The Bard’s Siblings and an Irish Connection

By Marie MacSweeney

The spirit and songs of Robbie Burns are fondly remembered and celebrated throughout the world, and especially in Ireland, but few know of the other connection between the Burns family and this country. Cross the sea from Stranraer to Larne however, travel south and slightly westwards until you reach County Louth and you will soon find the location and the story of that interesting connection.

The famous ‘Bard of Alloway’, Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in January, 1759. His father, William had moved south from Aberdeenshire in search of work and unfortunately was to make many more moves during his lifetime in an attempt to improve his family’s financial circumstances. Robert was the eldest of the seven children born to William and his wife, Agnes Broun. It was they who built the cottage that is preserved now and known to the world as ‘Burns Cottage’. The original needed to be extended on two occasions as the family grew in size.

Robbie had three brothers and three sisters, but the family moved out of the cottage William built in 1766 when he was seven years old.The eldest of his three sisters, also Agnes, would have been about four years old at that time and the other children of the family were Gilbert, Annabella, William, John and Isabella. The children were fortunate in that they received some of their education from their father who taught them reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history. He was obviously a enthusiastic teacher for he also wrote his own religious treatise, ‘A Manual of Christian Belief’ for them.

In addition, Robert, who became know as Rabbie the Bard, together with his brother Gilbert, attended an ‘adventure school’ in Alloway, run by a Mr. John Murdoch. This establishment offered Latin and French as well as mathematics. It was obvious that the Burns/Broun parents, although poor and struggling, valued an education for their children.

By the time he had reached the age of fifteen Robert was the head labourer at Mount Oliphant, a farm of about seventy acres southeast of Alloway, where his father had taken a tenant’s lease. Much has been written of the remainder of his life, his various occupations, his music, loves, poems, escapades, his passions and reticences until his too early death from rheumatic fever at the age of 37. His siblings are less well known.

John died in 1775, aged around sixteen. There was William too, who was eight years younger than Robert and the last of the brothers. Robert managed to have William apprenticed to a saddler in Newcastle but he later moved to London. It was a busy trade in those days. When he did so the older brother offered some advice as William headed for London, writing that the city “swarms with worthless wretches who prey on their fellow creatures’ thoughtlessness and inexperience.”
However, William died of a fever in 1790, at the tragically young age of twenty-three.

Then there was Isabella, the youngest of the clan. Isabella was the third daughter of William and his wife, Agnes. In the Ayr register she is described as “the lawful daughter of William Burns, farmer.” Born on the 27th June, 1771, she married on 9th December, 1793, a Mr John Begg, who was superintendent at the farm in Dumfriesshire rented by his brother-in-law, Gilbert Burns. John Begg later became a land-steward on the estate of Blackwood, Lanarkshire belonging to Mr Hope Vere. His duties included looking after horses and tragically he lost his life when a horse reared up and fell upon him on 24th April, 1813. Isabella would have been around forty-two years old at this time.

Widowed at that young age, Mrs. Begg reared her nine children single handedly. There is a portrait of her as an old woman and it is said that we could guess what Robert might have looked like in old age by seeing that portrait, so great was the resemblance between them. During her latter years she lived in a picturesque cottage which she turned into a remembrance of her famous brother, welcoming all sorts of visitors to the spot. She lived to be eighty-seven.

Isabella Burns Begg’s portrait now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Her son, John Begg became a schoolmaster at Ormiston, Haddingtonshire. He later resigned his post and emigrated to Canada; he lived in Goderich, on the shores of Lake Huron, until his death in 1864.

Burns’s second eldest sister, Annabella was born in Alloway in 1764, and died, unmarried at Grant’s Braes, Haddingtonshire. In addition to her brother Gilbert’s large family of six sons and five daughters with his wife, Jean Breckenridge, Annabella was also part of his household, as was their mother who lived with the family until she died in 1820 at the age of eighty-eight. It is also recorded that Robert provided Gilbert with sufficient funds to “aliment, clothe and educate” Elizabeth Paton Burns, his “dear bought Bess”, a daughter by Elizabeth Paton.

Gilbert, a farmer, was said to have made some impressive cheeses and worked latterly in a post with Lady Katherine Blantyre. He was a prominent member of the Mauchline Conversation Society, a group that met regularly to discuss current topics of interest and moral questions of the day, much like the Forum Discussion Group did in the Dublin of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s! He also functioned as an Elder of his church and a member of the Bolton Bible Society.

One of his sons, Thomas became a minister and later emigrated, becoming one of the founding fathers of Dunedin in New Zealand. Its name comes from the words ‘Dùn Èideann’, the Gaelic name for the Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. The American fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger is a somewhat distantly located relative of Robert Burns. Apparently the records indicate that the grandmother of Hilfiger’s aunt, Rose Kirbis was the granddaughter of Gilbert, making the multimillionaire the great, great, great nephew of the Bard.

It was Agnes, however, the eldest of the girls, who came across to Ireland and made her home here. She was born on September 30th,1762 in the little cottage in Alloway which is now so great a tourist attraction because of the fame of her brother, Robert. She probably met her husband-to-be, William Galt through Gilbert’s faming activities. They married in 1804, when she was forty-two.

Over ten years later, William was offered a position on the estate at Stephenstown, near Knockbridge in north Louth of the landowner, Matthew Fortescue. Initially, William was contracted to build two ornamental ponds for the gardens of the newly build Stephenstown House, and some grinding mills. He must have been a hugely industrious and competent worker for he was retained as ‘confidential manager’ when this work was completed, at a salary of 40 guineas yearly (more than satisfactory in those times) and the use of a cottage. A cow and the couple’s own vegetable garden were also thrown in as part of the deal! Agnes also received an allowance for working in the dairy.

A contemporary of Agnes was known to have said of her that “she was as unprepossessing a female as one would care to see. But oh, to hear her read her brother’s poems was a caution, with a hard rasping delivery, that I question if many out of Ayrshire could make out the meaning of a word she said.”. Poor Agnes. Dammed with feint praise! Yet it is obvious that she loved and promoted her brother’s work with a passion.

Agnes died, aged 72 in October,1834. Her husband lived for a further thirteen years. They are buried in the Cemetery of St. Nicholas’ Presbyterian Church in Dundalk. At one stage, as a tribute to Agnes’ renowned brother and in respect of the memory of his sister, a monument was erected near the grave. Rabbie crept into the area in another, unexpected way too when, upon the launch of a new cigarette in Dundalk in 1919 it discovered its name in a few words from one of his poems:-
“Flow gently Sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise.
My Mary’s asleep by the murmuring stream.
Flow gently Sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.”

The estate at Stephenstown Pond is now a Nature Park and the cottage of Agnes and William restored and open to visitors.

* Note: Scotland’s National Bard was christened Robert. His pet name seems to have been Robbie. Accent determines how many names sound in Ayrshire, and Robbie is often pronounced and written as Rabbie. The surname Burns was often rendered in written script as Burnes or Burness. Braun was a Scottish way of pronouncing the name we know as Brown and, in many cases, it was spelled like that.