Agnes Broun

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Agnes Broun
The Burns headstone - - 918274.jpg
Agnes Broun's headstone at Bolton Kirkyard
Born17 March 1732
Whitestone Cottage, Culzean, Scotland
Died14 January 1820
Bolton, East Lothian, Scotland
OccupationWife to William Burness or Burnes

Agnes Broun (or Brown)[1][2][3] (17 March 1732 – 14 January 1820), or Agnes Burnes, was the mother of the poet Robert Burns. Her father, Gilbert (1708–1774), was the tenant of the 300 acre farm of Craigenton, in Kirkoswald parish,[4] South Ayrshire, Scotland.

Life and character[edit]

Agnes Broun was aged just 10 when her mother, Agnes Rainie (1708–1742), died. As the oldest of six siblings Agnes spent the next two years looking after the family. In 1744, after her father had found a new wife, Agnes was sent to live in Maybole with her maternal grandmother, Jean Rainie. This grandmother was a repository of much oral tradition, including Scottish songs and ballads.[5]

Burns' birthplace at Alloway.

Agnes' father Gilbert remarried twice - Margaret Blaine (1718–1751) and Catherine Mott (1747–1820). Agnes had no great liking for her two stepmothers, the latter of whom was several years her junior, and this may explain why Robert Burns had no contact with his maternal grandfather.[6]

Agnes attended a dame school held in a weaver's cottage and learned the psalms by heart, picked up some basic reading skills, but writing was not part of her education and she never even learned to write her own name.[6]

The grave of William Burness or Burnes in Alloway Kirkyard.

Agnes was eventually engaged to one William Nelson, a ploughman, who she worked with,[6] but broke off the engagement after 7 years due, reportedly, to an indiscretion on Nelson’s part. It is thought that she met William Burnes or Burness, eleven years her senior, a market gardener, at the Maybole Fair in 1756. They married on the 3 December 1757 in Ayr, and settled at Alloway, South Ayrshire, living in a clay cottage that William had planned and built himself.[7] Here they were to raise four of their seven children, including her eldest, Robert Burns, born on 25 January 1759.[5] In 1767, about a year after moving to Mount Oliphant, Agnes gave birth to William Burnes (b. 30 July), followed at roughly two year intervals by John (b. 10 July 1769) and Isobel (b. 27 July 1771).[8] Later homes were Lochlea, Mossgiel, and finally Grant's Braes, Bolton, near Haddington in East Lothian where she died.

When Agnes' husband William Burnes died aged 63 in 1784, she went to live with her son, Gilbert, until 1798 at Mossgiel and then at Dinning in Nithsdale for two years, before, in 1800, four years after Robert’s death, they moved to Grant's Braes, East Lothian. She lived until just short of the age of 88, and was buried in the churchyard in Bolton Parish Church, Bolton, East Lothian.[5] She had seven children, three of whom predeceased her. Of her many grandchildren, at least ten died before her, a reflection of her own old age and the much shorter life expectancies of those times.[9]

According to Robert Burns’ sister, Mrs. Begg, she “was rather under the average height; inclined to plumpness, but neat, shapely, and full of energy; having a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, a fine square forehead, pale red hair but dark eyebrows and dark eyes often ablaze with a temper difficult of control. Her disposition was naturally cheerful; her manner, easy and collected; her address, simple and unpresuming; and her judgement uncommonly sound and good. She possessed a fine musical ear, and sang well.”[5]

Mark Twain wrote of her in The Innocents Abroad (Ch. XXXVI): "It reminds me of what Robert Burns’ mother said when they erected a stately monument to his memory: "Ah, Robbie, ye asked them for bread and they hae gi'en ye a stane."

Influence upon Robert Burns[edit]

Robert Burns

She is widely known to have entertained her young “Rabbie” with legends from local oral traditions, and folk songs.[10] The biographer Hecht relates that "her sweet singing was heard as she went about the heavy work of the day, for she had a good voice and a wonderful stock of old and new ballads and songs, such as were current amongst the people. ... In the art of story-telling she had a rival in an old linswoman, Betty Davidson, who was frequently a guest in the little household at Alloway."[11]

Agnes is credited with having a significant influence upon Burns' love for song. A relative, Betty Davidson, was a greater influence, These twin influences resulted in him writing or revising close on three hundred and fifty songs throughout his life. Most of these songs were published, without fee, in the "Scots Musical Museum" compiled by James Johnson and the "Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs" published by George Thomson.[12]

The following bawdy song is said to have been her favourite ballad and also that of her son:[13]

"Kissin is the key o love,
An clappin is the lock,
An makin o's the best thing
That e'er a young thing got."

Memorials and Monuments[edit]

The restored headstone of Agnes' father and grandfather at Kirkoswald.

Agnes was buried together with a son and daughter in Bolton Parish Kirkyard within a railed enclosure. The stone was erected by Gilbert Burns in memory of his children.

The inscription on her gravestone reads:

"ERECTED By GILBERT BURNS, Factor at Grants Braes, In Memory of his Children ISABELLA, who died 3 July 1815, in the 7th year of her age, AGNES, who died 14th Septr 1815, in the 15th year of her age, JANET, who died 30th Octor 1816 in the 18th year of her age; And of his Mother, AGNES BROWN, who died 14 Janry 1820, in the 88th year of her age; whose mortal remains lie all buried here. Also of other two of his Children VIZ. JEAN, who died on the 4th of Jany 1827, in the 20th year of her age. and JOHN, who died on the 26th Feby 1827, in the 25th year of his age. GILBERT BURNS their Father died on the 8th April 1827 in the 67th year of his age. Also buried here, ANABELLA, sister of GILBERT BURNS, who died March 2."

There is a monument to her, called Burns' Mother's Well, near Bolton on the roadside from Haddington, East Lothian.[14]

According to the Scottish Gazetteer Project, the inscription for the well reads: "Drink of the pure crystals and not only be ye succoured but also refreshed in the mind. Agnes Broun, 1732 - 1820. To the mortal and immortal memory and in noble tribute to her, who not only gave a son to Scotland but to the whole world and whose own doctrines he preached to humanity that we might learn."

In 1932, William Baxter FSA (Scot) restored the well. Some 100 yards (91 m) away is the site of one of the Burns’s former homes. [15]


The midwife at the birth of Robert Burns was Agnes McClure, wife of the blacksmith John Tennant, and their next-door neighbour.[16]

She had a major role in cultivating the five acres at Alloway's New Gardens, keeping poultry, growing vegetables and making cheeses using milk from her four or so cattle the family kept.[17]

Agnes's half-sister was Jean Brown (1750–1821) who in 1775 married James Allan and lived at Old Rome Ford near Gatehead, in East Ayrshire. It was at Old Rome that Robert Burns briefly lodged in the summer of 1786 whilst avoiding a writ from James Armour in regards to his relationship with Jean Armour.[18] The Allans were the parents of Burns' first cousin, Captain Alexander Allan, who founded the Allan Shipping Line in 1819.[19]

Samuel Peacock, Burns's partner in the flax-dressing business at Irvine, is said to have been a half-brother of Agnes.[20]

A bed and breakfast called the Whitestone Cottage, on the Culzean estate, Ayrshire, claims to be Agnes Broun's birthplace.

See also[edit]

Monument at the site of Gilbert Burns home, Grant's Brae.


  1. ^ "Family Background". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 25 April 2011.
  2. ^ "ROBERT BURNS 1759 - 1796". The Robert Burns World Federation. Archived from the original on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  3. ^ "Burnes, William (1721 — 84)". The Burns Encyclopedia. Retrieved 26 April 2011.
  4. ^ Burns Encyclopedia Retrieved : 2012-04-05
  5. ^ a b c d Lindsay, Maurice The Burns Encyclopedia; 2nd Edition (London: Hutchinson, 1970)
  6. ^ a b c Mackay, Page 25
  7. ^ Hecht, Page 3
  8. ^ Mackay, Page 41
  9. ^ Agnes Broun Archived 4 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved : 2012-04-05
  10. ^ See, for example, Sampson, Ian, "Enchanted Folklore," Scottish Memories; Nov. 2000 issue.
  11. ^ Hecht, Page 6
  12. ^ Hecht, Page 225
  13. ^ Mackay, Page 31
  14. ^ Overview of Burns' Mother's Well
  15. ^ Scottish Gazetter Project, Dept. of Geography, Edinburgh University (see
  16. ^ Mackay, Page 27
  17. ^ Mackay, Page 30
  18. ^ Mackay, Page 229
  19. ^ Story of the Allan Line (1819-1917)
  20. ^ Mackay, Page 96
  • Hecht, Hans (1936). Robert Burns. The Man and His Work. London : William Hodge.
  • Mackay, James (2004). Burns. A Biography of Robert Burns. Darvel : Alloway Publishing. ISBN 0907526-85-3.