David Burns was born on 20 September 1937, son of Allan Robert Desmond Burns, GM, and Gladys Frances Dine. He was educated at Sir Anthony Browne's School, Brentwood, Essex, and in 1971 married Inger Ellen Kristiansson, having one son and one daughter.
Burns joined the Foreign Office on leaving school, returning to work in the UN Department following his National Service (1956-58). He then became a Language student and Third Secretary at the British Embassy, Belgrade [Yugoslavia], (1962-65), then Second Secretary, Bangkok [Thailand], (1966-68) and First Secretary, Washington [United States], (1969-72). He returned to Belgrade as Head of Chancery, (1973-76) before becoming Assistant Head of Arms Control Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, (1976-79) and Counsellor, Bangkok, (1979-83). He was then posted back to the United States as Consul General, Boston, (1983-87) then became Head of North America Department, FCO, (1988-91) before becoming Ambassador to Cambodia, (1991-94) and finally Ambassador to Finland, (1995-97).