Robert Burns was born two miles south of Ayr in Alloway on the 25 January 1759 .
The eldest of the seven children of William Burness (1721-1784), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, and Agnes Broun (1732-1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire. He was born in the cottage built by his father William Burness, the Cottage at Murdoch’s Lone Ayr.
THE ROBERT BURNS BIRTHPLACE MUSEUM
Built for £21m by the National Trust for Scotland and funded largely by the Scottish government and Heritage Lottery fund, it houses around 5,000 Burns artefacts, manuscripts and pieces of memorabilia – a cast of his skull, his desk and writing equipment, the family bible, and some 500 manuscripts, this is a must for all Burnsians and is a fantastic day out for the whole family, see
the cottage, view the enormous collections at the Museum, stroll across the Brig O’ Doon, gaze at the Monument towering over the site. Discover the passionate and God-fearing man behind the womaniser that was to become Scotland’s National Bard.
When Robert Burness was was seven years old in 1766 William Burness sold the cottage they lived in and took a tenancy on the 70-acre Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Without regular schooling much of Roberts education came from his father, who taught all his children reading, writing, arithmetic and geography. Robert and his brother Gilbert were also taught by John Murdoch; Latin, French, and mathematics from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. Robert was then sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to work on the farm. Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the hard labour of the farm left him with a premature stoop and a weakened constitution. By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he met Nelly Kilpatrick (1759-1820)who inspired his first attempt at poetry, Handsome Nell.
‘O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass’.
In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thomson (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs.
Now Westlin’ Winds and I Dream’d I Lay.
In 1777 William Burness uprooted his family one last time to the 130 acre farm ‘Lochlea’ in Tarbolton, where the family remained until William’s death in 1784. After which the family became integrated into the community of Tarbolton. In 1779 to his father’s disapproval, Robert joined a country dancing school and in the following year he and Gilbert formed the Tarbolton Bachelor’s Club. Apart from the obvious qualification for becoming a member they were required to be honest, frank, open hearted and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex. In 1781 Robert Burness became a Freemason, initiated on 4 July in Lodge No. 174, St David’s.
His earliest existing letters date from this time, when he began a relationship with Alison Begbie (b. 1762). In spite of four songs written for her and a suggestion that he was willing to marry her, she rejected him. In December 1781, Burns moved temporarily to Irvine to learn to become a flax-dresser, but during the New Year celebrations of 1781/1782, the flax shop was badly damaged by fire and so Robert was susequently sent home. He continued to write poems and songs while his father fought a legal dispute with his landlord. The case went to the Court of Session, and Burness was upheld in January 1784, a fortnight later William Burness died.
Following his fathers death Robert changed the spelling of his surname from Burness to Burns.
Robert and Gilbert struggled to keep Lochlea farm going, but after its failure they moved to ‘Mossgiel farm’ in Mauchline in March of 1784, During the summer of that year he met a group of girls known as ‘The Belles of Mauchline’, one of whom was to become Robert’s wife, one of the eleven children of James Armour, a master mason of Mauchline.
“O Jeanie fair, I lo’e thee dear;
O canst thou think to fancy me,
Or wilt thou leave thy mammie’s cot,
And learn to tent the farms wi’ me?
“At barn or byre thou shalt na drudge,
Or naething else to trouble thee;
But stray amang the heather-bells,
And tent the waving corn wi’ me.”
Now what could artless Jeanie do?
She had nae will to say him na:
At length she blush’d a sweet consent,
And love was aye between them twa.
1785 was an eventful year for Robert , for although he had just met his future wife, he became father to his first illegitimate child, Elizabeth Paton Burns (1785-1817) who was born to his mother’s servant, Elizabeth Paton (1760- 1799) as he was embarking on a relationship with Jean Armour who subsequently became pregnant and bore him twins in September 1786. Robert and Jean the first of nine children in total, but only three survived infancy.
Not long after on 12th June 1786 he confessed to his friend David Brice that he had been guilty of ‘dissipation and riot… and other mischief’ ‘ and may very well have compromised himself with ‘Highland’ Mary Campbell, to the extent that she might also be carrying his child. However Mary’s brother Robert had developed typhus and while nursing him Mary caught the disease too and died of fever on 20th or 21st October 1786. Mary Campbell (1763-1786), to whom he dedicated the following poems
The Highland Lassie O, Highland Mary and To Mary in Heaven.