Robert Tannahill wrote some of the most evocative poetry and song in Scotland’s history. The ‘weaver poet’ lost his life in tragic circumstances, but his name lives on today.
The poet was born at Castle Street in Paisley in 1774, the fourth son in a family of seven. On leaving school at age twelve, he was apprenticed to his father as a handloom weaver.
With his apprenticeship completed, Tannahill left the town but, after two years working in Bolton, Lancashire, he returned home in 1801 to support the family.
Most of Tannahill’s poetry dates from his return home, when he composed as he worked at the loom, weaving threads and verses alternately. 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?”.
Tannahill’s life was to end in tragic circumstances in 1810. Aggrieved at the rejection of his latest work by publishers and fearful of his health, the poet drowned himself in a culverted stream under Paisley Canal.
It was only after death that Tannahill’s work achieved the recognition he had always craved, and he has continued to be celebrated throughout Paisley’s cultural life. The centenary of his birth was marked in 1874 by an edition of his Poems and Songs and by a procession to the Gleniffer Braes, one of the most frequently mentioned landscapes in his work, attended by 15,000 people. A series of annual concerts were held on the Braes between 1876 – 1936.
Tannahill’s Cottage is now home to the Paisley Burns Club, founded in 1805, and one of the oldest Burns Clubs in the world. The cottage contains a display of Tannahill and Burns memorabilia.
A statue of Robert Tannahill stands on Abbey Close, immediately opposite the entrance to Paisley Town Hall. The statue was erected in 1883 and paid for by the penny admission charge to the concerts mentioned above.