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The Scottish Nation

BURNES, a surname which, like the name of Burn, or Burns, has been supposed to have been shortened from De Burnville, a family of that name having settled in Scotland in the reign of David the First. One of them held the lands of Brocsmouth in East Lothian under William the Lion. As the name of De Burnville is not now known in North Britain, this derivation of the now celebrated name of Burns does not appear quite so fanciful as at first sight seems likely, but a more probable origin to the name of Burnes and Burns than has yet been brought forward has been given, founded on documents relative to the pedigree and name of Burnes, registered in the Lord Lyon’s office in Scotland, on occasion of Dr. James Burnes, the eldest brother of the late Sir Alexander Burnes, being appointed in 1837 a knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order.

      The name of Burnes, it is there stated, is mentioned so early as 1290, in a bull of Pope Nicholas the Fourth, to Edward the First of England, in which his holiness acknowledges letters brought to him from England, “quas delecti filii Johannes de Burnes miles, et Gulielmus de Lincolnia, tui nuncii, presentarunt;” and, in various forms of orthography, the name is found occasionally in the obscure record of Scottish history, till the seventeenth century, when it emerges, traditionally, in connexion with the ancestors of Robert Burns, the national poet.

      Among the documents furnished by Dr. Burnes, is a letter from John Burness of Stonehaven, author of ‘Thrummy Cap,’ a tale in Scottish verse, to his kinsman, Provost Burnes of Montrose, the doctor’s father, of date 1824; which letter assigns as the progenitor of the poet’s family, a fugitive Campbell of Burnhouse, of the noble house of Argyle. This it does on the authority of the Rev. Alexander Greig, Episcopal minister in Stonehaven, then an old man, whose mother was a Burness.

      The Lord Lyon’s patent of arms to the family of Burnes of Montrose, traces its descent, in consequence, from Walter Campbell, the proprietor of a small estate in Argyleshire, named Burnhouse, who fled to Kincardineshire in the north of Scotland, during the civil wars of the 17th century, where, for political reasons or personal concealment, dropping the patronymic of Campbell, he was known only by the name of Burnhouse, which he assumed in its stead; hence the subsequent corruptions of the name into Burness, Burnes, and, finally, Burns.

      It is a curious fact, in connexion with the alleged descent of the poet’s family from the Campbells, that the famous John, duke of Argyle, after defeating the Pretender’s army at the battle of Sheriffmuir, in 1715, carried on a secret correspondence with the exiled prince, under the assumed name of Burnus, as may be seen in a letter of Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, dated June 30, 1742. It may also be stated that in Ayrshire, on the road between Beith and Kilmarnock, there is a village of the name of Burnhouse.

      In a writ of privy seal by King James the Fifth, dated Stirling 1528, there is a John Burnes described as having been “art and part of the convocation and gadering of our lieges in arrayit battell against umqll Johne Erle of Caithness.”

      In a public law document, dated at Edinburgh, April 1637, there is recorded as a witness “J. Burnes,” residing at Thornton, in Kincardineshire, within a few miles of Brawlymuir, the place from whence the poet’s family are known to have come. 

      The above named Walter of Burnhouse, when forced to abandon his native Argyleshire, and wander, for refuge, into the lowlands, was accompanied by his only son, Walter, then a boy. He settled in the parish of Glenbervie, and there he died in indigent circumstances. His son Walter, being an industrious youth, learned a trade, saved a little money, married, and ultimately took a lease of the farm of Bogjorgan, in the same parish, where he lived till his death.

      Walter had four sons, the youngest of whom, James, was born in 1656, and died 23d January, 1743, aged 87 years. His wife, Margaret Falconer, died December 1749, aged 90 years. These dates, and many others referring to the name and family history of Burnes, are found on old tombstones in the churchyard of Glenbervie.

      James also had four sons. William, the eldest, succeeded him in Brawlymuir, and on his death James, the youngest, removed from Hawkhill of Glenbervie, to the paternal farm. The latter had several sons, and died in April 1778, aged 88 years.

      George took the farm of Elfhill, in the parish of Fetteresso; and Robert, the grandfather of the poet, became the tenant of the farm of Clochinhill, in the parish of Dunnottar.

      He had three sons, namely, James, the great-grandfather of Dr. Burnes and Sir Alexander Burnes, William, the father of the poet, and Robert. He had also four daughters.

      The three brothers mentioned above proceeded southwards from the Mearns, about 1738. William the father of the poet, then in his nineteenth year, removed first to the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, and afterwards went to Ayrshire. James, the elder brother, settled in Montrose, where he followed the trade of a working wright, and became a burgess and town councillor of that ancient burgh. He died in 1763, aged 44.

      His son was also named James. He spelled the name Burness, and this is the only exception to the original orthography till the poet thought fit to abbreviate it into Burns. This James Burnes was the relative to whom, on his deathbed, the poet appealed for some pecuniary assistance, which however arrived too late for the poet himself; but to his widow and children he showed through life every mark of kindness.

      James Burnes, his son, and second cousin of the sons of Burns, was a writer in Montrose, and at one period provost of that burgh, and justice of the peace for Forfarshire. He was also principal town clerk of Montrose, and held several official appointments in that locality. He was born in April 1780, and married early in life, Elizabeth, daughter of Adam Glegg Esq., at one time provost of Montrose, and had by her six sons and four daughters. He took a great interest in matters connected with his native town, was an early friend of Joseph Hume, M.P., and a reformer all his life. He died at Edinburgh in 1852, universally respected. The most distinguished of his sons was the following:

BURNES, SIR ALEXANDER, C.B., an enterprising Eastern traveller and diplomatist, the third son of the above named James Burnes, provost of Montrose, was born in that town May 16, 1805. His great-grandfather was, as we have shown, the brother of William Burnes, the father of the poet Burns. He was educated at Montrose academy, and greatly distinguished himself by his proficiency. Having thereafter obtained the appointment of cadet in the Bombay army, he left school at the age of sixteen, and arrived at that presidency, October 31, 1821. On the 25th of December 1822 he was appointed interpreter in the Hindostance language to the first extra battalion at Surat, and his thorough knowledge of the Persian language soon after obtained for him, without solicitation on his part, from the judges of the Suddur Adawlut, the employment of translating the Persian documents of that court. His rise in the army was also rapid. His regiment, the 21st native infantry, in which he held the rank of lieutenant, having, early in 1825, been ordered to Bhooj, he accompanied it, and during the serious disturbances at Cutch, in April of that year, he was appointed quartermaster of brigade, on which occasion he gave early promise of that energy and decision which characterised his after proceedings. Although not yet twenty years of age, he was, in November of the same year, on the recommendation of the adjutant-general, Sir D. Leighton, appointed Persian interpreter to a force of eight thousand men, commanded by Colonel M. Napier, of his majesty’s 6th foot, assembled for the invasion of Scinde. In August 1826 he was confirmed on the general staff as a deputy-assistant quartermaster-general. At this period he drew up an able and elaborate paper on the Statistics of Wagur, which was forwarded to Government, in January 1827, by Colonel Shuldham, quartermaster-general, with many high encomiums on the industry and research of the reporter, and on the value of the information which the document contained. For this report, Lieutenant Burnes received the thanks of Government, with a handsome reward in money. He had also the high testimony of the governor, Mountstuart Elphinstone, in his favour. In the following year marks of approbation were bestowed on him for a valuable memoir on the eastern branches of the delta of the Indus. In addition to the customary forms of approbation, Lieutenant Burnes was, on this occasion, complimented on the proofs which his labours afforded of a disposition to combine the advancement of general knowledge with the exemplary discharge of his official duties. A few months after, he furnished the authorities with a Memoir supplementary to the report already mentioned. In the early part of the same year (1828) he presented a memorial, applying for permission to visit the line of country immediately beyond our northern frontier, lying between Marwar and the Indus, including the examination of the Loonee river. The projected journey was, however, for a time delayed, and on the 18th March he was appointed assistant quartermaster-general to the army.

      In September 1829 he acted, in concert with Major Holland, as assistant to the political agent in Cutch, in prosecution of the survey of the northwest frontier, of which an account, written by himself, will be found in the Transactions of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 1834. In 1830 he was appointed ostensibly to take charge of a rich gift, consisting of English dray-horses, sent by William the Fourth to Runjeet Singh, the ruler of Lahore, but in reality to acquire more accurate information as to the geography of the Indus, which, although an unusual route, was the one selected on this occasion, the horses having been trans-shipped from Bombay, where they were landed, to a port in Cutch, near the embouchure of that great river. That a better colour might be given to a deviation from the customary route, at least so far as Hyderabad in Scinde, their capital, he was intrusted with presents to the ameers of Scinde. A regular escort of British troops was declined, and a guard of wild Beluchees was found sufficient to insure protection, while they permitted an intercourse with the natives, which a more regular force would have prevented. The expedition left Mandavee, in Cutch, on the 1st of January 1831, and arrived at Lahore on the 18th of July, Lieutenant Burnes having succeeded in making a full survey of the whole Indus delta, as well as a map of a portion of its course.

      After his return from this mission, having proposed to Lord William Bentinck, then governor-general of India, to undertake, with the sanction of the Indian government, an expedition into Central Asia, the journey was commenced on the 2d of January 1832. The details of this journey have been published in his celebrated ‘Travels to Bokhara,’ one of the most interesting works in the English language. To use his own words he had “retraced the greater part of the route of the Macedonians; trodden the kingdoms of Porus and Taxiles; sailed on the Hydaspes; crossed the Indian Caucasus, and resided in the celebrated city of Balkh, from which Greek monarchs, far removed from the academies of Corinth and Athens, had once disseminated amongst mankind a knowledge of the arts and sciences, of their own history, and the world.” He returned to Bombay, January 18, 1833, and soon after, he laid the result of his travels before the governor-general, whose special thanks he received, and his memoirs were ordered to be transmitted to the Court of Directors. In the following June he received orders to proceed to England as the bearer of his own despatches; and he arrived in London early in October, the fame of his adventures having long preceded him. His reception at the India House, as well as by the Board of Control, was cordial in the extreme; and on the 30th of December he was introduced at court. He afterwards received the special acknowledgments of the king, William the Fourth, for the unpublished map and memoir which he had presented to his majesty. His celebrated work on Bokhara was published, at London, in the early part of 1834; and its success was almost unprecedented for a book of travels. Nearly nine hundred copies were sold in a single day. Mr. Murray, the publisher, of Albemarle street, gave the author eight hundred pounds for the copyright of the first edition. It was immediately translated into the German and French languages, and Burnes, in his next visit to Cabul, in 1837, found that the Russian emissaries had been using the French edition as a handbook on their way.

      While in England, in 1834, Burnes was made a fellow of the Royal Society, and an honorary member of several other learned bodies. In May of that year he received, from the Royal Geographical Society, the fourth royal premium of fifty guineas for his navigation of the river Indus, and his journey to Balkh and Bokhara across Central Asia. At the meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society, on February 21, 1835, the late earl of Munster, vice-president, in the chair, lieutenant Burnes was elected an honorary member for having “fixed, with accuracy, the position of Bokhara and Balkh, and the Great Himalayan mountains, and having done more for the construction of a map of those countries than had been done since Alexander the Great.” On this occasion he was complimented by Sir Alexander Johnstone, for having almost ascertained a continuous route and line of communication between Western Asia and the Caspian Sea, as also for his excellent diplomatic arrangements with the ameers of Singh. While yet a mere youth, he had contributed, from India, many valuable papers to the Royal Asiatic Society; and the museum of that society contains the Bokhara cloak worn by him in his travels in the Punjaub. He was also the author of some papers in the ‘Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London.’ To the British Museum he presented one of the richest collections of Indian coins in this country, for which he received a letter of thanks from the trustees of that national institution.

      After a sojourn of eighteen months in Great Britain, during which time he visited his native town, Montrose, Lieutenant Burnes left London on April 5, 1835, and reached India on the 1st of June, through France and Egypt, and so by the Red Sea packet. On his arrival at Bombay he was directed to resume the duties of assistant to the resident at Cutch, Colonel Pottinger. In the following October he was deputed on an important mission to Hyderabad in Scinde, and, in all the momentous affairs in which he was engaged, and in subsequent negociations, he displayed his accustomed ability and judgment, and accomplished the most important results. In November, 1836, he was intrusted with a mission to Dost Mohammed, the ruler of Afghanistan, with the view of entering into commercial relations with him; and proceeding from Scinde through the Punjaub, and by Peshawur to Cabul, he arrived at the latter place September 20th, 1837. Meantime, Mohammed, Shah of Persia, had besieged Herat with an army of sixty thousand men, and the Indian government had become alarmed at the prospect of Persia and Russia uniting their forces with those of Afghanistan, and making a conjoint attack on our Indian empire. The Persians, indeed, were forced to retreat from Herat, but the presence of the Russian agent Vicovitch, at Cabul, perplexed and alarmed Burnes, who pressed upon Dost Mohammed the propriety of dismissing him, which he refused to do, but gave Burnes himself his dismissal, April 24, 1838. On this Burnes was directed to repair to the governor-general, then at Simla, and he was there in August of that year. Here it was resolved to replace Shah Shoojah on his throne at Cabul, a resolution which led to the most disastrous consequences to our troops and to Burnes himself. Whilst at Shikarpoor, he received a copy of the London Gazette, announcing his having been knighted, and advanced to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Indian army. He next proceeded from Scinde on a political mission into Beluchistan, in which, however, he failed, and in April 1839, he joined the army at Quettah. On the final restoration of the Shah Shoojah to the throne of Cabul, in September 1839, Sir Alexander was appointed political resident at that capital, with a salary of three thousand pounds a-year. The indiscreet state of security into which the British allowed themselves to fall on taking possession of Cabul was fatal to their long continuance in that capital. In one of the last letters which Burnes wrote to his brother he states that he was residing quietly in a little cottage in the neighbourhood of Cabul, in every way as securely as if in the vicinity of Montrose. But this state of things was not to last. At the very outset of the insurrection which took place in favour of Dost Mohammed, on the 2d November 1841, Colonel Burnes was slaughtered, along with his brother Charles, and seven other officers, in the 36th year of his age. After his death, was published ‘Cabool being a Narrative of a Journey to and Residence in that city, in the years 1836-7-8. By the late Lieut.-Col. Sir Alexander Burnes.’ London, 8vo.

      Sir Alexander Burnes was the first traveller who opened the Indus to the policy of England, and extended his researches to the shores of the Oxus, the ruins of Samarcand, and those remote territories which have, within so short a space of time, become the scene of great political events, and of his own melancholy and untimely fate. His chief characteristics were intrepidity, discretion, and wonderful sagacity. As a proof of these, it is narrated of him that he dined one Christmas day, in great state, with one of the rajahs, whose watches he had on that day twelvemonth regulated, in the disguise of an Armenian watchmaker. Had he been discovered, his head would not have remained five minutes on his shoulders. His brother, Lieutenant Charles Burnes, of the 17th regiment of native infantry, who was massacred with him, was born on January 12, 1812, and appointed a cadet on the Bombay establishment, in 1835, by Mr. Lush, as a compliment to the services of Sir Alexander. Dr. James Burnes, who was created K.H. in 1837, was long physician-general to the Bombay army. He is the author of a Narrative of a Visit to the Court of Scinde, and a Sketch of the History of Cutch, 8vo, 1831, and of a Sketch of the History of the Knights Templars, 1837. Another brother, Mr. Adam Burnes, is a solicitor of great respectability in Montrose. Dr. David Burnes, physician in London, another of the brothers, who had preserved every letter which Sir Alexander had addressed to him during twenty years, died in Montrose in 1849.

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