On the 17th of May, 1810, Robert Tannahill, known as the ‘Paisley Poet’, who was also a songwriter and playright, drowned himself in a Paisley canal.
In his day, Robert Tannahill held a place second only to Robert Burns in the pantheon of Scottish writers. That should be the precursor to a wonderful story of achievement. Instead, the tale of Robert Tannahill is a depressing story. Like many others of his generation, Tannahill drew inspiration in terms of style and substance from his near-contemporary, Robert Burns. Burns was the ‘ploughman poet’, drawing on his rural experiences, whereas Tannahill was the ‘weaver poet’, whose life and times are intrinsically linked to the Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, his nostalgic view of the Scottish landscape is far more idyllic than anything Burns wrote. Surely that was Tannahill’s antidote to the harsh and noisy urban scenes of 19th Century Paisley. Sadly for Robert Tannahill, the antidote, was to be ineffective.
Since his death, widespread knowledge of Tannahill’s work has much diminished. However, these days, his name is kept alive and honoured in the name of the band of musicians known as ‘The Tannahill Weavers’. Tannahill’s reputation at the height of his popularity was as ‘The Paisley Poet’, yet it is mostly his songs that have survived into the modern day. You may recognise the tunes and lyrics when you hear them, but you’re less likely to associate them with Robert Tannahill. Just think of these two for a start: ‘Are ye sleeping Maggie’ and ‘Gloomy winter’s noo awa’’ of which the following is the first verse:
“Gloomy Winter’s noo awa’; soft the westlin breezes blaw.
Among the birks o’ Stanley Shaw the mavis sings fu’ cheerie O.
Sweet the crawflowers early bell decks Gleniffer’s dewy dell.
Blooming like your bonny sel’, my ain my airtless dearie O.”
Some of Tannahill’s best work was inspired by his walks on the Gleniffer Braes. Amongst the most famous of these works are ‘Thou Bonnie Wood o’ Craigie-lea’ and, obviously, the ‘The Braes o’ Gleniffer’. As a songwriter and poet, Tannahill explored themes of love and friendship, but many of his poems are of battles or heroic figures. The folly of the Napoleonic Wars affected him deeply as is seen in his writing.
Robert Tannahill was born in Castle Street, Paisley on the 3rd of June, 1774, but soon after his birth the family moved to a thatched cottage, which his father had built, in nearby Queen Street. This cottage became both family home and weaving shop and today is a meeting place for the Paisley Tannahill Club. Robert received a basic education, but he read widely and showed an early interest in poetry. When he was twelve years old, he left school and became an apprentice weaver to his father. In between times, he was able to continue his self education and also learned to play the flute.
Robert Tannahill started writing verses whilst still at school and these were generally about some odd character about the place, or any unusual event. After school-hours, he and his mates used to offer each other riddles or, as we say in Scotland, “speer guesses”. Here’s one attributed to young Tannahill, in rhyme as was his wont:
“My colour’s brown, my shape’s uncouth,
On ilka side I hae a mouth;
And, strange to tell, I will devour
My bulk of meat in half an hour.”
The answer to this riddle turns out to be “the big, brown, unshapely nose of a well-known character, who took large quantities of snuff.”
After his father’s untimely death, Tannahill started to publish his poems and, in some cases, lyrics to existing folk tunes. The first of his poems that appeared in print was in praise of Ferguslee wood. That was one of his favourite haunts, and often rang to the notes of his flute in the summer evenings as he wandered lonely as a cloud. The poem was sent to a Glasgow periodical and immediately published. The request for further submissions delighted Tannahill and that was his first sign of success after previous efforts had been rejected. His work also appeared in a number of journals, including the ‘Scots Magazine’.
The first edition of his ‘Poems and Songs’ appeared in 1807 and all nine hundred copies of that 175-page volume were sold by subscription within a few weeks, making a profit of twenty pounds. By that time, he had become well known and several of his songs quite fashionable. It is recorded in some biographies that once, whilst on one of his walks, he came upon a girl, in an adjoining field, who was singing one of his songs and that he was more pleased at this evidence of his popularity than at any tribute, which had ever been paid to him. You’d think, then, that he’d nothing to worry about, but melancholy was lurking around the corner.
It seems Tannahill was a bit of a perfectionist as he felt his first, published foray needed correcting. Tannahill even went to the length of re-writing all his pieces and intended to publish a second edition. Unfortunately, however, during that time, poor Robert suffered from depression and it seems he showed all the classic signs of that illness. It’s clear that he was on the edge of a mental and physical breakdown. Things came to a head when the reworked, second edition of his Poems was presented to publishers in Edinburgh and Greenock, and Tannahill was turned down by both. If only they had realised.
Those rejections were the final straw for Tannahill and he set about destroying everything that he’d written. All his songs, many of which had never been printed, and all those that had been corrected and amended, he threw into the fire. Robert Tannahill’s last desperate act was suicide. Robert Tannahill was found dead in a culvert at the Candren Burn, in Paisley, in the early hours of the morning of the 17th of May, 1810. Tannahill was buried in an unmarked grave in what is now Castlehead Kirkyard, but in 1866, after public outcry, a granite monument was erected beside his grave.