Robert Burns, his parents and maiden names

Burns' parents' grave

The photo is of the grave of Robert Burns’s parents. It’s situated in the graveyard of Old Alloway Kirk, the place which inspired Robert Burns to write his poem Tam O’Shanter. If you want to see more of Alloway and the kirkyard have a look at a previous post here.

I was chatting with a friend recently about the Scottish tradition of women being known by their maiden names, particularly when they die. As you can see from the photo, the father of Robert Burns was William Burns and his spouse was Agnes Brown, Robert’s mother.

Officially I suppose married women are generally known as Mrs Married Name, but amongst old friends they’ll still be Somebody Maiden Name. In fact whenever I meet women for the first time I find that it takes on average about 10 minutes of chat before the words “of course, my own name is …whatever her maiden name is.”

Sadly I’ve noticed that the tradition seems to be dying out (pun probably intended). I’ve got to the stage in my life where the local newspaper hatches and matches announcements rarely come up with anyone I know. It’s the dispatches that I’m more likely to recognise, although happily those folks are often in their 80s and 90s. But I have noticed that the women’s announcements nowadays just have the name of their husband, with not a clue as to the woman’s real name. Let’s face it, some women have quite a series of surnames throughout their lives. I had a friend whose own name was rather unusual and began with ‘S’, then she married an unusual ‘H’, divorced him and married an unusual ‘D’. When her son asked why her names were always strange she told him that she was working her way down the alphabet of strange names. Husband ‘D’ gave her a poisonous look and not long after that he skedaddled! I wonder if she has reached ‘A’ yet!

Back to graves, on this Halloween – gravestones aren’t that common nowadays, my family has always gone for the ‘scattering’ option in recent generations, and in fact although I enjoy mooching around old graveyards reading the inscriptions, I wouldn’t be up for visiting family graves as I would find that quite depressing and pointless. It’s much better to have personal ways of remembering loved ones. But I’d hate to think that those who do opt for the more traditional burial in Scotland have somehow forgotten that if it’s a married woman then she should revert to her maiden name. Maybe it’s up to the stonemasons to educate them.

6 thoughts on “Robert Burns, his parents and maiden names

  1. I’d be one of those multi-named wonders. Before P, there was an R and before that I had taken my maiden S back, and my first was a Z. Took S back in the interim because Z was a nightmare and the name was one of those many-syllable, no consonant, eastern European ones. Liz Taylor still has me beat on lifetime achievement, as I’m quite happy with P and shall go no further.

    Mr. P’s favorite place in all of Scotland is still Alloway. Such a lovely, quiet place.

    • Pearl,
      I agree with Mr.P – Alloway was such a surprise to me, I can’t help feeling that it must have been such a help to someone with a poetic nature.

      You obviously did that ‘try, try again thing’ until you got it right! I would have hated to be a Z, I always wonder what the Eastern Europeans have got against vowels, Welsh seems to be like that too. I’ve always been an S my address book spills out into Rs and Ts, we have so many Ss – and I have a slight lisp too!

  2. When I arrived in The Netherlands to marry a Frisian I discoverd the tradition here is to use your married name and then your maiden name is added with a ‘dash’ ( – ). My maiden name of Burns was always visible! Now single….I have my complete name back and it feels great! Great post about Robert Burns!

    • nancy burns,
      I knew that about Dutch women’s names as my brother lives in The Netherlands and married a Dutch woman (about 40 years ago). I’ve had my married name for 38 years now but it’s still not ‘my’ name!
      Maybe you are related to Robert Burns, he was keen on a ‘Nancy’ well he was keen on just about all women, I think he might have had a child with her.

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