John Burns

John Burns (1769–1785) emerges as the youngest sibling of the celebrated poet Robert Burns and the final son born to William Burness and Agnes Broun. On July 12, 1769, John’s birth took place at Mount Oliphant Farm on the Doonholm Estate, near Alloway. His christening, led by Rev. William Dalrymple, occurred around July 21, 1769.

In the family constellation, John’s siblings included Robert Burns (born January 25, 1759), Gilbert (born September 28, 1760), Agnes (born September 30, 1762), William Burnes (born July 30, 1767), Annabella (born November 14, 1764), and Isabella (born July 27, 1771).

Their family journey took them from Mount Oliphant Farm to Lochlea Farm near Alloway in 1777, followed by a move to Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline in 1784 after their father’s passing. At Mossgiel Farm, John assumed the role of a laborer, akin to his brothers. He shared a modest loft room with his elder brother, William. Though he was apprenticed as a weaver, John’s history was marred by periods of illness.

Tragedy struck at the age of sixteen when John passed away on October 28, 1785, at Mossgiel Farm. The exact cause of his death remains unknown. On November 1, 1785, he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Mauchline. A commemorative plaque, erected by the Mauchline Burns Club in 1999, now adorns the church wall. It reads: “Within the walls of this churchyard is interred the body of John Burns Born 1769 - Died 1785. Brother of Robert Burns (poet). Mauchline Burns Club 1999.”

Records from the church describe John’s burial: “John Burns, Mosgiel, Buried on 1st Nov. in second Mort cloth, for which the cost was 5 shillings.” The mention of a second-quality mort-cloth signifies financial struggles faced by the family during that time. A mort-cloth, traditionally black and signifying mourning, would be draped over the coffin or the body when a full coffin couldn’t be afforded.

A report by William Scott Douglas in 1877, citing Isabella Burns’s memories, suggested that John had passed away in 1783 while the family resided at Lochlea. He was said to have been buried at Kirk Alloway, where his father was also interred in 1784. However, official records from Mauchline Kirk indicate that John died in 1785 while at Mossgiel and was indeed buried in the Mauchline parish kirkyard. Given that Isabella would have been around fourteen at the time of John’s passing, the latter records are likely more accurate.

Scant information exists about John, as he is not mentioned in any extant letters penned by Robert Burns. He, like his siblings, received religious instruction at home, guided by their father and assisted by John Murdoch, using the “A Manual of Religious Belief.”

During their time at Mount Oliphant or Lochlea Farm, Robert crafted a story titled “The Marriage of Robin Redbreast and the Wren” for his younger siblings. Isabella Burns remembered this tale and recounted it to Dr. Chambers in 1850/51. The story subsequently appeared in Chamber’s Nursery Rhymes of Scotland.

Interestingly, Burns’s final entry in his First Commonplace Book, made during an unrecorded day in October 1785, coincided with John’s death that same month, possibly even on the same day. The entry read: “Oct: 85 If ever any young man, on the vestibule of the world, chance to throw his eye over these pages, let him pay a warm attention to the following observation; as I assure him they are the fruit of a poor devil’s dear bought Experience; Burns finished with In the first place, let my Pupil, as he tenders his own peace, keep up a regular, warm intercourse with the Deity."

John Burns - Composed by John C Grant ( Traditional composer from Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland.

A guide track for ‘John Burns’ is available below for listening: -

You can download a PDF of the sheet music here - or braille format here.

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Associated Collections: -
3/2 Ayrshire Characters Bagpipe Reel Robert Burns The Tarbolton Collection