without disturbing their power.

But freedom even to question these traits and Freemasonry itself and his own interest in it. For him, ‘Free’ was the most vital part of Freemasonry.

There is also plenty of evidence that Burns would not be Burns the Bard without the Freemasonry brotherhood.

They have changed the course of his life, provided the Kilmarnock edition of his first book, his Edinburgh reception, and the new edition, so many subscriptions to his books and poems, and many stops of his tours across Scotland.

They launched his career as Caledonia’s bard, but also as an exciseman when his farming collapsed.

The adult Burns was always surrounded by Brothers of the Mystic Tie. John Wilson, The Kilmarnock printer, was a Mason and so it was William Creech, the Edinburgh publisher, William Smellie, the printer and editor, and many others Crochallan Fencibles, the Edinburgh club founded by Smellie that admitted Burns.

Also Masons were Alexander Nasmyth, the artist, John Beugo, the engraver, Henry McKenzie, the literati reviewer, Dugald Stewart, the scholar, Captain Francis Grose, “Tam o’ Shanter” publisher, John Clerk (Lord Eldin), Henry Erskine, Gavin Hamilton, John Ballantine, Gavin Turnbull, James Dalrymple, James Cunningham the Earl of Glencairn, and so and so forth.

All of them were quite important in Burns’ life.



left: William Smellie, Master Printer and Editor, one of Burns’ associates and fellow Mason.
right: William Creech (1745-1815), Scottish publisher, printer, bookseller and politician.
Attributed to William Beechey – Bonhams,
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Farewell’s Year



Image from ‘Robert Burns as a Freemason’, William Harvey, Dundee, 1921.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Among Burns’ explicit or covered Masonic poems is “The Farewell. To the Brethren of St. James’s Lodge, Tarbolton”, a poem-song about something that luckily never happened.

The Bard was never far awa. After all, those same Brethren managed to avoid his emigration.

Written in 1786 and included in the Kilmarnock edition of his book Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786, pp. 228-229), that poem-song was also included after the Poet’s death in The Scottish Musical Museum (1834, closing the Vol. VI, p. 620).

Both for a tune “particular favourite with Burns” (p. 511): Good night and joy be wi’ you a’, an Auld Lang Syne predecessor as a popular and “beautiful tune… played at the breaking up of convivial parties in Scotland” (p. 510). 

1786 was probably the most critical year in Burns’ life. Living in disarray, his farm was going from bad to worse; he had “Betty”, a child from his maid Elizabeth Paton; his future wife Jean Armour was pregnant with twins who would be born in September; and another woman, Mary Campbell was also to become pregnant and would die in October.

In those terrible days, Burns was offered a position as a “book-keeper” (overseeing enslaved people in sugar cane fields) by Ayrshire landowner Dr. Patrick Douglas, whose family owned Ayr Mount near Port Antonio in Portland on the northeastern coast of Jamaica (Mullen, 2022).

So, his proposed departure to the West Indies, “with foreboding anguish, thro’ his soul”, captured much of his poetic creation and “farewell” was its greatest expression.

Burns’ letters are also full of this:

“… and now for a grand cure, the Ship is on her way home that is to take me out to Jamaica, and then, farewell dear old Scotland, and farewell dear, ungrateful Jean, for never, never will I see you more!” (to David Brice, 12th June, 1786)

“I am now fixed to go for the west Indies in October.” (to David Brice, 17th July, 1786)

“My hour is now come. – You and I will never meet in Britain more.” (to John Richmond, 30th July, 1786)

“Farewell Dr Friend! May Guid-luck hit you,

And ‘mang her favorites admit you!

If e’er Detraction shore to smit you,

May nane believe him!

And only deil that thinks to get you,

Good Lord deceive him!!!” (to John Kennedy, 10th August, 1786)

“It is perhaps the last mark of our friendship you can receive from me on this side of the Atlantic. – Farewell! May you be happy up to the wishes of parting Friendship!” (to Thomas Campbell, 19th August, 1786)

“The hurry of my preparation for going abroad, has hindered me from performing my promise so soon as I intended.” (to Mrs. Stewart of Stair, September, 1786)

Even the main intention of that same year’s edition of the first Burns book Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was to fund his own passage to Jamaica.

Had he gone he would probably be “a victim to that inhospitable clime, and gone to the world of spirits” (letter to Dr. John Moore, 2nd August 1787) like most of the Scots who traveled to the Caribbean (Mullen, 2022).

In his book The Scottish Enlightenment, Arthur Herman tells us about what happened with the Gordon Highlanders regiment:

“The Gordon Highlanders reached Jamaica in June of 1819. Over the next six months, without a shot being fired, they lost ten officers, thirteen sergeants, eight drummers, and 254 other ranks.

This was more than all the men the regiment had lost in battle since its formation twenty-five years earlier.” (p. 333)

But for Burns, events took an unexpected turn. His book was a quick success and Burns could scrap his planned emigration.

However, “farewell” remained an important reference for the Poet. In that same year of 1786, he wrote six other ‘farewell’ poems:


“On a Scotch Bard Gone to the West Indies”,

“The Farewell”,

“Farewell to Eliza”,

“Farewell to the Banks of Ayr”,

“Lines to Mr. John Kennedy”,

“My Highland Lassie O”


The previous year he wrote “The Braes o’ Ballochmyle” and “Address to the Deil”, and during his life we can count at least sixteen explicit ‘farewell’ poems.



Title page from Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Kilmarnock, 1786.
IMAGE LINKED:  wikimedia Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The Poem

In The Scottish Musical Museum published by James Johnson, “The Farewell. To the Brethren of St. James’s Lodge, Tarbolton” comes with this note:
“Burns became a member of this lodge of Freemasons, after his family removed to the farm of Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton, Ayrshire. During this period (says his brother Gilbert,) he became a Freemason, which was his first introduction to the life of a boon companion”. (pp. 511-512)

There is no mention in the Lodge’s minutes (Higgins, 1893, p. 228), but the Poet is said to have chanted this Farewell at a Lodge’s meeting:


«Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu !
Dear brothers of the mystic tie!
Ye favored, 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 chearful, 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 honor’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.»

Four stanzas of eight strings with an iambic tetrameter meter.

The rhyme differs from stanza to stanza but returns always to the same sound (ababXXbX cdcddedX fgfggegX hihiiXiX; see KeyToPoetry.com analysis).

Everything was perfect for a song – like the natural sound of a heartbeat (let’s keep this topic!).

After a French touch (and that fond, so useful for another famous poem, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’) his heart (the word and the meaning most presented in the song) opens for a permanent traveling between the I and the Lodge, with his companions, symbols, and references.

Several antinomies appear as in the black and white floor of the lodges: the here and the far awa; the now and the memory; the joy and the sadness; Fortune’s slidd’ry ba’ (Shakespeare’s The Life of King Henry the Fifth) and Enlightenment (Burns)…

It is what Kant (1781) called the dynamic antinomies across the dialectics of existence – and across the dialectics of this song. Positive and negative meanings flow across it:

«Adieu! a heart-warm, fond adieu! –
Dear brothers of the mystic tie! +
Ye favored, 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 chearful, 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 honor’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.» +/–

Like in Kant, only in a transcendental idealism we can solve the antinomies, admitting the existence of an intelligible causal power, or a necessary being that rescues reason from the conflict – The ARCHITECT.

The narrative structure of the song, like a masonic temple, intends to be perfect and meaningful.

The first stanza is the reason why for that Adieu. The second is the point of departure. The third is the main goal, the point of arrival.

And the last one ends in wishful thinking, a request – a transcendental idealism based mainly on masonic friendship and memory.

That this bunch of symbols and meanings end up touching the heart not only of the Freemasons but of those who left their land and their friends and families, that’s what is poetically amazing! ‘The Farewell’ – “for nearly a century that song has delighted English-speaking people in all climes and given life and spirit and pathos to their feasts” (a mason, Rob Morris, in The Voice of Masonry, a periodic edited from 1859; quoted by Grant, p. 119).

Not only a century –
but as long as Freedom,
Harmony, and
Love could exist.

Farewell to the Brethren of St. James Lodge at Tarbolton


Alker, Sharon, Davis, Leith, and Nelson, Holly Faith (eds.) (2012), Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture. Farnham, Surrey, Ashgate.

Andrews, Corey E. (2021). “Caledonia’s Bard, Brother Burns”: Robert Burns and Scottish Freemasonry. In Mark C. Wallace, and Jane Rendall, (eds.) (2021). Association and Enlightenment: Scottish Clubs and Societies, 1700-1830. Lewisburg, PA, Bucknell University Press, pp. 143-160.

Burns, Robert (1786). Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Kilmarnock, John Wilson.

Carswell, Catherine (1930). Life of Robert Burns. London, Chatto & Windus.

Gibson, James (1872), Robert Burns and Masonry. The People’s Friend, Dundee, 20th November.

Grant, M. J. (2021). Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture. Cambridge, Open Books Publishers.

Halliday, R. T. (1929). Burns and Freemasonry in Ayrshire. Burns Chronicle, Second Series, Vol. IV, pp. 137-145.

Harvey, William (1921). Robert Burns as a Freemason. Dundee, T. M. Sparks, Crosswell Printing Work.

Hecht, Hans (1936). Robert Burns, the Man and His Work. Translated by Jane Lymburn, Glasgow, W. Hodge.

Herman, Arthur (2001). The Scottish Enlightenment. The Scots Invention of the Modern World. London, Fourth Estate.

Higgins, J. C. (1893). Life of Robert Burns. Edinburgh, John Menzies & Co.

Johnson, James (ed.) (1834). The Scottish Musical Museum, Vol. VI. Edinburgh, William Blackwood and Sons.

Kant, Immanuel (1781). Critik der reinen Vernunft. Riga, Johann Friedrich Hartknoch. Used: Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

KeyToPoetry.com. (n.d.). The Farewell To The Brethren Of St. James’s Lodge, Tarbolton by Robert Burns: poem analysis. https://keytopoetry.com/robert-burns/analyses/the-farewell-to-the-brethren-of-st-james-s-lodge-tarbolton/ (accessed 14 November 2022).

Leask, N. (2010). Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

McLeod, Wallace, (1997). Robert Burns. In The Quest for Light: Selected Masonic Addresses, Melbourne, Australian and New Zealand Masonic Research Council, pp. 273-274.

Marshall, James (1846). A Winter with Robert Burns. Edinburgh, Peter Brown.

Mullen, S. (2022). The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838. London, University of London Press, New Historical Perspectives.

Mulvey-Roberts, M. (1987). Burns and the masonic enlightenment. In Jennifer J. Carter, and Joan H. Pittock (eds), Aberdeen and the Enlightenment, Proceedings of a Conference Held at the University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Aberdeen University Press, pp. 331-338.

Roberts, Marie (1986). British Poets and Secret Societies. Totowa, NJ, Barnes & Noble Books.

Shakespeare, William (1890). The Life of King Henry the Fifth. London, MacMillan and Co.

Wright, Dudley (1921). Robert Burns and Freemasonry. Paisley, Alexander Gardner.

Wright, Dudley (1929). Robert Burns and His Masonic Circle. London, C. Palmer.

Article by: Carlos Oliveira Santos

Carlos Oliveira Santos,  is a Portuguese university professor and the author of thirty books. His last book is about the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (www.niemeyerbook.com ).

Carlos is a Master Mason initiated into the Lodge Universalis (Grand Orient of Portugal) in 2012.

With a Ph.D. in Political Science, his main specialism is social marketing, and he received the Outstanding Achievement Award, conferred by the European Social Marketing Association, during the 2019 World Social Marketing Conference in Edinburgh. He is the publisher of Marketing Social Portugal – A social marketing space for the Portuguese-speaking world (www.marketingsocialportugal.net ).

He studied Burns at the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at The University of Glasgow.
Carlos is the president of The Cascais Burns Club, the first created in Portugal.


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