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Neil Gow


Niel Gow

Niel Gow, the noted Perthshire fiddler, was born in Strathbraan on March 22, 1727. Shortly afterwards his family moved to Inver, near Dunkeld, where his father found employment as a weaver. The Gow family was a musical one, so it perhaps isn’t surprising that, at an early age, Niel showed a great interest in the violin, teaching himself to play it. At 12 years of age he was given lessons by John Cameron, a retainer of George Stewart of Grandtully, and under this teacher he made rapid progress. He first became famous, we are told, in the year of the Great Rebellion, 1745, when, along with nine violinists, including his tutor, he competed for fiddling prizes. To ensure that the competition would be fairly conducted, a blind musician, John McCraw, was appointed judge. He decided in favour of Niel Gow, exclaiming: “I would ken his bow hand among a hunder players!” “His bow hand was uncommonly powerful,” says an observer, “and when the note produced by the up-bow was often feeble and indistinct in other hands, it was struck in Niel’s playing with a strength and certainty which never failed to surprise and delight the hearers.”
He was adept at rendering Scottish dance music, particularly reels and strathspeys.

Of his skill in this province another expert says: “Some men try to give spirit to dance music by short jerking
strokes, with a strong descending bow and a weak ascending one, but his was a continuous stream of joyous sounds, like an organ in full gallop.” Niel was twice married. By his first wife he had five sons and two
daughters. One of the Sons died early, the four others, William, John, Andrew and Nathaniel, all became skilful violin players. Niel was painted several times by the artist Sir Henry Raeburn. These paintings show him dressed in “tartan knee breeches and hose, and holding his violin in the old manner with chin resting on the inner side of the tail piece.” Robert Burns further filled in thepicture for us when he met the fiddler in 1787.

Says Robert Burns of Neil Gow: “He was 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 unrnistrustiflg simplicity.”
On this occasion of their meeting, Niel played one of his compositions, “Loch Errochside,” and Burns was so taken with it that he wrote the verses “Address to the Woodlark” for the tune, “the verse and the air being of corresponding excellence.” Niel’s fame spread around, James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, we are told, visited the “Highland Orpheus” in Kinnaird House, and in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, “St. Ronan’s Well,” in chapter 20, the following passage occurs: (the Gow referred to being Nathaniel, Niel’s son):—”GOW’s fiddle suddenly burst from a neighbouring hedge, behind which he had established his little orchestra. All were of course silent.. . and when he changed his strain to an adagio, and suffered his music to die away in the plaintive notes of “Roslin
Castle,” the echoes of the old walls were, after a long slumber, awakened by that enthusiastic burst of applause, with which the Scots usually received and rewarded their country’s gifted minstrels. He is his father’s own son, said TouchwoOd to the clergyman.
“It is many a long year since I listened to old Niel at Inver, and, to say truth, spent a night with him over pancakes and Athole brose. I never expected to hear his match again in my lifetime.” He is to be remembered as a gifted composer as well as a skilful player. He composed such well-known pieces as “Miss Drummond of Perth,” “Athole Volunteers,” and “Lament for the death of
Abercairney.” He is said to have been excelled in this field by his son Nathaniel, whose best-known composition was “Caller Herring,” a blending of Newhaven fishermen’s fries with St. Andrew’s church chimes.

Niel Gow died at Inver on the first day of March, 1807. He was laid to rest in Little Dunkeld Churchyard by the two sons who survived him, Nathaniel and John. In the Scots Magazine for July,
1812, there appears this epitaph:
“Gow and time are even now;
Gow beat time, now time’s beat Gow.”

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