Paisley weaverpoet Tannahillrecalled at last

Every January 25, people across Londonderry, Ulster and wherever Scots may dwell, convene to honour the great Robbie Burns.

Robert Tannahill.
Robert Tannahill.
Robert Tannahill.

But what of his contemporary Robert Tannahill - a Paisley weaver, who, prior to taking his own life in 1810, penned songs and verse, the best of which are arguably on a par with the output of the celebrated bard of Scotland.

Tannahill died by his own hand on May 17, 1810, aged just 36. Prior to this he had resignedly prophesied that as an “obscure, verse-making weaver” he would in all likelihood be forgotten by his countrymen and the literary world.

And thus it has proved for the best part of two centuries. Until now that is.

Robert Tannahill.
Robert Tannahill.
Robert Tannahill.

Burns scholar Dr Fred Freeman, who visited Londonderry last week as part of his ongoing efforts to rehabilitate and establish Tannahill, believes the neglected poet should now take his rightful place at the heart of the Scottish literary canon.

An Honorary Fellow of English at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Freeman delivered a fascinating talk on the ‘The Irish in Scotland: The Songs of Robert Tannahill’ in the Tower Museum last Thursday.

Focusing on a collection of Scottish songs Tannahill wrote in defence of 19th Century Irish immigrants to Scotland, and how this changed perceptions at the time, Dr Freeman provided an insight into an intriguing figure who for a variety of reasons has somehow been lost to us for over 200 years.

As a musical director and producer - over the past decade he has produced over 20 traditional and folk CDs including ‘The Complete Songs of Robert Burns’ and ‘The Complete Songs of Robert Tannahill’ - Dr Freeman was also on hand to talk the audience through some of the poet’s tragically forgotten songs, which were set by Tannahill himself to airs and jigs from across Scotland, Ireland and even Brittany.

Eilean Donan Castle in Loch Duich in the western Highlands of Scotland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 23, 2010. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Eilean Donan Castle in Loch Duich in the western Highlands of Scotland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 23, 2010. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
STANDALONE PHOTO Eilean Donan Castle in Loch Duich in the western Highlands of Scotland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 23, 2010. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Those in attendance were treated to snippets of the beautiful, ‘While the grey pinioned lark...’ and, ‘I’ll lay me on the wintry lea,’ amongst other songs, which as Dr Freeman, pointed out, have been lost to folk fans since the early 1800s.

During the talk Dr Freeman suggested that Tannahill’s sympathetic treatment of the Irish immigrants to Western Scotland in the late 1700s and early 1800s was controversial at the time and may have contributed to his ostracisation.

At the turn of the 19th century, Paisley, where he was based, had become a centre for radicalism - many Protestant and Catholic Irish radical reformers involved in the United Irishmen and the 1798 rebellion had for some reason gravitated there.

This combined with the influx of economic migrants from Ireland and the Highlands led to predictable tensions and Tannahill suffered as a result.

“Tannahill was in no way thanked for the Irish songs as you can imagine,” explained Dr Freeman.

“George Thomson, Burns’ second editor, who was keen on having Irish melodies, did not want any Irish songs having anything to do with contemporary Irish people, whatsoever.

“He took all of the Tannahill Irish songs and he threw them in the bin and he said basically: ‘Get stuffed!’”

Fourteen of Tannahill’s Irish songs were rejected by potential publishers in 1808, just two years before his suicide.

And although some prominent Scottish thinkers of the 19th Century hailed Tannahill posthumously the sulphuric whiff of United Irish sedition and his association with the less-than-respectable immigrant labouring underclass of the early industrial era has since been hard to shake.

“Furthermore, whilst JS Blackie and others stated that Tannahill would be loved and remembered as a songwriter he’s had a bad press for two centuries,” said Dr Freeman.

“I’ve had a difficult time convincing even a mate of even pay any heed at all to Tannahill. Although now as he hears the stuff he’s interested.”

Part of the problem was that Tannahill directly depicted the Irish and the Highlanders of the day rather than the Irish and the Highlanders of the far off distant past, across his pastoral, counter-pastoral and parodic verse.

“Though still in a romantic vein Tannahill is arguably less oblique in his depiction of banishment from Ireland,” said Dr Freeman.

“He depicts the United Irishmen forced to live in permanent exile in Scotland. He describes his, ‘Adieu! ye cheerful native plains,,,’ which is a great song to my mind, written to a Monaghan melody.

“Applying the pastoral principle in the song, Ireland, in verse one, is represented as ‘Sweet Erin, with all its joys.’

“’Sweet Erin.’ When people were saying the things that they were saying. Dearie me. Talk about sticking your neck out.

“In the second verse he refers to the ‘treachery’ - treachery’s a word he uses - of exile. Now that was sedition, essentially. The British Government looking at a song like that. Ah, ah, ah, ah...

“It’s an unusual word choice. He appears to be in sympathy rather than taking an overt political stance.

“Yet his audience would definitely have asked the question, it begs the question, treachery of what? The known brutality of a British Government towards the United Irishmen, the divide and conquer method of a Government that deliberately attempted to pit Protestant against Catholic, and Catholic against Protestant, who were unified to a great degree within the movement.

“The songs beg serious political questions, songs that have not been recorded or performed for over 200 years.”

Dr Freeman pointed out that by the early 1800s, 60 per cent of the population of Paisley consisted of immigrants, principally Irish, although Highlander as well, following the clearances of 1807.

“Enter Robert Tannahill who is disgusted with the abuse of the Irish and says so quite directly in his verse, like the song, ‘The Irish Farmer,’ where he adopts the persona of an Irish farmer in Scotland, who ‘toiled on the farm, summer and winter so dreary,’ who attains to an industrious life, amidst pleasure and plenty, but, and this is important, pointedly resigns himself to a life of disaffection, quote: ‘Though some folk might underrate us, why should we mind them a fig,’ unquote.

“Similarly in his song ‘Irish Teaching,’ which we recorded in Volume 3, this ex-pat Irish persona in the song advocates sending for the Irish priest Fr O’Jenkin.

“Remember, Tannahill is a Presbyterian and he’s saying in the song, he comes down, he doesn’t mince words at all, he wanted to educate their sons to advance them socially, which was the policy wholly in keeping with St Mirren’s Cathedral, to advance the state of the Irish immigrants.”

Tannahill also juxtaposed the pastoral idylls of old Paisley, the Highlands and Ireland with the wars and rebellions in Ireland and Europe at the time, in order to make his succinct counter-pastoral points.

He even precursed Eisenhower’s ‘military–industrial complex’ when he referred to the ‘war system’ that encroached upon all that was natural and ideal.

Dr Freeman explained: “Tannahill wrote songs where the ideal state of nature is threatened by what he interestingly called the whole war system, a very sophisticated thinker.

“A very substantial piece of counter-pastoral is his ‘Brae of Gleniffer’ - the braes of Gleniffer are in Paisley.

“He presents a vision of loss in these metaphorical terms. Here we have a more authentic Scots vernacular voice in this song and an effective winter metaphor.

“For example, Johnny goes off to war in the song.”

Dr Freeman explains how Tannahill was closer to the American transcendentalists of the 19th Century than the English romantics in his approach to nature.

“The romantics believed that if you’re unhappy if it’s a sunny day it had an effect upon you. The American transcendentalists said no, nature always wears the colours of the spirit. if you’re miserable, the sun can be shining but you’re still miserable. That’s what he says.

“What he’s saying is winter could really be summer if only the people had been together and war had not intervened.”

This melancholic bent pervading many of his songs may or may not have led to Tannahill taking his own life.

Dr Freeman said: “What is un-Burnsian about Tannahill is the note of despair, the awareness of impending mental illness.

“He was depressed. Speaking on the suicide of a friend he said: ‘And I believe the poetical bind to be more subject to the awful depressions than any other. The justice of a line of Burns has often occurred to me. They soared in heaven or turned in vaulted hell.’”

To order copies of ‘The Complete Songs of Robert Tannahill’ or ‘The Complete Songs of Robert Burns’ email Dr Freeman on [email protected] or telephone 01506884422 or 07984668165.