Niel Gow was born in Strath brann, west of Dunkeld, Perthshire in 1727 to John Gow and Catherine McEwan. The population spoke mainly Gaelic and he was christened Niel (the Gaelic version of Neil). The family moved to nearby Inver, in Dunkeld where his father made a living as a plaid weaver. Young Niel showed an early aptitude for making music and taught himself to play fiddle on a kit (a half size fiddle) at the age of nine. Niel watched other fiddlers bowing technique and how they held their fiddles. In his early teens he had lessons from John Cameron of Grandtully and quickly established a reputation after winning an open competition in Perth in 1745 (the year of the Jacobite uprising). Fiddle competitions were judged by a blind musician to avoid favoritism. John McKaw, was the appointed judge and after naming Niel the winner, he declared he would recognize his bow hand anywhere. Where most fiddlers emphasised their downbow Gow put power into his up-bow and played it like an organ at full gallop. His standard and style of playing was such he became in great demand for all social occasions as far afield Aberdeen and Edinburgh.
Dunkeld sat as the gateway to the Highlands and when Bonnie Prince Charlie visited Dunkeld House on his march south to Edinburgh, Niel Gow was asked to entertain the Young Pretender. He travelled with the Young Pretender’s army as far as Luncarty before returning to Inver. Niel was married to Margaret Wiseman and their first of eight children was born in 1751. They had five sons and three daughters and all the boys became fiddlers. After Margaret died he took a second wife Margaret Urquhart in 1768. From then on Niel enjoyed the patronage of the Murrays of Atholl and was associated with three Dukes of Atholl (2nd, 3rd and 4th) during his long life, the third Duke paid him a retainer of £5 per year for playing at the many parties and formal balls held at Blair Castle.
Niel originally trained as a plaid weaver, like his father, but soon became a full-time musician. He soon gained the reputation as the best fiddle player in Perthshire. Gow was a maestro of the fiddle and played the dance music which was very popular at the time. He could be compared to BB King and like King and the Delta Blues, he made fiddle playing very respectable. Prior to this fiddlers were thought rather disreputable types. The fiddle music had an aural tradition and was taught 'by ear' rather than written music. Scottish fiddling in the Highland tradition was influenced by the ornamentation and mixolydian scale of the Great Highland Bagpipe, as well as smoother bowing. Fiddlers frequently performed solo. Niel often performed with his brother Donald, on 'cello. Later his band included one or more of his sons, together with Samson Duncan of Kinclaven on fiddle. The line-up may have been further augmented by piano, but this would have depended very much on where the band was playing. His reputation grew until he was the most famous fiddler and traveling dance instructor in Scotland. Despite his fame he remained in Inver.
Although he could scarcely read music he is credited with anything from 50 to 87 compositions many of which remain the backstay of modern Scottish country dance music. At the time much of the dance music was transmitted by ear from one fiddler to another so who actually composed which tune was impossible. Many of Gow’s tunes were derived from older tunes or are copies of tunes published earlier elsewhere, often under a different title. This was not uncommon at the time and was not an attempt to plagiarize just a means of musicians sharing the music. Many songs had several titles especially when fiddlers developed individual variations on the original tunes. When Niel and Nathaniel Gow published their various collections of music they would state "as played by Niel Gow and Sons". Many of the jigs, reels and strathspeys which survive today are labeled as "traditional." Gow inspired and excited dancers with powerfully rhythmical music and his regular cries of encouragement.
The strathspey is thought to have originated from the Strathspey area, the strath or broad glen of the River Spey, in Moray and Badenoch and Strathspey. The music was originally written for the fiddle and used for dancing. A slow and stylised form of reel it was originally called a 'Strathspey reel' while the standard reel was known as an 'Atholl reel'. The dance tune is in 4/4 time, but it sounds quite different because it is slower and contains dotted rhythms. One of these rhythms has a special name and is called the 'Scotch snap' or 'Scots snap'. Using a peculiar bowing technique to produce a very short note followed by a long (dotted) note played in sequence, it gives strathspey a 'snap' sound when played. The Scotch snap is generally exaggerated rhythmically for musical expression. In the highland dance there are generally 108 beats per minute with many Scotch snaps to give the piece a rhythmically tense idiom.
Strathspey refers both to the type of tune and to the type of dance usually done to it. There are two basic kinds of strathspey dances. The first is the set dances that are danced as a 'longways set', with lines of men and women facing each other and interweaving across the central space in different patterns. The other is like a slow version of a reel of four, where two couples intertwine in figures of eight, and is one of the standard dances in Highland dancing.
A Scottish country dance will typically consist of equal numbers of strathspeys, jigs and reels. The strathspey step is a slower and statelier version of the skip-change step used for jigs and reels. Traditionally, the strathspey was followed by a reel, which is in 2/2 with a swung rhythm, as a release of the rhythmic tension created during the strathspey.
The reel is a very old form of music in Scotland. Reels are mentioned as early as the 16th century . It is the fastest of all the tunes played on instruments in Scotland. Reels are generally in 4/4 or 2/4 time, meaning that it has four or two beats in each bar. Reels highlight the agility and dexterity of musicians on their instruments, and they can be played on pipes, fiddle, accordion and other instruments. The reel is used for many set dances, mostly for three, four or eight dancers to a set. In Highland and Island Scotland, it was traditional at weddings for the bride and groom to dance a foursome reel with their best man (in Gaelic, the fleasgach) and the bridesmaid (maighdeann). The most popular set reel is the eightsome reel.
Jigs are a form of dance tune in compound time. The origins are unknown but jigs appear to be related to the gigue, a European baroque dance. Most jigs are in 6/8 time, and Scottish jigs are relatively fast and lively with melodies featuring sequences of quavers and semiquavers, and often with dotted rhythms throughout the tune.
When not playing dance music Gow enjoyed performing deeply moving laments. He published three well known laments: Niel Gow’s Lamentation for Abercarney (1784); Niel Gow’s Lamentation for the Death of his Brother (1788); Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his 2d Wife (1809).
Robert Burns visited Niel Gow in 1787 when touring the Highlands. Burns 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. It is now better known as 'The lass o' Gowrie'. Many believe Gow's air of Locherroch Side is thought to be the basis for Robert Burns' ballad, "Oh! stay, sweet warbling Woodlark, stay."
Niel Gow was a man who was highly respected at all levels of society and at his height of fame Niel was welcome in any of the grand houses in the country. On his way to Aberdeen he stopped off at Brechin Castle where the Dalhousie family made him very welcome. Not only the master musician he was a good humoured fellow who enjoyed the company of others. On his death in 1807 he was buried in the local graveyard at Little Dunkeld. The Niel Gow Fiddle Festival takes place in Dunkeld and Birnam, Perthshire, Scotland every year.
In loving memory of Dougal and Elsie McCallum and Peter Cameron