By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
So fearful was the craft that “cowans and intruders” might gatecrash its proceedings that it posted a sentry outside the door of the Lodge room, called him the outer guard or tyler (see “Who’s Who in Masonry”) and equipped him with a sword to warn off any undesirable gatecrashers. To use the term “intruder” for an unwanted invader of Lodge privacy appears obvious, though some versions of the ritual call him an eavesdropper. The eave of a roof was a good place to spy on what was happening inside, and as we shall see it symbolised a particular problem in the early days of speculative Freemasonry, but more of this later.
In the meantime let us examine the word “cowan”. So rare is it in modern English that it does not even figure in many dictionaries. As a surname it is well known in parts of Scotland (some say as a corruption of Colquhoun, pronounced “Cohoon”), but it is unlikely that Masonry had any bias against a person because of his surname. (Some Jews called Cohen have amended their name to Cowen or Cowan, but that is another story). If Cowan was originally an occupational name, it tells us two things – that Masonic history has special ties with Scotland, and that it derives from the operative building trade.
The Oxford Dictionary definition of a cowan is, “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”. This tells us almost everything we need to know. The highly trained and experienced Mason certainly had no time for the unskilled cowan. 16th century Masonic writings report that masters were penalised for employing cowans, who were to be kept out unless there was no fully qualified tradesman available.
The cowan – under this name – apparently posed a major problem in Scotland, though one can well imagine that unskilled labour disturbed the stability and solidarity of the craft in England and elsewhere. In speculative Freemasonry, the cowan is symbolic of a person who seeks rights and privileges which he has not earned. Were cowans, in an allegorical sense, to be tolerated as stowaways or gatecrashers in latter-day Lodges, their presence would undermine the carefully structured system of Masonry and its ethical teachings.
The term “intruder” entered the craft somewhere at the beginning of the 18th century, when Speculative Freemasonry arose out of the often secret clubs in which gentlemen who knew each other well and trusted one another, discussed the re-shaping of society and carried out clandestine scientific experiments in order to ascertain how nature, possibly also human nature, worked. It is likely that they posted sentries at the doors, because intruders could gravely jeopardise the whole operation. Today’s Freemasonry has quite different concerns. No longer is anything being worked out behind closed doors that could not be shared with the public, and the need of the day is to make Masonic ethics and works better known and not hide them from view.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.