Obelisk commemorating Robert and John Burnes at Stewarton
Clochnahill Farm, Kincardineshire, Scotland
3 January 1789|
|Occupation||Quarryman, Gardener, Land Steward and Teacher|
Robert Burnes or Robert Burness (1719-1789) was an uncle of the poet Robert Burns on his father's side, who left the family farm of Clochnahill or Clokenhill in Kincardineshire with his younger brother William Burnes. He found work at the Lochridge or Lochrig limestone quarries and lime kilns that lay near Byrehill Farm near Stewarton. He may have been a gardener later a teacher and then a land steward on the nearby Robertland Estate. Robert Burns referred to his relation as Poor Uncle Robert.
Life and background
Robert is said to have gone to England or Southern Scotland at first, working for some time as a gardener, having supposedly parted from his brother on the summit of Garvock Tap. He then lived for several years, arriving around 1748, in a cot house at Titwood Farm in Dreghorn Parish, where he worked in the summer months as a quarryman and possibly being apprenticed at some point as a stonemason. His brother William recorded in a letter dated 1781 that his brother lived in Stewarton and that the circumstances were "rather indifferent". Robert attended his brother William's funeral in 1784.
Robert had severe rheumatism or arthritis that prevented him from doing hard physical work in the cold winter months and to maintain himself and his family he opened a school in his home for the sons of local farmers. When his condition became too painful and debilitating he moved to a house or to the Buck's Head Inn located at the Buck's Head Close just off the main street in Stewarton and later he moved to another house in the town, the location of which has been forgotten, however Caldhame Farm on the Robertland Estate was the home of Robert Burnes and his wife Agnes Craig whilst he was a land steward between 1774 and 1784.
The Caldhame Letters
Sir James Hunter Blair of Blairquhan uncovered six letters in his family's archive written between 1776 and 1779 by a Robert Burnes to the first baronet from Caldhame near Stewarton; a seventh letter was discovered recently by the Blairquhan Castle archivist. This individual was a land steward at the Robertland estate. William Logan, the Robertland Estate Factor living at Kilmaurs House or Place had employed a Robert Burnes and wrote a series of letters from May 1774 to 1784 to his employer that sometimes refer to Robert Burnes.
This Robert had knowledge of liming crops, caring for cattle, and drainage work. Deputising for the absentee Factor he collected rents and wrote to the laird. The chances of two adults with the same name, approximate age, knowledge of liming, both married, well educated, etc. and living in the same area seems very unlikely. Another 'Burns' family did live in the district at the time farming at Little Lochridge and Auchenharvie, consistently using the spelling without the 'e'.
The Stewarton Parish Register of Births, Deaths and marriages records that Robert Burns had a son that he named Robert, registered on 29 January 1778, the mother being given as Robert's wife Agnes Craig and the residence is given as 'Caldhame'. A duplicate copy of the register confirms these details and gives the spelling 'Burnes'. This confirms that Robert became the Robertland Estate land steward as related by the 'Caldhame Letters', working under the Factor, William Logan, first of Kilmaurs House and later Thornton House.
On the 3rd January 1789 Robert died whilst he was at Ellisland Farm. Robert was a popular and much respected figure in the area and he is buried in a prime location in Stewarton's Laigh Kirk cemetery where in 1910 the Stewarton Literary Society erected a memorial obelisk made of Ballochmyle red sandstone to him and to his eldest son John who had died on 17 February 1846 and is buried next to him. On the day of the unveiling the Stewarton Burgh Band marched through the streets and Andrew Kerr, President of the Stewarton Literary Society hosted the proceedings. The whole project had originally begun following a talk delivered by Duncan McNaught of Kilmaurs and the honour was given to him to unveil the memorial.
Robert and his wife Helen (d. 13 August 1803) are said by some source to have had three children of whom John (b. 1767, d. 20 February 1846) was the oldest son, followed by William and a daughter Fanny (Frances) (b. circa 1771). The Stewarton parish records however list a Robert Burns who was married to Agnes Craig and on 29 January 1778 when he was 47 and she was 27. The couple are recorded to have had a son named Robert.Few details have been uncovered regarding young Robert other than a record for his death and burial at St Columba's on 4 August 1845.
Fanny moved to Ellisland Farm when her father died and married at Mauchline on 5 June 1792. Fanny's husband was Adam Armour, a builder, brother of Jean Armour, thereby Fanny became Jean's sister-in-law as well as her niece. Adam Armour was immortalised in the poem "Adam Armour's Prayer" and the couple had five sons and four daughters. Adam was an adherent of the 'Auld Licht' persuasion and as such was in direct opposition to Robert Burns whose poem relates an incident regarding an Agnes Wilson, a maid at Poosy Nancy's, who was thought to be a prostitute. Adam Armour and a group of associates placed her on a pole and rode her out of town, injuring her private parts in the process. George Gibson, the landlord, attempted to take legal action and Adam hid until things quietened down. Burns records in the poem that she would have been hung had she been caught acting again as a prostitute.
John Burnes, is known to have helped guard the Stewarton Laigh Church graveyard against the activities of body snatchers or resurrectionists, although it is not known if this was as a volunteer or in paid capacity. For the last sixteen years or so of his life he lived at the house of James Colquhoun in Stewarton. John may have worked as a farm labourer or as a weaver however in his final years he was a recipient of poor relief from the Stewarton parish, dying on the 17 February 1846 and being buried next to his father.
William was intended to become a mason or building worker, working with James Armour, Robert Burns' father-in-law. He married Ann Newlands, fathering several children and dying in 1850 at an advanced age. Another source states that William never married and lived to an advanced age, dying in 1850. He had worked as a builder.
Association with Robert Burns
Robert Burns used to visit his uncle in Stewarton at the Buck's Head Inn, one of the oldest buildings in the town, as he was sometimes in the area on his journeys to visit Frances Dunlop at Dunlop House nearby; he also visited nearby Robertland House. He is also said to have stayed at the inn.
When Robert Burnes died his nephew did what he could to help John, William and Fanny Burnes, his cousins to gain employment. In February 1789 Robert Burns wrote from Ellisland Farm to his cousin, James Burnes in Montrose from Ellisland, saying: "We have lost poor uncle Robert this winter... His son William, has been with me this winter, and goes in May to bind himself to be a Mason with my father in law who is a pretty considerable Architect in Ayrshire. His other son, the eldest, John, comes to me, I expect in Summer.... His only daughter, Fanny, has been with me ever since her father's death and I purpose to keep her in my family til she be quite woman grown, and be fit for better service. She is one of the cleverest girls, and has one of the most amiable dispositions, that I have ever seen." Both John and Fanny therefore lived with the Burns family for a time from 1789 at Ellisland Farm.
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