Sangstories - Stories of Scottish Songs

Tales of Scottish traditional and newer songs sung by Sangschule of Linlithgow

Gloomy Winter's Noo Awa

by Robert Tannahill (1774 – 1810)
Tune: Lord Balgownie’s Favourite

Gloomy Winter's noo awa, soft the westlin breezes blaw.
Among the birks o Staneley shaw the mavis sings fu cheerie O.
Sweet the crawflower’s early bell decks Gleniffer's dewy dell.
Bloomin’ like your bonny sel, my ain, my airtless dearie O.

Come my lassie let us stray, o'er Glenkilloch's sunny brae,
And blithely spend the gowden day, midst joys that never wearie O.
Trees may bud and birds may sing, flowers may bloom and verdure spring.
But joy to me they canna bring, unless wi ye my dearie O.

Towerin’ o'er the Newton woods, lav'rocks fan the snow white clouds;
Siller saughs wi downy buds adorn the banks sae brierie O.
Around the silvan fairy nooks, feathery breckans fringe the rocks
Beneath the brae the burnie jouks and ilka thing is cheerie O.

Words:
Birks: birches
Brae: hillside
Breckan: bracken, wild fern
Shaw: small wood
Mavis: song-thrush
Crawflower: wild hyacinth or English bluebell
Lav’rocks: larks
Siller: silver
Saugh: willow

Tannahill was a Paisley weaver to trade, and composed as he worked at the loom. His friend, the composer R.A Smith, tells how a lady of Smith’s acquaintance expressed a wish that there were words to accompany “Lord Balgownie’s Favourite”, a tune of which she was fond. Smith asked Tannahill to write something for the air, and this was done within a few days. When Mr Smith had played the completed song for the lady, she begged him to invite the author to the house. He had to employ deceit to get Tannahill “to enter the company of people above his own station of life.” Tannahill’s initial discomfort was extreme, but “after a cheerful glass or two” he became “tolerably communicative.” (This story appeared in W. Motherwell’s Harp of Renfrewshire.)

The song was published about 1808, became very popular, “and was the reigning favourite in Edinburgh for a considerable time” according to Philip A Ramsay in Life and Works of Tannahill 1838.

David Semple, another biographer of Tannahill, says “the farm of Killoch is situated in Neilston parish, in the Fereneze portion of the mountainous range dividing that parish from the parish of Paisley; and, having a southern exposure, the lyric poet has described the place as ‘Glenkilloch’s sunny brae’.” The lands of Newton were “situated at a short distance to the north-west of Stanely Castle ….the eastern portion was covered with plantations.”

     Poet Tom Leonard, writing about Tannahill in Radical Renfrew, says that Robert  was born in Paisley, apprenticed to his father, a weaver, at the age of twelve and spent his working life as a weaver in Paisley, apart from two years spent in Bolton during the depression of 1799/1800. He returned on learning of his father’s terminal illness, and lived alone with his mother after his brother married.

He taught himself how to play the German flute and became known in Paisley as a poet and songwriter, befriending the composer R. A. Smith who set some of his songs. In 1807 he obtained enough subscribers for his one book, which sold out within weeks. In 1810, James Hogg came to visit him in Paisley, showing how high his reputation had become. Leonard goes on to say that Tannahill could be prone to depression and by May 1810 some of his friends were worried about him. A projected new work was rejected by two publishers. On May 17th 1810 he committed suicide.

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