Burns was born two miles (3 km) south of Ayr, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland, the eldest of the seven children of William Burnes (1721–1784) (Robert Burns spelled his surname Burnes until 1786), a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar, The Mearns, and Agnes Broun (or Brown)(1732–1820), the daughter of a tenant farmer from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire.
He was born in a house built by his father (now the Burns Cottage Museum), where he lived until Easter 1766, when he was seven years old. William Burnes sold the house and took the tenancy of the 70-acre (280,000 m2) Mount Oliphant farm, southeast of Alloway. Here Burns grew up in poverty and hardship, and the severe manual labour of the farm left its traces in a premature stoop and a weakened constitution.
He had little regular schooling and got much of his education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history and also wrote for them A Manual Of Christian Belief. He was also taught by John Murdoch (1747–1824), who opened an “adventure school” in Alloway in 1763 and taught Latin, French, and mathematics to both Robert and his brother Gilbert (1760–1827) from 1765 to 1768 until Murdoch left the parish. After a few years of home education, Burns was sent to Dalrymple Parish School during the summer of 1772 before returning at harvest time to full-time farm labouring until 1773, when he was sent to lodge with Murdoch for three weeks to study grammar, French, and Latin.
By the age of 15, Burns was the principal labourer at Mount Oliphant. During the harvest of 1774, he was assisted by Nelly Kilpatrick (1759–1820), who inspired his first attempt at poetry, “O, Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass”. In the summer of 1775, he was sent to finish his education with a tutor at Kirkoswald, where he met Peggy Thompson (b.1762), to whom he wrote two songs, “Now Westlin’ Winds” and “I Dream’d I Lay”.