3 early years

Robert's boyhood

CD vol 1

Robert was the fifth of James and Janet's eight children. He was born in 1775 and suffered from a delicate constitution from childhood as well as a limp caused by a slight deformity in his right foot and leg. The deformed foot was straightened but Robert always wore extra stockings on his right leg to hide the shrunken calf. As a child, he seems to have been shy with strangers and what Semple calls his "bashfulness" continued throughout his life. He started school at the age of 6 and appears to have started writing rhymes when he was 10 to amuse the other pupils. He bought a pocket dictionary and a grammar to learn to speak and write correctly. On leaving school at the age of twelve he was apprenticed to his father as a handloom weaver for 5 years. There's an entry in the Minute Book of the Weavers' Society, now called the Old Weavers' Society: "7th December, 1786, Robert Tannahill, son of James Tannahill, weaver in Queen Street, Paisley, is entered apprentice with his father."


It was during his apprenticeship that Robert began to show a real talent for poetry. His mother's cousin, Robert Brodie was a frequent visitor to Queen Street and may have encouraged the young lad in his writing because Brodie, 4'3" in height, was a poet himself and officiated at weddings and funerals in the area. It's said that Tannahill fastened an inkbottle to his loompost and fixed up a rough shelf as a desk so that without leaving his "seat tree", he could jot down ideas as he wove.


As he grew older he began to spend as much of his spare time as possible wandering the local countryside, gradually going further and further afield. The exercise helped strengthen his leg and provided ideas for his poetry. In 1791, the year when his apprenticeship was completed, Robert Burns published "Tam o' Shanter" in a rather expensive edition; Robert Tannahill probably only read it when a cheap edition became available 3 years later. There's a line in it of great interest to a Paisley weaver. The young and beautiful witch at the black mass in Kirk Alloway was wearing only a very short dress, a "cutty sark ":

"Her cutty sark, o' Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho' sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie."

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