Obelisk commemorating Robert and John Burnes at Stewarton
Clochnahill Farm, Kincardineshire, Scotland
|Died||3 January 1789 (aged 69–70)|
|Occupation||Quarryman, gardener, land steward and teacher|
Robert Burnes or Robert Burness (1719 – 3 January 1789) was a paternal uncle of the poet Robert Burns. He left the family farm of Clochnahill or Clokenhill in Kincardineshire with his younger brother William Burnes, and found work at the Lochridge or Lochrig limestone quarries and lime kilns that lay near Byrehill Farm near Stewarton. He was a teacher, a gardener later in life and a land steward on the nearby Robertland Estate, possibly through the influence of his nephew. Robert Burns referred to his him as Poor Uncle Robert upon his death in 1789.
Life and background
Roberts parents were Robert Burnes and Isabella Keith. He retained the spelling 'Burnes' throughout his life, however his nephew favoured the Ayrshire spelling of 'Burns' and official records as well as his memorial inscription omit the 'e'.
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, certainly by 1781, 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. He would at some stage have been a cotter or agricultural worker. His brother William recorded in a letter dated 1781 that his brother lived in 'Stewarton' and that his circumstances were "rather indifferent." Robert attended his brother William's funeral in 1784.
Robert had severe rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis 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 sons. When his condition became too painful and debilitating he moved to a house in the Buck's Head Close or to the Buck's Head Inn itself, located just off the main street in Stewarton. Later he moved to another house in the town with his family. Caldhame Farm on the Robertland Estate was the home of Robert, his wife Agnes Craig and their family whilst he was a land steward between at least 1774 and 1784. The family were said to have been upright, respectable and "..never had much wealth and at times their circumstances were far from affluent."
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 (never Burns) 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 a Robert Burnes.
This Robert had detailed knowledge of selecting kilned lime and the liming of crops, caring for cattle, and drainage work. Deputising for the absentee factor he collected rents and wrote to the laird. The existence of another person with the same name, approximate age, knowledge of liming, both married, well educated, etc. and living in the same area seems very unlikely and the birth record of Robert Burnes to Agnes and Robert gives the dwelling as 'Caldhame'. Sir James Hunter Blair died in 1787 and this event may have impacted his employment.
The Stewarton Parish Register of Births, Deaths and marriages records that this Robert Burnes had a son that was 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 'Poor Uncle Robert' became for a time the Robertland Estate land steward as related in the 'Caldhame Letters', working under the Factor, William Logan, first of Kilmaurs House and later Thornton House.
Robert married Agnes Craig (b. circa 1735), on 7 November 1766 at Dreghorn, North Ayrshire. Titwood Farm lies in Dreghorn Parish. Agnes however died in October 1786 and was buried in Stewarton, East Ayrshire, Scotland and was buried in Stewarton, probably in the Burnes family lair, but she is not recorded on the 1910 memorial itself. She died two years after her husband had written of her 'tender' condition.
Robert and Agnes had four children of whom John (b. 15 September 1767, d. 17 February 1846) was the oldest son, followed by William (b. 23 Mar 1769, d. 1850) and a daughter Fanny (Frances) (b. circa 1772, d. 23 Apr 1839).  Robert Burnes, baptised on 29 January 1778 is recorded as having died young and certainly before 1784 as his father does not list him in a letter to Robert Burns that year.
Fanny (b. circa 1772, d. 23 Apr 1839) 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 cousin-in-law. 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. Fanny died in 1839.
John (b. 15 September 1767, d. 17 February 1846) and his birth was registered in the Parish of Irvine. he is known to have helped guard the Stewarton St Columba 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 lodged at the house of the mother of James Colquhoun in Stewarton. Mrs Colquhoun had attended John's funeral.
John Burnes may have worked as a farm labourer or as a weaver, however in his final years from 1843 he was a recipient of poor relief from the Stewarton parish as noted in the Heritors Records, dying on 17 February 1846, aged 78 and buried next to his father under the 1910 memorial.
William (b. 23 Mar 1769, d. 1850) 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. His birth was registered in the parish of Irvine.
A 'Robert Burnes' was born to Agnes Craig and Robert Burnes on 29 January 1778 in Stewarton Parish with the dwelling place given as Caldhame, confirming that Robert was at the time the Land Steward at the Robertland Estate. This Robert had died before 1781 as his Uncle William does not list him in a letter that he wrote that year to his nephew James Burnes. He is also not mentioned in a letter of 1784 written by his father to his nephew Robert Burns.
A Helen Burns is recorded as being buried at Stewarton on 13 August 1803.
Death and memorial
On 3 January 1789 Robert died at Stewarton although for long he was thought to have died at Ellisland. Robert was a popular and much respected figure in the area and he is buried in a prime location in Stewarton's St Columba Church 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. Several other members of the family were also buried in the lair.
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.
Association with Robert Burns
Robert Burns used to visit his uncle in Stewarton at the Buck's Head Close or at the Buck's Head Inn, one of the oldest buildings in the town, as he was sometimes in the area from late 1786 on his journeys to visit Frances Dunlop at Dunlop House nearby; he also visited nearby Robertland House. He is said to have stayed at the inn.
When Robert Burnes died, his nephew Robert 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.
1748 (Circa) - Robert living at Titwood Farm in Dreghorn Parish.
1766 - Robert (Aged 46/7) marries Agnes Craig at Dreghorn.
1767 - John Burnes born in Irvine.
1769 - William Burnes born in Irvine.
1771 - (Circa) Fanny (Frances) Burnes born.
1774 to 1784 - William Logan, Robertland Estate factor appoints Robert Burnes (aged 54/55) as a land steward. Family move to Caldhame Farm.
1776 to 1779 - Letters written by Robert Burnes to Sir James Hunter Blair.
1778 - Robert Burnes is born and had died before 1781.
1781 - William Burnes writes that his brother was living in 'rather indifferent' circumstances.
1784 - Robert writes to Robert Burns and comments that his wife has been 'tender', meaning sickly that he is also not well and lists just three children.
1784 - Robert attends his brother William's funeral.
1786 - Robert's wife, Agnes Craig, dies and is buried in Stewarton.
1787 - Death of Sir James Hunter Blair of Robertland.
1789 - Robert dies at Stewarton aged 69/70. Fanny Burnes moves to Ellisland.
1790 - William, John and Fanny living at Ellisland.
1792 - Fanny marries Adam Armour.
1803 - A Helen Burnes dies and is buried at Stewarton.
1846 - John Burnes dies and is buried at Stewarton.
1850 - William Burnes dies.
1910 - Memorial stone to Robert and John unveiled.
- Adam Armour (Son-in-Law)
- Jean Armour (Niece-in-Law}
- Gilbert Burns (Nephew)
- Isabella Burns (Niece)
- William Burnes (Brother)
- Agnes Broun (Sister-in-Law)
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