Burns Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Burns Surname Meaning

Burns 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 England.

Burns Surname Resources on The Internet

Burns Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Canada and Australia

England.  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 Burns 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 coast of Scotland kept the Burnes spelling (James and Alexander Burnes of this family pursued distinguished careers in India and Asia).  For Scottish people, Burns’ Night, held every January 25 on his birthday, commemorates their national poet.

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 Burns, 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 Ireland originally, being either Irish or Scots Irish.

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 1826.
  • Peter Burness, 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 Platte county, 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, may also have come into the Burns’ descendant category.  His line extended to Ken Burns, the documentary film maker.

Irish.  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 Burns, escaping the famine, ended up in Chicago.  Another Michael Burns came to New York, aged fourteen, with his parents in 1848.  He became a firefighter and led a company of firefghters during the Civil War.  He distinguished himself at Gettysberg in 1864 and was  promoted to colonel.

Canada.  A Byrns/Burns family from Ulster, also 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 grant.”

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.  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.

New Zealand.  Thomas Burns, 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.

Ken Burns’ Family Ancestry

The roots of Ken Burns, the documentary film-maker, are in Virginia where his ancestors were blacksmiths and fought in the Civil War.  Later Burns were noted academics.

Just click below if you want to read more about this history:

Burns Surname Miscellany

Burnhouse to Burns.  The Scottish word “burnhouse” signified a dwelling or croft resting upon the margin of a burn or small stream. Farm homesteads and private dwellings styled burnhouses were common in all the lowland counties, especially in the counties of Fife and Kincardine.  In the parish and other registers of Kincardineshire the surname derived from burnhouse was variously spelt Burnes, Burnas, Burnase, Burnace, and Burness.

Burnhouse was also the name of lands held by Walter Campbell, a minor laird from near Taynuilt in Argyll.  For his part in the Civil Wars of the 17th century he was obliged to remove himself to Kincardineshire on the east coast of Scotland where he took the name of his former lands in order to conceal his identity.  The association of the Burns with the Campbells was undoubtedly through this circumstance – for no large representation of the name can be found in Campbell lands elsewhere.

The family name of the poet Robert Burns in Kincardineshire was originally Burness. The stress on Burness here was on the first syllable.  As the name was pronounced in Ayrshire as if written Burns, Robert and his brother Gilbert agreed in 1786 to drop the Burness spelling for Burns.  

Reader Feedback – Burns in Perthshire.  I have parish baptismal records in Perthshire dated 1708 with the name spelled Burns.  The Burns name was prominent in Perthshire long before the birth of Robbie Burns.  He may have changed his name.  But the Burns name was in existence with this spelling long before that time.

Our Burns line came from Kinclaven in Perthshire and immigrated into Prince Edward Island, Canada.  James Burns was born in 1744 to Andrew Burns, originally from Methven, Perthshire.  He died in 1825 in PEI.  He had immigrated with five of his eight children and there are many lines from this ancestor in Canada and the United States.

Thesese (tlmckirdy@gmail.com)

Robert Burns’ Parentage and Descendants  

  • Walter Burness (1625-1670) of Glenbervie, Kincardineshire
  • – James Burness (1656-1743), married Margaret Folconer
  • — Robert Burness (born around 1700), married Isabella Keith
  • — William Burness (1721-1784), married Agnes Brown  (a tenant farmer, he had moved to Ayrshire around 1750)
  • —- Robert Burns the poet (1759-1796), born in Alloway, Ayrshire.

Robert Burns lived a relatively brief but colorful life before dying, aged 37, of rheumatic fever, the same day his wife gave birth to a son.

He had a total of twelve children by four women, including nine by his wife Jean Armour.  Seven of his children were illegitimate, including the first four by Jean Armour before they were married in 1788.  All living descendants of Robert Burns and Jean Armour are descended from either their granddaughter Sarah (daughter of their fourth son James) or their granddaughter Anne (illegitimate daughter of their eldest son Robert).

Burns’ Night.  Robert Burns’ acquaintances held the first Burns supper on July 21, the anniversary of his death, in Ayrshire in the late 1700s. The date was later changed to January 25 which marks his birthday.  Burns suppers are now held by people and organizations with Scottish origins worldwide.

Formal events include toasts and readings of pieces written by Robert Burns. Ceremonies during a Burns Night supper vary according to the group organizing the event and the location.

The evening usually centers on the entrance of the haggis (a type of sausage prepared in a sheep’s stomach) on a large platter to the sound of a piper playing bagpipes. When the haggis is on the table, the host reads the Address to a Haggis. This is an ode that Robert Burns wrote to the Scottish dish. At the end of the reading, the haggis is ceremonially sliced into two pieces and the meal begins.

From Robert to Peter Burness.  This line started in Kincardineshire with Robert Burness and Isabella Keith, grandparents of the poet Robert Burns.  One of their sons was Campbell Burness who was born in Edinburgh around 1718. His connections with the political troubles of 1745 brought about the confiscation of his property.  He fled to the mountains of Butlock in Kincardineshire where he died, disappointed and disheartened.  He was buried in the churchyard of Lochlea, near Alloway miill, on the Doon.

His children were left without means, a charge upon his younger brother William Burness, whose wealth consisted chiefly of a noble and motherly wife whose maiden name was Agnes Brown.  Among the children thus left was Peter Burness, born in Kincardineshire in 1752.  Without education or fortune, Peter left for America in 1771 and settled at or near Norfolk, Virginia.

Burns Farm in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  Burns Farm in the North Holderness village of Hornsea is now the Hornsea Museum.  It had been home to the Burns family for almost three hundred years.  The present Burn family believes that its ancestors occupied the house from around 1645 to 1945.

Through the centuries the family pursued many different trades.  Ralph, born in 1688, was a weaver, as was his son. John, born in 1733, was a sexton; and Martin, son of Michael, born in 1745, was a farmer, butcher, coal agent, dealer in ship-wrecked salvage, and a dealer in sand and gravel.  More recently, Hannah Burn had a confectionary shop that she ran from the passageway. Her nephew moved in when she died in 1942 but did not settle. Eventually the house and half the farmyard were sold.

The last residents of the house left in 1975 and the museum was established in 1978.  It is filled with artifacts of daily life from the 19th and 20th centuries.  The rooms are carefully arranged to show how the family lived, worked, and played.

Burns in America by Place of Origin

Numbers Percent
Ireland   3,712    61
England and Scotland   2,277    38
Germany       56     1

Ken Burns’ Burns Ancestor.  Ken Burns’ fascination with the American Civil War has been longstanding and he told Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the TV documentary Finding Your Roots that when he was a child and he and his brother would play a Civil War game, he’d make his brother play the Confederate.  Ken was a loyal Union supporter from a young age.

But Gates and his team of genealogists found that Ken’s great-great-grandfather Abraham Burns from Virginia not only fought for the Confederate army but, at the age of 27, had enlisted to do so. He was eventually imprisoned by the Union, and in order to win back his freedom, he had to swear an oath of allegiance.  Records showed him saying that he was forced to join the rebels. Ken didn’t really buy that statement, and while he’s never supported his relative’s viewpoint, he admitted that these sorts of truths come with our families and their past.

There have been claims by some that this Abraham Burns was a direct descendant of the Scottish national poet Robert Burns, but evidence to support this claim has been lacking.

Michael Burns and His Brothers from Limerick.  Like many others, Michael Burns fled the great Irish Famine and moved to Canada with two of his brothers, Peter and James.  Peter later returned to Ireland and his descendants still live on the ancestral Burns farm in Shanagolden, Limerick.  James moved to the United States in 1858.  He married while in Canada or the United States, but his wife died of cholera after four years of marriage.  In his old age he lived with his niece Grace Burns Landers.

Michael had met his first wife, Mary Cagney, in Canada.  Mary’s family had moved to Boston, so she and Michael went there to marry around 1860, the year Michael emigrated from Canada to the United States. Michael and Mary, along with several of Mary’s relatives, then moved to a farm in Kalamazoo, Michigan. However, Mary died of sunstroke two years later and Michael moved to Chicago where he remarried and became a policeman.

David Burns and The Bushrangers.  In 1826, in the British penal colony of Tasmania, a Scottish journalist named David Burns is said to have witnessed the execution by hanging of a convict turned bushranger named Matthew Brady.  Three years later Burns’ play The Bushranger, based on the story of Brady and his band of fellow escapees, was staged at the Caledonian Theatre in Burns’ native Edinburgh.

The play contained first-hand observation of the convict and settler lives in the Tasmania of the 1820’s and the depiction of real-life figures would have been instantly recognizable to an Australian audience.  The Bushrangers straddled both the romantic world of theatrical fantasy and the harsh realities of a penal settlement with surprising ease, and it is hard to say which predominates, stage traditions or the precision of a journalist’s observation.

Brady, the outlaw-hero of Burns’ play, belonged to a long tradition in the theatre.  Against the overwhelming brutality of the penal system Brady’s desperate attempt to escape took on a nobility which preferred death to oppression of the spirit.  The “glorious cause of liberty” became the creed of the little band of escaped convicts and their code of honor, that of chivalrous banditry.

If the Bradys were romantic heroes, the villain was clearly corrupt officialdom, including the whole repressive system by which justice was manipulated to the advantage of wealth and privilege – a long arm of the law that extended all the way from England.

Significantly, the play was not performed in Australia until almost a century and a half later (in 1971 a Sydney high school staged the piece as a colonial curiosity).  Burns did return to Australia more than once and in 1845 he had several of his plays staged in Sydney. But The Bushrangers was not one of them.

The Rev. Thomas Burns in Otago.  Thomas Burns has received an unfavorable press from modern historians.  His stern, humorless puritanism holds out little appeal in a more secular world.  Contemporary English commentators also found him singularly unattractive.

Yet to the Presbyterian settlers of Otago he appeared quite differently, as the following commentary suggests:

“Having been familiar with the struggles of the farming population in Scotland and feeling that strong sympathy with the workers which found such striking poetical expression in his uncle’s verses, Burns had intimated his intention of fixing the hours of work at eight hours a day and the daily remuneration for laborers at 3s 6d.

Burns, with several orders for and and work in his possession, as the agent of several friends of the movement in Scotland, was destined to be the largest employer of labor in the settlement for some time to come.”

He was as well an energetic minister of the Free Church who did everything expected of him.  And his farming skills made him an ideal pioneer.  Grain from his farm at Grant Braes helped keep many migrants alive during the difficult early years of settlement.

The traits which so infuriated the English settlers and government officials – obstinacy, dourness, narrowness, inflexibility, parochialism – were seen as real strengths by the majority of Otago settlers.  When he died in 1871, his huge funeral procession attested to the fact that these qualities were more appreciated in death than in life.

Burns Names

  • Robert Burns 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 empires.
  • 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.

Burns Numbers Today

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

Burns and Like Surnames

These are the names of some literary giants.  If you are interested in the name behind the literary figure, please click on the surname below.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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