Known as the weavers poet, Robert Tannahill was not as fortunate in his career as our beloved national bard, Robert Burns. The tragic ending to his life is what propelled him into the fame he so desired, and he became a pillar in a town full of innovation and culture.
Born in Castle street in Paisley, Tannahill was born with a slight deformity in his right leg, leading to a limp and contributing to his slight frame. Tannahill came from a family of nine, as noted in a letter he wrote to a friend. When he was of school leaving age (around 12 for most working class/labouring families) he was an apprentice under his father, who was a silk gauze weaver.
Upon completion of his apprenticeship, Tannahill left Paisley to work in Bolton, Lancashire, where he stayed until 1801. He returned to Paisley to take care of his family, with his father passing not long after his return. It is during this time that Tannahill writes the letter to his friend discussing how him and his brother are the sole carers for their mother, and how not many years ago the family used to share happy times over the dinner table.
Tannahill’s works date to his return to Paisley, and one of his earliest poems is “The Fillial Blow” where he discusses the raw emotions of caring for an elderly parent from the perspective of both parties ; “but mostly this o’erclouds her every joy, She grieves to think she may be burthensome, now feeble, old, and tott’ring to the tomb” and Roberts experience of care-taking is heart-wrenching and universally relatable “Tis mine, to hand her down life’s rugged steep: With all her little weaknesses to bear,
Attentive, kind, to sooth her every care. ‘Tis nature bids, and truest pleasure flows, from lessening an aged parent’s woes”.
Despite the lack of fame and admiration whilst he was alive, after his suicide his significance in our culture grew; from annual concerts at the Gleniffer braes to raise money for his statue in Paisley centre, to being included in the Wallace monument’s Hall of Heroes. The quality of his work transcends centuries, and the experiences he speaks to are universal to many.