In his twelfth year he was apprenticed to his father in the family trade of weaving. (Tannahill was a working weaver all his life). They had earlier moved to a cottage in nearby Queen Street which was to remain Tannahill’s home, except for two years spent in Bolton between 1800 and 1802. Soon after returning from Bolton his father died and in the eight years following most of his published work was written.
While at work it he would compose verses, improvising a writing desk to attach his loom which allowed him to note down any lines that might occur to him. In this way, some of his best songs were composed. He had a good ear for music, and whenever a tune appealed to him he would give it appropriate words of his own. He seldom allowed many days to pass without composing some song or verse, It was his custom to read these to his close acquaintances.
The first poem of his which appeared in print, was in praise of Ferguslie wood, which was one of his favourite haunts. The poem was sent to a Glasgow periodical, and was immediately accepted. The acceptance was accompanied by a request for further poems. This was the extremely pleasing to Tannahill, as in one or two previous endeavours at publication, he had been unsuccessful; and for the next few years he sent occasional pieces to the Glasgow papers.
Much of his writing was inspired by the countryside surrounding Paisley, where the poet took regular walks, despite a deformity of the right leg. Songs such as The Braes O' Gleniffer and The Flower O' Levern Side refer to local landmarks and poems like Will MacNeil's Elegy and Allan's Ale feature local people.
The first edition of his "Poems and Songs" was published in 1807 and favourably received by the public. But Tannahill began to notice errors and faults and began to correct and re-write all his pieces, with the intention of publishing a second edition. He continued also to add to the number of his songs. The extensive popularity they attained indicates how universally the sentiments were felt and understood. Tannahill was in some measure a witness of his own success and lived to hear his songs performed in hall and cottage. On a solitary walk on one occasion, his thoughts were interrupted by the voice of a country girl who was singing by herself one of his songs.
—"We’ll meet beside the dusky glen, on yon burnside;"—
He stated that he was more pleased at this evidence of his popularity than at any tribute which had ever been paid him.
He composed new lyrics to existing Scottish Airs and had a particular love of Irish music. R. A. Smith of Paisley and John Ross of Aberdeen set original music to Tannahill’s songs. With his work growing in popularity, The Soldiers Return, A Scottish Interlude in Two Acts, WITH OTHER POEMS AND SONGS, was published in 1807.
Overall, his work is broad in its understanding of humanity. Descriptions of friendship, love and the responsibility one human being has for another, come up frequently. That he often wrote about soldiers was perhaps due to the impact of the Napoleonic Wars -and the associated frequent visits of recruitment parties to Paisley- on his everyday life. In June 1809 he wrote to his friend James King, ‘I see no end of this war system’.
from The Worn Soldier
The Queensferry boatie rows light,
And light is the heart that it bears,
For it brings the poor soldier safe back to his home,
From many long toilsome years.
. . . . . .
But fled are his visions of bliss,
All his transports but 'rose to deceive,
For he found the dear cottage a tenantless waste,
And his kindred all sunk in the grave.
. . . . . .
Shortly before his death he was visited by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who made a pilgrimage to Paisley, with the express purpose of seeing him. They spent one night together, and next morning, Tannahill accompanied him half-way on the road to Glasgow. When they finally parted, Tannahill said, "Farewell! We shall never meet again! Farewell! I shall never see you more!" a prediction which was too truly verified.]
Tannahill was prone to bouts of melancholy, especially if he believed things were going badly. Distress at the rejection of his 1810 manuscript by publishers in Edinburgh and Greenock, resulted in Tannahill destroying everything which he had written. He collected together all his work and burned it. So anxious was he that no trace of his work should be preserved, he requested his acquaintances to return any manuscript which he had given them.
On the day prior to his death he had been in Glasgow, and had been so disturbed, that a friend escorted him back to Paisley, and advised his family. Alarmed by this, his brothers went to their mother’s house, where they found that he had gone to bed. As he was apparently asleep they chose not to disturb him. A short while later one of his brothers passed the house and found the gate open. Investigating further, it was found that Robert had risen from bed, and left the house shortly after their departure. A search was started and in the morning his body was found in a culvert of the Candren Burn, near his home. Tannahill died on 17 May 1810 having taken his own life. He was only thirty-six.