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The Scottish Nation

TANNAHILL, ROBERT, a popular song writer, was born in Paisley, June 3, 1774. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and both his parents were respected for their intelligence and worth. After receiving the most ordinary school education, he was apprenticed to the weaving business. As he was in the habit of composing verses while at work, he attached a sort of writing-desk to his loom, by which he was enabled, in the midst of his labours, to jot down the lines as they occurred to him. In this way some of his best songs are said to have been composed. About the year 1800 he went to England, accompanied by a younger brother, whom he left at Preston, while he himself proceeded to Bolton, where he found constant employment. Two years afterwards the brothers returned home, on receiving intelligence of the last illness of their father; and on his death they remained in Paisley. The poet having had the good fortune to become acquainted with R.A. Smith, well known as a composer, the latter set to music and arranged some of his finest songs. The first edition of his poems appeared in 1807, and was very favourably received. The songs attained an extensive popularity, and were sung from one end of Scotland to the other; among them, ‘Jessie, the Flower o’Dumblane,’ ‘The Braes o’Balquither,’ ‘Gloomy Winter’s now awa’,’ ‘The Lass o’Aranteenie,’ ‘Loudon’s Bonnie Woods and Braes,’ and several others, continue to be special favourites.

His acquaintance was now courted by many who were his superiors in station; but his mind was naturally prone to despondency, and, despairing of ever being able to raise himself above the obscurity of his original condition, he soon gave way to a confirmed melancholy. The refusal of Mr. Constable to publish a second edition of his poems, added to the depression of his spirits; and having resolved to destroy everything which he had written, he burnt all his manuscripts, including many songs which had never been printed. Amongst others who visited him about this time was the Ettrick Shepherd. After a night spent in the most delightful communion of sentiment, Hogg took his departure, Tannahill mournfully exclaiming, “Farewell, we shall never meet again!” His portrait is subjoined.

[portrait of Robert Tannahill]

The day previous to his death he went to Glasgow, where he displayed such unequivocal proofs of mental derangement, that one of his friends considered it necessary to accompany him back to Paisley. On being apprised of the state of his mind, his brothers hastened to their mother’s house, where they found that Robert had gone to bed, and was apparently asleep. About an hour afterwards it was discovered that he had risen from his bed, and gone out. Search was made in every direction, and next morning his body was discovered in a pool in the vicinity of Paisley, where he had evidently drowned himself. This melancholy event took place May 17, 1810, when he had only reached his 36th year. In 1838 an enlarged edition of his poems and songs, with memoirs of the author and of his friend, R.A. Smith, by Mr. Philip A. Ramsay, was published at Glasgow.

Tannahill’s friend, ROBERT ARCHIBALD SMITH, to whom Scottish melody is so much indebted, was a native of England, but spent the greater part of his life in Scotland. He was born at Reading, in Berkshire, November 16, 1780, being the son of Robert Smith, a native of East Kilbride, near Glasgow, who had been a silk-weaver in Paisley, but had removed to England. At an early age he gave indications of his genius for music; and he was in a great measure self-taught, having never had the benefit of a regular musical education. As he grew up he became a member of a church choir in Reading, and likewise joined the band of a regiment of volunteers. When very young he was placed at the loom, and on the return of his father with the family to Paisley, in 1800, he for some time followed the trade of a weaver, but never liked the occupation. In 1802 he married, and soon after he commenced the teaching of music. A congeniality of sentiment brought him acquainted with Tannahill, and during the life of the unfortunate bard, he composed original music for many of his songs, while various others he adapted and fitted with piano-forte accompaniments. Through one of these, ‘Jessie, the Flower o’Dumblane,’ the name of R.A. Smith first became known as a musical composer. In 1807, chiefly on the recommendation of the Rev. Dr. Boog, senior minister of the Abbey parish of Paisley, he was appointed precentor of that church, a situation which he filled with great credit for sixteen years. In August 1823 he removed to Edinburgh, having been appointed to conduct the music in St. George’s church of that city, under the auspices of Dr. Andrew Thomson, the minister thereof, whose own musical attainments were of a high order. Smith’s publications are of great value. Among these are ‘Devotional Music, original and select,’ published in 1807, amounting to no less than twenty-one original pieces; ‘Anthems, in four vocal parts, with an Accompaniment for the Organ or Piano-forte,’ 1819; and ‘Select Melodies,’ comprising every Scottish melody worth preserving, with a great number of original pieces by the editor, appeared in six volumes, at intervals, from 1821 to 1824. He afterwards published a similar work, comprising the melodies of the sister island, entitled ‘The Irish Minstrel.’ Besides these, he prepared and arranged the following: -- ‘Sacred Music, for the use of St. George’s Church, Edinburgh;’ ‘The Sacred Harmony of the Church of Scotland;’ ‘Sacred Music, consisting of Tunes, Sanctuses, Doxologies, Thanksgivings, &c., sung in St. George’s Church;’ and composed a number of anthems for the anniversary of George Heriot’s day. His detached pieces are very numerous. Smith died at Edinburgh, January 3, 1829, universally lamented, leaving a widow and five children.

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