COWANS and EAVESDROPPERS
Bro. Bobby A. Lupess
1 (1) a builder of dry-stane dykes
la16-. (2) disparaging one not properly apprenticed
and trained as a mason 19-, 2
freemasonry one outside the brotherhood, esp
one seeking to knows its secrets la18-e20, local,
3 an unskilled or uninitiated
person; an amateur 19-e20. [obscure]
one who stands close to walls of a house under eaves to listen to
secrets; listen secretly to private conversations.
There is no doubt that the
origin of the word Cowan is distinctively Scottish and was used
originally to describe a man who was a builder of dry-stane dykes,
which are walls or fences where the stones stay in place without using
any type of mortar. These dry-stane dykes are to be found all
over Scotland where they are normally used to serve as boundaries
between areas of land, and the more commonly used term for the builders
of these dykes today are dry-stane dykers. The word Cowan can
also be used to describe one who had not been properly apprenticed to a
master or trained to work as a mason, although these days the term Cowan
is not normally used in association with these men and has become a
purely Masonic expression and when applied in conjunction with
eavesdropper signifies an intruder and or listener.
W.J.W. The situation of the O.G.
Outside the door of the L., R.W.M.
What is his duty?
Being armed with a D.S. to keep off
all Cowans and eavesdroppers.
The term eavesdropper however
is not a peculiar Masonic expression, although when used with the word
Cowan it becomes so, Mackey gives this description of an eavesdropper;
A listener. The punishment
which was directed in the old lectures, at the revival of Masonry in
1717, to be inflicted on a detected Cowan was: “To be placed under the
eaves of the house in rainy weather, till the water runs in at his
shoulders and out at his heels.”
The first record of the use
of the word Cowan in a Masonic context occurs in the Schaw Statutes of
1598. These statutes were codes of practice and rules drawn up by
William Schaw, Master of Work and General Warden of Masons appointed by
James VI of Scotland: the paragraph reads;
master or fellow of craft shall accept any cowan to work in his society
or company, nor send any of his servants to work with cowans, under the
penalty of twenty pounds as often as any person offends in this matter.
statutes by Schaw were strictly adhered too in Masonic Lodges throughout
Scotland, so much so that in the minute books still extant from Lodges
of the time, the statutes are inscribed within their pages. The Lodge of
AITCHISON'S HAVEN, now dormant, has the statute engrossed in the pages of
its records, this minute of less than two years later than the issuing
of the Schaw statutes shows the Lodge took the paragraph regarding
Cowans very seriously;
VII day of Januarie the zeir of God 1600 being convenit of or brither
Wilzeam Aiton of Mussilbrugh Wairden for ye present and Thomas
Petticruif Deiken for ye present and John Fender John Pedden Robert
Widderspoon Wilzeam Miler Edward Ramage and fund Thomas [illegible] to
haif ane cowan in his Companie and had [illegible] the foresd. Cowan qr
for it was ordainit yt he should pay X, lib of for his offense and
should [illegible] also he was found [illegible] XII day of May and
promisit never to offend under the pains containit in or buik of
Ordinansis the zeir of God 1600.
Also in the minute books of
the Lodge of Kilwinning in 1707 is found this passage;
“no maeson shall employ no cowan which is to say [a mason] without
the word to work.”
There have been several
suggestions that some Lodges allowed Cowans to do less skilled stone
work, such as the building of dry-stane dykes, which was looked upon as
unskilled work by the early operative masons. Some sources report that
old Masonic records like this would indicate
Cowans were unaffiliated
operatives who were allowed by the regular masons, that is, who were not
part of a guild, but who under some circumstances might be employed by
the "trained" Fellow of Craft or Master Mason in some minor rough work,
thus allowing the mason with the connection or word to work at the more
skilled stone work. The inference being that the unskilled mason without
the word was a Cowan, and with the transformation of operative to
speculative masonry the word Cowan would come to have a purely Masonic
meaning, and the Cowan would become admitted into the Craft.
The word Cowan was not known
in English freemasonry until James Anderson wrote his constitutions,
being Scottish and a member of the Lodge of Aberdeen, Anderson would
know all there was to know regarding Cowans, and when in 1738 the second
edition of his Constitutions was published on the behest of the Grand
Lodge of England, he introduced into English freemasonry the term
But Free and Accepted Masons
shall not allow cowans to work with them ; nor shall they be employed by
cowans without an urgent necessity; and even in that case they must not
reach cowans, but must have a separate communication.
This was the first use of the
word Cowan in England and is not to be found in any of the old
manuscripts of the English Freemasons before the eighteenth century.
The word was in the opinion of
Brother Mackey, came to the English Fraternity directly from the
Operative Freemasons of Scotland, among whom it was used to denote a
pretender. Thereby speculative masonry was quick to use the word as part
of their ritual, for to the early speculative mason the cowan
was an eavesdropper, a snoop, a listener. In the middle of the
eighteenth century any man not a mason was considered to be a Cowan. In fact, in
early Scottish Masonry, the cowan was an outsider. He did not have the
word. Today, the Speculative mason has labelled him otherwise.
be no doubt that the word Cowan comes from the Operative Masons in
Scotland when it was used as a derogatory term for an unskilled worker.
During the transition from Operative to Speculative, a Cowan relocated
with the ritual to be used as a term for the uninitiated into the Craft.
The cowan is really only a person who is not a mason. Before you became
a mason, you too were a cowan.
The Concise SCOTS Dictionary. Aberdeen
University Press. Pub 1985.
The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary.
Oxford University Press. Pub 1981.
A Ritual of Scottish Craft Freemasonry as
practised by Lodge Stirling Royal Arch No. 76. Pub 1966.
Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry. Albert
MacKey. The Masonic History Company Pub 1916.
The Book of the Lodge of Aitchison’s Haven
1598-1764. Grand Lodge of Scotland year book. Pub 1981
THE GRAND HISTORIAN'S NOTEBOOK. David
"Bud" Gillrie Pub 2003