Shipping magnate. Born in Glasgow, the son of a minister and younger brother of James Burns (1789 - 1871), with whom he formed a partnership. Together, they started sailing ships between Glasgow and Liverpool and across the Atlantic to Canada and the USA. J. & G. Burns set up the regular steamer service to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. This was sold to David Hutcheson & Co in 1851 and by the mid-1870s formed the basis of David MacBrayne's company, the name still associated with the service today.
Burns was party to the consolidation of a number of companies, including the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, into the Cunard Line, which had been begun by Sir Samuel Cunard. The Cunard Line, which merged with the White Star Line in 1936, gave life to liners such as the Queen Mary (1936). It remains today, as a US-owned cruise company, which operates the famous Queen Elizabeth II (QE2).
Burns died in Renfrewshire.