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Robert Tannahill

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Information on the Scottish composer Robert Tannahill, based on David Semple's "The Poems and Songs and Correspondence of Robert Tannahill, with Life and Notes." Paisley: Alex Gardner, 1876.

Robert Tannahill's family had been weavers for several generations at Kilmarnock, Ayrshire. They moved to Paisley in 1756, which a that time had more than 1300 working looms and only about 4000 people. They did well, married, raised large families, served their church, and owned their houses.

In 1786 James Tannahill, Robert's father, was chosen Deacon or Boxmaster of the Paisley Old Weavers' Society. Family connections have a bearing on Tannahill's work, not only because prosperity made possible both the education and the leisure to pursue the arts, but more specifically because his mother, Janet Pollick, was related to the Brodie family, which had produced several poets and actors among its farmers and weavers. One of her cousins, Robert Brodie, was a poet of some local renown, and a frequent visitor to the Tannahill home.

Robert was the 5th child and 4th son, born June 3, 1774, and was sickly from the start. Through careful nursing, he survived, and "a slight bend in the right foot was straightened." His constitution remained delicate throughout his life, however, and he endured considerable pain and embarrassment from a lifelong limp. He wore extra stockings on his thin right leg to make it look more like his other leg, and all his life was bashful of meeting strangers.

Both Robert's parents had had a liberal education, and the children were sent to school from the age of 6 to 12. Robert did not distinguish himself at school, though by age 10 he was entertaining his friends with verses about public figures in the town. After leaving school he bought a dictionary with a grammar included and continued to instruct himself in his chosen avocation.

In 1786, aged 12, he was apprenticed to his father, working in the relatively light trade of muslin, linen and silk weaving. Apparently some biographers have asserted that this was a sign of family poverty, but Semple asserts it was the custom of the town for boys to go to work at that age, and that wages were good. Robert also spent a good deal of time walking, to strengthen his leg and his constitution, though it also increased his pain. The "woods of Craigielee" were but a 3 minute walk from his father's house, and the countryside around Paisley served as setting and material for many of his later songs.

Robert's apprenticeship ended in 1791, the year Tam O'Shanter was published (expensively). It came out cheaply in 1794, and folks in Paisley felt especially attached to the story because of the reference to a "cutty sark o Paisley harn." Robert and his friends walked from Paisley to Alloway Kirk & spent six weeks in Burns' country..

At this time, when he was about 20, Robert seems to have begun a conscious self-education by reading and correspondence, toward the "treating of poetry and music". His declared purpose in this period was to restore the popularity of old Scottish airs by writing new words for them. He must have been working feverishly (perhaps literally so, given his health) for he attached an inkpot to the frame of his loom so he could write down whatever came to him as he worked. (Which makes one wonder to what extent the rhythm of weaving affected the rhythms of his poems.)

In 1795, the poet met Jenny Tennant, a girl about 4 years older than himself, who had come with her mother to Paisley from Dunblane to seek employment. They "walked out together" for 3 years but she married another in 1798. How much this disappointment contributed to Robert's later despondency is of course a favourite topic of speculation.

By the end of the century, the population of Paisley had ballooned to nearly 24,000, and when a widespread crop failure in 1799 caused a stagnation in trade throughout the UK, the town was thrown into a crisis. Provisions rose to famine prices and committees were formed to operate soup kitchens. Robert, then 26, and his youngest brother, Hugh, then 20, went to England looking for work, but found the "distress" there equally severe. In Bolton, Lancashire, they were taken in by a former Paisley weaver and through him were able to find work. They were called home, however, by the end of 1801, to attend their father's death bed. Robert moved back in with his mother and returned to his loom and his poems. The correspondence included in Semple's collection begins in the spring of 1802.

Tradesmen of Paisley had been forming reading clubs and other societies for "mental culture" since about 1770. Robert and his friends formed a new one in 1803 devoted exclusively to music, poetry, and literature. Its 15-20 members "considered themselves the cream of the intellectual tradesmen of the town," and their meetings included the vociferous and detailed critique of various poems and publications, including Robert's poems. The proceedings were in general well lubricated, and Robert endured a lot of ridicule for abstaining from liquor--whether for moral or health reasons is not clear. Robert valued the opinions of these men (and at least one woman, who hosted them when they travelled from Paisley to meet with like-minded men in Kilmarnock) and continued to court their good opinion until the day of his death. He wrote "The Soldier's Return," a "dramatic interlude," on request from a local actor (who died before he finished it), and submitted it to the club for critique. They disliked it, and apparently told Tannahill the reasons in some detail, and with a deal of drunken enthusiasm, when he inquired. The poet was crushed by this reaction, and sullenly continued to believe the drama was his "complete masterpiece".

The "interlude" did include some good songs, however. John Ross of Aberdeen had been employed to write the music for "Our Bonnie Scots Lads" (a song on the Paisley recruits) and "The Dusky Glen," and the performance of one of these songs brought Tannahill together with another composer, R.A. Smith, who, along with William McLaren became a close friend. (Smith was the son of an English weaver who relocated to Paisley. Unlike Tannahill, he had no aptitude for a weaver's life and hated the work.) McLaren wrote an early biography of Tannahill, and described him in these years as a staid, quiet, inoffensive man, about 5'4", with a halt in his walk, not a fine dresser (some of his siblings were the setters of fashion in Paisley), who spent most of his money on books, stationery, postage, and occasional traveling expenses". He was not strong, and had a permanent dry cough (He and the rest of his club were heavy smokers).

Tannahill's first publication was in 1804 or 1805 in a literary magazine in Edinburgh -- its title has never (at least to 1876) been satisfactorily identified. His next publication seems to have been in another unidentified magazine in England. It seems logical that he must have published more extensively than this in 1804, as 17 of his poems were included in a pair of Glasgow publications of 1805 and 1806--"The Selector" and "The Glena," both of which, as their names suggest, were "gleanings" from other publications. In any case, from then on Tannahill was published regularly, in "The Paisley Repository", "The Nightingale", "The Caledonian Musical Repository" and other publications.

Tannahill's fame and popularity were growing. Many of his poems had been put to music by Smith and by Ross, and their lyrics were easily memorised. Women singers were fond of his songs, and those from "The Soldier's Return" had an added patriotic appeal. But his first audience remained his most cherished one, and he continued to show new pieces to his club and to other friends--the careful saving of these copies by his acquaintance subsequently saved many poems from oblivion. In 1806 he was instrumental in opening a lending library for tradesmen in Paisley (there already was one for gentlemen), and he remained a working weaver and full member of his community.

In May 1807 an edition of his poems was published, with an advance subscription of 900. The "interlude" and the songs received the same reception from critics as they had in Paisley--they hated the play and loved the songs--and once again the poet was cast into despair. The drama was his masterpiece, he insisted again, and his songs "commonplace", elevated to greater interest only by the music supplied by others.

Still, the book made money, at least 20 pounds, and increased his fame. It allowed him to pursue his next desire, the collection of Irish airs--a project that proved far more problematic than his similar use of Scottish sources. Judging from one of his letters, he apparently collected unpublished songs from the Irish, had them translated or just talked to the singer about what the song was about, and then wrote verses in what he believed to be the same vein--often using people or events around Paisley as models for a song's situation. In 1808 a number of these new songs were rejected by George Thomson for publication, and in 1810 two other publishers refused a new edition of his poems. All was not discouragement in these years--in 1808 he wrote a comic song, "Caller Herrin," to the air of "The Cameronian Rant," and by 1810 six other new poems had been published in "Scots Magazine"-- but economic times were hard in Paisley, and the three major publication refusals were hard on Tannahill's spirits.

In March, 1810, just before he received the second refusal on his new edition, Tannahill received a visit at Paisley from James Hogg. The visit was arranged by Smith, the composer, and the three of them spent a "convivial evening" with other friends in the club room of a tavern. This was the last great event of Tannahill's life. Shortly afterward, friends began to recognize symptoms of mental disturbance: he was despondent and sometimes incoherent. On several occasions he was escorted home by friends afraid to let him go into the streets alone. Wading through the Semple's elevated and euphemistic language, (the only direct phrase is "aberration of mind") one concludes that Tannahill probably suffered from an organic mental illness. On the night of May 16, 1810, he was seen to bed by his mother, but got up later and left the house. When his absence was discovered, a search party was organized and his watch and other effects were found by a canal. His body was recovered shortly thereafter.

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