The Montrose Cousins of Robert Burns

The Burnes/Burness Family

By Iain D. McIntosh

Past Master – Lodge Broughty Castle No. 486
Past Substitute Provincial Grand Master – Forfarshire
Grand Steward - Grand Lodge of Scotland

This research project started through a sequence of unconnected pieces of information I had collected some years back when I was undertaking research into two current projects of the time, one was documenting and writing the early history of the Province of Forfarshire and the other was understanding the relationship that 18th century Freemasonry had with the Jacobites in the East of Scotland during the 1745 uprising.

For the early history of the Province of Forfarshire, I had come across the name of James Burnes, Master of St. Peter’s Lodge, Montrose recorded in the earliest minute book of the Provincial Grand Lodge, as being the first Provincial Grand Secretary, and mentioned alongside his name – that ‘he was a cousin of the poet’.

To carry this research further into the background of this man, I obtained a loan of the earliest minute books of Lodge St. Peter No. 120 in Montrose (Chartered in 1765) and whilst searching through the earliest minute book I came across various references to other members of the ‘Burnes’ family, and their membership of St Peter’s Lodge, along with that of Robert Burns’s cousin – James Burnes himself.

The story of the Glenbervie/Montrose family of Burns is an interesting and intriguing one – a part of the Robert Burns story which is not so well known or even realised. The earliest beginnings of his fathers’ side of the family, the Burnes/Burness branch was in the farming area of the ‘Mearns’ area of North East Scotland, just inland from Dunnotter, beginning around the Glenbervie region as farmers, their subsequent lives in the town of Montrose and then out to India in the days of the British Empire.

This story brings to life the uncles, aunts, and cousins of Robert Burns, and subsequent generations from the 17th Century down to the middle of the 19th century and the tragic end of two of the Burnes brothers, killed in ‘Kabool’, Afghanistan in 1841, the beginning of the first Anglo/Afghan War. A time when the British were beginning to take an interest in, and trying to incorporate Afghanistan into the British Indian Empire, and of course encountering the warlike Afghans. Nearly 170 years later – has anything changed?

The Mearns – home to the Burnes family.

Robert Burns was born on the 25th day of January in the year 1759. His original birth name was, as most Burns historians will know was ROBERT BURNESS, the surname of his father William. Robert changed this spelling of his surname in 1786 and there is evidence of that fact in the minute books of Lodge St James in Tarbolton when his brother Gilbert joined the Lodge in March of that year and both he and Robert signed with the surname of Burns.

As Burns historians will already know, his father, William Burness was not a native of Ayrshire, he was born on the other side of Scotland in the parish of Dunnotter not far from Stonehaven, in that part of Scotland known locally as the MEARNS, and today it is within the administrative county of Aberdeenshire.

The rich beautiful farm lands of the Mearns where William was born is now more famous for its connections with another, more recent 20th century writer, that of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, creator of such works as Sunset Song, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite (A Scots Quair) written in the rich, broad Doric language of the area. However, in previous centuries this was the home of the extended ‘Burnes’ Family. They were farming folk living mainly around the GLENBERVIE region. The name Burnes appears in 1547 when “the lands were rented by persons named Burnes,” Glenbervie

The family line can be traced back to Walter Burnes born at Bogjordan farm in 1615 his oldest son was William Burnes who died circa 1715. William married Christian Fotheringham (year of marriage unknown). Their youngest son was James Burnes, (born circa 1656 and died 23rd Jan 1743), he married Margaret Falconer (born 1659 died, 28th December 1749) they became tenants of a farm at Brawlinmuir, for this farm James Burnes paid an annual rent equal to £300 sterling. According to tradition, he was a person of great shrewdness. He lived during a period when Highland freebooters made frequent incursions into Kincardineshire for cattle and other plunder. On one occasion, when these “Caterans”, as they were called, were operating in his neighbourhood, he adopted the precaution of concealing his money in the nave of an old cart wheel which lay in a hole in front of his house. The aperture being plugged up, the robbers entered and left the house without suspecting the existence of the treasure they were treading upon.

James and Margaret were Robert Burns’s Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother both are now buried in the beautiful and tranquil setting of the old graveyard in Glenbervie, alongside other members of the Burnes family.

Burnes Alcove


Also buried in the grave is Thomas Burnes, son of the above, who departed this life June ye 8th, 1734, aged 29 years. Also his lawful and only daughter Margaret who departed this life March ye 24th, 1741, aged 8 years

James Burnes and Margaret Falconer had 10 children, the oldest son, William took over the running of the farm at Brawlinmuir, James another son, rented Hawkill farm, and Robert the Grandfather of the poet rented the farm of Clochnahill, all these farms were in close proximity to each other in the Glenbervie district, and formerly part of the extensive estates of the Family of Keith, the Earl Marischals of Scotland. In 1715 the Earl was attainted for his support of the Royal House of Stuart during the Jacobite uprising of that year and their lands were seized by the Crown.

Robert Burnes (years of birth and death unknown) married Isobel Keith of Criggie in 1715 and they had 4 sons and 6 daughters. Their children were James (1717-1761), Robert (1719-1789), William (11th Nov.1721 – father of the future Robert Burns), Margaret (1723-?), Elspet (1725-?), Jean (1727-?), George (1729-?), Isobel (1730-?) and Mary (1732-?).

At first they rented the farm of Kinmonth in Glenbervie but later moved to the larger farm of Clochnahill. During their tenancy of that farm and with the help of neighbouring farmers, a school was built in the local village and a teacher supported.

Robert and his sons Robert junior and William (future father to the poet), found the farm very hard going encountering some very poor harvests, especially the winter and Spring of 1740-41 which was particularly terrible with late frosts continuing into late April, this prevented the seed from being sown until late May and even then the rough and unseasonable weather which followed, stunted the crop so bad that it was almost useless.

Memorial Cairn
Memorial Cairn
Memorial Cairn overlooking Clochnahill Farm
Memorial Cairn overlooking Clochnahill Farm


They were faced with financial ruin and Robert senior finally gave up the farm sometime after 1740 and retired to a cottage in Denside to live with his three unmarried daughters. Around the same time his sons William (father of Robert Burns) and younger brother Robert left the area to seek other employment. Both journeyed south, William first to Edinburgh to work as a Market Gardener and then to Ayrshire to settle and raise a family the oldest of his sons becoming Scotland’s National Poet, ROBERT BURNS. As to when William adopted the double ‘ss’ spelling of his name is uncertain (from Burnes to Burness).

William’s older brother Robert moved down into England to become a gardener, but later in life he returned to live in Scotland, settled in Ayrshire dying in 1789.

However to return to the siblings of William and Robert who remained in the Mearns area, to JAMES the oldest brother (1717-1761) and to sister ELSPET (date of baptism 18th Aug 1725, year of death unknown) and to the story of the MONTROSE family of Robert Burns. As there are so many James Burnes I have numbered them through the generations to help the reader with the family connections. (Next Page)

Chevalier James Burnes

Sir Alexander Burnes (from Newspaper 1865)

Sir Alexander Burnes 1

Adam Burnes

Mohan Lal

Lodge Rising Star, India


© by Iain D. McIntosh, 2014

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