Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 25. Robert Tannahill; Alexander Wilson; William Motherwell

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 25. Robert Tannahill; Alexander Wilson; William Motherwell

In striking contrast with the songs of Boswell are the love lyrics of the Paisley weaver and chief of many Paisley poets, Robert Tannahill, who published a volume of Poems and Songs in 1817. The rather monotonous amorousness of Tannahill’s songs is relieved by the felicity of his references to nature: he conveys the impression that he is quite as much enamoured by nature’s charms, as by those of the imaginary sweethearts he elects to bear him company in his saunterings. The truth is that, having been at an early period of life disappointed in a very serious love affair, he was, henceforth, a lover merely in a poetical or a reminiscent sense. He first won general fame by his Jessie the Flower of Dunblane (an imaginary personage), which was set to music by his fellow townsman, R. A. Smith, afterwards of Edinburgh; and, among other songs still popular are The Lass of Arrinteenie (not in Paisley, but on the banks of loch Long!), Gloomy Winter’s noo Awa’, The Bonnie Wood of Craigielea, Loudon’s bonnie Woods and Braes and The Braes o’ Balquither. He is, also, the author of a clever humorous song Rob Roryson’s Bonnet. Another Paisley poet, who began life as a weaver, and then blossomed into a travelling packman, was Alexander Wilson, who, in 1790, got a volume of his poems printed, which he sold on his itineraries. Later, he resided in Edinburgh and became a poetic contributor to The Bee; but, on account of republican sentiments inspired by the French revolution, he emigrated to America, where he won lasting fame as an ornithologist by his work on American birds. Wilson’s lengthy and rather homespun and squalid ballad Watty and Meg, published anonymously in 1792, was hawked through Dumfries by one Andrew Hislop, as a new ballad by Robert Burns; upon which Burns is stated to have said to him: “That’s a lee Andrew, but I would make your plack a bawbee if it were mine”: a dark saying, which could hardly be meant, as is often supposed, as a compliment to the merits of the ballad. Of higher social station and literary pretension than either Tannahill or Wilson was William Motherwell, who, though a native of Glasgow, where he was born in 1797, was brought up in Paisley, under the care of his uncle, and, after some years spent in the sheriff-clerk’s office there, became editor of The Paisley Advertiser and, later, of The Glasgow Courier. In 1817, he also began The Harp of Renfrewshire, to which he contributed various songs as well as an essay on the poets of Renfrewshire. In 1827, he published his Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern, which included various ballad versions collected and, probably, somewhat “improved” by himself. His Poems Narrative and Lyrical appeared in 1832; and, together with James Hogg, he brought out, in 1834–5, an edition of the Works of Burns. He was a facile versifier, with small poetic inspiration; he wrote some ballads in an affectedly antique style, but is best known by his vernacular songs, which, however, have little individuality; Jeanie Morrison is a little too cloying in its sentimentality.