BURNS, ROBERT (1759–1796), poet, was the son of William Burness, or Burnes. The poet adopted the spelling Burns on publishing his first volume in 1786. The Burnes had long been farmers in Kincardineshire. Robert Burnes held the farm of Clockenhill, on Dunnottar, the estate of the Earl Marischal attainted for his share in the rebellion of 1715. The poet always believed that his own ancestors had suffered in the same cause (Chambers, Life and Works of Burns, 1851, i. 336). Robert Burnes had three sons; the eldest, James, settled in Montrose, and became the father of a second James, writer, and grandfather of a third James, provost of Montrose, and father of Sir Alexander Burnes [q. v.]; Robert, second son of Robert of Clockenhill, was a gardener in England, and died in the house of his nephew, the poet, in 1789; William, third son of Robert, born 11 Nov. 1721, went to Edinburgh in search of work, and thence to Ayrshire, where he leased seven acres of land in Alloway, near the bridge at Doon, for a nursery garden. Here he built a clay cottage with his own hands. On 15 Dec. 1757 he married Agnes, daughter of Gilbert Brown, a Carrick farmer (b. 17 March 1732). Robert, eldest of seven children, was born at Alloway on 25 Jan. 1759. In his sixth year he was sent to a small school at Alloway Mill. Soon afterwards William Burnes, in conjunction with four neighbours, engaged John Murdoch to set up a small school, which Robert attended with his younger brother Gilbert. In 1766 William Burnes took a poor farm at Mount Oliphant, two miles off. The boys' attendance became irregular, and Murdoch gave up the school after two years and a half. The children were then chiefly taught by their father. In 1772 Robert attended the parish school at Dalrymple to improve his writing; the next summer he spent three weeks with Murdoch, who had been appointed in 1772 to teach the English school at Ayr. Murdoch gave Burns one week's training in English and two in French. Burns had to return home at harvest-time. He threshed corn at thirteen, and at fifteen was his father's chief labourer. An old woman named Betty Davidson had filled his infant mind with popular legends; at a later period he managed to pick up some reading. Murdoch lent him a life of Hannibal (his first book except school-books); Burns afterwards borrowed a life of Wallace; his father borrowed or bought some educational and theological works: Salmon's ‘Geographical Grammar,’ the works of Ray and Derham, Stackhouse's ‘History of the Bible,’ the ‘Boyle Lectures,’ Taylor's ‘Original Sin,’ Hervey's ‘Meditations,’ and Locke's ‘Essay.’ A collection of eighteenth-century letters inspired him with a desire to improve his style. He read the ‘Spectator’ and Pope's ‘Homer,’ parts of Smollett, Allan Ramsay, R. Fergusson's poems, then coming out in Ruddiman's ‘Weekly Magazine’ (Heron, p. 9), and the songs sold by pedlars. He picked up French quickly, read ‘Télémaque,’ and tried Latin, though with little success. His talents attracted the attention of the neighbours, and his father prophesied that he would do something extraordinary (Chambers, i. 29). His first poem, ‘Handsome Nell,’ addressed, it is said, to Nelly Kilpatrick (ib. 30), a fellow-labourer in the fields, was composed in his seventeenth autumn (1775).
Mount Oliphant proved a hard bargain, and at Whitsuntide 1777 William Burnes took a farm of 130 acres at Lochlea, Tarbolton. Burns was sent the same summer to live with an uncle, Samuel Brown, at Ballochneil, and study surveying under Hugh Rodger, schoolmaster at the neighbouring village of Kirkoswald. Burns here made acquaintance with some jovial smugglers, learnt to ‘fill his glass,’ and fell in love with ‘a charming fillete.’ He scribbled verses, engaged in country sports, argued vigorously with schoolfellows, and defeated Rodger in a debate rashly provoked by the teacher. He returned with some of his rusticity rubbed off, and afterwards took to reading Thomson and Shenstone, ‘Tristram Shandy,’ the ‘Man of Feeling,’ and ‘Ossian’ (letter to Murdoch, 15 Jan. 1783). He wrote ‘Winter,’ the ‘Death of poor Mailie,’ ‘John Barleycorn,’ and other songs, while still at Lochlea. In 1780 he joined in forming a ‘Bachelors' club’ at Tarbolton, which held debates on such topics as the rival merits of love and friendship, and was succeeded by a similar society at Mauchline. About this time he fell in love with Ellison Begbie, daughter of a farmer, who has been identified with his Mary Morison (Chambers, ii. 217), and wrote her some rather formal love-letters. She rejected him apparently on the eve of his departure for Irvine. He went thither to enter a flax-dressing business with a relation of his mother's at midsummer 1781. Here he began his friendship with Richard Brown, a sailor whose approval encouraged him to ‘endeavour’ at the character of ‘poet’ (letter to Brown, 30 Dec. 1787), but who also led him into vice. On 1 Jan. 1782 he was at a New Year carouse, when the shop took fire and was burnt to ashes, ruining his prospects of business. He returned to Lochlea, and lived frugally and temperately. He began a commonplace book