Robert Burns was descended from the Burness family of Kincardineshire, where his ancestors were tenant farmers. His father William moved to Ayrshire in 1750, where Robert was born in 1759. Robert signed his name Robert Burness until March 1786, when he adopted the spelling Burns, which was a common name in Ayrshire. The surnames Burn, Burns, Burnes, and Burness all derive from the word burn, which means a small stream, and originated with an ancestor who lived beside a burn. As there are thousands of burns in Scotland and England, there are many unrelated families named Burns.

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 grandaughter Sarah Elizabeth Maitland Tombs Burns (1821-1909), daughter of their fourth son James Glencairn Burns (1794-1865), or their grandaughter 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.

Table of Contents

Robert Burns
Details of his family and children.
Descendants of Robert Burns
Family tree of Robert Burns with over 600 descendants, including those of his three illegitimate children.
Paternal Ancestors of Robert Burns
Walter Burness ( ? - 1670)
James Burness (1656-1743)
Robert Burness (c1686 - ? )
William Burness (1721-1784)
Burness One-Name Study
Research on the Burness surname worldwide including family trees of over thirty branches.

Paternal Ancestors of Robert Burns


Walter Burness, great-great-grandfather of Robert Burns

Walter Burness was tenant of the farm of Bogjorgan in parish of Glenbervie, Kincardinehire. He died there in November 1670. Since surviving Glenbervie parish records begin in 1721, and no gravestone remains, the only documented information is his will.

See Walter Burness for details of his family.

Chart of family tree: Descendants of Walter Burness (This tree gives the first four generations to Walter's great-great grandchildren, including the poet, Robert Burns)

James Burness, great-grandfather of Robert Burns

James Burness, son of Walter, was born circa 1656. He was tenant of the farm of Brawlinmuir in Glenbervie. He died there on 23 January 1743 and is buried in Glenbervie where his gravestone is now preserved and protected by a special canopy. By his wife Margaret Falconer he had five sons and one or two daughters. His will dated 14 June 1740 left 100 merks to each of his sons: Robert in Clochnahill, William in Brawlinmuir, James in Hawkhill, and George in Elfhill. His fifth son Thomas had died in 1734. The fact that all four of his sons were tenants of their own farms indicates that the Burness family were successful farmers at this time.

See James Burness for details of his family.

Robert Burness, grandfather of Robert Burns

Robert Burness was eldest son of James. His exact date of birth and death are unknown since Glenbervie parish records started in 1721 and no gravestone has survived. By his wife Isabella Keith he had four sons and four daughters. Robert was originally tenant of the farm of Upper Kinmonth in Glenbervie. Around 1724 he became tenant of Clochnahill in the neighbouring parish of Dunnottar. In May 1745 he took a seven-year lease of the smaller farm of Falside in the parish of Kinneff, but financial difficulties forced him to give up farming in September 1747. He likely retired to a cottage at Denside with three unmarried daughters.

See Robert Burness for details of his family.

Chart of family tree: Descendants of James Burness (James was the eldest son of Robert Burness and Isabella Keith)

Chart of family tree: Descendants of Robert Burness (Robert was the second son of Robert Burness and Isabella Keith)

Chart of family tree: Descendants of Elspet Burness (Elspet was the daughter of Robert Burness and Isabella Keith)

William Burness, father of Robert Burns

William Burness was born 11 November 1721 in Glenbervie, shortly before his father moved to Clochnahill in Dunnottar. Since financial difficulties had forced his father to give up farming in fall of 1747, William and his elder brother Robert left Kincardineshire in 1748 to seek work elsewhere. William went initially to Edinburgh where he worked for two years landscaping the gardens now known as the Meadows. In 1750 he moved to Ayrshire where for two years he worked as gardener to the laird of Fairlie in Dundonald. From 1752 to 1754 he worked as a gardener near Maybole. In 1754 he became gardener to John Crawford at Doonside near the hamlet of Alloway. In 1786 he became head gardener to William Ferguson at nearby Doonholm. At the same time William had ambitions to become a market gardener, so he leased seven acres of land at Alloway. Here he laid out a market garden and built his own cottage, which was later the birthplace of his son Robert Burns. On 15 December 1757 he married Agnes Brown, and they had four sons and three daughters. In 1765 he decided to become a tenant farmer and took a twelve-year lease of Mount Oliphant, a ninety-acre farm about two miles from Alloway. The family moved there in May 1766. When the lease at Mount Oliphant expired in 1777, William obtained a seven-year lease of the farm of Lochlea in the parish of Tarbolton. By 1782 disputes arose with his landlord over payment of rent and other debts. It was not a simple matter of William not being able to pay his rent since there was dispute over how much rent was due and whether the landlord had made the improvements agreed to. Eventually the courts decided in William's favour on 27 January 1784, but he died soon after on 13 February 1784.

See William Burness for details of his family.

Chart of family tree: Descendants of Gilbert Burns (Gilbert was the younger brother of Robert Burns)

Chart of family tree: Descendants of Isabella Burness (Isabella was the sister of Robert Burns)