Robert Burns’ children: how many children did the Bard have, and does he have any famous descendants?

While Burns is famous across the world for his poetry, he is almost as well known for his liaisons with the opposite sex.

Many of these encounters resulted in illegitimate children and before his death at the age of 37, Burns had fathered 12 offspring by four different mothers.

As such, his family tree has continued to sprawl out in various directions since the poet's death in 1796.

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As many as 900 of his relatives have been identified by genealogical researchers - and some of them are quite remarkable. Here’s everything you need to know about Burns’ children - and his best-known descendants.

Robert Burns is Scotland's most celebrated writer but other elements of his legacy are questionable. Picture: Shutterstock
Robert Burns is Scotland's most celebrated writer but other elements of his legacy are questionable. Picture: Shutterstock

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Who was Robert Burns descended from?

Robert Burns was the son of two tenant farmers from the Mearns. He was one of seven children.

The building in Alloway which is now known as Burns Cottage was built by Robert’s father, and the family lived there until he was seven. They then sold the house and took tenancy of a 70-acre farm nearby.

The cottage Burns' father built is now a museum in his honour. Picture: Shuttertstock

From this time, life was hard - the family was poor and there were many mouths to feed. The back-breaking labour the farm demanded left Robert with a damaged back and a weakened constitution, both of which would plague him for the rest of his life.

Although he received little in the way of formal schooling, he was encouraged to read and soon began showing promise as a writer. Aged 15, now the principal labourer on his family’s farm, he began composing poems to the girls who caught his eye.

Who were his children?

Of Burns’ 12 confirmed offspring, nine were with Jean Armour. The two had an on and off relationship over the course of several years before finally marrying in 1788.

Of the nine children she and Robert had together, only three survived infancy. Two died unnamed shortly after being born, and the others were Jean, Robert, James, William, Elizabeth, Francis and Maxwell.

Jean is also believed to have taken in one of Burns’ illegitimate children, Elizabeth Burns, after the death of the child’s biological mother, Ann Park.

By all available accounts, she raised the child alongside her own, making no distinction.

Burns’ first child - also illegitimate and also named Elizabeth - was born to one of his family's servants, Elizabeth Paton while he was in his mid-20s.

Over the course of his life, Burns would continue to sleep with women that were effectively his employees, having children by at least two others.

While his mother wanted him to marry her, his siblings reportedly pressured him not to – his rising status as a poet was their family's best route out of poverty and not one they were willing to see squandered.

While he didn't marry her, he did take their daughter into his family to help raise her.

When he came to write a poem about the incident, he was typically caustic about the demonisation of sex present in society.

In The Fornicator, he mocks the church’s attempts to shame a pair of young lovers - referring to their fines as “buttock-hire”.

However, he also wrote affectionately about the daughter born of the affair – “A Poet’s Welcome to His Love Begotten Daughter” made him one of the first fathers in recorded history to pen a love letter to his daughter.

In the poem (also know as “Welcome to a Bastart Wean”) he again dismisses those who would call him a “fornicator” and celebrates the “Wee image o' my bonie Betty”.

Jenny Clow was another servant girl who became pregnant following a love affair with Burns.

After Burns’ poems improved his fortunes, he was able to move to Edinburgh where he made several wealthy friends. One was a woman named Agnes “Nancy” Maclehose, with whom he exchanged passionate letters for many years.

When he failed to seduce Agnes, he turned to her maid, Jenny Clow. She gave birth to their son, Robert Burns Clow, in 1788.

Years later, the lady wrote to Burns to tell him that Jenny was in a dire condition and in need of help. Having been fired from her position, her reputation ruined, she was now destitute and seriously ill.

He sent money and offered to take their son but was refused. Jenny died in 1791 and their child is thought not to have lived much beyond this, although his exact fate is unknown.

By the time he died, Burns was living again with his wife Jean Armour. She gave birth to his final child, Maxwell, on the very same day that the poet himself died - 21 July 1796.

Who are his living descendants?

As a result of having had so many children himself, Burns is now thought to have over 900 living relatives.

The most famous of all Rabbie Burns' known descendants - and there are no doubt plenty of unknown ones - is Tommy Hilfiger.

The iconic American fashion designer is Rabbie's great, great, great nephew.

Specifically, Robert Burns had a brother named Gilbert whose great granddaughter was Tom Hilfiger’s aunt.

However, the designer, famed for his lines of preppy yet practical menswear, has stated that this particular part of their lineage was not a matter of pride amongst the family.

He told Vogue in 2012 that “It was never discussed in my house, because it was said that Robert Burns was a womaniser and a boozer. They were embarrassed he was related, so we weren't told until we were in our teens or maybe twenties."