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Love and Publication

CD vol 1

For three years Robert walked out with Jenny Tennant who lived near Queen Street but she married someone else. Jenny, who may have provided the inspiration for "Jessie the Flower o' Dunblane", seems to have had a profound effect upon him; we don't know why the courtship with Robert ended but the later poem, "Fareweel" shows his feelings of being slighted:

"Accuse me not, inconstant fair,
Of being false to thee,
For I was true, would still been so,
Hadst thou been true to me."

There may have been other women he was fond of but the accounts are tenuous and no-one seems to have replaced Jenny Tennant in his affections.

Paisley had grown rapidly since his father and uncle had arrived in 1757. From a little over 4000 the population had risen almost eight-fold to 23881 by 1801. When the slump in trade hit the town at the end of the century, Robert and his brother Hugh decided to seek work in England; of course, Jenny's marriage in 1798 may also have played its part. But on arriving in Bolton, they found the distress in Lancashire was as great as back home. Luckily, they met another Paisley-born weaver who allowed them to stay at his house overnight and they were able to find work the following day, although Hugh moved to Preston after a while. However, both brothers received letters in 1801 saying that their father was seriously ill; they set off home in the depths of winter, arriving either in December or in January 1802. On his father's death, Robert remained at Queen Street with his mother, weaving at home, while Hugh married in the summer of 1802.

On his return, Robert met up again with old literary friends and they decided in 1803 to set up a social club in the Sun Tavern at 12, High Street, Paisley. The Paisley Literacy and Convivial Association was to allow members to read and discuss essays, songs, and musical compositions and any other cultural subjects. The members numbered from fifteen to twenty, and they considered themselves the cream of the intellectual tradesmen in town. It was this club that brought Robert to the attention of two composers who set some of his poems to music, RA Smith of Paisley who became well-known for writing the tune for Burns' "My love is like a red, red rose" and William McLaren.


The Burns Anniversary Society

Not all went smoothly for the Poet. Most of his work was praised by the Club but a play called The Soldier's Return was not well received and Robert became quite depressed, despite some of the songs being set to music by Smith. In addition, his health was not good; an inveterate smoker with blackened teeth, he developed a dry rasping cough and worried that he was dying. However, in 1805, the Poet and William McLaren decided to form The Burns' Anniversary Society with McLaren elected president and Tannahill elected clerk. The still-existing minute book was hand-written by Robert.

1807 titlepage

He attended all meetings of the Society until his death and wrote the two Burns' Night poems for 1807 and 1810 although he seems to have given up being clerk in order to concentrate on his writing. He contributed to periodicals in Glasgow as well as Paisley and sent 25 songs to the Nightingale or Songster's Magazine in Glasgow. Robert also got together with Alexander McNaught to raise funds by public subscriptions for setting up the Trades Library for working men, in response to a library set up for gentlemen in 1803. The Trades Library survived until 1846.

A few of his best songs, set to music by John Ross of Aberdeen and R. A. Smith of Paisley were engraved and published in sheets. This quickly brought him to public attention and he was encouraged to publish a book of his works, which he did in 1807 and 900 copies were printed. It seems to have had a mixed reception although he obviously found it profitable, depositing 20 in his bank account that July.

Although he was discouraged in an attempt to contribute to a book of Irish airs, between 1807 and 1810 he contributed 6 songs to the prestigious Scots Magazine. His fame was increasing and he wrote in a letter to a friend how happy he felt whenever he passed a house and heard someone inside singing one of his songs. However, when he tried to have a new volume of songs published by Alan Stewart, Stewart declined and returned his manuscript. This was early in 1810. Another publisher then turned him down and in a letter written soon after, Robert showed clear signs of a depressed mind.


On 16th of May, 1810 the Poet walked to Glasgow to call on his friend Alexander Borland. They had a long conversation. It seems from Borland's account that Robert's speech became incoherent so he decided not to let him walk home alone and insisted on walking him to his front door before returning to Glasgow.

It is difficult to attach a time-scale to Robert's decline but the family seem to have been aware of more than just his physical frailty because that same night, two of his brothers called on their mother while Robert was in bed. They seem to have been worried about him because the records state that she assured her sons that she could cope with Robert. They went home but his mother, hearing a noise in the night, found his bed empty and immediately sent for the brothers and for a family friend, Peter Burnet.


Burnet went down Queen Street into George Street, where the police night-watchman said he had seen a small man hurrying from Queen Street, crossing George Street going west. Burnet then made for Brediland Road, and found the Poet's coat and silver watch on the south side of the culvert of Candren Burn, an inverted stone siphon under the Canal. Robert Tannahill's body was found there. The Poet left his mother's house about 3 o'clock and his body was brought back by 5 o'clock on the morning of Thursday, 17th May, 1810.


Soon, the sad news had spread and small groups congregated throughout the town. The funeral took place on Monday, 21st May, 1810 at the West Relief Church. His family wanted a quiet, family funeral but his friends met in William Stewart's house around the corner from Queen Street and fell in behind the family mourners. The interment took place in the lair, No. 366 of the West Relief (now the United Presbyterian Church) burial-ground, Canal Street.

A monument was erected over the Poet's remains in 1867.

Next - Robert Tannahill's Legacy