Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Do You Really Know What A Cowan Is?

Last night I was reading a book, and it described what a cowan was in terms of Operative Masonry. When going through the degrees you hear about cowans, but I never gave them much thought, a bunch of PGMs much more experienced than myself have written short definitions of what cowans were in terms of the craft, some just cite the dictionary still the best definition I have read was from Bro. Harry Carr, who first quotes the Oxford dictionary:

”One who builds dry stone walls (i.e., without mortar); a dry-stone-diker; applied derogatorily to one who does the work of a mason, but who has not been regularly apprenticed or bred to the trade.”

Then expands:

”Cowan is an essentially Scottish trade term, and it belongs to the time when lodges, as trade-controlling bodies, put restrictions against the employment of cowans, in order to protect the fully-trained men of the Craft from competition by unskilled labour. The earliest official ban against cowans appeared in the Schaw Statutes in 1598.”

On the Freemason Information website they quote a short talk bulletin from 1953 which reads:

“… and means to moderns an uninstructed and ignorant person, one not of the Fraternity, just as eavesdropper means to us one who attempts to gain the secrets of Masonry unlawfully.”

So I guess the bulletin is saying that cowan is just an ignorant person. But really, is that what a cowan is in modern 21st century Freemasonry? Or can the term be applied to clandestine members (yeah, I know I will get hate mail), conspiracy nuts, or fundlementalist that believe they know more about our work because they can quote Morals and Dogma? Do we really have men going around from lodge to lodge claiming to be a Mason but really isn’t in today’s society?

So I guess my question is to the Masons that read this, what is a cowan to you?


Jason A. Mitchell said...

I prefer the archaic definition. It includes those who attempt to eavesdrop but it also makes a clear reference to the unity of freemasonry, and how one who works without mortar (the cement of brotherly love and virtue...) undermines all we do from within. Following this line of argument it reveals to us that the greatest enemy to Freemasonry and our Society, is ourselves.

As for people attempt to gain access to our Lodges, it happens at least 3 times per year in Salt Lake City. I can't speak for other locations.


Seeker of Light said...

a funny story to share not too far off topic... in the part where cowans and eavesdroppers are explained, an EA turning in his proficiency was understandably nervous and replied "to better detect the approach of cowards and name droppers"

Lon said...

Does anyone really know what a cowan is? The extra large version of the Oxford Dictionary I read does not list a meaning for the word "cowan" and this is not the word in use in the Scottish trade today, yesterday or in documents that have been reliably produced. I know this is a blog - but none of the research I have seen on this topic is conclusive. Is there anyone who can answer this with clear and documented research? Until then, I will continue to believe this is a "Masonic usage only" word and Bro. Mitchell's preference (since without documented research, any preference would be as valid as any other)would be mine too.

Chris said...

lon, it's in my Oxford English Dictionary with the exact definition given in the blog posting.

Lon said...

Chris - thank you! Can you tell me the pub date of your Oxford? I'm an old guy with an old version and "cowan" appears to have been added in modern usage because of Masonic usage.

Kelly Cowan said...

What makes the Cowans of today is their lack of faith and spiritual values. It has been said that just as the Cowan of long ago could never build a cathedral because he built without mortar, the man of today cannot build the spiritual temple of his life if he does not have faith and spiritual values.

Anonymous said...

I was born with the last name cowan and have always had strong tendencies to undermine the work of your social orders.