Saturday, 26 January 2019

Burns' Night

Although Burns' Night was actually yesterday, Sue and I will be celebrating it tonight at a special supper that is being held at our local golf course. (We are both non-playing, social members.)

Luckily, we both love haggis, neeps, and tatties and the sound of the bagpipes, both of which will be in evidence during the evening ... along with what will probably be some terrible renderings of his more well-known verse.

I recently gave a lecture about Rabbie Burns, and it was interesting to discover that two of his sons (he fathered nine children that he acknowledged) had careers in the Honourable East India Company's forces.

William Nicol Burns

William Nicol Burns was born on 9th April 1791 and was named after one of his father’s best friends. Thanks to the relative prosperity that the family enjoyed, he was educated to a standard that prepared him to enter the East India Company Military Seminary at Addiscombe, near Croydon, Surrey. There he trained to become an officer in the Honourable East India Company’s army. On his graduation he set sail for India, where he joined the 7th Bengal Native Infantry Regiment as an Ensign on 1st August 1817.

William was promoted to the rank of Captain on 7th August 1828 and transferred to the Commissary (or Supply) Department in the Madras Presidency. On 19th January 1843 he retired, having reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He lived until 21st February 1872 – aged 81 – and it was recorded in his obituary that he was the last surviving son of the poet Robert Burns.

James Glencairn Burns

James Glencairn Burns was born on 12th August 1794 and baptised the next day. Bearing in mind the high infantry mortality rate, such a rapid baptism after birth was no unusual, especially when you bear in mind how many of Burns’ children had died in early infancy.

James also went to the East India Company Military Seminary, and joined the Bengal Presidency’s army in 1815 as an unattached Ensign (Second Lieutenant). By 28th June 1817 he was a Captain attached as a Deputy Assistant Commissary to the 3rd Native Infantry Regiment. Unlike his brother, James married. His wife was Mary Beckett, and their wedding was on 21st June 1828. On 8th July 1839 James was promoted to the rank of Major, and on his retirement later that year he was further promoted and became a Lieutenant Colonel.

By 1851 – six years before the Great Mutiny took place in India – the by-now widowed James was living with his brother William. It is probably just as well that both had left India by the time that the Mutiny broke out as both their regiments – 3rd and 7th Bengal Native Regiments – revolted and were subsequently expunged from the East India Company's military establishment.

James Glencairn Burns died on 18th November 1865 in Cheltenham as a result of an accident. His obituary recorded that at the time of his death he was the youngest surviving son of the poet. He died a relatively wealthy man, leaving and estate of just under £5,000 … which is equivalent to approximately £576,000 today.


  1. Burns himself was a reluctant Napoleonic Wars Dumfries Volunteer c 1795

    1. MIN ManofTin,

      I knew that he had been a volunteer, but did not know which unit he had joined. Thanks for the link; it has helped me improve the biography I use in my talk.

      All the best,



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