Could you be related to Robert Burns?

With anything between 12 and 18 children mothered by at least four women, there is no doubt that the family tree of poet Robert Burns runs deep and wide.
More than 900 descendants of Robbie Burns have already been established. PIC Contributed.More than 900 descendants of Robbie Burns have already been established. PIC Contributed.
More than 900 descendants of Robbie Burns have already been established. PIC Contributed.

Much genealogical research has been done to establish the descendants of the Bard with more than 900 relatives already established.

Those wanting to trace any blood or marriage link to the poet will be faced with a hugely complex task given the sheer numbers of offspring - with at least eight of his children known to be illegitimate.

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The common occurrence of Burns as a surname and the various spellings used by the poet and his family will also increase the challenge of the search.

But with the abundance of archive material available in Scotland, from Old Parish Records, to Kirk Session accounts, Census records and digitised birth, marriage and death archives which are, uniquely, searchable by a mother’s maiden name, the quest to trace a link to the “heaven-sent ploughman” is well supported.

In addition, with much specialist work on Burns genealogy already completed, sources such as Genealogical Charts of the Family of Robert Burns, published by Burns Federation, prove invaluable for those searching the Bard’s family tree, said Lorna Kinnaird, an Edinburgh-based professional genealogist.

Ms Kinnaird, a member of the Association of Scottish Genealogists and Researchers in Archives, said: “Having a large family like Burns does make it harder to search for a potential link for all sorts of reasons.

“In any one year and in any one parish, there could be two or three people of the same surname who are married.

“There could be two or three births of people with the same name and there is of course a possible that people with the same name also had the same occupation.

“Burns was a very prolific surname in any parish in Scotland and the first names always tended to be Robert, James, William.

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“It is a painstaking process and it is so easy, with numerous common names, to go off on an tangent.”

Ms Kinnaird said the first critical step in a search on Burns would to gather information on changes in spelling of the family surname, and when those variations occurred.

While his father was William Burnes, sometimes referred to as Burness (1721 - 1784). of Glenbervie in old Kincardineshire, his son Robert changed the spelling of his surname to fit in with the local style of Ayrshire, the place of his birth in 1759.

Knowing variations of surnames applies to all the branches of the family tree.

In Burns case, this would apply, amongst many others, to Hutchinson, the married name of the poet’s granddaughter, Sarah Elizabeth, the daughter of Burns’ fourth son James.

Her husband, Berkeley Westropp Hutchinson, was born in Ireland and died in Australia, with the couple, who married in Cheltenham, England, in 1847, having nine children.

The Burns family tree also reaches to India where James married twice and had a total of four children.

Other surnames linked to Robert Burns include Thomson.

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Elizabeth “Betty” Burns (1791-1873), is the daughter of Ann Park, a barmaid at the Globe Tavern in Dumfires, and the poet.

Park married John Thomson in 1808. The couple had eight children with the line offering a whole new cascade of potential links to the Bard.

Burns is known to have acknowledged fatherhood of several of his illegitimate children.

Ms Kinnaird said it was possible that his name may appear in Kirk Session accounts given that expectant unmarried mothers were called before elders to explain their situation and offer the name of the father.

She said another critical tool in searching for a family link to Burns would be a timeline of his whereabouts so that he can be accurately placed on a particular year.

In Scotland, Census returns between 1841 and 1911 were a good source to turn to, Ms Kinnaird said.

Being clear in the movements of people can also direct your search to the correct local family history societies and open up new resources and research particular to that area, such as Old Parish Records which come in various states of survival across Scotland.

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Once these basics are in place, the next move would be to take your own family trees back as far as possible on both sides and then start to look for crossovers with key dates, such as births and marriages, in Burns’ lineage.

“By this stage you are following a paper trail,” Ms Kinnaird said.

Research conducted by genealogist John Burness, of Toronto, Canada, has found that most of Burns’ living descendants are from two illegitimate daughters Elizabeth “Bess” Burns - whose mother was Elizabeth Paton, a servant on the Burns’ family farm at Lochlie - and Elizabeth or Betty Burns, the daughter of Ann Park, the barmaid from Dumfries.

Betty was born on March 31 1791, just a few days before Burns’ wife Jean Armour gave birth to the couple’s sixth child, William.