Lodge St. Andrew #518

Who was Robert Burns..?

25th. January 1759 – 21st. July 1796

Burns Cottage Burns Cottage

Robert Burns

In a tiny two-roomed cottage, clay-built and thatch-roofed, on the banks of the Doon, in the district of Kyle, two miles south of the town of Ayr, in Ayrshire, Scotland, Robert Burns was born on January 25th., 1759. Born to father William Burness, a poor tenant farmer, and mother Agnes Broun, who had moved to the area from Kincardineshire in 1750. Robert Burns was the eldest of seven children. He spent his youth working his father's farm, but in spite of his poverty he was extremely well read - at the insistence of his father, who employed a tutor for Robert and younger brother Gilbert. At 15 Robert was the principal worker on the farm and this prompted him to start writing in an attempt to find "some kind of counterpoise for his circumstances" and it was at this age that he penned his first verse.

Following the death of his father in 1784, he became together with his brother partners in the farm, Burns was, however, far more interested in the romantic nature of poetry than the arduous graft of ploughing and it was only the timely sale of his first collection of poems which were published and received much critical acclaim, and the pride of parenthood that stopped Burns from sailing into obscurity on a ship bound for the West Indies.

Robert signed his name Robert Burness until March 1786, when he adopted the spelling Burns, which was a common name in Ayrshire.

After moving around the country, he eventually arrived in Edinburgh, where he mingled in the illustrious circles of the artists and writers, and decided to settle down and marry Jean Armour. But the trappings of fame did not bring fortune and he returned to Ayrshire and unsuccessfully tried farming again. In 1791 he took up a job as an excise man to supplement the meagre income and joined the local yeomanry unit, the Dumfriesshire Volunteers.

In 1796, he died aged 37 of rheumatic heart disease exacerbated by the hard manual work he undertook and his lack of a healthy diet when he was young. His death occurred on the same day as his wife Jean gave birth to his last son, Maxwell.

Descendants of the Bard.

Robert Burns had a total of twelve children by four women, including nine by his wife Jean Armour. Seven of his children were illegitimate, including the first four by Jean Armour before they were married in 1788, although under Scottish law they were considered legitimate after their parent's marriage. Of Jean's children, six died young and another, William Nicol Burns, had no children. All living descendants of Robert Burns and Jean Armour descend from either their granddaughter Sarah Elizabeth Maitland Tombs Burns (1821-1909), daughter of their fourth son James Glencairn Burns (1794-1865), or their granddaughter Anne Elizabeth Burns (c1820-1889), illegitimate daughter of their eldest son Robert Burns (1786-1857).

Most of Robert Burns descendants today are from his two illegitimate daughters:

  1. Elizabeth "Bess" Burns (1785-1816), daughter of Elizabeth "Betsey" Paton, who married John Bishop in 1807.
  2. Elizabeth "Betty" Burns (1791-1873), daughter of Ann Park, who married John Thomson in 1808.

Robert Burns also had an illegitimate son Robert Burns by Janet "Jennie" Clow. He was born in Edinburgh in 1788 and later became a merchant in London.