Show Navigation

Burns's Life

Early Life


Robert Burnes was a young gardener from Kincardineshire who lost his job after the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion when his master's land was seized. He married, took the lease of a farm and had a son, William, who was born in 1721. He travelled to Ayrshire where he met his future wife Agnes Brown.


William Burnes rented a 7 ½ acre plot at Alloway, built a two roomed clay and thatch cottage with his own hands , and married Agnes on 15th December, 1757. Their first child was born there on 25th January, 1759. He was christened Robert and his surname was registered as Burns without an e which was the way the name was pronounced in Ayrshire.

Mrs Burnes, who could not read or write, was a good singer and full of folk songs that Robert loved to listen to. Betty Davidson, the widow of a relative, often came to stay at the house. He must have listened spellbound, and the two women must have had a big effect on young Robert.

His father was intellectual, stern and religious and passed his beliefs on to Robert at an early age. His poem, The Cottar's Saturday Night was modelled on evenings at Alloway. William was concerned about Robert's formal education and looked for a suitable teacher. A deal was struck with John Murdoch who was to live at the homes of his five Alloway pupils in turn and was to receive a fixed yearly salary.

The school ran for 2 ½ years and Murdoch, who had a flair for teaching, had a profound effect on Robert.

Murdoch later admitted that he had not spotted Burns's talents but his lessons provided a good literary balance to the fairy stories of Betty Davidson and the folk songs of his mother.

First Verses

It was in the summer of 1773 that, at the age of fourteen, he met his first love, a girl of his own age, Nelly Kirkpatrick, whom he worked alongside at the harvest.

It was to Nelly that he wrote his first verses:

O once I lov'd a bonie lass,
Aye, and I love her still;
And whilst that virtue warms by breast
I'll love my handsome Nell.