Robert started writing poetry from a young age and found support in a thirving local community of poets, songsters and bards. He gained the friendship of Thomas Thompson (1773-1816), who was considered to be one of the finest and earliest Newcastle poets. Gilchrist was held in high regard. In 1818, at the age of 21, he received a silver medal from his companions in appreciation of his poetry. His special place amongst the community was recorded in the song ‘Thumping Luck to Yon Town’, by painter and politician William Watson. Watson notes Gilchrist’s “comic song” amidst the wit and humour of notable others such as Thompson and William Mitford.
A number of Gilchrist’s poems and songs were published, lending him a degree of local fame. Gilchrist's first book-length poem Gothalbert and Hisannawas published in 1822. In 1824 his Collection of Original Songs, Local and Sentimental was published by W.A. Mitchell. A second edition followed in the same year, with the title altered slightly to A Collection of Original Local Songs, and the addition of an extra poem, ‘The Loss of the Ovington’. Poems, a collection of eighty-four verses, followed in 1826 published by W. Boag. In all, Gilchrist’s published output of songs and poetry numbered over a hundred separate and original pieces, appearing in these collections and in the local press, including: The Newcastle Journal; Tyne Mercury;The Newcastle Courantand Newcastle Magazine. Many of Gilchrist’s songs, drawn from his 1824 Collection of Original Songs, Local and Sentimental, upon which a biographer noted his fame largely rested, were republished in local anthologies in his own lifetime and beyond. These included: Fordyce's 1842 Newcastle Song Book, Joseph Robson's 1849 Songs of the Bards of the Tyne, Thomas Allan's 1862 Tyneside Songs and Readings and Joseph Crawhall’s 1888 A Beuk O’Newcassel Sangs.
Upon the death of his father, John Gilchrist, in 1829, Robert took over his father's business near the Custom House on the Quayside. He was not successful in the business preferring the country and long walking tours. Gilchrist resided in the old house facing Shieldfield Green, reputed to have housed King Charles during the English Civil War as a prisoner of the Parliamentarians. In 1838 he wrote a poem 'The humble petition of the old house in the Shield Field' to Town Clerk Mr John Clayton Esq. complaining of plans which threatened to destroy this house. The house was spared. A memorial plaque stands on Shieldfield Green to commemorate the famous inhabitants of the house, which eventally succumbed to redevelopment in the 1960s.
Robert died on 11 July 1844 at the Old House in Shieldfield, aged 47, and was buried at the East Ballast Hills burial ground. The cause of death is given as a stomach cancer. John Luke Clennell, the son of the engraver and poet Luke Clennell (1781-1840), paid tribute to his old friend in the poem below, dated 16 July 1844:
If honest, manly, unpretending worth
May justly claim from us a tribute dear,
And those who were respected whilst on earth,
Deserve a passing dirge sung o’er their bier,
Then may I write me ROBERT GILCHRIST here.
No vain and empty words are these to tell
A tale of sorrow in an idle rhyme;
I knew the simple-hearted fellow well,
And felt his kindness also many a time.
Thus it is fitting memory should dwell
In pensive sadness on a man who gave
Good cause for us to sorrow o’er his grave,
And that the Muse bear record with a sigh,
When now it is the poet’s lot to die.