In 1756 James Tannahill left Kilmarnock for Paisley to find work in the textile trade. He met Janet Pollock of Lochwinnoch, and the couple married there in 1763. Their son Robert Tannahill, the fifth of eight children, was born on 3 June 1774 at Castle Street, Paisley. His education consisted of rudimentary reading, writing and accounting at what was called an "English" school.
He taught himself the German flute and read widely, having had a talent for verse from an early age. Later, he would develop an interest in theatre, going regularly to performances in Glasgow. In his twelfth year he was apprenticed to his father (Robert was a weaver all his life).
The family had earlier moved to the cottage in Queen Street, Paisley, which was to remain Tannahill's home, except for two years 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.
He composed new lyrics to existing airs and had a love of Irish music. With his work growing in popularity, 'The Soldiers Return' a Scottish interlude in two acts, with other poems and songs, was published in 1807. 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.
That he often wrote about soldiers was perhaps due to the impact of recruitment to Scottish Militia Regiments on his everyday life. He composed 'Loudoun's Bonnie Woods and Braes' in 1807 in honour of Earl Moira, later the Marquis of Hastings.
Tannahill was prone to bouts of melancholy. An Edinburgh publisher rejected his 1810 manuscript, and distressed he "consigned to the flames" as many of his writings as he could. His body was found in a side tunnel of the Candren Burn, near his home, on 17 May 1810.