Family background

William Burnes — the poet's father — was born in Dunnottar, near Stonehaven, in 1721 and became, like his own father, a gardener. He had to leave his native county in search of work and, after a period spent in Edinburgh, arrived in Ayrshire in 1750.

He began to build a cottage in Alloway in 1757, the year in which he married Agnes Brown.

It was there that their eldest child, Robert, was born on 25 January 1759.

Drawing of a woman in bonnet and shawl
Agnes Brown.
By permission of the National Galleries of Scotland.
Silhouette of man's profile
Gilbert, Robert's brother

'My father was advanced in life when he married; I was the eldest of seven children; and he, worn out by early hardship, was unfit for labour … We lived very poorly.'

Autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, London, 2 August 1787: part of the Cowie Collection.