The Living Tradition
Alastair Duncan - Issue 28 August/September '98
Neil Gow Portrait by Henry Raeburn from the Blair Castle Collection, Perthshire
Niel Gow was born on 22nd March 1727 in Strathbraan, west of Dunkeld, to John Gow and Catherine McEwan. The family moved to Inver where Niel's father followed his trade as a weaver, as did many in the area. There was also a strong local tradition of music and Niel soon showed an aptitude for this. In his teens he had lessons from John Cameron of Grandtully and established his reputation by winning an open competition in Perth in 1745 when he was only 18. His standard and style of playing was such that he became in great demand for all social occasions as far afield as Edinburgh. He was patronised by the Atholl family and an account book contains his signature for wages of £5 a year in the 1770 and 1780s. He remained in Inver all his life despite his increasing fame.
In 1787 he was visited there by Burns on his tour of the HighIands. He had married Margaret Wiseman by whom he had eight children and after her death he married Margaret Urquhart. His sons also became accomplished musicians; John and William establishing themselves in London as musical publishers, Nathaniel played with many bands in Scotland but was less successful in business affairs, despite publishing six collections of Reels and Strathspeys. Niel's portrait was painted by Raeburn; one of these hangs in the Ballroom at Blair Castle beside his fiddle, others were commissioned for the County Buildings Perth and Lord Panmure. On his death in 1807 he was buried in the local graveyard at Little Dunkeld but his musical tradition lived on through many generations of fiddlers in Inver.
Niel Gow was a man who was highly respected in all levels of society primarily as a musician but also as a straightforward, honest man with a pawky sense of humour. A man who became larger than life after his death and at this distance in time it is difficult to separate truth from fiction. Niel's father, John Gow, was a plaid weaver, and one can assume that he moved to Inver to be nearer the local market at Dunkeld where the results of his labours could be sold. Where Niel Gow came by the notion to start Iearning the fiddIe, we do not know, but prior to his day fiddlers had a bad reputation as vagabonds - James McPherson pIayed his fiddle on the gallows; Pate Birnie played his to encourage strangers to buy him ale.
With Inver and the west ferry of Dunkeld being an important junction of North-south and East-west roads, who knows whether he heard a travelling fiddler at the Inver Inn or at the Dunkeld fairs. Whatever, Niel started fiddling at the early age of nine, reputedly on a kit (a half size fiddle), and he was largely self taught until the age of thirteen. He would learn his craft mostly by practice but also by watching other fiddlers - their bowing technique and how they held their fiddles. When he was thirteen he had lessons from John Cameron, a retainer of Sir George Stewart of Grandtully, and by the age of eighteen had acquired such skill that he carried off first prize in a competition with the cheerful consent of the nine other players including his tutor John Cameron and Daniel Dow, who later became famous as a composer of Scottish music. To avoid any favouritism at this competition a blind musician, John McKaw, was appointed judge but he, after naming Niel the winner, said he would recognise Niel's bow hand anywhere. Where most fiddlers emphasised their downbow, Niel put power
into his up-bow; to quote one writer "some men try to give spirit to the dance music by short, jerking strokes with a strong descending bow and a weak ascending, but Niel's was a continuous stream of gorgeous sound, like an organ at full gallop".
That competition was held in 1745, the year of the Jacobite uprising, and while James, 2nd Duke of Atholl, was away in London avoiding any pressure to join the Young Pretender, his brother William, Marquis of Tullybardine, assumed the rights and privileges of the Dukedom. He gave an entertainment in Dunkeld House for Prince Charlie when he stayed there on his march south to Edinburgh, and among those performing was Niel Gow. The Marquis put great pressure on the Atholl tenants to join the Prince's army hoping to raise over 2000 men but only succeeded in raising about 500 under Lord Nairn, most of whom deserted very quickly and I assume Niel Gow was one of those. Niel was reputed to have travelled with the army as far as Luncarty before returning to Inver.
Perhaps Niel had another reason for returning home as we find his eldest son William born in 1751. His first wife Margaret Wiseman was mother to all his five sons and three daughters. His sons William, Andrew (1760), Nathaniel (1763) and John (1764) all followed their father as fiddlers and composers of fiddle music. The youngest son Daniel (1765) died in infancy and the daughters were Margaret (1759), Grizel (1761). He married his second wife Margaret Urquhart at Perth in 1768. From then on Niel enjoyed the patronage of the Murrays of Atholl being associated with three Dukes of Atholl during his long life, the third Duke paying him a retainer of £5 per year. With his brother Donald on the cello or bass Niel was in great demand at dances weddings etc. At county balls there would be a disinclination to mix between the various strata of society until Niel appeared when all differences were forgotten in the general enjoyment of his playing.
At one time all the land round Inver was tenanted by one farmer who sublet the cottar houses to the occupants but in 1748 the farmer, James Johnston, gave up the cottar houses and the cottars thereafter paid their rents directly to the Duke of Atholl. The census of 1778 shows that the cottars of Inver held no land but Niel Gow is said to have had about one acre of ground. He complained to the Duke about a large tree which grew in the middle of his croft which, he maintained, affected the fertility of about half of his acre; the 4th Duke was a tree lover and refused to have it taken down. However Niel waited until the Duke was away in London and then felled the tree himself. Immediately the Duke returned, Niel called on him and placing
30/- on his desk said: "This is the money for the bark of the tree you telt me tae tak doon." "What tree was that?" asked the Duke. "The one on my croft," said Niel. "I never said to take down that tree," said the Duke becoming very angry. "Hech, your Grace was as fu' as the Baltic when ye said it," said Niel calmly picking up the cash again and leaving the Duke to cool off. Note that the money was from the bark of the tree - a valuable commodity at that time used for the production of tannin, and in 1778 Dunkeld had three tanneries.
Another tale about Niel's croft was told by the grandson of a neighbour showing how considerate he was of his neighbours. One day the Duke asked him if he had a big enough croft to produce all the food he needed. 'Yes your Grace, the auld meal's no a' oot the girnel ere the new is in.' Niel knew that the only way his croft could be enlarged would be at a neighbour's expense. He was well off compared to his neighbours with the retainer the Duke paid him to play at family functions like christenings, birthdays and similar parties. Near his croft on the banks of the Tay grew a large oak tree and often Niel would sit under this tree playing his fiddle while the Duke sat on the opposite bank enjoying the music, the water making a perfect sounding board.
As well as pIaying the fiddle, Niel composed many beautiful airs, the best known being his lament for his second wife and his lament for Lord James Murray of Abercairney. He is credited with anything from 50 to 87 compositions even though at best he could scarcely read music at all. The question of how many tunes he actually wrote arises because in his time much of the music would be transmitted by ear from one fiddler to another so that there was quite a controversy as to who actually composed which tune and also each fiddle variation of a tune. When Niel and Nathaniel published their various collections of music they would state "as played by Niel Gow and Sons".
When going to entertainment's Niel and his companions always walked though he would often stay overnight in the town where he had been playing. When in Perth he would stay at The Old Skip Inn though the story is told that when quizzed as to how he managed the long road home from Perth after a ball he said "it wasna the length of the road he minded but the breadth o' it he cast oot wi". He always gave the distance to Perth as ten Scotch miles. Sometimes he and his band went as far as Aberdeen, stopping off at Brechin Castle where the Dalhousie family made him very welcome.
On one occasion at Aberdeen a conceited local musician had said to Niel, "I can play music at first sight but you cannot." Niel was crestfallen at this but his right hand man Samson Duncan instantly challenged the Aberdonian, "I'll bet five shillings I'll write a piece of music you'll not play at first sight." The challenge accepted, Samson wrote a difficult piece high on the shift; this was 'not fair' so when asked to name a tune the Aberdonian said, "I'll tak Niel Gow, the strathspey." Samson Duncan wrote the tune but transposed it from A to Ab. This again was not fair but the referee judged against him. On another occasion Niel and Samson Duncan were having an evening's fiddling at Meiklour where Samson stayed. After they had both played solos Niel asked a listener "Wha's best, Charlie?" "Deed ye're baith guid" was the cautious reply. "Aye," said Niel. "Weel ye ken that Samson's as guid as me; only he has na the fame."
Niel Gow had his portrait painted by Henry Raeburn and it was subscribed by the nobility and gentlemen at the Perth Assembly. They had noticed Niel wasn't keeping so well and felt they should have a permanent record of Niel in his normal dress of blue coat, tartan breeches and hose. Four copies were painted, now in Blair Castle, Brechin Castle, Aberdeenshire, and the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. When Niel was sitting for his portrait the Duke of Atholl would come and sit with him and chat about music or any other subject to keep Niel in a good mood, and when the hour was up they would leave the studio and walk off arm in arm, the Duke and the cottar, all social differences forgotten in their friendly relationship. Another time Niel was in the boat when the Duke of Atholl caught a salmon. "if you caught a fish like that what would you do with it?" quipped the Duke. "I'd send it to the Duke of Atholl" quickly replied Neil. The duke took the hint and Niel got the fish.
The combination of frankness, good humour and his playing ability made Niel welcome in any of the grand houses in the country. We hear of him strolling in the streets of Edinburgh in conversation with the Duke of Atholl. Lord Melville, and Lord Lynedoch. Once, after playing at the Caledonian Hunt Ball, he went into a music sellers intending to buy a new bow. The shopkeeper looked him up and down, and deciding Niel was just a country bumpkin offered him some of his cheap bows. Niel asked for something better and, to take him down a peg, was offered the dearest bow in the shop. Niel picked up a fiddle with some rosin on the strings meaning to try out the bow and spying one of his latest compositions asked the shop keeper to hand it to him. The man did so with a smile, saying that if Niel played the piece without a mistake he could have the bow for nothing. "Done" said Niel, and immediately played it in his own inimitable style leaving the poor shopkeeper gasping. "You must have seen that piece before?" Said Niel, "I saw it fifty times when I was making it!"
When Robert Burns visited Dunkeld on his tour of the highlands in 1787 with his friend William Nicoll (the subject of the poem "Willie brewed a peck o' maut") he stayed at Culloden House (now the Scottish Horse Museum) and breakfasted with Dr Stewart, a well known fiddler in the district. Niel Gow was sent for and, with Dr. Stewart joining in and Peter Murray on the bass, Niel played a selection of his own compositions. Burns took such a fancy to Niel's tune "Loch Erroch Side" that he asked for a copy of it and afterwards set his "Address to the Woodlark" to it. The tune originated from an air Niel had heard his wife Margaret singing and had added to it; it is now better known as 'The lass o' Gowrie'.
Mrs Grant of Rothiemurchus in her Memoirs of a Highland Lady tells of stopping off at Inver Inn on her journey home from London. She had been so thrilled by Niel Gow's playing that her father had to take her for a walk on the river bank to let her calm down before going to bed. That was in 1804 when Niel was 77 so his playing ability had not diminished with age nor had his composing ability when one considers that his lament for the death of his second wife, Margaret Urquhart, his companion for thirty years, must have been written the following year when he was 78.
Niel Gow died in 1807 aged 80; of his sons only John and Nathaniel survived him, and they erected a plain marble stone to him in Little DunkeId Kirkyard. This stone suffered from the ravages of the weather so much that in 1986 the Niel Gow Memorial Trust was formed to have the original stone placed in the Dunkeld Cathedral Chapterhouse and a new one replacing it in the Kirkyard.
Time and Gow are even now, Gow beat time, now Time's beat Gow.
Pete Clark first became en-amoured by the music of Gow upon hearing "Niel Gow's Lament for the Death of his Second Wife". Pete, a Fifer by birth, has spent most of his adult life in Perthshire. He took up the fiddle at the age of nine under the tutorship of the late Harry Grant of Saline. His career has included spells with Bert Shorthouse, Fife-based folk band "Heritage", and more recently, the Benachally Ceilidh Band.
The idea of recording an album celebrating the music of Gow and his contemporaries has been with him for some time, but it really took hold in 1997 when he was invited to Blair Castle to participate in a live broadcast for local community radio station Heartland FM. For the broadcast, Pete was given permission to play Niel Gow's fiddle, which is kept in the castle. The fiddle was made in 1787 (the year Niel Gow met with Robert Burns), yet is still perfectly playable. Following the broadcast an approach was made to the Castle about the idea of using Gow's fiddle for the recording of an album. The idea was seized upon with some relish and so in December '97, the ballroom at Blair Castle was transformed into a recording studio, with miles of cables snaking their way along the corridors past the bemused, but welcoming staff.
For the recording, Martin MacLeod (fiddle), Neil Johnstone (cello) and Jim Leighton (piano) were brought in to recreate the musical line-up Gow himself often used. Throughout the recording, the fiddle sang as sweetly as anyone would have dared wish, as if glad to escape the confines of its glass case and once again give voice to the tunes first played on it by Niel Gow himself some two hundred years earlier.
The result is the album "Even Now - The Music of Niel Gow", (Smiddymade SMCD615). A collection of the music of Gow's time - not just his own compositions, but also those of his sons and other contemporary fiddlers such as Robert MacIntosh and Samson Duncan. Gow's contribution to Scotland's musical heritage is hugely significant. Unknowingly, he set a standard to which successive generations of fiddlers have aspired, a few have perhaps attained, but none have superseded.
Links, further information and recordings: