To Agnes Burnes, For Mother’s Day

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In celebration of Mothers Day this Sunday, it seems appropriate that this week’s blog post should be dedicated to Robert Burns’s mother, Agnes.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
Nursing chair belonging to Agnes Burns

The first of six children, Agnes Brown was born in March 1732 in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire, the daughter of Agnes Rennie and Gilbert Brown. However, as was tragically far too often the case, Agnes’s mother died, leaving a ten year old Agnes to keep the house and look after her younger siblings. Two years later, when her father remarried, this responsibility was lifted from Agnes’s shoulders as she sent to live with her maternal grandmother, Mrs Rennie. As to whether this arrangement was one that had been decided amiably, or was the result of a family argument, we are sadly in the dark, but for the next thirteen years Maybole was to become the home of Agnes Brown, and Mrs Rennie, her family.

In Maybole Agnes was to have two main romances. The first one was with ploughman William Nelson, but a long seven year engagement ended, perhaps due to improper actions by her fiancee. Then in 1756, at a fair in Maybole, Agnes had her second romance. Meeting William Burnes, where Maybole Health Centre stands today, she fell in love and married Wiliam a year later in 1757. Over the years of their marriage, Agnes was to have seven children, but the eldest, as we know, was to become the most remarkable.

An 1829 etching by David Octavious Hill showing William and Agnes Burnes in the kitchen at Burns Cottage
An 1829 etching by David Octavious Hill showing William and Agnes Burnes in the kitchen at Burns Cottage

Settling down in the Alloway cottage, Agnes gave birth to Robert Burns two years into her marriage, in 1759. In his early years, Agnes is said to have had a huge influence on Burns through her love of singing Scottish songs, hymns and psalms, so much so that historian Robert Crawford said that ‘she was his first source and teacher of song.’ One song Robert Burns recalled her singing was the Highland Song: Leiger m’chose.

Leiger m’chose, my bonnie wee lass
An leiger m’ chose, my dearie
A’ the lee-lang winter night
Leiger m’ chose, my dearie.

At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum we celebrate Agnes by recreating the sounds of her singing in the cottage kitchen, and furnishing the house with items she would have used in her everyday life: milking stools, kirns, rolling pins, and spurtles, while her nursing chair is displayed in the museum. Sadly, not much history has survived of Agnes. Having received little education, she was unable to write letters, and thus what we know of her comes second hand, and passed down. Nonetheless, Agnes Burns must have been a strong woman. From taking care of a large family at the age of ten, to looking after her own large family as an adult, working a hard farming life, watching her husband die, living beyond the years of many of her own children, not to mention dealing with Robert’s many drama’s, Agnes Burnes was no doubt quite a woman.

So here’s to you Agnes Burnes: Happy Mothers Day!

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2 thoughts on “To Agnes Burnes, For Mother’s Day

    Denyse Presley said:
    March 11, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    What a poignant story about Agnes Burns made all the more so because her lack of education has prevented us hearing her own story told in her own words.

      robertburnsnts responded:
      March 14, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      Thank you! We are really glad you enjoyed hearing her story. It is such a shame that often the women around Burns have been unable to tell us their stories in their own words.

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