Scotland from the Roadside


The Modern Scottish Minstrel

The following is from Volume II of The Modern Scottish Minstrel; Or, The Songs of Scotland of the Past Half Century in Six Volumes:

Robert Tannahill

Robert Tannahill was born at Paisley on the 3d of June 1774. His father, James Tannahill, a silk-gauze weaver, espoused Janet Pollock, daughter of Matthew Pollock, owner of the small property of Boghall, near Beith; their family consisted of six sons and one daughter, of whom the future poet was the fourth child. On his mother's side he inherited a poetical temperament; she was herself endowed with strong natural sagacity, and her maternal uncle Hugh Brodie of Langcroft, a small landowner in Lochwinnoch, evidenced poetic powers by composing "A Speech in Verse upon Husbandry."[75] When a mere youth, Tannahill wrote verses; and being unable, from a weakness in one of his limbs to join in the active sports of his school-fellows, he occasionally sought amusement by composing riddles in rhyme for their solution. As a specimen of these early compositions, we submit the following, which has been communicated to us by Mr Matthew Tannahill, the poet's surviving brother. It was composed on old grumbling Peter Anderson, the gardener of King's Street, a character still remembered in Paisley:--

"Wi' girnin' and chirmin',
  His days they hae been spent;
When ither folk right thankfu' spoke,
  He never was content."

Along with poetry Tannahill early cultivated the kindred arts of music and song; a mere youth, he occasionally earned the payment of ten shillings for playing on the fife at the Greenock parades; he afterwards became eminent for his skill in the use of the flute. Having completed his education at school, which consisted of instruction in the elementary branches, he became apprenticed to a cotton-weaver. Collecting old or obscure airs, he began to adapt to them suitable words, which he jotted down as they occurred, upon a rude writing-desk he had attached to his loom. His spare hours were spent in the general improvement of his mind. For a period of two years at the commencement of the century, he prosecuted his handicraft occupation at Bolton in England. Returning to Paisley in the spring of 1802, he was offered the situation of overseer of a manufacturing establishment, but he preferred to resume the labours of the loom.

Hitherto Tannahill had not dreamt of becoming known as a song-writer; he cultivated his gift to relieve the monotony of an unintellectual occupation, and the usual auditor of his lays was his younger brother Matthew, who for some years was his companion in the workshop. The acquaintance of Robert Archibald Smith, the celebrated musical composer, which he was now fortunate in forming, was the means of stimulating his Muse to higher efforts and of awakening his ambition. Smith was at this period resident in Paisley; and along with one Ross, a teacher of music from Aberdeen, he set several of Tannahill's best songs to music. In 1805 he was invited to become a poetical contributor to a leading metropolitan periodical; and two years afterwards he published a volume of "Poems and Songs." Of this work a large impression was sold, and a number of the songs soon obtained celebrity. Encouraged by R. A. Smith and others, who, attracted by his fame, came to visit him, Tannahill began to feel concerned in respect of his reputation as a song-writer; he diligently composed new songs and re-wrote with attention those which he had already published. Some of these compositions he hoped would be accepted by his correspondent, Mr George Thomson, for his collection, and the others he expected would find a publisher in the famous bookselling firm of Constable & Co. The failure of both these schemes--for Constable's hands were full, and Thomson exhibited his wonted "fastidiousness"--preyed deeply on the mind of the sensitive bard. A temporary relief to his disappointed expectations was occasioned by a visit which, in the spring of 1810, he received from James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who made a journey to Paisley expressly to form his acquaintance. The visit is remembered by Mr Matthew Tannahill, who describes the enthusiasm with which his brother received such homage to his genius. The poets spent a night together; and in the morning Tannahill accompanied the Shepherd half-way to Glasgow. Their parting was memorable: "Farewell," said Tannahill, as he grasped the Shepherd's hand, "we shall never meet again! Farewell, I shall never see you more!"

The visit of the Ettrick Bard proved only an interlude amidst the depression which had permanently settled on the mind of poor Tannahill. The intercourse of admiring friends even became burdensome to him; and he stated to his brother Matthew his determination either to leave Paisley for a sequestered locality, or to canvass the country for subscribers to a new edition of his poems. Meanwhile, his person became emaciated, and he complained to his brother that he experienced a prickling sensation in the head. During a visit to a friend in Glasgow, he exhibited decided symptoms of insanity. On his return home, he complained of illness, and took to bed in his mother's house. He was visited by three of his brothers on the evening of the same day, and they left him about ten o'clock, when he appeared sufficiently composed. Returning about two hours afterwards to inquire for him, and for their mother, who lay sick in the next apartment, they found their brother's bed empty, and discovered that he had gone out. Arousing the neighbours, they made an immediate search, and at length they discovered the poet's lifeless body at a deep spot of the neighbouring brook. Tannahill terminated his own life on the 17th May 1810, at the age of thirty-six.

The victim of disappointments which his sensitive temperament could not endure, Tannahill was naturally of an easy and cheerful disposition. "He was happy himself," states his surviving brother, "and he wished to see every one happy around him." As a child, his brother informs us, his exemplary behaviour was so conspicuous, that mothers were satisfied of their children's safety, if they learned that they were in company with "Bob Tannahill." Inoffensive in his own dispositions, he entertained every respect for the feelings of others. He enjoyed the intercourse of particular friends, but avoided general society; in company, he seldom talked, and only with a neighbour; he shunned the acquaintance of persons of rank, because he disliked patronage, and dreaded the superciliousness of pride. His conversation was simple; he possessed, but seldom used, considerable powers of satire; but he applied his keenest shafts of declamation against the votaries of cruelty. In performing acts of kindness he took delight, but he was scrupulous of accepting favours; he was strong in the love of independence, and he had saved twenty pounds at the period of his death. His general appearance did not indicate intellectual superiority; his countenance was calm and meditative, his eyes were gray, and his hair a light-brown. In person, he was under the middle size. Not ambitious of general learning, he confined his reading chiefly to poetry. His poems are much inferior to his songs; of the latter will be found admirers while the Scottish language is sung or understood. Abounding in genuine sweetness and graceful simplicity, they are pervaded by the gentlest pathos. Rich in description of beautiful landscapes, they softly tell the tale of man's affection and woman's love.[76]

[75] See Semple's "Continuation of Crawford's History of Renfrewshire," p. 116.

[76] Tannahill was believed never to have entertained particular affection towards any of the fair sex. We have ascertained that, at different periods, he paid court to two females of his own rank. The first of these was Jean King, sister of his friend John King, one of the minor poets of Paisley; she afterwards married a person of the name of Pinkerton; and her son, Mr James Pinkerton, printer, Paisley, has frequently heard her refer to the fear she had entertained lest "Rob would write a song about her." His next sweetheart was Mary Allan, sister of the poet Robert Allan. This estimable woman was a sad mourner on the poet's death, and for many years wept aloud when her deceased lover was made the subject of conversation in her presence. She still survives, and a few years since, to join some relations, she emigrated to America. Some verses addressed to her by the poet she continues to retain with the fondest affection.


Copyright © Scotland from the Roadside 2002-2015