The bicentenary of one of Scotland's greatest poets and songwriters is next month – so why aren't more people celebrating?

HE WAS a very diminutive creature, just 5ft 4in, yet he hovers ubiquitously over a whole bustling town and, in many respects, casts a long shadow over all of us.

• Fred Freeman thinks our ignorance of Robert Tannahill leaves our sense of self impoverished. Picture: Complimentary

Robert Tannahill is a very familiar name to the inhabitants of Paisley. From day to day they walk by his splendid statue at Paisley Abbey. They occasionally view his cottage on Queen Street in the heart of the town. They hear his name mentioned in relation to the Tannahill Centre, the Tannahill Suite, the Tannahill Society, even the Tannahill pub. But few give a thought as to who the man actually was.

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In the 18th century, David Hume could assert that we were "the historical Nation"; but today most of us lack any sense of history. Ask children up and down the country if they know anything about the ancient Welsh, who gave us St Mungo of Glasgow and so many of our place names – places beginning with Dun or Dum, Pen, Aber or Car; the Scotti, who gave us the very name of our country and brought us, among so many other things, Gaelic language; or the Angles, who brought Scots language to Scotland in the first instance. Ask them if they know the surname of the main family of kings that ruled Scotland – the Stuarts – or if they can tell us anything about Jacobites. After 20 years or more of running workshops throughout the country, I can sadly affirm that, for the most part, you'll get no response.

The children will know something about Romans; something about Vikings (though pointedly not about their significant contribution to Scots language); something about kings and queens of England (though, oddly, little about Jamie VI or Charles I and II). The problem is our educators and politicians take our own traditions for granted and so often throw them away in a bid to appear urbane.

If this were not the case, we would have some concern that the manuscripts of Hamish Henderson – a recipient of the Somerset Maugham prize for poetry, one of the most influential songwriters of all time, the man who accepted the surrender of Italy during the Second World War and, in our own day, influenced men like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Nelson Mandela – have almost been sold abroad recently because virtually none of the main libraries in Scotland was prepared to invest in our heritage.

We would all know that the 200th anniversary of Robert Tannahill's birth is next month, on 17 May. Now why would that be important? It would be because Tannahill, the Paisley weaver, is one of Scotland's greatest song-writers and poets. And his verse may just be a way of reconnecting ourselves with our past.

Tannahill, like Henderson, was a multiculturalist who recognised the strength of the hybrid in Scotland's diverse social mix and seized the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. If he shared somewhat romantic notions of the Highlander after the Jacobite Rebellions, he had, as we see in songs like Brave Lewie Roy, a genuine sympathy for the Highlanders as they poured into Glasgow looking for work and experiencing only widespread discrimination. Much closer to home, and competing with him for employment as weavers, were the Irish immigrants, a people he knew to be unwelcome, disparaged, alienated: worthy of his attention.

As he says in the persona of an Irish immigrant, "some folks may still under-rate us"; but "The man that won't feel for another" really "lives without knowing a brother" (The Irish Farmer). He would defend the Irish in his own person and, uniquely, penned songs written from the expat Irishman's point of view – Peggy o Rafferty, Molly My Dear and a number of other excellent songs set to Irish melodies and written from an Irish perspective. As with so many of our noble songsters, he has given us accessible glimpses, reflections, of a Scottish past that has been, to a degree, suppressed: the struggle of the Irish in Scotland.

One of the first in Scotland to put his abolitionist beliefs into practice, as he and his family befriended and, for a time, sustained "Black Peter" Cameron of Virginia, Tannahill would declare: "Afric's sons shall one day burst their chains" (Lines..1805) Moreover, like Burns in Man Was Made To Mourn, he would take up the subject of endemic poverty in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the "woe and want" on the roads of Scotland that "pleads for your humanity" (The Soldier's Widow).

In one of his best poems, Eild, he would write succinctly and movingly about the neglect of the aged. Then, too, so painfully aware himself of the susceptibility of artists to mental illness, to "these awful depressions", as he says in a letter of 1807, he would compose a variety of songs about the mentally deranged: like The Maniac's Song or his poignant I'll lay me on the wintry lea.

Tannahill was a gentle observer of mankind; in his own right, a caricaturist who liked nothing better than to sketch humanity in the act. And this, again, is one of the characteristically Scottish art forms that we still undervalue, with our lack of historical appreciation, our failure to grasp that all such local art deftly – often more honestly than historical documents – records social history. Tannahill set up a desk at his loom, which faced the door of his cottage, and listened to the craic of the customers about the figures of the town. His grotesques, like Coggie thou heals me or Come hame tae yer lingels, relate the decadence of Paisley's poorer classes, their addiction to tobacco and drink, while, implicitly, pointing an accusing finger at their "betters" for corrupting the masses. At the same time, they capture the sheer exuberance of the common folk. There is something of William Blake's message here: "Active Evil is better than Passive Good".

In a gentler vein, much of Tannahill's social satire comes in the form of parody, one of the poet's fortes: the mock heroics of Rob Roryson's Bannet, neatly cutting the bonnet fixated hero and town gossips down to size; the mock romance of Barrochan Jean, who "wrocht sic mischief wi her twa pawky een"; the blow-by-blow ballad parody of O are ye sleepin, Maggie?, about the lassie who could sleep for Scotland and the clumsy lover who fought all the elements to get at her; the sturdy Burnsian dialogues of the females who rule the roost as in I'll hie me tae the sheilin hill.

If we knew more of our rich Scottish literary heritage, we would recognise in Tannahill and all this a vital link in the chain that reconnects us with the medieval Scots makars, Fergusson, Burns and the great tradition of Scots song. Consider as well his use of language, both Scots and English. What is striking is his emphasis upon rhythm and sound. As to the former, much critical misunderstanding derives from a failure to grasp that, for the poet, language is inextricably bound-up with rhythm. And rhythm is integral to his meaning. We see this in his basing so many of the songs – and here, perhaps, Burns was his mentor – upon the rhythms of strathspeys, with their emphatic Scots snaps, emphasising the lassie's contempt for her suitor – "I winna marry you, Calum" – in I'll hie me tae the sheilin hill; reels, with their unbroken breathless tension, as with the young lass who cannot get into the bed of "clean pease-strae" fast enough (When John and I were marriet); jigs, with their high jinks and rap-like interlocked alliteration patterns.

Dorothy sits I the cauld ingle neuk

Her reid rosy neb's a labster tae

Wi girnin her mou's like the gab o a fleuk

Wi smoking, her teeth's like the jet o the slae

– Coggie thou heals me

Words are rhythm, and words are sound. As a pastoralist, Tannahill, working in the rationalist vernacular tradition, possesses so much of the art of the medieval makars in the evocative quality of his words, inherent in their sound, and the tightly suggestive patterns which he imposes upon them. Consider The Braes o Balquhidder. All labours, especially that Scots snap running through it, to make a strong statement, effectively urging the lass to follow the lover: "lassie-quidder-berries-bonnie-bloomin-heather":

Will ye go, lassie go

Tae the braes o Balquhidder

Whare the blae-berries graw

Mang the bonnie bloomin heather

Note the interlocked g's and b's underpinning the rhythmical and thematic emphasis. Here too we have the music of sound and sense: the music of the long vowels conjuring the smoothly flowing pastoral scene. And listen to the contrasting consonants, the w's and s's in Verse III, the wind and storm scene ("wind-wintry-win-dwellin-swellin"/ "Sae-sing-storm-rattles-us-sheilin"). The poet knows what it is to have a snell Scots wind blowing on his cheeks.

When the rude wintry win

Idly raves roon oor dwellin,

And the roar o the linn

On the night breeze is swellin,

Sae merrily we'll sing

As the storm rattles o'er us,

Till the dear sheilin ring

Wi the light liltin chorus

Tannahill, then, with his numerous pastorals, has not only given us a sense of place, a sense of his feelings about a particular place – Gleniffer Braes, Ferguslie, Calderwood Glen, Cruikston Castle – but he has given us something which we badly lack: a knowledge of where we have been; a building upon the edifice of the past.

If we are to survive as a unique cultural entity – indeed, as a people with something vital to say to the rest of humanity – we will need to go back to these traditions; back to our history. And, in several respects, the poet shows us the way forward.

Robert Tannahill died in his 36th year on the 17 May, 1810; a death, in his own words, of "an obscure verse making weaver".

Obscure, but, one would ever hope, not wholly forgotten.

• Fred Freeman is the producer of The Complete Songs of Robert Tannahill Vol II, out now on Brechin-All-Records. His children's book, A Tuppeny Tannahill, is published this week by Renfrewshire Council Press.