Here is a chapter from my new book, "Building Ruffish - Uncommon Field Guide for Uncommon Masonic Education - Volume 6"
Fraternally and Sincerely,
Bro. Coach N
XII. The Hole Story
Fool not yourself to believe Cowans are not organizational members. – Dr. John S. Nagy
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Watchers should know that there also exists within Craft ranks another group of men whom they might wrongly consider to be Ruffians. This group of Brothers is commonly called, “Cowans[i]” by informed modern members of the Craft[ii].
Misinformed Brothers[iii] might never consider Cowans to be members of the Craft or consider members of the Craft to be Cowans. They might be inclined by superficial instruction to limit the label of “Cowan” to “pretenders to the Craft” only. This is understandable. Should they never do the Work to properly and thoroughly Perpend the evidence freely available to any enquiring Masonic soul, they would never know different.
The Cowan group requires a special focus if not for any other reason than to assure that Watchers do not mistakenly categorize them and mistreat them unknowingly.
It is a most prudent action for Watchers to acquaint themselves with this class of Brothers, the myriad definitions that could be applied to both the word “Cowan” and those who manifest Cowanistic behaviors, to better recognize them as such when they are encountered.
Watchers should not mistakenly and unknowingly label Cowans as Profanes or Ruffians or mislabel Cowans as “pretenders to the Craft”. In the same vein, they should be very aware of the meaning that other members of the Craft do place upon this word, either by choice or through naivety.
Take due notice thereof, govern yourself accordingly and be not surprised when individuals do not agree with this understanding.
Historically, workers known and classified as “Cowans” were members of the Craft in specific Operative Lodges in Scotland and other countries. They were freeman or journeymen of the Craft that were limited to one class of work and they delivered specific aspects of the Trade.
Higher skilled and experienced Cowans were entitled “Master Rough Masons” or “Master Cowans”. They were entitled as such, and were empowered by their membership in the Craft to take upon their charge Apprentices to their trade.[iv] [v]
Cowans were also known as “Dry Dykers[vi]”, “Wallers[vii]”, “builders with unhewn stone and without lime[viii]”, “freemen or journeymen restricted to one class of work[ix]”, “Rough Builders[x]” or “Cowaners”. These Craftsmen typically focused their work upon building walls of rough stone without any aid of a long lasting bonding agent, usually referred to as mortar, lime or cement. Only under specific conditions were they permitted to build with bonding agents[xi].
With the establishment of Speculative Freemasonry and the Grand Lodge Era, Speculative assumptions about Cowans were wrongly made[xii] very early on by well meaning but unschooled Brothers of the newly recreated and redirected Craft. Within the Speculative Craft, the meaning originally assigned to the word “Cowan” by Operative Brothers, and all its related synonyms, soon migrated toward the pejorative, and away from the Craft they originally and rightfully represented.
Over time, Speculative Freemasons progressively redefined the co-opted word “Cowan” within the Speculative organization to mean “Pretenders to the Craft” and summarily labeled only those individuals who matched this new definition as “Cowans”. This action left the original definition buried under heavy layers of Rubbish and allowed a new “Speculative” variation of Cowanism to flourish unchecked within the Speculative Craft.
It is most unfortunate that multiple generations of unknowing Brothers have been indoctrinated into accepting this new and illegitimate definition and without question. In doing so, some important and disturbing Lodge issues have arisen as a direct consequence and have plagued Lodges ever since. This should have been expected for in redefining the word the Speculative Craft diverted its attention from the word’s original intent and left countless Brothers clueless.
Watchers should take note of this cluelessness for Brothers inflicted with Cowanism may not be aware that they are. Such members of the Craft shall show bewilderment toward both causes and symptoms of Rough and untempered Work. They may also not know that their very complacency with their Craft limitations brands them unmistakably. They are not however to be considered Ruffians unless they seek to receive more for what they do than what they deserve.
Around the quickening and birth of the Grand Lodge era, Operative and Speculative Crafts soon diverged in almost every Jurisdiction around the world in which the latter spread. With the rise of the Speculative Craft, this new belief as to what Cowans were became entrenched in Freemasonic myth and lore. With no Operative members to contest this new belief, generations of unknowing Craft members were trained toward accepting without question the validity of how Cowans were described and viewed. So too were the individuals viewed as such.
Never did it cross the minds of these Brothers that they had both accepted something that was fundamentally wrong and, in doing so, they sabotaged their ability to safeguard the very Craft that they aspired to protect. By adopting this new definition, whole generations stopped evaluating their Brothers by their ability to both hewn Stone and to develop and apply bonding agents to these Squared Stones, the very essence of what holds the Fraternity together.
As a Watcher, you would be wise to further acquaint yourselves with what Cowans truly are as opposed to what you might be mislead to believe. Do not limit yourself to what is put before you.
The etymology of the word “cowan” is a good reference to keep in mind when trying to understand the essence of “Cowanism”. The word itself is a description use to denote “a hollow[xiii]” in the form of gaps, holes, crevices and indents. Knowing this, it would make sense to call workers who place unsquared stones together “Cowans” or “Cowaners” for the very nature of their work is to create cowans as they fit these unsquared stones together.
In this same Light, individuals involved in Cowanistic work do not Square or Properly Mortar their Work and hence they form gaps, holes, indents, hollows and crevices naturally as a result. Even though they eventually may become very good at putting things together, whatever they do Build shall exhibit cowens throughout. This is not a fault of the worker in any way. The Character of the Work in which they are involved brings these features into being. It should be noted that Cowans do not seek to change the nature of their Work. They remain steadfastly satisfied with this Work and performance level, never asking more for it than what it produces for them.
Before the Speculative Grand Lodge era redefined this class of Workers, Cowans were viewed, and accepted to be, skilled Craftsman who, by their trade served proper Apprenticeships and some were fully and Masterfully capable of Building. Their two overriding characteristics were that they had an extremely limited knowledge of both hewing Stone and developing and applying bonding agents, such as lime-based products, and their proper application. Because of this, the overwhelming majority of their Work and what they built was filled with gaps, holes, crevices and hollows and this work was done without any long lasting bonding agents. When they were permitted to use bonding agents, it was only in very limited ways[xiv]. This Operative understanding applies to this day.
It is ironic that throughout a significant portion of the Fraternity, the very two characteristics that Cowans are known for are the very two things that Speculative Masons should use to measure the Progression of its members, and do not.
Cowans do not Square or Cement their Stones. And they should not do this since it is not their job. Speculative Masons are lead to believe that these two things, Squaring and Cementing their Stones, is exactly what their members should be doing.
Unfortunately, they are also left with the indelible impression, especially by some members who are viewed to be Mentors and Coaches within Craft Ranks, that Squaring their Stones is impossible and that Cementing can only occur once their Stones are Squared. They are further told by these Mentors, Coaches and Trainers that their Stones shall never be Suitable, no matter how hard they Work upon their Stones. You shall observe too that the likelihood of sincere, earnest and Square efforts by these Builders are diminished.
This resulting message leaves many aspiring Craftsmen unwilling to engage in the very Work they are directed toward. These Builders are very apt to Build with unsquared Stones because their Standards are unrealistic. What little resulting Work they do engage in is filled with cowens and, should there be any Cement applied, it can easily be seen that it is untempered due to lack of proper Training. These are the very Characteristics that Watchers should look for to assist them in determining whether it is a Ruffian or Cowan that they are viewing or in the presence of.
Any unsquared Stone that is Raised and Positioned shall naturally create “cowens” within the structure being built. To prevent these cowans from being created within such a building, before any Stone is Raised, it is Squared Suitably and to the satisfaction of the Builders. The Common Gavel is used by these Builders to Square these Stones. It is only after being Perfected that these Stones are Raised and put into Position.
Watchers need to know and be aware of this. Building with unsquared Stones is what Cowens do. No matter what the label a Builder wears, look at his Work and you shall know him for the Builder that he truly is.
Fraternal Brothers know that Cement, a lime-based bonding agent, is symbolically used to represent “Brotherly Love and Affection”. This Symbolic material is coupled with a Working tool called, “The Trowel”. The Trowel is one of the important Working Tools of the Speculative Craft Worked in the majority of Lodges within the territories of the United States of America. It is the only additional Working Tool disclosed and described to Master Masons within these Master Level Lodges.
The significance of how Speculative Freemasonry defines “Cement”, and the heavy emphasis it places upon The Trowel coupled with the Operative definition and understanding of what Cowans are should be noted here. The Trowel represents Symbolically the Worker’s ability, through proper training, to both develop and use bonding agents Masterfully. This training occurs as a direct result of doing the Work that the Apprentice Ritual asks Freemasons to engage in. The Working Materials they are introduced to, Clay, Charcoal and Chalk, are essential to its manufacture. Should they not do this Work, the likelihood of them properly developing and using Cement, that Brotherly Love and Affection, is greatly diminished.
As Ruffians Watchers, keep all this in mind. You shall at times encounter individuals, both within the Fraternity and without, that show through their words and actions that they have yet to Square their Stones or that they have a limited “desire and ability” to properly develop and apply “Brotherly Love and Affection”. When you do, there is a high probability that you are in the presence of a Cowan and not a Ruffian.
When you have any doubts as to whether you are in the presence of a Cowan or a Ruffian, ask yourself the following questions when making a determination:
1) Do you see that the individual is outwardly looking to obtain something of value that he has not rightfully earned? While Cowans might make effort to do this unknowingly, Ruffians deliberately seek this end.
2) Is he purposefully making effort to outrun his accountability? Cowans have little difficulty facing accountability for their actions, once they are aware of it. Ruffians shall go to extraordinary lengths to avoid accountability, especially when they are aware of it.
3) Does he make effort to persuade using arguments that are filled with unfounded urgent requests, morally gray and emotionally charged statements or coercive threats to another? Although Cowans are unsquared and limited in the application of Brotherly Love and Affection, they are not individuals who are inclined to purposefully make effort to do Moral wrong, make urgent requests that are unfounded, extend their Work efforts beyond their known abilities or threaten other human beings. Ruffians seek to do wrong, especially when they see it benefiting them. They have no problem employing tactics that imply unfounded urgency or to threaten or do harm.
4) What are their Goals? Cowans aspire to contribute to the Craft and be rewarded according to their merit and not title. They apprentice toward Merited Contribution. Ruffians do not Apprentice toward Contribution. They could not care less about what is merited. They desire entitlements not rightfully earned and make every effort to have them bestowed upon them regardless of merit and when given opportunity to do so.
Watchers expect to find Cowans within Lodges. Freemasons created this condition once the focus upon the word, “Cowan”, was redirected toward pretenders and not toward the “hollows” cowans originally represented.
Modern day Tylers look for pretenders, not hollows. Hence, they allow all manner of “hollows” to enter into the Lodge unhindered. Most Freemasons are taught to understand this in no other way. Masons who understand what the Word originally meant, also know that Cowans are not pretenders who make effort to gain entrance into physical Lodges. They know that Cowans are the “hollows, gaps, indents, holes, and crevices” created by a Mason’s unsquared Work and that this unsquared Work should remain outside their personal Temples until such time that it is Suitable for that House not made by hand and not before such time.
Look for unsquared Work and untempered Mortar with no desire for Better and you shall find Cowans.
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Watcher Self-Assessment and Training:
1) Review carefully your Ruffian Field Guide and note other Characteristic or Trait differences between these two groups.
2) Assess those people that you have encountered, both within and without the Craft, and ascertain if they have the proper training and skills to develop and apply Squaring techniques toward all that they Build.
3) In assessing who is Building and in what has been Built, whether it be relationships or structures, evaluate the quality of both the Working Materials used and the Mastery of the Resulting Work.
[i] There are a verity of spellings for the word “Cowan” and depending upon the location and time it could be spelled a number of ways, including and not limited to “kowan” [17th century] and “cowen” [18th century].
[ii] “Cowans were regular recognized members of craft. There was no prohibition against their admission as being qualified for their particular work. It was a late and mistaken idea to use the word in the ritual of Speculative Freemasonry, when it sprang up, as a term of opprobrium, and to class cowans with eavesdroppers, or to particularize them as uninitiated persons who might attempt to obtain admissions to the Lodge itself in contradistinction to the eavesdropper, who was merely a clandestine listener.”, Freemen and Cowan, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Volume XXI (1908), Page 201
[iii] “Bro. Gould is wrong in saying that a non-affiliated Mason having the word was called a cowan. He clearly misunderstands the Glasgow entry, which simply means, as is so evident from the Canongate Minutes, that the cowan was entered as a cowan. The distinction he draws between the freedom of the Lodge and the freedom of the Burgh is also by no means accurate. The freedom of the trade, i e , membership of one of the Incorporated Crafts was itself freedom of the Burgh in early days.
“Brother Speth (A.Q.C. i., 145,) is also in error. Cowans were not, as he states, irregular Masons. He says : -" It has been generally supposed that the term applied only to those undertaking Masons work without having been regularly apprenticed to a Master Mason. I think its meaning may be widened to include apprentices regularly bound, but who had never been booked or entered, as also those who had been duly entered, but failed to get themselves passed; those who, being passed, had removed to another district and omitted to join the local Lodge; those who had been expelled the Lodge, and, in fact, every Mason guilty of any irregularity whatever." If he had had the old minutes of the Canongate Craft before him, it is quite certain he would have been compelled to take a different view.
“It may be added that in many Lodges in Scotland it is impossible to say definitely when they lost their character as mainly or entirely operative and took on that of a speculative society. Indeed, in the North, there are Lodges which, though speculative, still restrict their membership to actual operatives. Even where this was or is not done, the cowan or rough builder was gradually recognized as entitled to become a member of a Craft Lodge. We may instance the Stonehaven Lodge which during the eighteenth century was a trade corporation in form, but admitted the speculative element. Quoting from its minutes we find a cowan or waller (who as an initiate signs the minute) admitted at the same fee as a Mason, other persons paying a higher fee. (Ibid, Page 201)
[iv] “…a lad might be apprenticed to a cowan for that class of work …” Ibid, Page 196
[v] Freemen and Cowan, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Volume XXI (1908)
[vi] “Dry Stone Walls”, also known as “Dry Stone Dykes”, “Dry Stone Hedges”, and “Rock Fences” are any Stone Enclosure that is Built without the benefit of Lime Mortar or Cement.
[vii] Freemen and Cowan, Ars Quatuor Coronatorum Volume XXI (1908), Page 195
[ix] Ibid, page 196
[x] Ibid page 201
[xi] “…a minute of the same Court, in February, 1623, contains the record of a person booked and received as a cowan being authorised to work stone and mortar, and to “build” mortar walls, but not above an ell in height and without power to work or lay hewn work, nor to build with sand and lime." Ibid, Page 197
[xii] Ibid, Page 201
[xiii] “The truth is that the word is an exact parallel in use and an antithesis in meaning to ‘square.’ Square is an adjective, verb and noun, and the person who makes a thing square can be called a squarer. Cowan means round or hollow as an adjective, a hollow or something hollow as a noun, and a cowaner is the hollow builder or the man who uses round unsquared stones for building purposes, whether walls or huts. In the west of Scotland the word has received a collateral meaning colloquially in being applied to large hollow fishing boats. Thus: -" When the Earl (Argyll) came ‘to Allangreg in this critical juncture he resolved to man out four prizes he had got to ‘sea and thirty cowans or fisher boats ' &c. (Woodrows Hist. ii. 535.)
“I have Professor Mackinnon's authority for saying that
“The word Cuban, later cabhan, is a well established word in Gaelic literature with the meaning hollow, crevice, &c. In dialect the sound easily becomes cobhan, co'an, the first a being short. In Gaelic ‘air’, like the English ‘er’, indicates a personal agent, so that cowaner is thus a very natural phrase for a hollow builder or drystone diker.” (Ibid, Page 203)
[xiv] Ibid, Page 197