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Tannahill, Robert (DNB00)


TANNAHILL, ROBERT (1774–1810), Scottish song-writer, son of James Tannahill, silk-weaver, and his wife Janet Pollock, an Ayrshire farmer's daughter, was born at Paisley on 3 June 1774. Educated in Paisley, he impressed his schoolfellows more by his rhyming gift than his studious habits. At the age of thirteen he was bound apprentice weaver to his father, and managed to read much and widely both at the loom and during his leisure hours. Concluding his apprenticeship, he worked for some time at Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, and in the end of 1799 settled at Bolton, Lancashire. On his father's death, about the beginning of 1802, he returned to Paisley and continued the business with his mother, settling down in the spirit manifested in his touching poem ‘Filial Duty.’

In 1803 Tannahill became a leading member of a new club, where his associates did him good service by criticising his poetical exercises. For this club he wrote several spirited lyrics, and he composed for the local Burns club between 1805 and 1810 three notable odes celebrating the anniversary of Burns's birth. Robert Archibald Smith [q. v.] and John Ross of Aberdeen having set several of his songs to music, they speedily became popular. ‘Perhaps,’ Tannahill once said, ‘the highest pleasure ever I derived from these things has been hearing, as I walked down the pavement at night, a girl within doors rattling away at some one of them’ (Ramsay, Works of Tannahill, p. xxi). Never robust, but with a consumptive tendency, Tannahill took little part in public affairs, but he gave strenuous help towards establishing in Paisley the trades library for working men, which was opened in 1805. In March 1810 he received a visit from James Hogg (1770–1835) [q. v.], the Ettrick Shepherd. Meanwhile he was disappointed and harassed in his relations with publishers; he became wayward and melancholy; and at length, in a fit of mental aberration, he drowned himself in a conduit under the canal at Paisley on 17 May 1810. He was interred in the West Relief burying-ground, and in 1866 an obelisk monument was placed at his grave. The centenary of his birth was celebrated with elaborate ceremony on 3 June 1874. In 1876 annual Tannahill concerts were begun on Gleniffer Braes—famous through one of the poet's best lyrics—and from the profits thence accruing a bronze statue of Tannahill, placed on a granite pedestal, was erected in Paisley Abbey burying-ground in 1883.

Tannahill never married, but in his sweet and tender song, ‘Jessie the Flower o' Dunblane,’ and its fervent sequel, ‘The Fareweel,’ he enshrines his love and renunciation of Janet Tennant (1770–1833), a native of Dunblane, Perthshire, most of whose life was spent in Paisley (Semple, Poems and Songs of Robert Tannahill, p. 208).

Tannahill versified early, and some poetical epistles to his friends—e.g. ‘Epistle to James Barr,’ written in 1804—are not without vigour and occasional epigrammatic points, though they are too discursive and diffuse to be generally effective. ‘The Soldier's Return, an Interlude,’ contains several good songs—some of which helped to win Tannahill his fame—but it has no dramatic quality. Between 1805 and 1810 he wrote lyrics for Glasgow periodicals—the ‘Selector,’ the ‘Gleaner,’ and the ‘Nightingale or Songsters' Magazine’—to Miller's ‘Paisley Repository,’ and to the ‘Scots Magazine.’ In 1808 he proposed to contribute to George Thomson's ‘Collection of Original Scottish Airs’ songs written for certain Irish melodies of which he was enamoured, but the editor declined the proposal. While some of these songs are meritorious, the best of them do not reach Tannahill's highest level. Certain descriptive poems, bacchanalian ditties, epitaphs, &c., attest the writer's observation, rhetorical vigour, and ingenuity. His reputation, however, rests mainly on his Scottish songs. In sentimental song Tannahill ranks almost with the greatest of Scottish song-writers, approaching Lady Nairne and Burns himself in such dainty and winning lyrics as ‘Bonnie Wood o' Craigielee,’ ‘Sleepin' Maggie,’ ‘Braes o' Gleniffer,’ ‘Gloomy Winter's noo awa',’ ‘The Lass o' Arranteenie,’ ‘Cruikston Castle's lonely wa's,’ and ‘Jessie the Flower o' Dunblane.’

Tannahill's poems were first published in 1807. Shortly before his death he burnt his manuscripts, but, as friends had copies, his editors were able to increase the matter of the original publication. Two editions issued in 1815 and one in 1817 have a prefatory biographical sketch by James Muir. Tannahill is largely represented in Motherwell's ‘Harp of Renfrewshire,’ 1819. A reprint in 1822 of the 1807 volume has an anonymous memoir. An edition of the songs, with biography by Alexander Laing [q. v.], ‘the Brechin poet,’ appeared in 1833. Philip A. Ramsay issued in 1838 ‘The Works of Robert Tannahill, with Life of the Author and a Memoir of R. A. Smith.’ This remained the standard version of Tannahill's writings for many years. The fullest edition is that of 1873, edited by David Semple [q. v.] Besides the poems and songs, it gives all available letters of the poet and his friends. It is preceded by an exhaustive though prolix biography.

A portrait was engraved by Samuel Freeman from a painting by Alexander Blair in the possession of the publishers Blackie & Son. John Morton, also a Paisley artist, sketched in pencil a profile likeness of Tannahill the day after his death, and from this subsequent engravings and busts have been taken.

[Life of Tannahill by William McLaren; Harp of Renfrewshire; biographies prefixed to various editions; Brown's Paisley Poets; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel; Veitch's Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry, ii. 315.]

T. B.