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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Burnes, William (1721 — 84)

The poet's father was born at Clochnahill Farm, Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, and trained as a gardener at Inverugie Castle, Aberdeenshire, by the Earl Marischal. Tradition has it that Robert Burnes had Jacobite sympathies. At any rate, in 1748, William thought it prudent to get a certificate from three Kincardineshire landlords, testifying that he was 'a very well-inclind lad'. But in this year, Robert Burnes, who had ambitions as a farmer, was ruined by the economic consequences which followed the Rising of 1745, and the family broke up. William taking his certificate to Edinburgh where there was then a demand for gardeners. For two years he was employed 'landscaping' in the city, part of his work being in The Meadows. Then, in 1750, he moved west to Ayrshire, working first for the Laird of Fairlie, then for the Crawfords of Doonside. But he was ambitious to set up as a nurseryman for himself so he feued, from Dr Alexander Campbell of Ayr, seven and a half acres of land at Alloway. But he was unable to make a living in this way alone, so he accepted employment as head gardener at Doonhom, the estate of a retired London doctor, Provost William Fergusson of Ayr. In the summer and autumn of 1757 Burnes began building a but and ben (two-roomed cottage) on the nursery land at Alloway, and on 15th December married Agnes Broun or Brown, a farmer's daughter. The poet, their first child, was born on 25th January 1759, Gilbert in 1760, Agmes in 1762, Annabella in 1764, William in 1767, John in 1769 and Isabella in 1771. According to Gilbert, when Robert was nine or ten days old, the 'clay biggin' suffered damage by storm, and the poet and his mother had to be taken to the house of a neighbour until a tumbled gable was repaired.

By 1765, the cottage was becoming too small, and Burnes approached Provost Fergusson with a proposal to lease the farm of Mount Oliphant, two miles south-east of Allowya.

Fergusson gave him a twelve year lease, with the option of a break at six and lent him £100 to buy stock. But the farm proved unproductive and wearying.

The struggles which William Burnes had at Mount Oliphant from 1766 to 1777 and at Lochlea from 1777 until his death, prematurely worn out, are touched upon in the poet's Autobiographical Letter. Burns tells of the closing days at Mount Oliphant: 'My father was advanced in life when he married; I was the eldest of seven children, and he, worn out by hardship, was unfit for labour. My father's spirit was soon irritated but not easily broken. There was a freedom in his lease in two years more and to weather these two years we retrenched expenses. We lived very poorly.' At Lochlea, things went no better. Burnes fell into arrears with his rent, and David M'Lure, the Landlord of Lochlea, put two petitions before the Sheriff of Ayrshire over alleged arrears of rent. Litigation threatened, and although Burnes won his appeal to the Court of Session on 27th January 1784, and paid in the balance of the rent which had been set against his own expenses in liming, fencing and erecting new buildings, he died on 13th February of 'a physical consumption', worn out beyond his years.

Burns also tells of his father's dislike of the Tarbolton dancing class. 'In my seventeenth year, to give my manners a brush, I went to a country dancing school. My father had an unaccountable antipathy against these meetings; and my going was, what to this hour I repent, in absolute defiance of his commands. My father, as I said before, was the sport of strong passions; from that instance of rebellion he took a kind of dislike to me...'

The only letter of Burns's to his father, written from Irvine on 27th December 1781, begins: 'Honored Sir'. In spite of the old man's Calvinistic strictness, Burns afterwards spoke of his father with affectionate respect: 'The best of friends and the ablest of instructors' he described him to James Burness in a letter of 17th February 1784; and he sketched him as the devout and religious guidman in 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'.

It was certainly William Burnes's typically dour Scottish determination to make sure that his children received the best possible education available to them in the difficult circumstances of the time which provided Burns with the intellectual background that enabled him to develop into the major poet and letter-writer he did, in fact, become. No doubt the poet also got his proud independence of spirit from his father.

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