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The Early Years of the Paisley Poet

RT from WikipediaRobert was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1775. He was the fifth of the eight children of James Tannahill and Janet Pollock. James was a master weaver from Kilmarnock, one of four brothers who had moved to Paisley in 1756. His brother Thomas, my direct ancestor, was also a master weaver but the younger brothers were employed as journeymen by the older ones which may explain why they emigrated to America just before the American Revolution broke out. They settled in Schenectady, New York and have provided us with material for other stories - of cotton, slavery, civil war, wealth and art.

We know quite a bit about Robert's personal life and genealogy because several books of his collected poetry featured introductions. I have leaned heavikly on the introduction to a collection called "The Poems and Songs of Robert Tannahill", published 64 years after the poet's death. The author, David Semple FSA, was able to draw on other books as well as the memories of Paisleyites, such as "The Life of the Renfrewshire Bard", published by J Neilson in 1827 and "The Works of Robert Tannahill" by Philip A Ramsay, 1838.

He 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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