Select Burns Surname Genealogy

Burns is usually thought of as a Scottish or Irish surname, although it could also be English or even Jewish in origin.  The Scottish surname derived from burnhouse, a dwelling near a burn or stream.  It owed much of its popularity to the national poet Robert Burns.  The name in Ireland might either be a Scottish implant or an anglicization of Irish names like O'Byrne or MacBrin.  Burns only started to appear as a surname in these countries in the 17th century. 

Burn or Burns, from the Old English burne or "stream," was a north of England surname; while Bourne, from the same root, was a name to be found in the west Midlands and the southeast of England.

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England.  Burneshead in Cumberland was the seat of an ancient family of Burnes which, however, then disappeared.  The Burns name appeared much later in Colton, just across the border into Lancashire.  The 19th century Burns in Lancashire were just as likely to have come from Ireland.  A Burn family in Hornsea in the East Ridings of Yorkshire dates from the mid 17th century.  Their home is now a museum.  Another Burn family, from Longframington in Northumberland, has been traced to the late 17th century.

Scotland.  Burns as a surname did not appear in written records in Scotland until the 17th century.  Early forms were Burness and Burnes.  The Burns spelling was to be found in Perthshire in 1708.  The poet Robert Burns in Ayrshire changed the spelling of his name from Burness to Burns in 1786 and thereby helped to establish the popularity of the Burns name.  Cousins of the poet who had stayed on the east coast of Scotland kept the Burnes spelling (James and Alexander Burnes of this family pursued distinguished careers in India and Asia).

A Thomas Burne held land in Corntown, Stirlingshire from 1538 and a descendant John Burn was born there around 1710.

"Old John Burn has left on record, among his early reminiscences, the fact that he saw from his father's house the soldiers crowding past with their wounded from the battle of Shirra Muir in the Jacobite rising of 1715."

He came to Glasgow in 1767 where he changed his name to Burns.  His son the Rev. John Burns, a Church of Scotland minister for almost seventy years, raised a remarkable family.  Among his nine children were:
  • Dr. John Burns, Regius Professor of Surgery at the University of Glasgow
  • Dr. Allan Burns, physician to the Imperial Court of Russia
  • and James Burns and his more illustrious brother Sir George Burns, shipowners (the latter being instrumental in the formation of the Cunard Line).
The Burns name was common in Ayrshire but was increasingly to be found around Glasgow by the 19th century.

Ireland.  As in Scotland, the surname Burns only arrived in Ireland in the 17th century.  It could have been brought by Scottish planters.  It was also adopted by some Irish families as an anglicized version of their Gaelic names, in particular by the O'Byrne and MacBrin families in Ulster.  Today Burns is most frequently found in Antrim, Down, and Armagh counties.  Ulster is home to more than two thirds of the Irish who bear the name.   

America.  Burns in America came mainly from Ireland originally, being either Irish or Scots Irish.

However, a number of the early Burns arrivals claimed a connection with the Scottish poet Robert Burns, including:
  • John B. Burns, who was captured during the 1715 Jacobite uprising and transported to Pennsylvania on the Elizabeth and Anne in 1716.  He is thought to have been the son of John Burns, the poet's uncle.
  • Alexander Burns, born in Ayrshire, who came via Ulster to Pennsylvania in the 1760's and settled in Burnsville, a township named after him.  Alexander lived onto the grand old age of 97, dying in 1826.
  • Peter Burness, who arrived in 1771 and settled in Norfolk, Virginia.  He is thought to have been descended from the poet's grandparents in Kincardineshire.  Later Burnes moved to Platte county, Missouri.
  • and a Burns family of Burlington, New Jersey, whose most famous member was John L. Burns, a veteran of the War of 1812 who became a 70 year old civilian combatant at the battle of Gettysberg.  He was wounded in the battle, but survived to become a national celebrity.
Abraham Burns, born in Virginia in 1833, was a Civil War veteran.  His line extended to Dr. Robert Burns, a distinguished professor of zoology at Johns Hopkins University in the 1930ís, and to his grandson Ken Burns, the documentary film maker.

An early Burns from Ireland was Thomas Burns who came to Pennsylvania in the 1770's.  He married Margaret McNeil there and they raised fourteen children.  Daniel Burns and his wife Ann came via Canada to Pennsylvania around 1840; and Edward and Bridget Burns, who were in Pennsylvania by the 1850's, later farmed and raised a family in Iowa.  Michael Burns, escaping the famine, ended up in Chicago.

A Byrns/Burns family from Ulster, escaping the famine, came to Canada and settled in Chichester township, Quebec in the late 1840's.

"On their early marriage records in the 1850's the spelling was Byrns.  This was then crossed out by the priest and written Burns or just written as Byrn, Burn or Burns.  The crown land grants has Byrns and Burns depending on the year of the grant." 

Michael and Bridget Byrne had come to Canada from county Mayo in 1847 and settled in Oshawa, Ontario. Pat Burns, the fourth of their eleven children, headed west as a young man and made a fortune in cattle ranching.  By the time of World War One he had established himself internationally as one of Canada's most successful businessmen.

Australia and New Zealand.
  David Burns, a Scottish writer, was an early visitor to Australia in the 1820's.  He wrote plays based on the colonial conditions of his time.  In 1862 James Burns, the son of a Stirlingshire merchant, came out to Queensland and prospered in the Gympie gold rush.  He used the proceeds to build up a shipping fleet which traded around Australia and to the Pacific islands.  His descendants continued to run the company, Burns Philp and Co, until the 1980's.

Meanwhile, Thomas Burns, a nephew of the poet Robert Burns, was a prominent early settler of Otago, New Zealand.  He had come with a party of Scottish settlers in 1848 and served as a Presbyterian minister to the Scottish community there until his death in 1871.  His son Arthur started the Mosgiel Woollen Company in Dunedin.  Another early Burns settler in Dunedin was Dr. Robert Burns and his wife Elizabeth who arrived there in the 1850's.

Select Burns Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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Robert Burns is Scotland's national poet.
Sir George Burns was a 19th century Scottish shipping magnate.
Tommy Burns from Canada was the world heavyweight boxing champion from 1906 to 1908.  He was born Noah Brusso but adopted Burns as his fight name because all the leading boxers at that time were Irish.
Patrick Burns, born in Canada of Irish roots, built up one of the world's largest meat-packing empires.
George Burns was an American vaudeville star and comedian who lived to be 100.  He was born Nathan Birnbaum to a Jewish family in New York.
Arthur F. Burns, from a Jewish immigrant family, was an American economist who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1970 to 1978

Select Burns Today
  • 48,000 in the UK (most numerous in Glasgow)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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