Burns Surname Genealogy

is usually thought of as a Scottish or Irish surname, although it could
also be English or even Jewish in origin. The Scottish surname
derived from burnhouse,
a dwelling near a burn or stream. It owed much of its popularity
to the national poet Robert Burns. The name in Ireland might
either be a Scottish implant or an anglicization of Irish names like
O’Byrne or MacBrin.¬†¬†Burns only started to appear as a surname in
these countries in the 17th century.
Burn or Burns, from the Old English burne
or “stream,” was a north of England surname; while Bourne, from the
same root, was a name to be found in the west Midlands and the
southeast of

Resources on

Burns Ancestry

Burneshead in Cumberland was the seat of an ancient family of Burnes
which, however, then disappeared. The Burns name appeared much
later in Colton, just across the border into Lancashire. The 19th
century Burns in Lancashire were just as likely to have come from
Ireland. A
Burn family in Hornsea
in the East Ridings of Yorkshire
dates from the mid 17th century. Their home is now a
museum. Another Burn family, from Longframington in
Northumberland, has been traced to the late 17th century.

Scotland. Burns as a
surname did not appear in written records in Scotland until the 17th
century. Early forms were Burness and Burnes. The Burns
spelling was to be found in Perthshire in 1708. The
poet Robert
in Ayrshire changed the spelling of his name from
Burness to Burns in 1786 and thereby helped to establish the popularity
of the Burns name. Cousins of the poet who had stayed on the east
of Scotland kept the Burnes spelling (James and Alexander Burnes of
this family pursued distinguished careers in India and Asia).

A Thomas Burne held land in Corntown, Stirlingshire from 1538 and a
descendant John Burn was born there around 1710.

“Old John Burn has left on record,
among his early reminiscences, the fact that he saw from his father’s
house the soldiers crowding past with their wounded from the battle of
Shirra Muir in the Jacobite rising of 1715.”

He came to Glasgow in 1767 where he changed his name to Burns.
His son the Rev. John Burns, a Church of Scotland minister for almost
seventy years, raised a remarkable family. Among his nine
children were:

  • Dr. John Burns, Regius Professor of Surgery at the
    University of Glasgow
  • Dr. Allan Burns, physician to the Imperial Court
    of Russia
  • and James Burns and his more illustrious brother Sir George
    shipowners (the latter being instrumental in the formation of
    the Cunard Line).

The Burns name was common in Ayrshire but was increasingly to be found
around Glasgow by the 19th century.

Ireland. As in Scotland,
the surname Burns only arrived in Ireland in the 17th century. It
could have been brought by Scottish planters. It was also adopted
by some Irish families as an anglicized version of their Gaelic names,
in particular by the O’Byrne and MacBrin families in Ulster.
Today Burns is most frequently found in Antrim, Down, and Armagh
counties. Ulster is home to more than two thirds of the Irish who
bear the name.

America. Burns in America
came mainly from
originally, being either Irish or

However, a number of the early Burns arrivals claimed a connection with
the Scottish poet Robert Burns, including:

  • John B. Burns, who was captured during the 1715 Jacobite uprising
    and transported to Pennsylvania on the Elizabeth and Anne in 1716.
    He is thought to have been the son of John Burns, the poet’s uncle.
  • Alexander Burns, born in Ayrshire, who came via Ulster to
    Pennsylvania in the 1760’s and settled in Burnsville, a township named
    after him. Alexander lived onto the grand old age of 97, dying in
  • Peter
    , who arrived in 1771 and settled in Norfolk,
    Virginia. He is thought to have been descended from the poet’s
    grandparents in Kincardineshire. Later Burnes moved to Plattecounty, Missouri.
  • and a Burns family of Burlington, New Jersey, whose most famous
    member was John L. Burns, a veteran of the War of 1812 who became a 70
    year old civilian combatant at the battle of Gettysberg. He was
    wounded in the battle, but survived to become a national celebrity.

Abraham Burns, born in Virginia in
1833, was a Civil War veteran.
His line extended to Dr.
Robert Burns, a
distinguished professor of zoology at Johns Hopkins University in the
and to his grandson Ken Burns, the documentary film maker.

An early Burns from Ireland was Thomas Burns who came to Pennsylvania
in the 1770’s. He married Margaret McNeil there and they raised
fourteen children. Daniel Burns and his wife Ann came via Canada
to Pennsylvania around 1840; and Edward and Bridget Burns, who were in
Pennsylvania by the 1850’s, later farmed and raised a family in
Iowa. Michael
, escaping the famine, ended up in Chicago.


A Byrns/Burns family from Ulster, escaping the famine, came to Canada
and settled in Chichester township, Quebec in the late 1840’s.

“On their early marriage records in the
1850’s the spelling was Byrns. This was then crossed out by the
priest and written Burns or just written as Byrn, Burn or Burns.
The crown land grants has Byrns and Burns depending on the year of the

Michael and Bridget Byrne had come to Canada from county Mayo in
1847 and settled in Oshawa, Ontario. Pat Burns, the fourth of their
eleven children, headed west as a young man and made a fortune in
cattle ranching. By the time of World War One he had established
himself internationally as one of Canada’s most successful businessmen.

Australia and New Zealand.

David Burns,
a Scottish writer, was an early visitor to Australia in the
1820’s. He wrote plays based on the colonial conditions of his
time. In 1862 James Burns,
the son of a Stirlingshire merchant, came out to Queensland and
prospered in the Gympie gold rush. He used the proceeds to build
up a shipping fleet which traded around Australia and to the Pacific
islands. His descendants continued to run the company, Burns
Philp and Co, until the 1980’s.

Meanwhile, Thomas
, a nephew of
the poet Robert Burns, was a prominent early settler of Otago, New
Zealand. He had come with a party of Scottish settlers in 1848
and served as a Presbyterian minister to the Scottish community there
until his death in 1871. His son Arthur started the
Mosgiel Woollen Company in Dunedin. Another early Burns settler
in Dunedin was Dr. Robert Burns and his wife Elizabeth who arrived
there in the 1850’s.

Burns Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for
further stories and accounts:

Select Burns Names

is Scotland’s national poet.
Sir George Burns was a 19th
century Scottish shipping magnate.
Tommy Burns from Canada was the
world heavyweight boxing champion
from 1906 to 1908. He was born Noah Brusso but adopted Burns as
his fight name because all the leading boxers at that time were Irish.
Patrick Burns, born in Canada
of Irish roots, built up one of the world’s largest meat-packing
George Burns was an American
vaudeville star and comedian who lived to be 100. He was born
Nathan Birnbaum to a Jewish family in New York.
Arthur F. Burns, from a Jewish
immigrant family, was an American economist who served as Chairman of
the Federal Reserve from 1970 to 1978.

Select Burns

  • 48,000 in the UK (most numerous
    in Glasgow)
  • 60,000 in America (most numerous
    in Texas)
  • 34,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia).



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