PAISLEY poet Robert Tannahill is said to have been the best Scots poetic Robert following Burns and Fergusson. He wrote poetry in English and lyrics – on which his reputation mainly rests – in Scots.

He was Paisley’s “weaver poet”, though the town supposedly had 290 of these, pretty good going for a joint that, at the time of Robert’s birth, had a population of 4,000 (and 1,300 looms).

None, though, left a legacy of songs and poems like Robert’s. Some of these became the basis for later classics such as Wild Mountain Thyme (“Will You Go Lassie Go”) from Tannahill’s The Braes of Balquhidder, or Australia’s Waltzing Matilda, from music composed by Robert (most illustrious name ever) Barr for Tannahill’s The Bonnie Woods Of Craigielea.

Robert Tannahill was born on June 3, 1774, at Castle Street, Paisley, to Janet (née Pollock), daughter of a Lochwinnoch farmer, and James Tannahill, a silk gauze weaver, originally from Kilmarnock.

When Robert was one, the family moved to nearby Queen Street, where James built a one-storey thatched cottage, split between the dwelling house and a four-loom weaving workshop. 

The building still stands and is home to Paisley Burns Club.

Young Robert had a delicate constitution and a limp, due to one leg being bent and shorter than the other. In those daft days, this was shameful, so young Robert spent much time karate chopping his gammy limb and succeeded in straightening it. To disguise the shortness, he wore multiple pairs of socks.

It’s a short step from hosiery to poesy and, while at school, Robert early essayed verse, principally in the form of riddles –main source of entertainment in pre-internet times. His education consisted of rudimentary reading, writing and arithmetic at what was called an “English” school.

While, today, school is a sair fecht lasting many years, back then you were generally liberated by the age of 12, when Robert became apprenticed to his father as a weaver. In his spare time, though, he extended his basic education, teaching himself to read music, play the German flute and write proper poetry. 

Bard to the bone
Aged 17, he paid homage to Burns by setting off on a walking tour of Ayrshire. He didn’t meet Burns. Boy was too shy. 

The Herald:

The population of Paisley grew to just shy of 24,000 by 1799, when a widespread crop failure caused a stagnation in trade throughout the UK.

Though the Tannahills were never poor (a misconception nurtured by his concern for such folks), Robert, then 26, and his brother, Hugh, then 20, went to Lancashire looking for work. Great wages had been reported there.

However, they found conditions dire. In Bolton, a former Paisley weaver took them in and managed to find them employment.

In 1801, the brothers had to return to Paisley to attend their father, who died shortly afterwards of consumption (which also claimed one sister and three brothers). 

After Hugh married, it fell to Robert to care for their infirm mother, during which he deepened his interest in poetry and music. In 1803, he and some friends formed the loony-sounding Paisley Literacy and Convivial Association. 

He also became first secretary of the aforementioned Paisley Burns Club, formed in 1805 at the Sun Tavern on the High Street, with Borders writer James Hogg and Renfrewshire poet Robert Allan in attendance.

Tannahill’s own work blossomed as he worked at the loom, to which he attached a makeshift desk, enabling him to sit “weaving threads and verses alternately”. Fellow Renfrewshire-born poet Douglas Dunn wrote of “Lines woven inch by linen inch”.

Fine tuning
IT don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got yon swing, and Tannahill’s work took tangible form after he became friends with composer Robert (of course) Archibald Smith, a fellow weaver who’d moved from Reading to Paisley. Smith set many of his songs to music. (He did the same for Burns’s My Love is like a Red, Red Rose.)

After Tannahill’s work had appeared in several periodicals, in 1807 he published by subscription a collection of his poems and songs in an edition of 900 copies, which sold out in two weeks and made him 20 quid (probably around £2,267.44 today – thank you, Google).

Later, he said that regardless of critical acclaim, it had meant more to him when, out on a solitary walk, he’d heard a lass in a field singing one of his songs: “We’ll meet beside the dusky glen, on yon burnside.” Similarly, Paul McCartney said he knew a tune was good when he heard a window cleaner whistle it.

Greatly encouraged, Robert sent an augmented collection to publishers in Greenock and Edinburgh. But, to his dismay, they turned him down. Already prone to bouts of melancholy, he took this badly and burned all his manuscripts.

His physical state declined, and friends saw definite signs he was going off his onion. The day before his death, he was so discombobulated – possibly through organic mental impairment – they had to escort him back from a visit to Glasgow.

Alerted, his brothers hastened to their mother’s house, where they found he’d gone to bed and was apparently asleep.

Tragic end
SHORTLY afterwards, one brother passed the house again and found the gate open. Robert was gone. By the grey morning light of May 17, 1810, searchers came across his coat and watch lying under a canal near the Candren Burn culvert, where they found his body floating. He was just short of 36 years old. 

Needless to say, soon after his death, his work was published. The £20 he’d earned from his first collection lay untouched in the bank.

Robert Tannahill was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Canal Street. In 1866, a granite monument was erected there by public subscription. 

Annual performances of his songs, with audiences up to 30,000, took place on Gleniffer Braes – frequently mentioned in his work – between 1876 and 1936. 

The penny admission charge from the concerts paid for a statue to be erected at Paisley Abbey in 1883. 

He’s best remembered, though, by lines such as these from The Braes o’ Gleniffer, about a lass whose sweetheart has gone to war: “The wild flow’rs o’ simmer were spread a’ sae bonnie/The mavis sang sweet frae the green birken tree/But far to the camp they hae march’d my dear Johnnie/And now it is winter wi’ nature and me.”