Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

The Cowan

It seems that the word has come to us from the Scottish operative masonry of long ago. In Scotland, the word "cowan" denoted "Dry-dyker" -a man who built walls of stones held in position by their own weight and not by mortar. As he did not use mortar or prepared stones in his trade, he was looked upon as an inferior type of artisan by the operative mason, and as such was denied admittance to a mason's "Lodge". Which in those days probably meant a group of operative masons engaged in some building project. So conscious were the operative masons of the need to keep cowans out. That the early Tyler's--who, as their name suggests, were those who placed roofing tiles in position after the masons had completed the walls and the carpenters the rafters-from their lofty perch on the roof were charged with the additional task of reporting the imminent approach of cowans. This, presumably, was intended to give the masons time to band together to keep off the "cowans and intruders".

This was pure snobbery--the cowan was probably just as skilled as the mason. Nevertheless the distinction persisted, for the records of operative masons dated 1460 speak of cowans, while it was not until 1688 that there is any record of a cowan being admitted a member of a Masons fraternity. John Syme "an honest old man and a cowaner" was admitted to the Cannongate Lodge in that year. Over 100 years later a stone-dyker was admitted as an Entered Apprentice in the Stonehaven Lodge, which consisted of "operative masons, speculative Masons and one cowan"

Over the years the word "cowan" seems to have undergone a change when used by our ancient brethren the operatives. Instead of referring only to "dry-dykers" it came to include:

(1)       those who had never served an apprenticeship to the mason trade

(2)         those who had not completed an apprenticeship

It would appear that operative masons, jealous of their skill and status, had far more reasons to exclude such persons as those described in (I) and (2) than the true cowan. Finally, what has spectulative Masonry made of the cowan.

In the early 1700's there are records showing that the early speculatives were, if anything more bitterly opposed to the admission of cowans than even the operatives had been. As early as 1738 the "Constitutions" laid down that "no free and accepted Mason shall work with, be employed by, or teach his trade to a cowan

About this time the import of the word underwent a further change, for it came to include any person not a Brother. Before the end of the century it also applied to the "eavesdropper one who listened to conversations not intended for his ears. The word comes from the practice of lurking between the eaves-drop (the line along which rain ran off the eaves) and the wall of the house while listening. An old catechism speaks of a "cowan or listener" being punished "by being placed under the eaves till the water runs in at his shoulders and out of his shoes"

So it appears that speculative Masonry has dealt more harshly with the cowan than ever operative masons did-­he old operatives may have excluded him because of his lack of skill and training but at least they did not use the word as we do. We could, with justice apply it to anyone not a Freemason, but we are on much more uncertain ground when we use it as a term of reproach

C Dalby in The New South Austialian Freemason. 1970

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