Select Burns Miscellany

Here are some Burns stories and accounts over the years:

Burnhouse to Burns

The Scottish word "burnhouse" signified a dwelling or croft resting upon the margin of a burn or small stream. Farm homesteads and private dwellings styled burnhouses were common in all the lowland counties, especially in the counties of Fife and Kincardine.  In the parish and other registers of Kincardineshire the surname derived from burnhouse was variously spelt Burnes, Burnas, Burnase, Burnace, and Burness.

Burnhouse was also the name of lands held by Walter Campbell, a minor laird from near Taynuilt in Argyll.  For his part in the Civil Wars of the 17th century he was obliged to remove himself to Kincardineshire on the east coast of Scotland where he took the name of his former lands in order to conceal his identity.  The association of the Burns with the Campbells was undoubtedly through this circumstance - for no large representation of the name can be found in Campbell lands elsewhere.

The family name of the poet Robert Burns in Kincardineshire was originally Burness.  The stress on Burness here was on the first syllable.  As the name was pronounced in Ayrshire as if written Burns, Robert and his brother Gilbert agreed in 1786 to drop the Burness spelling for Burns. 

Reader Feedback - Burns in Perthshire

I have parish baptismal records in Perthshire dated 1708 with the name spelled Burns.  The Burns name was prominent in Perthshire long before the birth of Robbie Burns.  He may have changed his name.  But the Burns name was in existence with this spelling long before that time.

Our Burns line came from Kinclaven in Perthshire and immigrated into Prince Edward Island, Canada.  James Burns was born in 1744 to Andrew Burns, originally from Methven, Perthshire.  He died in 1825 in PEI.  He had immigrated with five of his eight children and there are many lines from this ancestor in Canada and the United States.

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Robert Burns' Parentage and Descendants

Walter Burness (1625-1670) of Glenbervie, Kincardineshire
- James Burness (1656-1743), married Margaret Folconer
- Robert Burness (born around 1700), married Isabella Keith
- William Burness (1721-1784), married Agnes Brown
   (a tenant farmer, he had moved to Ayrshire around 1750)
Robert Burns the poet (1759-1796), born in Alloway, Ayrshire.

Robert Burns lived a relatively brief but colorful life before dying, aged 37, of rheumatic fever, the same day his wife gave birth to a son.

He 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.  All living descendants of Robert Burns and Jean Armour are descended from either their granddaughter Sarah (daughter of their fourth son James) or their granddaughter Anne (illegitimate daughter of their eldest son Robert).

From Robert to Peter Burness

This line started in Kincardineshire with Robert Burness and Isabella Keith, grandparents of the poet Robert Burns.  One of their sons was Campbell Burness who was born in Edinburgh around 1718.  His connections with the political troubles of 1745 brought about the confiscation of his property.  He fled to the mountains of Butlock in Kincardineshire where he died, disappointed and disheartened.  He was buried in the churchyard of Lochlea, near Alloway miill, on the Doon. 

His children were left without means, a charge upon his younger brother William Burness, whose wealth consisted chiefly of a noble and motherly wife whose maiden name was Agnes Brown.  Among the children thus left was Peter Burness, born in Kincardineshire in 1752.  Without education or fortune, Peter left for America in 1771 and settled at or near Norfolk, Virginia.

Burns Farm in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Burns Farm in the North Holderness village of Hornsea is now the Hornsea Museum.  It had been home to the Burns family for almost three hundred years.  The present Burn family believes that its ancestors occupied the house from around 1645 to 1945.

Through the centuries the family pursued many different trades.  Ralph, born in 1688, was a weaver, as was his son.  John, born in 1733, was a sexton; and Martin, son of Michael, born in 1745, was a farmer, butcher, coal agent, dealer in ship-wrecked salvage, and a dealer in sand and gravel.  More recently, Hannah Burn had a confectionary shop that she ran from the passageway.  Her nephew moved in when she died in 1942 but did not settle.  Eventually the house and half the farmyard were sold.

The last residents of the house left in 1975 and the museum was established in 1978.  It is filled with artifacts of daily life from the 19th and 20th centuries.  The rooms are carefully arranged to show how the family lived, worked, and played. 

Burns in America by Place of Origin

England and Scotland

Michael Burns and His Brothers from Limerick

Like many others, Michael Burns fled the great Irish Famine and moved to Canada with two of his brothers, Peter and James.  Peter later returned to Ireland and his descendants still live on the ancestral Burns farm in Shanagolden, Limerick.  James moved to the United States in 1858.  He married while in Canada or the United States, but his wife died of cholera after four years of marriage.  In his old age he lived with his niece Grace Burns Landers. 

Michael had met his first wife, Mary Cagney, in Canada.  Mary's family had moved to Boston, so she and Michael went there to marry around 1860, the year Michael emigrated from Canada to the United States. Michael and Mary, along with several of Mary's relatives, then moved to a farm in Kalamazoo, Michigan. However, Mary died of sunstroke two years later and Michael moved to Chicago where he remarried and became a policeman.

David Burns and The Bushrangers

In 1826, in the British penal colony of Tasmania, a Scottish journalist named David Burns is said to have witnessed the execution by hanging of a convict turned bushranger named Matthew Brady.  Three years later Burns' play The Bushranger, based on the story of Brady and his band of fellow escapees, was staged at the Caledonian Theatre in Burns' native Edinburgh.

The play contained first-hand observation of the convict and settler lives in the Tasmania of the 1820’s and the depiction of real-life figures would have been instantly recognizable to an Australian audience.  The Bushrangers straddled both the romantic world of theatrical fantasy and the harsh realities of a penal settlement with surprising ease, and it is hard to say which predominates, stage traditions or the precision of a journalist’s observation.

Brady, the outlaw-hero of Burns' play, belonged to a long tradition in the theatre.  Against the overwhelming brutality of the penal system Brady’s desperate attempt to escape took on a nobility which preferred death to oppression of the spirit.  The "glorious cause of liberty" became the creed of the little band of escaped convicts and their code of honor, that of chivalrous banditry.

If the Bradys were romantic heroes, the villain was clearly corrupt officialdom, including the whole repressive system by which justice was manipulated to the advantage of wealth and privilege – a long arm of the law that extended all the way from England.
Significantly, the play was not performed in Australia until almost a century and a half later (in 1971 a Sydney high school staged the piece as a colonial curiosity).  Burns did return to Australia more than once and in 1845 he had several of his plays staged in Sydney.  But The Bushrangers was not one of them.

The Rev. Thomas Burns in Otago

Thomas Burns has received an unfavorable press from modern historians.  His stern, humorless puritanism holds out little appeal in a more secular world.  Contemporary English commentators also found him singularly unattractive. 

Yet to the Presbyterian settlers of Otago he appeared quite differently, as the following commentary suggests:

"Having been familiar with the struggles of the farming population in Scotland and feeling that strong sympathy with the workers which found such striking poetical expression in his uncle's verses, Burns had intimated his intention of fixing the hours of work at eight hours a day and the daily remuneration for laborers at 3s 6d. 

Burns, with several orders for and and work in his possession, as the agent of several friends of the movement in Scotland, was destined to be the largest employer of labor in the settlement for some time to come."

He was as well an energetic minister of the Free Church who did everything expected of him.  And his farming skills made him an ideal pioneer.  Grain from his farm at Grant Braes helped keep many migrants alive during the difficult early years of settlement. 

The traits which so infuriated the English settlers and government officials - obstinacy, dourness, narrowness, inflexibility, parochialism - were seen as real strengths by the majority of Otago settlers.  When he died in 1871, his huge funeral procession attested to the fact that these qualities were more appreciated in death than in life.

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