Research casts doubt on tragic death of Scotland's 'forgotten bard' after more than 200 years

Robert Tannahill’s body was discovered in a burn near his home

New research is set to cast doubt on the apparent suicide of Scotland's "forgotten bard" – as part of efforts to recognise his life and legacy, more than 200 years after his body was found in a burn.

Experts at Paisley Museum who have re-examined the death of the town's "weaver poet" Robert Tannahill believe he may have suffered an accidental death rather than taken his own life.

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New displays focusing on the poet and songwriter as part of a long-awaited revamp and extension of the museum, which is due to be unveiled next year, will explore how his poor physical health, including tuberculosis, are expected to have been a key factor in his death.

A painting of Robert Tannahill, the Paisley-born weaver and poet', by James Elder Christie. Image: Paisley Museum/Renfrewshire CouncilA painting of Robert Tannahill, the Paisley-born weaver and poet', by James Elder Christie. Image: Paisley Museum/Renfrewshire Council
A painting of Robert Tannahill, the Paisley-born weaver and poet', by James Elder Christie. Image: Paisley Museum/Renfrewshire Council

Tannahill, who was born 250 years ago this month, is long believed to have taken his own life after failing to find a publisher for a second volume of his work.

He left school at 12 to become an apprentice to his father, who was a well-respected weaver in Paisley, and moved to Bolton, in Lancashire, for a couple of years to work, but returned to support his family in 1801.

Tannahill wrote his poems as he worked at the loom, “weaving threads and verses alternately", and formed a song-writing partnership with the local composer Robert Archibald Smith. Their ballad The Braes of Balquhidder was adapted into the folk song Wild Mountain Thyme.

Tannahill was heavily influenced by Robert Burns and founded Paisley’s “Burns Club” in 1805 at the Sun Tavern on the High Street. He published a collection of poems and songs in 1807, but is said to have burned many of his writings three years later when his efforts to find a publisher failed.

The life and legacy of Robert Tannahill, the Paisley-born weaver and poet', will be celebrated when the town's museum reopens next year after a £45 million revamp. Picture: Paisley Museum/Renfrewshire CouncilThe life and legacy of Robert Tannahill, the Paisley-born weaver and poet', will be celebrated when the town's museum reopens next year after a £45 million revamp. Picture: Paisley Museum/Renfrewshire Council
The life and legacy of Robert Tannahill, the Paisley-born weaver and poet', will be celebrated when the town's museum reopens next year after a £45 million revamp. Picture: Paisley Museum/Renfrewshire Council

Social history researcher Archie Henderson, who is working on the £45 million museum revamp, said: “At the height of his popularity, Tannahill was considered second only to Robert Burns as Scotland's most revered national bard. There is no doubt Robert Tannahill should continue to be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Sir Walter Scott, or his friend James Hogg.

"Tannahill was not only chief amongst the innumerable pantheon of Paisley poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, his work also had a global reach.

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“While Tannahill’s work is grounded in a love of nature and often simple, pastoral themes, modern retrospectives of his work reveal a much more complex individual, who produced a unique body of anti-sectarian, abolitionist, and anti-war poems and songs, during a life cut short by an untimely, and potentially misunderstood, death.”

Tannahill went missing from the family home in the early hours of May 16, 1810 and his body was found in the nearby Candren Burn.

Paisley Museum will boast a new main entrance when an extension and refurbishment is completed in 2025.Paisley Museum will boast a new main entrance when an extension and refurbishment is completed in 2025.
Paisley Museum will boast a new main entrance when an extension and refurbishment is completed in 2025.

Mr Henderson said the new research had explored alternatives to the traditional narrative that Tannahill's death had been triggered by feelings of rejection.

He said: “With the lack of effective treatments at the time, tuberculosis could linger in the body for a number of years, evident as occasional bouts of symptoms such as cough and fever.

"Over the longer term, weight loss becomes evident. Episodes of cough in particular are reported at various points in Tannahill’s life, but by his final weeks, he’s really gone downhill. He’s lost a lot of weight, he looks awful, he’s running a severe fever and he’s having episodes of incoherent delirium.

“His body was found in relatively shallow waters. His coat and his watch were found on the bank. Perhaps in his confused and delirious state, he sought to cool his fever in the night-time waters. It was an accidental death, rather than a deliberate act.”

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