The Gows and their music.
No-one who has ever heard “The Lament for Flora MacDonald” can fail to be moved by its air of sweet melancholy – that piercing nostalgia and haunting reminisce – so evocative of the Highlands and the Heather that even if you’re not Scottish the tartan in your heart goes out to it.
It was written in tribute to Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald who helped row Bonnie Prince Charlie from the Hebridean island of South Uist to the mainland at Portree, so ensuring he escaped the clutches of the pursuing English redcoats.
The writer’s name was NEIL GOW (known as “the Younger” and conventionally distinguished by the spelling of his forename from his also illustrious grandfather), who lived in Perthshire from around 1795 to 1823.
Few below the Border remember now, but the name “Gow” is almost synonymous with the glories of traditional Scottish music. And as the appellation suggests, young
Neil was not the first of his clan to make music his business.
The younger Neil was the grandson of an even more famous progenitor, NIEL GOW, a Scottish violinist.
Born in Perthshire on March 22nd, 1727. Niel Gow the Elder taught himself to play the fiddle as a youth and first made his mark as a player of dance music.
He also composed, collected and perhaps most importantly (encouraged by his son Nathaniel) published tunes, thus ensuring their survival. Between 1784 and 1822 no less than 87 of his Strathspey reels were published in six collections. Some of these melodies were traditional airs, others adaptations and the rest original.
Niel Gow the Elder inaugurated an era of professionalism in Scottish fiddle music which for the previous 150 years had largely been a local, underground and amateur art.
Perhaps because he was self-taught Niel Gow’s fiddle style was so distinctive that when he entered a fiddle competition in 1745 (incidentally, the year of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion) a blind judge declared he could “distinguish the stroke of Niel’s bow among a hundred players.”
Supported by the Duke of Atholl and later by the Duchess of Gordon and other Scottish aristocrats, Niel Gow’s services were soon in demand for balls and country-house parties all over Scotland. Notwithstanding, he apparently retained a personal simplicity and lived all his life in his native village of lnver. He did not publish any of his performing repertory until he was 57. Selections of these which were republished posthumously by his son, Nathaniel, and went under the simple but touching title “The Beauties of Niel Gow”.
Niel Gow met Burns in 1787. His portrait was painted four times by Raeburn and he is also depicted playing the fiddle (accompanied by his brother Donald on the Cello) in David Allan’s painting “The Highland Dance”.
Niel Gow the Elder died at lnver, Perthshire, on March lst, 1807.
An obituarist wrote:
“The Highland reel…[was his]…forte. His bow hand was uncommonly powerful; and when the note produced by the up-bow was often feeble and indistinct in other hands, it was struck in his playing with a strength and certainty which never failed to surprise and delight the skilful hearer. As an example may be mentioned his manner of striking the tenor C in ’Athole House’…we may add the effect of the sudden shout, with which he frequently accompanied his playing in the quick tunes, and which seemed instantly to electrify the dancers, inspiring them with new life and energy.”
Three of his sons, WILLIAM (1755-1791), JOHN (1760-1794) and ANDREW (1764-1826) contributed pieces to their father’s collections. John and Andrew became music publishers in London and led Scottish dance bands there, while William spent his working life in Edinburgh and took over the leadership of Alexander McGlashan’s dance band on McGlashan’s retirement.
But it was NATHANIEL (l766-l83l), also well known as a violinist and composer of Scottish dances, who was Niel the Elder’s most successful son and father of Neil Gow the Younger. As well as collecting and originally publishing his father‘s repertory, in 1782 he was appointed one of His Majesty’s Trumpeters for Scotland. He was also cellist in McGlashan’s band.
After William’s death (to occasion which he wrote his “Lament for the Death of his Brother”, Nathaniel took over the running of McGlashan’s band, which acquired a national reputation and several times played before royalty at Scottish occasions in London.
With his publishing and performing interests Nathaniel was a very determined business man. At one time his fortune was declared to be £20,000. Nonetheless, with changes in musical fashion around 1810 from Scottish dance music towards waltzes, quadrilles and lighter piano pieces, his fortunes declined and he was declared bankrupt in 1827 and ended his life in reduced circumstances.
It is not unlikely that Nathaniel was dispirited by the untimely death in 1823 of his talented son, Neil the Younger, barely 28 years old.
The actual fiddle of Niel Gow (the Elder) is in the possession of the Dukes of Atholl in Perthshire as are several Gow family portraits.
I have a lithograph copy of one of these portraits as an heirloom. There are various archival recordings of the Gow music, the most recent re-issued in 1988 by Nat Gonella.