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Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter XVII - The Benefit Societies of Biggar

THE people of Biggar and its neighbourhood have not been inattentive to the advantage?, of associating themselves for the purpose of social intercourse, and mutual relief in case of accidcnt or sickness.. Efforts of this kind are meritorious, as they encourage prudent and, economical conduct, promote good fellowship, and provide a security against destitution, when, by some stroke of calamity, the usual sources of income are dried up. Thirty years ago, Biggar could boast of possessing four benefit societies, with a conjoined membership of 733 persons. These were the Masons’, the Friendly, the Whipmen’e, and the Weavers’ Societies.

The oldest Society in Biggar is the Masons. Like, many Masons’ Societies in Scotland, it has lost its oldest records, and therefore its early history is shrouded in an obscurity never likely to be dispelled. When we first become acquainted with it, we find it in active working order; but we obtain no information regarding the way in which the members acquired their masonic knowledge, or the time at >vhich they first associated themselves together. It is perhaps not going too far to say, that a masons’ lodge of one kind or another has existed in Biggar from the commencement of the building of Biggar Kirk, in 1545. The men who erected that edifice were evidently, from the marks left on their work, Freemasons; a little doubt can exist that they practised their rites during the time that they carried it on. The Lodge then formed would be frequented by the operative masons in the district; and these men would continue the organization long after the builders of the Kirk had taken their departure. This is so far confirmed by the fact, that the Freemasons of Biggar continued, to a recent period, to practise mark-maaonry, and to use marks similar to those found on the stones of Biggar Kirk. A record of the Lodge marks for a number of years is still preserved, and possesses no small interest to the student of the principles of .masonic scienoe. The law of the Lodge in regard to marks, as expressed in a minute dated 27th December 1797, was, ‘that every brother, in all time coming, using any mark, for any purpose whatever in masonry, shall have the same registered by the Mark Masters, for which he shall pay the sum of one mark Scots, which shall go to the funds of the Lodge, and that any mark that is not so registered, cannot serve him for any purpose in masonry;

and further, that no brother can, on any pretext whatever, use a mark employed by another brother after it is registered.

The first entry in the records of the Lodge of Biggar Free Operatives that has been preserved, is dated 12th January 1726, and states that William Ireland and George Young were then entered apprentices, and Alexander Crichton was passed fellow-craft. A reference is made in one of the minutes to an Act, passed in 1725, against absentees from the meetings of the Lodge; and this is the earliest date that we can find regarding its operations. The Biggar Society of Freemasons was, strictly speaking, what is called an Operative Lodge; that is, a large portion of its members were operative masons. It apparently practised at first only two degrees of St John’s masonry—the entered apprentice and fellow-craft. It is not till the year 1765, that special notice is taken of the raising of entrants to the sublime degree of Matter Mason. The Lodge, at first, was presided over by a deacon, who was assisted by a warden, a box-master, a treasurer, a clerk, and several managers; but after the formation of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, in 1736, the present order of officials,—viz., a master, two wardens, two deacons, two stewards, a treasurer, secretary, etc.,—was adopted. On St John’s day 1726, the principal office-bearers chosen were—Robert Scott, deacon; Alexander Baillie, warden; and Andrew Aikman, box-master; and the most active members, at that time, were Thomas Cosh, John Tod, Daniel Aitken, James Vallange, John Gladstones, George Bertram, and William Baillie.

At a meeting of the members of the Lodge, on the 27th May 1727, it was resolved to petition the Lodge of Linlithgow to be incorporated with that Lodge—4 to be made,’ as was stated, a part and pendicle of it, and to obtain the rights, powers, and privileges thereof.’ Accordingly, the Lodge of Linlithgow, at a meeting held at Queensferry on the 11th of July following, was pleased to grant the prayer of the petition, and to present a charter on stamped paper to a deputation from the Biggar Lodge, that were in attendance. The expenses incurred in carrying through this transaction, amounted to L.58, 17s. Scots, and the Biggar Lodge became bound to pay to the Linlithgow Lodge one pound Scots yearly. On the 27th of May 1734, the Biggar Lodge received a visit from the deacon and warden of the Linlithgow Lodge, and spent L.12 Scots in giving them a treat.

It was the practice of the Lodge at that time, as it still is, to have an annual procession on the anniversary of St John the Evangelist, viz., the 27th of December. On the 24th December 1736, the members resolved to have a new flag for their annual display. Accordingly, they bought a piece of silk cloth from William Johnston, and ‘yellow wattens from Janet Wilson to munt the said flag,’—the price of the whole being L.4, 2s. Scots. On St John’s day following, they chose Alexander Crichton ensign, and Daniel Aitken adjutant, and marched through the town five men deep, all with blue bonnets, white aprons, white gloves, yellow cockades, and hand-rules. On these occasions, it was the custom of the brethren to ascend the Cross-knowe, and while encircling the ancient Cross, to drink the usual loyal toasts in whisky, brandy, or ale. This was done with great acclaim on the 27th December 1745, during the time of the rebellion; but whether the toasts on that occasion referred to Prince Charlie or George II., the record saith not We are told, however, that the brethren got a present of a pint of whisky from John Laidlaw, merchant, and that, in the exuberance of their generous feelings, they invited to dinner the following townsmen, viz.:—Andrew Vallange, John Gibson, Bailie Carmichael, William Forrest, Robert Craig, John Laidlaw, George Bertram, and 4 ye Drummer,’ and defrayed the whole expense out of the funds of the box. It is certain that the Biggar Masons were intensely loyal to the House of Hanover during the early part of the reign of George IH. On the King’s birthday—the 4th of June—the brethren were wont to assemble, and, clothed in the paraphernalia of their order, to proceed to the Cross, and there drink his Majesty’s health amid loud huzzas and volleys of musketry.

The order of procession on St John’s day was fixed, in 1796, as follows:—

Music, preceded by three Halbertmen.

Tyler in uniform.

Stewards with white rods.

Brethren out of office, two and two.

Treasurer and Secretary, with the badges of their offices.

The Bible, with Square and Compass, borne on a crimson cushion, and supported by the two Deacons, with black rods.

The Chaplain.

The Wardens.

The Past Master.

The R. W. Master, supported by the Depute and Substitute Masters.

It was the practice, for a number of years, to have a sermon preached on St John’s day in the Parish Church. In 1794, the sermon was preached by the Rev. William Strachan of Coulter; in 1795, by the Rev. James Gardner of Tweedsmuir; in 1796, by the Rev. Robert Anderson, preacher of the Gospel at Symington; in 1797, by the Rev. John Ritchie of Dunsyre; in 1798, by the Rev. Bryce Little of Covington; and in 1799, by the Rev. Patrick Mollison of Walston.

In 1736, Biggar Lodge sent a representative to Edinburgh, when William St Clair of Roslin resigned his office as hereditary Grand Master, and the Grand Lodge of Scotland was constituted in its present form. The name of the representative is unfortunately obliterated in the old record, from exposure to damp, but it is supposed to have been Sir William Baillie of Lamington. A misunderstanding, it appears, arose between Sir William and the Lodge, which he was indisposed to take any steps to dear up. When the Grand Lodge sent a cowmipication to the Biggar Masons, in March 1737, requesting a delegation at the Quarterly Communication on the. 13th of April, the brethren set Sir William aside, and elected, in his place Brother Thomas Simson. They furnished this brother with a copy of their charter from the Lodge of Linlithgow, and the names of the entrants since the formation of the Grand Lodge; and they instructed him to ascertain if they were recognised as a regularly constituted Lodge, and, if this was the case, to pay the stipulated fee of half-a-crown for the enrolment of each of their entrants since November last. It may be conjectured that there was either some hesitation on the part of the .Grand Lodge to admit the Biggar brethren, or that these brethren themselves were slow in complying with some of the Grand Lodge regulations. At all events, the Lodge of Biggar was not placed on the roll, and the brethren very soon began to cool towards the governing body. In 1738, they therefore came to the decision, that, as they had many widows and orphans to support, it would be better to keep their half-crowns at home than to send them to the Grand Lodge. The Lodge continued its connection with the Lodge of Linlithgow, although that Lodge had set the example of resigning its independent powers, and giving its adherence to the supreme ruling body established in Edinburgh; and it was not till the year 1785 that the Biggar brethren resolved to obtain a charter from the Grand Lodge. This accordingly was granted them on the 6th of November 1786, and cost the sum of L.7, 19s. 2d. The Biggar Lodge was placed on the roll as number 222, which was afterwards changed to its present number, 167; but had it persevered in its original design of joining the Grand Lodge at its formation, it would have taken its place among the oldest lodges in the country. The charter, which it thus obtained, is preserved with great care ; it is always read at the annual meetings on St John’s day, and during processions is carried in an ornamental box by the Tyler.

The meeting* of the Lodge were at first held in the inns and private houses of the town. Those most frequently mentioned are the houses of Thomas Cosh, dyer; John Cree,. gardener; John Gladstones, maltr-man.; Andrew Brown, Silveivknowes; and John Jardine and Thomas Wilson, vintners. A lodge was occasionally opened in the country for making masons. Among other places in the neighbourhood, may be mentioned Elsrickle, Bogsbank, and Cormiston ; and on one occasion a dispensation was granted to make masons for the Biggar Lodge in England. In 1793, the members purchased a house in the centre of the town from Mathew Cree and Andrew Nicol, and converted one of its apartments into a lodge-room; but it was far from being suitable or commodious. The brethren at different times held deliberations regarding the propriety of erecting a proper hall. In 1796, Lord Elphinstone, superior of the barony, proposed to erect a new Mealhouse and a Tolbooth; and, therefore, the brethren put themselves in communication with his Lordship to get liberty to put an additional storey on the top of this projected building, to be used for the purpose of a hall; but his Lordship's design does not appear to have been tarried into execution. In 1808, a committee, composed of three delegates from each of the Benefit Societies of Biggar, held several meetings to decide on the erection of a common hall. To this committee a report was given in, that a hall, 55 feet long and 28 feet wide, could be? erected for L.450. This project also failed, and the consequence was, that the Masons erected a new hall for themselves, in 1814, adjoining their own tenement. It is plain but commodious, and on great festive days is ornamented by the Master’s chair, made in 1794, and by a portrait of Robert Bums, painted for the Lodge by a townsman and brother mason, the late John Pairman. This portrait was presented to the Lodge in December 1821, along with the following letter addressed to the Right Worshipful Master:—

‘ R. W. Master,—As an humble but sincere mark of respect to you and the brethren of Biggar Free Operatives, St John's Lodge, I beg to present for your acceptance a portrait of the late Robert Burns, the Ayrshire poet. In fixing on him for your hall, 1 do not wish to hold him up as a faultless character, but I may be allowed to say that, with all his faults, Bums will merit a place in the affections of every brother. When living, he was ardently devoted to masonry; and since his death, his songs have, in an eminent degree, contributed to the innocdnt pleasures of masonry. With best wishes to you and the brethren whom you have the honour to represent, —I am, etc., ...

John Paikman.

As a small return for Mr Pairman’s kindness, the Lodge elected him an honorary member, and presented him with a diploma.

At the meeting on St John’s day 1796, some Knight-Templars who were present, insisted on taking precedence of the other brethren, who were only Blue Masons. This led to a keen discussion. The Lodge itself was not disposed to give any deliverance on the subject, but Brother George Inglis protested against the conduct and pretensions: of the Templars, and appealed to the Grand Lodge. That body, on the 1st of May 1797, gave the following decision —‘A petition and oomplaint was read from sundry brethren of the Lodge Biggar Free Operatives,' respecting certain brethren of the Order of Knight-Templars, insisting that, in consequence of their possessing that degree in masonry, they are entitled to precedency above Master Masons of said Lodge. The Grand Lodge declare in the negative, tend that 'the present office-bearers of every regular Lodge shall, according to their respective offices, as expressed in their charter, take precedency of every other member of said Lodge; and that no other distinction shall be known in a Lodge of the brethren thereof, but that which rises from superior knowledge in masonry and exemplary behaviour.

A number of the French prisoners stationed at Biggar on their parole of honour, towards the close of the war with France, were freemasons. In the beginning of 1813, they applied to the members of the Biggar Lodge for the use of their hall, the master’s chair, the warden’s tools, etc., in order that they might constitute a lodge of their own. This application was acceded to, and Brothers Elias Berger and Francis Renaudy became security for any damage that might be done. The French masons were here wont to practise their rites, which were somewhat different from those of the Scottish brethren. One of their number, resident in the Westraw, having died, was interred with masonic honours, and a funeral lodge was held out of respect to his memory. The Biggar Lodge had the honour of enrolling in its ranks one of these prisoners, a distinguished Polish nobleman and a freemason named Francois Mayskie, and received from him a fee of one guinea.

The Lodge of Biggar has taken part in various public ceremonials of the craft. It was well represented at laying the foundation-stones of the Lodge Hall of Lockhart St John, Carnwath; the National Monument at Edinburgh; the Bridge over the Mouse at Cartlane; the County Buildings, Lanark; the Freemasons’ Hall, Edinburgh, etc.; and it turned out in great force at the demonstration at laying the foundation-stone of the Corn Exchange, Biggar.

Members are admitted into the Lodge between the ages of sixteen and thirty-two years. On being entered apprentices they pay L.1, 6s. 6d., and 10s. 6d. additional on being raised to the sublime degree of Master Mason. The quarterly payment is Is. 3d. Members, when sick, are entitled to 6s. weekly for the space of seventeen weeks; and if they continue longer in a bad state of health, they receive 4s. weekly till the expiration of a year. After this period, they are allowed such a sum as the managers think proper. On the death of a member, the Lodge pays L.2 in name of funeral expenses. The annual income of the Society has been somewhat fluctuating. In 1837, it was as low as L.93, Is. 4d.j while in 1849 it was as high as L.172, 5s. 6d; and in 1860, it was L.132, 3s. 2d. The expenditure has varied in the same way. In 1836, it was L.70, 12s. 6d.; and in 1855, it was L.159. The Society is at present in a flourishing condition, and the number of members on the roll is 245. The amount of good which this Society has done is, no doubt, very great. It has not only aided hundreds of poor men when in distress, and after their death caused their funeral obsequies to be observed with decent solemnities, but it has relieved the wants of many a poor wanderer. The entries in the books are numerous of small sums disbursed to travelling brethren, to assist them on their journey.

A benefit society, established in 1787, was called the ‘Friendly Society.’ In 1835, it had one hundred and fourteen members, with a capital of L.250. It continued after this period gradually to decline.

Few new members joined it, and tbe demand on it9 funds increased from year to year. It was therefore dissolved.

Another benefit society was established at Biggar in 1806, and is called the 'Biggar Whipmen’s Society.’ During the first year of its existence, it enrolled 190 members. At its first annual procession, which took place on the 17th of July 1807, no fewer than 164 members appeared on horses, gaily caparisoned with ribbons, flowers, etc. The privilege of carrying the colours or flag was rouped, and brought the sum of four guineas. The members then proceeded to Coulter-mains, the seat of John Brown, Esq., and afterwards to Hartree House, the residence of Colonel Alexander Dickson. The annual processions at first were fixed to take place on the day after Biggar Midsummer Fair, but they have been changed to the day after Skirling Fair, in June; and on this day the Biggar gymnastic sports are also held. The Whipmen’s Society allows its sick members 5s. per week for twelve weeks, 3s. a-week for twenty-four weeks, and then one guinea quarterly so long as sickness continues.

The fourth benefit society was instituted on the 3d of December 1806, and was called the Weavers’ Society. Its annual meeting and procession took place on the first Friday of July. On this occasion the. members paraded the town clothed with white aprons, sashes, and other insignia. The Weavers’ parade was a gala day at Biggar. The music for many years consisted of a drum and a fife, supplemented with one or two fiddles. The allowance to sick members was somewhat similar to that of the Masons’ Society, and the funeral money was the same. The Weavers’ Society, from being founded on erroneous calculations, from having too many very poor and infirm members, or receiving no adequate accessions of young men to its roll, began to give symptoms of decay. It lingered on for some years; and though it was a law that any member who should propose that the Society should be dissolved, or its funds divided, should instantly and for ever be expelled, yet this idea was not only propounded, but entertained, and this once flourishing institution was brought to a dose in 1841. The colours or flag of the Society, which waved in the breeze on every annual procession, are preserved by Mr George Johnston, merchant, Biggar. They are adorned with the Weavers’ arms, and the motto—

‘Imperial thrones
Our art adorns,
But to the poor
Here is our alms.’

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