One of the lesser lights of Ayrshire song who have suffered neglect in the bright contemporary blaze of Burns was Gavin Turnbull, weaver, poet, and comedian. Not the less, for the truth and ease of more than one of his compositions, he remains entitled to a place in the bead-roll of the singers.
The son of a tippling dyester from Hawick, who dearly loved a gill-stoup, a song, and a roystering company, the poet was born in Kilmarnock, and early apprenticed there to the trade of carpet weaving. He proved but an idle apprentice, however, being fonder of spouting Shakespeare and writing verses than of weaving carpets. For some time, in consequence, his dwelling was a forlorn garret, without furniture, and with only straw for a bed and a stone for a seat. Here, nevertheless, he indulged in all the glow of poetic fancy, describing to David Sillar, a kindred spirit, in all the charms of verse, his "wee housie snug and warm," where he sat spinning rhyme "by the chimla lug."
By and by he migrated, with the rest of his father's family, to Glasgow, and there, in 1788, he published a volume of Poetical Essays, some of which are of no small merit, though they have been strangely lost sight of. Shortly after this publication he appears to have gone upon the stage, and in the character of comedian, when resident in Dumfries, he became an intimate acquaintance of Burns. By Burns several of Turnbull's songs, not included in his first volume, were sent to Thomson for his collection. In 1794 a further small pamphlet of Poems, by Gavin Turnbull, comedian, was published. Little more is known of the jovial, luckless poet-comedian. In 1798, when Campbell wrote his History of Poetry in Scotland, Turnbull was still alive, but it is said he emigrated finally to America, and probably he died there. The few particulars extant regarding his life have been preserved in The Ayrshire Contemporaries of Burns.