​THE ANCESTORS OF ROBERT BURNS


It has often been said of Robert Burns that he was a “Ploughman Poet” as if his poetic genius was in some way the natural follow-on to his having worked as a farmer and had some experience as a ploughman. I would venture to say that if this concept were true, then all the agricultural nations and Scotland in particular, would have a host of poets and song-writers of the stature of Burns. To assume the position that he was purely a son of the soil with no cultural background is in my opinion an intolerable conception, and I believe that to appreciate the genius of Burns we must know something of his ancestry to understand his prowess and his very complex character, we must know about the hereditary forces that helped to mould him.  Robert Burns was and I am sure that you will agree a man of unusually complex character and this is reflected in his poems and exquisite songs. If his background had been entirely that of the bothy then it would have been extremely difficult to account not only for his genius but also for his evident good breeding and for his imperious personality. It is significant that his ancestry unites three very different strains. First the stock of substantial farmers long established in the Glenbervie area of Kincardineshire. Second The Noble Keith’s of Craig and the aristocratic Falconers of Hawkerton and thirdly the more modestly placed but well respected covenanting Brouns of Kirkoswald one of whom was the poets Mother. There have been few of the biographers of Robert Burns who have studied his linage, most of them being content to praise or criticise him or his works and while history may be a rather dry subject I believe that in order to account for the intellectual  excellence of Burns it is necessary to know something about his antecedents. Taking the Burnes family first we find that the name most likely derived from the lands Burnes or Burnhouse of Kair in the county of Kincardineshire it was common in days gone by for families to be named according to their trades or at times after the places where they lived, and it was also the custom that the eldest son inherited his father’s estate, so that in the case of a younger brother it was necessary if he wished to have his own estate to form another branch of the family elsewhere . The Poets own branch is that of Burnes of Inchbreck near Burnhouse of Kair in the Parish of Glenbervie. As early as 1547 there is written record of persons named Burnes owning the land of Inchbreck and also that their descendants continue to occupy them. In close communities such as these it was common practice to have inter-marriage and inter-relationships. The early history of the Burnes family was concentrated in the Glenbervie area and one instance will be enough to show how their influence spread. James Burnes was the younger son of Walter of Borjargan in the Glenbervie area and had an elder brother who continued in the senior line at Borjargan. James established a fresh line at Brawlinmuir in Glenbervie where he was succeeded by his own Eldest son. Here we see a well founded group extending its influence and sometimes inter-marrying as when in a later generation John Burnes of Borjargan married Jean Burnes of Brawlinmuir. The name Robert was long a family name and in Arbuthnot on the Bervie water the Parish register has this interesting entry “at the Kirk of Arbuthnot on 27th of August 1670 Robert Burnes one child to be named Robert” The Walter Burnes of Barjargan in Glenbervie who died in 1670 is stated by the Scots Ancestry Society to have had four sons John, William, James and Robert. Of these sons the first named became Colonel John Burnes and is mentioned in an act of Parliament of 1690 as rescinding “ Forefaultures and fines “since the year 1645. Students of history will remember that in 1645 Charles the first was still on the throne –but the Commonwealth was only four years ahead and loyalty to the Stewarts would lead to “Forefaultures and fines”. If this Colonel was granted his commission at the age of twenty, he would be sixty-five in 1690 and he would be anxious to clear his name and have all his liabilities cleared. For his name to appear in an act of Parliament suggests that he had influence in high quarters. He does not appear to have left any descendants but his brothers did and the next in seniority was William Burnes of Barjargan. His tomb can be seen in the churchyard of Glenbervies . This William Burnes married Christina Fotheringham of Powrie in Angus, who bore him two sons. This Borjargan line of the family continued for many generations and one of its representatives, John Burnes, met the Poet and took an active part in the arrangements for the Bards funeral at Dumfries. Next we come to the third son of this line namely James Burnes of Brawlinmuir whose tomb may also be seen at Glenbervie. His wife Margaret Falconer lived to the remarkable age of ninety, and James himself eighty seven years. The Falconers were an old and noble line having held the office of Royal Falconer from the time of William the lion, about the close of twelfth century. The family held extensive lands in Kincardineshire, and as their owner had charge of the Kings hawks their estate became known as Hawkerton. Sir Alexander Falconer of Hawkerton was a zealous adherent of Charles the First and was raised by him to a senator of the college of justice and later raised to the peerage. At a later time the family was represented by the Keith- Falconers Earls of Kintyre. To be able to choose a bride with such powerful connections shows the standing of James Burnes, and according to written history he was a sagacious and shrewd man. He and Margaret Falconer had a number of children of whom the middle son was Robert the Grandfather of the poet. The marriage of this Robert is of exceptional interest, he married Isabella Keith of Craig a cadet line of the Keith’s of Dunnottar Earl Marischals of Scotland, which corresponds to the Dukes of Norfolk in England. As I have already pointed out there was a great deal of inter-marriage between the Keith’s and the Falconers so that as Roberts Mother was a Falconer, his wife Isabella Keith may also have been his cousin. We will follow the Keith’s of Craig, Robert Burnes the Grandfather of the Poet-was the younger son of a younger son. The farms at Barjargan and Brawlinmuir were in due course carried on by the eldest sons, and so there was no provision made for Robert. His status and financial problems were solved by his marriage to Isabella Keith of Craig representing social advancement and settlement in life. The Parish of Glenbervie  is bounded by Dunnottar in the East and here the Earl Marischal Keith lived in some lavish state it is said that Robert Burnes had some post at Dunnottar Castle and later took the farm of Clockenhill in Dunnottar which was also in the estate of the Earl Marischal  and doubtless leased from him. For Robert Burns and Isabella Keith the future would have been secure except for the hazards associated with the dynastic struggles of these turbulent times. The Earl Marischal as a  great officer of state stood too high to escape vengeance and when he suffered attainder for high treason it was disastrous----not only for him but also for the Burnes family, who were allied to him. The position of the Keith’s was without parallel in Scotland they had served the crown from the beginning of the eleventh century and for acts of bravery in war against the Danes, a Keith ancestor was rewarded  by Malcolm the second who gave him extensive estates, including the Barony of Keith in East Lothian. King Malcolm also created him a Knight and made him great Marischal of Scotland. I know that to follow all the various families connected with our Bard is very difficult but to show the bloodline of Robert Burns a few examples will suffice. In May 1531 Sir William Keith “Marischal of Scotland” married Margaret the Grand daughter of Mary the sister of King Robert the First, known as The Bruce. The eldest son of this union John de Keith married a daughter of King Robert the Second, the first of the Stewart rulers. In this way at least two strands of Royal decent are introduced into the make up of the Bard. The fifth earl in 1539 founded Marischal College in the University of Aberdeen and in February 1651 King Charles the Second was entertained at Dunnotter Castle after his coronation at Scone. This close association went on between the family and the crown until in 1705 we find the Earl  Marischal being made a Knight of the Thistle by King James the Third and Eighth (The Old Pretender). It was the tenth Earl Marischal (1693 / 1778) upon whom disaster was to fall to bring ruin to him and to his kinsman Robert Burnes, the Grandfather of the Bard. The Earl succeeded to the title at the age of nineteen and was engaged in the Jacobite rising of 1715 when he was twenty two. With his Stewart blood he took a leading part in the rebellion and when it was crushed the revenge was ferocious. He was attainted and all his dignities forfeited and in 1717 his was stripped of his Earldom. The office of Earl Marischal was abolished and all his lands were confiscated. He fled to the continent and in 1717 Dunnottar Castle was torn down. The bard told his friend Ramsay of Ochertyre the his parental grandfather had been plundered and driven out in 1715 These are some of the links connecting Robert Burns with the nobility of Scotland. The third strain of the blood line of the Bard comes from his mother Agnes Broun who came from Covenanting stock from Kirkoswald in Carrick, Ayrshire. The family of Broun (judging by the tombstones) were of some consequence in the area. The poet told Ramsay that his maternal great grand father John Broun was wounded at Aird’s Moss during a skirmish between Dragoons and covenanters. According to many Agnes Broun could not read or write but was an excellent housewife and mother. She had a good singing voice that the bard heard many times when she sang the songs of Scotand from an enormous repertoire held in her mind. She also told her children of the superstitions of Scotland which in latter years were of great benefit to the Bard.