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Niel Gow and Robert Burns

Allusion has been made in the former Chapter to the visit paid by Burns to Niel Gow. Short as it was, much controversial matter has gathered round the details, several of which, long accepted by local tradition, were challenged lately in the "Weekly Scotsman" and made the subject of a newspaper discussion.

In 1787, the poet, with his friend Nicoll, set out from Edinburgh on a Highland Tour; no light matter in days when stage coaches or horseback were the only modes of conveyance on rough, badly-made roads. Local tradition has long held that Burns, on reaching Dunkeld, visited Niel Gow and adjourned with him to Inver Inn where, on seeing and hearing an irate woman, the poet composed an epigram which he wrote then and there on the window with his diamond pencil. The lines have been often quoted, and even printed, as emanating from Burns.

"Ye gods, ye gave to me a wife, out of your grace and pleasure,

To be the partner of my life and I was glad to have her.

But if your providence divine for better things design her

I obey your will at any time, I’m willing to resign her."

To account for the non-existence of the pane with this inscription, it was explained that, in the middle of last century, the glass was cut out for better preservation and was broken in the act. This version was generally accepted until the year 1924, when discredit was attached to the whole story by an assertion that the epigram in question could not be an original composition of Burns as it was a verse out of an old song-book published before the poet was born.

In the "Works of Robert Burns," published by Wm. Paterson, 1878, and edited by Wm Scott Douglas, the brief notes on the Inver visit are not of much help in the controversy which arose. Neither is a letter written to his brother Gilbert, dated 17th September, 1787, where he thus refers to his twenty-two days’ Tour "down the Tay, among the cascades and Druidical Circles of stones, to Dunkeld, a seat of the Duke of Athole, thence across the Tay, and up one of its tributary streams to Blair of Athole, another of the Duke’s seats, where I had the honour of spending nearly two days with his Grace and family."

No reference occurs here either to Inver or to Niel Gow. Several extracts from newspaper articles and letters give a good idea of the difficulties surrounding the verification of a supposed fact when challenged a century and a half afterwards.

The dispute arose in this fashion. An account, based on generally accepted beliefs in the district, had been published. narrating several details of the poet ‘s visit to Inver, along with the epigram in question. The authorship of the verses was challenged in the "Weekly Scotsman," Sept. 6th, 1924, by Mr T. Davidson Cook, ESA. (Scot.), who wrote:- "I take it that here is voiced persistent and little-questioned local tradition. I gather that local tradition has never had any misgivings about the authorship and that the lines pass current as authentic Bums’ verse. Though the epigram has never been included in an edition of Bums, the poem has been ascribed to him often enough, and was twice fathered on the poet in "John o’ London.’ . . . Ten years before Burns was born in Kyle there was a song-book printed in Edinburgh called "The Charmer.’ It is dated 1749, and there the epigram is ascribed to Charles Coffey, a dramatist who wrote "The Beggar’s Wedding." Still earlier, the epigram appears in another old song-book called "The Hive," 1724."

This completely demolishes the theory of the Burns authorship of the epigram. Mr Cook was also sceptical on the point that Burns wrote on the Inver pane at all, but the following letter, signed E. Stewart, a Dunkeld correspondent, maintains that the poet might have written the verse on the glass, though he had not composed it. Other disputed details are also referred to in the letter, so it is quoted almost in full.

"The story goes that Burns wrote an epigram on the window of Inver Inn, in commemoration of a scolding woman seen or heard there. Mr Cook now proves that this so-called Burns epigram had already been printed in a song-book named "The Hive,’ published in 1724, long before the poet was born. So the belief in the epigram as a Burns’ composition must die."

It will be more difficult to kill the belief that Burns wrote the lines on the window pane at Inver, and that this pane was unfortunately smashed 70 years ago. I have spoken to those who aver they remember the breaking of the glass and the indignation of the whole village. The story in this case is that when the Highland Railway was opened as far as Dunkeld, many visitors before and after, came to see Niel Gow’s home. The tenant of the cottage at that time conceived the idea of gathering relics of the fiddler into his house as a sort of Niel Gow Museum. He attempted to remove the pane from its original setting, intending to take it to his cottage, but broke it in fragments. It is also said that the same person published a small guide to the district. Were it forthcoming, it might provide information on such points."

Burns’ own Diary is too brief and scanty to give much assistance. The notes from his Diary, as quoted in Scott Douglas’ edition of his works, are

Thursday, 30th Aug.—Come down Tay to Dunkeld.

Inver, Dr. Stewart, sup.

Friday, 31st Aug—Walk with Mrs Stewart and Beard to Bimam Top—fine prospect down Tay—Craigiebarns Hills—Hermitage on the Braan Water, with a picture of Ossian—breakfast with Dr. Stewart—Niel Gow plays, a short, stout-built figure, with greyish hair shed on his honest, social brow, an interesting face marking strong sense, kind open-heartedness mixed with unmistrusting simplicity—Visit his house—Margaret Gow. Ride up Tummel River to Blair.

Saty., 1st Sept—Have dined at Blair. . . . Dance, sup, Duke.

One night is certainly all that the poet spent in the Dunkeld neighbourhood, and even where he spent it is disputed. Three places are offered locally, viz. —With Dr. Stewart; Inver Inn; Culloden House, Dunkeld, then an Inn, now the Royal School.

Dr. Alexander Stewart, mentioned thus incidentally, is worthy in himself of more than a passing glance. A connection of Baroness Nairne, through marriage, he was known as the Baron of Badenoch, he being the laird of Bonskeid and claiming to be a lineal descendant of Alexander Stewart, Earl of Buchan, the famous Wolf of Badenoch, whose tomb is in Dunkeld Cathedral. After acting as surgeon in Holland, Dr. Stewart came to Dunkeld mainly through the advice of John, 4th Duke of Atholl, between whom and himself existed a warm friendship.

There is also an account of this visit in a little book entitled "The Fiddler in Scotland," written by Alexander G. Murdoch, and published by Blockley, Regent Street. Here in an article on Niel Gow and Burns, purporting to be founded on information partly supplied by Mr Alexander Robertson (understood to be Dundonnachie of Dunkeld Bridge Toll Riots’ fame), the writer says that Burns put up at Culloden House Inn, Dunkeld, and saw Dr. Stewart, who, being a keen amateur player, took the poet to visit Niel Gow. Niel played, and Dr. Stewart played, while the bass was taken by Peter Murray, another Inver fiddler, who handed down the account of that afternoon’s doings. This same Peter Murray figures in an article, "The Moors," written by Dr. Chambers in

"Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal," of Oct. 19th, 1844. Dr. Chambers describes an evening spent at Logierait, "listening to the reels and strathspeys played by a clever violinist, Charles M’Intosh of Inver, and Peter Murray, a worthy violin-cellist from the same place." Dr. Chambers states that Murray, the octogenarian bass, had for upwards of twenty years been the professional associate and friend of Niel Gow. "Old Murray had played with Niel to the Duke of Atholl and his friends sixty-two years ago. He was present on the night when the Duke entertained Bums at Blair."

It will be noted that Bums does not allude to the presence of Gow’s Band on that occasion. His sole comment is "Dance, sup Duke."

Another correspondent in this controversy pointed out that the old Ferry House, since burnt down and left in ruins, also served as an Inn at the period mentioned. The house in Inver Square has been generally pointed out as the one visited by the poet, but evidently this, too, is open to dispute.

It will be seen, therefore, that a short visit of one day and one night has certainly proved a fertile subject of discussion. Still, certain details must be accepted. Burns did pay a visit and did listen to the fiddler, who played a number of melodies which entranced his hearer. They were mostly Gow's own composition, and one of them, "Locherroch Side," so struck the poet’s fancy that eight years afterwards, when he sent the verses, "Address to the Woodlark," to Mr George Thomson, he gave the tune to which they were set as "Locherroch Side."

Mr Davidson Cook, in his "Weekly Scotsman" article, mentions that this visit might probably have inspired the poet in other ways even if he did not write or compose the epigram in question. He says, "Burns did undoubtedly write a song in honour of Gow when he visited him in Dumfries. Some literary sceptics might suggest that the Gow in question was one of Niel’s sons, but nobody knows for certain, and therefore, until proof to the contrary is forthcoming, they are entitled to assume that Niel Gow returned the poet’s visit. The text of the song inclines me to think that it refers to`famous Niel.' "

The song is set to the tune "The King of France he rode a race," and concludes—

"He fir’d a fiddler in the north

That dang them tapsalteerie, oh."

There is another Gow poem of intense interest, ascribed to Burns, though it has never been included in any edition of his works. Mr James D. Law published it (1903) in an American printed work, entitled "Here and There in Two Hemispheres," p 464. Speaking of certain manuscripts, formerly the property of Colonel de Peyster—to whom Burns addressed the poem beginning "My honour’d Colonel "—Mr Law remarks, "There is also a poem initialled R.B., and docketed `From the Poet,’ bearing the title `To Mr Gow Visiting Dumfries.’ "

The fact of such a visit is confirmed by a letter which Burns wrote (Dumfries, October, 1793) to Johnson of the Scots Musical Museum, in which he says, "I am much obliged to you, my dear friend, for making me acquainted with Gow. He is a modest, intelligent, worthy fellow, besides being a man of great genius in his way. I have spent many happy hours with him in the short time he has been here."

As Burns had met Niel Gow at Inver in 1787, it really seems more probable that the reference here is to the son, not to the father.

There are five verses in this "American" poem, of which the first and third are as follows-

TO MR GOW VISITING IN DUMPRIES.

(Tune, "Tullochgorum.")

Thrice welcome, King o’ Rant and Reel

Whaur is the Bard to Scotia leal,

Wha wadna sing o’ sic a chiel

And sic a glorious fiddle!

It’s but a weary warl’ at best

A wauf an’ weary widdle;

It’s but a weary warl’ at best

Gang north or sooth or east or west,

But we will never mak’ protest

When near you and your fiddle.

Nae fabled wizard’s wand I trow

Had e’er the magic art o’ Gow,

When wi’ a wave he draws his bow

Across his wondrous fiddle.

Sic fays and fairies come and dance—

Lightly tripping—hopping, skipping—

Sic fays and fairies come and dance—

Their master in the middle.

Sic fays and fairies come and dance

So gently glide and spryly prance,

And noo retreat and noo advance,

When he strikes up his fiddle I"

Be it son or be it father to whom these stirring lines are addressed, at least it was an Inver fiddler who inspired them.

Dunkeld an Ancient City
Elizabeth Stewart
Dunkeld, 1926

Return to Dunkeld History



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