When poetry is mentioned in Scotland, the famous and widely celebrated Robert Burns is often the name that springs to mind, but researchers are now highlighting the significance of the nation’s ‘forgotten bard’ on the 250th anniversary of his birth.

Researchers and historians in Paisley are re-examining the life, death, and legacy of Robert Tannahill, who was known as the town’s ‘weaver poet’ and are highlighting his contribution to Scottish culture.

The team behind the £45 million refurbishment of Paisley Museum announced on Tuesday that a showcase of Tannahill’s works will go on display when it is completed, and it will specifically re-visit the circumstances surrounding his death.

This month marks the 250th anniversary of Robert Tannahill’s birth on 3 June 1774. The ‘forgotten bard’ wrote some of the most evocative poetry and songs in Scotland’s history, with his work dating from the early 1800s. He formed a partnership with the composer Robert Archibald Smith, who set some of his songs in the Scots language to music.

Most famously, the two worked together on ‘The Braes of Balquhidder’ which became the basis of the ballad ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ with its chorus of ‘Will Ye Go Lassie, Go?’. The tune to his famous song 'The Bonnie Wood o' Craigielee' was also adapted to become the unofficial Australian national anthem, 'Waltzing Matilda', in 1895.

However, Tannahill’s life ended in tragic circumstances in 1810 at the age of 35. In the early hours of 17 May 1810, his body was found in the shallow waters of Paisley’s Candren Burn in what was reported to be a suicide by drowning.

Robert Tannahill was born on 3 June 1774, but his death is now being re-examined. (Image: Submitted)

Now, new research carried out by Paisley Museum and Dr Moira Hansen from The Open University, and supported by the Glasgow Medical Humanities Network, is set to be published later this year and it casts doubt on the long-held belief that Tannahill deliberately ended his life.

Social History Researcher at Renfrewshire’s sporting and culture body, OneRen, Archie Henderson said: “At the height of his popularity, Tannahill was considered second only to Robert Burns as Scotland's most revered national bard.

“The international celebrity of Robert Burns casts a long shadow over Scotland's other renowned literary figures, but there is no doubt Robert Tannahill should continue to be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Sir Walter Scott, or Tannahill's own friend, James Hogg. Tannahill was not only chief amongst the innumerable pantheon of Paisley poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, his work also had a global reach.

“While Tannahill’s work is grounded in a love of nature and often simple, pastoral themes, modern retrospectives of his work reveal a much more complex individual, who produced a unique body of anti-sectarian, abolitionist, and anti-war poems and songs, during a life cut short by untimely, and potentially misunderstood death.”


The new research argues that Tannahill’s death may have been caused by tuberculosis, which was commonly known as consumption in the 1800s. It is widely believed that his father, sister, and three of his brothers died from the disease. Letters written by Tannahill that were analysed by the research team show him describing persistent coughing before his death.

Dr Moira Hansen said: “With the lack of effective treatments at the time, tuberculosis could linger in the body for several years, evident as occasional bouts of symptoms such as cough and fever.

“Over the longer term, weight loss becomes evident. Episodes of cough in particular are reported at various points in Tannahill’s life but by his final weeks, he’s really gone downhill. He’s lost a lot of weight, he looks awful, he’s running a severe fever and he’s having episodes of incoherent delirium.”

On the evening of 16 May 1810, in this state, Tannahill was put to bed by his mother and a friend, but he went missing from the cottage in the early hours of the morning. After a short search by family and friends, his body was discovered just half a mile from his house on Queen Street.

Dr Hansen added: “Robert’s body was found in relatively shallow waters. His coat and his watch were found on the bank. Perhaps in his confused and delirious state, he sought to cool his fever in the night-time waters, explaining why he took the time to remove his coat and watch, and why he hadn’t headed for the nearby deeper waters. It was an accidental death rather than a deliberate act.”

“At the time, there wouldn’t have been any distinction made between madness resulting from physical illness and that resulting from mental illness. But being able to link Robert’s condition to his genius makes it more befitting of a poet and more acceptable for his legacy. This new work, by showing the possible misinterpretation of the circumstances of his death, tells us as much about nineteenth-century attitudes to mental health as it does about Tannahill himself.”

Archie Henderson added: “Evidence that Robert’s physical and mental health were declining is clear. However, the degree to which he had any suicidal intent will forever be undetermined, as unsatisfying as that is. Reports of his death, especially by early biographers, talked of the sort of ‘melancholy’ and ‘morbid sensibility of mind’ often attributed to literary geniuses.”

The new Paisley Museum, which is due to open in 2025, will highlight Tannahill’s place as one of Scotland’s most important literary figures, with the new display including the watch he had on the night he died and the actual loom he used in his cottage on Queen Street.

Robert Tannahill's pocket watch, that he had on him when found, and the loom he used in his Queen's Street cottage will go on display in Paisley Museum. (Image: Submitted) 

It will also highlight the outpouring of love shown by the people of Paisley and beyond, including concerts in the late 1800s which marked the 100th anniversary of his birth, and attracted audiences of more than 30,000 people to Glennifer Braes.

Professor Gerard Carruthers FRSE, Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature, said that it was important for Tannahill’s legacy to be included within the refurbished Paisley Museum.

He said: “Robert Tannahill is one of Scotland's greatest songwriters. Inspired by Burns certainly, he was a great lyricist of nature in his own right during the early nineteenth-century Romantic period, and his lyrics and tunes resound around the world down to the present day.

“Very few of us will be remembered more than 200 years after our death. Tannahill lives, educates, and entertains. There is so much more still to discover and present too about the Paisley poets and songwriters of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”