By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine
“I first became aware of Niel Gow after hearing an older fiddler friend play the famous ‘Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife,’ dedicated to Gow’s wife, Margaret Urquhart of Perth. This must have been in the mid-1970s,” says Scottish fiddler Pete Clark, of the Niel Gow Festival Society. “I was immediately drawn to that tune and subsequently kept an eye out for other compositions by Niel Gow. That led me to become acquainted with the works of his sons, William, Andrew, John, and Nathaniel—most notably Nathaniel.”
Since then, the music of Niel Gow (1727–1807) and his sons has become a lifelong pursuit for Clark, who was born not far from Gow’s ancestral home in Inver, Scotland. For nearly 50 years, Clark has played and taught the music of Gow, and even recorded on two of Gow’s fabled fiddles. As the organizer of the annual Niel Gow Festival, Clark has promoted all things Gow—in March, the pandemic lockdown postponed the 17th annual Niel Gow Festival and halted plans to install a life-size bronze statue of the famed fiddler created by sculptor David Annand. Clark vows the statue will be dedicated just as soon as the quarantine is over.
So, why have Gow’s tunes endured across the centuries?
“The music of the Gows—Niel and his sons—still permeates the repertoire of Scottish country-dance bands—most of their output was for dancing to,” Clark says. “The majority of music composed by Gow and his contemporaries was Scottish dance music— jigs, reels, and strathspeys. And their teaching, as well as their composing, had a great influence on their contemporaries, including the prolific fiddler-composer Robert Mackintosh, born in Tullymet, just a few miles north of Niel Gow’s village of Inver. These 18th- and early 19th-century tunes are still fit for purpose, and sit comfortably in sets that often include more recent compositions.
“The slow airs from that period, often referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Scottish Fiddle Music,’ still convey the sense of the love, admiration, and loss that inspired their creation. The poignant and beautiful slow airs were what really touched me. They say so much in so few bars. Niel Gow’s ‘Lament for His Second Wife’ is just such a tune. Even people hearing this melody for the first time will ask, ‘What was the name of that piece?’ It has an almost magical quality, and I never tire of playing it.”
Over the years, Gow has entranced generations of string players. Cellist Natalie Haas, an associate professor at Berklee College of Music and a graduate of the Juilliard School, has performed Gow’s music and recorded extensively with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. She first delved into Gow’s tunes 16 years ago while working on a recording with Fraser. “We made our Robert Burns album in 2004, and experimented a lot with multiple versions of tunes that Burns used to create his songs,” Haas recalls, “many of them either compositions of Niel Gow or tunes found in his books—his and his son Nathaniel’s had some of the best bass lines!
“I think I had come into contact with his famous air ‘Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of His Second Wife’ before making that recording, on albums by both Alasdair and [Cape Breton fiddler] Natalie MacMaster, and was hugely moved emotionally by the vulnerability of that melody. His dance tunes are full of the raw energy of the Highlands—unlike his son Nathaniel’s, which are much more elegant, refined, and of the big city of Edinburgh. Niel Gow is the gold standard for all other Scottish fiddle composers and publishers—the tradition would not be where it is today without his contributions.”
A Little History
For centuries, Niel Gow has been celebrated in song and numerous texts. One of the most intriguing accounts of the legendary Scottish fiddler can be found in an 1899 article that appeared in The Celtic Monthly, archived by the National Library of Scotland. Gow was born on March 22, 1727 at Inver, near Dunkeld, in the county Perth, on the banks of the Brau, a tributary of the River Tay. It is regarded as one of the most romantic spots in Great Britain, surrounded by craggy, forest-clad hills within earshot of the rushing Brau as it emerges from a deep gorge. At the back of the village, behind a range of hills, roll the waters of the Tay, along a winding valley and steep mountains.
His parents, John Gow and Catherine M’Ewan, had hoped their son would become a weaver, but he was drawn to music and chose the fiddle. At 13, he fell under the tutelage of fiddler John Cameron. According to tradition, Gow appeared at a competition with nine others, including Cameron, and possibly James Dow, who was celebrated as a composer of dance music, though some suspect it was a young Daniel Dow and not the more famous James. The judge was John M’Craw, a blind fiddler, who praised Gow’s distinctive individualized style, saying: “I would ken his bow hand amang a huhder players.”
The old cottage in which Gow lived until his death is still intact and occupied. Historic accounts note that Charles M’Intosh, of Dunkeld, a venerable musician, was told by his grandmother, who along with his grandfather was a neighbor and intimate friend of Gow’s, that a large whinstone boulder, nearly square in shape, with a flat top, lay at one corner of this house and became one of Gow’s favorite seats on summer evenings, when the fiddler used to play for young community members dancing on the green. M’Intosh’s grandmother also said that a fir tree by the side of the river Brau was another favorite spot of Gow’s and served as the inspiration for his fiddle tune called “The Fir Tree.”
Gow earned a reputation for being honest, independent, and quick of wit. His prowess as a fiddler was known throughout Scotland and beyond—he earned the admiration of fellow fiddlers impressed by his melodious lines and strong up-bow. Over the years, Gow composed 87 tunes—principally strathspeys and reels. In 1784, he dedicated his first collection of music to Her Grace the Duchess of Atholl. Three other fiddle collections were issued during his lifetime with assistance from his sons.
His first wife was Margaret Wiseman, by whom he had a family of five sons and three daughters. His second wife, Margaret Urquhart, or Orchard, had no family. Four of the sons followed their father’s profession, and became well known, especially Nathaniel, who was the most famous and who became quite wealthy. John Glen of Edinburgh, in a critical essay on the Gows, in the first volume of his Glen Collection of Scottish Dance Music, gives a full account of the family.
The renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns visited Niel Gow on at least one occasion and even sketched his likeness.
Niel Gow died in 1807 and is buried in the churchyard at Little Dunkeld chapel.
A Fiddler with Style
Fiddlers can learn a lot about Gow, the man, from his music, from his beautiful elegies dedicated to the people in his life, and from the wit expressed in his song titles. “It’s the tune titles as much as the notes that give us a wee bit of insight into the character of the man who composed them,” Clark says. “The formal and quite lengthy titles of the laments—for example, ‘Niel Gow’s Lamentation for James Moray Esquire of Abercairney’—reveal Gow’s deep respect for his friends and benefactors. Whereas ‘Niel Gow’s Farewell to Whisky,’ composed during the 1799 ban on distillation of spirits, followed a year later with ‘Welcome Whisky Back Again,’ suggests a sense of humor.”
Clark also teaches students about Gow’s fiddle style: “Tone and dynamics are, of course, important in performing slow airs—long bows for powerful and expressive passages, but shorter bows reducing volume. And consider the use of vibrato and not theover-use, which can create a ‘too classical-sounding’ interpretation,” he warns.
“In strathspey playing, up- and down-driven bows provide visual as well as audible dramatics, and ‘lifting off’ after playing snaps—a semiquaver followed by dotted quaver, for example (a 16th note followed by dotted eighth note)—helps to lighten the strathspey and give lift to the dancers.
“I teach long-short-short bowing patterns in jigs to create the accents on beats 1 and 4, the pulse that carries the dancers. When students ask me, ‘How fast should this go?’ I tell them to stand on one foot and hop. Et voila!
“Ornamentation appropriate to the style is important. These days, it has become quite common to hear fiddlers using bagpipe ornamentation in tunes that are not of that tradition. This is not to say that Gow and his cronies didn’t compose tunes in the bagpipe style. ‘The Bob o’ Dowally’ springs to mind. Possibly composed by John Crerar, a pupil of Niel Gow, it’s a very ‘pipey’ strathspey.
“Remember, one feature of the Scots fiddle repertoire is the relative shortness of the tunes, typically 32 bars, to correlate with the number of steps in most, but not all, country dances. And slow airs are also typically 32 bars in length. Listeners are therefore not put off by unduly long tributes. And, importantly, the constraints imposed by this structure really encourage the composer to focus his creativity into a short but powerful expression of his feelings, with no time for aimless wandering.”
Niel Gow’s Fiddles
There are two fiddles attributed to Niel Gow. “The fiddle kept at Blair Castle [near the village of Blair Atholl in Perthshire] is an old and roughly made instrument,” says Pete Clark, who in 1997 recorded Even Now: The Music of Niel Gow, on that instrument. “The label inside says ‘Neil Gow’ (sic) and bears the date 1787, the year Gow met Robert Burns. Did Gow make this fiddle, or did someone insert a label as a reminder of who once played it? No doubt Gow did play on it, and I suspect that this instrument was kept at the castle for use by Gow during his many visits there.”
There is no bow with that fiddle, and Clark suspects Gow would have used a Baroque bow. “I used unwound gut strings, including the E, and strung it about a fortnight before the recording, to give the strings time to settle,” Clark says. “The sound was surprisingly mellow, but had to be coaxed rather than forced from the instrument. We recorded in the ballroom at Blair Castle, not a room Gow would have known—it was an ‘add-on’ built in the mid-19th century. But to be playing that fiddle, at Blair Castle and just a few feet from the famous [Gow] portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn, was, to say the least, quite an experience.”
In 2007, Clark was contacted by a gentleman who owned what turned out to be the fiddle that was Gow’s favorite and quite likely the one on which he composed his most famous laments. It’s a copy of a Gasparo da Salò. “That gentleman has since passed away, but I am in touch with his family and they generously let me borrow the fiddle for events in aid of the proposed memorial to Gow,” Clark says.
In 2017, Clark used that fiddle to record Niel Gow’s Fiddle, half of the tracks having been recorded in the Little Dunkeld church, just yards away from Gow’s gravesite.