Robert Tannahill (1774-1810)
The much-loved Paisley poet, song-writer and weaver, Robert Tannahill’s lines are essential to the canon of Scottish songs and poems in the mould of Robert Burns. Burns is clearly an important figure by comparison: Tannahill was the first Secretary of the Paisley Burns Club established in 1805 and wrote several poems and songs in Burns’ memory.
He had friends in Glasgow and neighbouring towns, attended the theatre in Glasgow and, importantly, was familiar with the publishers in Glasgow who were established in selling ballad poetry. His early works were also printed in the Glasgow Courier, leading to his recognition as the leading poet of the periodicals. Tannahill’s first collection was The soldier's return: a Scottish interlude in two acts, with other poems and songs, chiefly in the Scottish dialect (1805). It sold well, and the latter part of the title is a clear homage to Burns.
Robert Archibald Smith (1780-1829), renowned as the leading church musician in Scotland, composed airs for many of Tannahill’s songs following their friendship as fellow weavers. Their relationship is an example of the vibrancy of Glasgow’s satellite towns as contributors to Scotland’s poetic and musical tradition.
Like Burns’ life, Tannahill’s was cut short. There is a famous story involving Tannahill’s emotional farewell to James Hogg (1770-1835) who had travelled west in the hope of meeting the Paisley poet. Hogg says that, upon leaving Tannhill, he ‘had scarcely reached Edinburgh’ before he ‘read in the newspapers an account of his sad end.’ Following bouts of depression, the poet was discovered drowned in Maxwellton Burn, not far from his home.