Gow the Gael: An Alternative History of Scottish Fiddle Music

Niel Gow (1727-1807)

In the history of Scottish fiddle music, no-one is held in higher esteem than Niel Gow. While his contribution to the canon of tunes is relatively small, the few he composed are of such high quality as to guarantee his place in the ‘fiddlers’ hall of fame.’ But it’s his reputation as a performer that raises him above all others: as a celebrated performer of dance music he inspired and excited dancers with powerfully rhythmical music and regular cries of encouragement; and in non-dance contexts he demonstrated the emotional depth of his art in the performance of deeply moving laments.

His image came to represent Scottish (in particular, Highland) culture at a time when issues of national identity were still settling after the Union of Parliaments in 1707. Even today, his continuing high status as a national icon is confirmed by the fact that his portrait has been chosen to adorn a wall in Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of Scotland. The famous portrait by Raeburn (1787, above) depicts a slight, older man in livery and tartan trews, gazing thoughtfully into space as he plays a tune on his fiddle. What’s more, he holds the instrument introvertly, in contrast to the virtuosi of the nineteenth century who positively brandish it across the frame.

A comparison with the portrait of his near-contemporary, William Marshall (1748-1833), highlights how differently the two fiddler-composers were represented: Marshall’s portrait betrays nothing of his Scottish nationality, but shows a man of the Enlightenment, with a quill on the table beside him a sign of his erudition and ability as a composer.

Returning to Gow, there are other aspects that contribute to his unique brand of Highland identity: the location of Inver on the Highland boundary suggests the fusion of Highland and Lowland cultures which was ultimately key to his success. Further, Helen Jackson, in her book, Niel Gow’s Inver, notes that as late as 1890 in Strathbraan, where Niel was born, the population spoke Gaelic almost exclusively, with the suggestion that, in all likelihood, he would have been bi-lingual. The Gaelic spelling of his name (Niel rather than Neil) supports this suggestion.

It is also greatly significant that he composed laments, three of which were published: 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). Laments are not a uniquely Highland form, with examples from earlier classical music including ‘Dido’s Lament’ in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, but the genre was transformed by the London-based Scot, James Oswald, in the aftermath of Culloden (1746), when Londoners’ interest was piqued by all things Highland.

There are no examples of the lament in volume one of Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion (c. 1745) but they are included from the second volume onwards (c. 1750, twelve volumes in total), with ‘The Scots Lament’ in volume two and ‘The Highland Lamentation’ in volume three (c. 1751).

The romanticisation of the Scottish Highlands and Gaelic culture reached fruition with the publication of MacPherson’s Ossianic poetry in the 1760s, but these examples by Oswald from the 1750s are a precursor. The association of the lament with the Highlands legitimised it as a primarily Gaelic form of expression. The expressive leaps in the melody and lilting descending figures are not so far removed from the affect and topoi of the laments of classical music, but with scotch snaps cementing the Scottish character of these examples.

The Myth of Gow

While recognised as the father of Scottish fiddle music, surprisingly little of certainty is known about Niel Gow. Like all great figureheads, the facts of his life are surrounded by myth and anecdote: almost immediately after his death in 1809, long tales emerged starring Gow in the dramatic personae. Alexander Murdoch, in his history of Scottish fiddle music (1888), recounts the following:

Neil [sic] made no distinction as to rank; men and women, and braw lads and lasses, were his only words of qualification in speaking to the people he encountered during his long public career. On one of these occasions, when the genial Duchess of Gordon called on him, she complained, in answer to a question as to her health of a giddiness and swimming in her head, on which Neil wittily said– “Faith, an’ I ken something o’ that mysel’, yer leddyship; when I’ve been fou the nicht before ye wad think that a hale bike o’ bees were bizzin’ in my bannet.” [Alexander Murdoch, The Fiddle in Scotland, pp. 42-43.]

His representation of Gow as a folk hero cum country bumpkin (transcending class boundaries with his wit or playing the ignorant peasant?) is representative of the many anecdotes that abound.

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding his knowledge of Gaelic, it’s not certain that he was musically literate. While the lack of any surviving music notation in his hand is not evidence of non-literacy, such an artefact would surely have been highly valued, perhaps so highly valued that Niel’s entrepreneurial son, Nathaniel, might have found a market for such a document? (Yes, I’m clutching at straws on this one, but stay with me…).

The role of Nathaniel in representing his father to the public cannot be over-estimated. It was he who was responsible for publishing the famous Gow collections that bore his father’s name and which were the primary mode of engagement for a mass audience with limited access to the man himself. Nathaniel’s many annotations throughout the publications demonstrate how valuable an asset Niel was. A particularly interesting note concerns Niel’s favourite Corelli movement, which Nathaniel tells us was the Giga from Op.5/9:

This again raises the issue of old Gow’s musical literacy. Did he perform Corelli sonatas from music at home at Inver? Or did he pick up by ear what is essentially a dance tune, in the same way many fiddlers still do today? Was he even familiar with it? It certainly suited Nathaniel’s purposes to represent his father as a sage master of music other than just dance music, appealing, as he was, to an upper- and middle-class audience for whom Corelli was the most highly revered composer. Alternatively, does my belief that Gow was non-literate stem from a need to paint him as a genuine ‘folk legend’? I don’t think so, but you can make up your own mind. My reduction of Niel Gow to an image or a brand may be unsatisfactory to those who believe he had more input into his public image, but, while denying him agency in this sphere, I would be the first to empower him as a live performer. Indeed, accounts of his performances attest to his ability in this respect.

Gow the Gael

The identification of Niel Gow as the father of Scottish fiddle music has shaped the writing of its history: our ideas about him are reflected in our understanding of the music as a whole. The association of the so-called Niel Gow or Perthshire style of fiddle music with the present-day North-East style has dominated the historical narrative, with a line being drawn from Gow through James Scott Skinner to Hector MacAndrew and his ‘classical’ approach to performance.

A recent encounter with the pre-eminent Highland fiddler, Aonghas Grant (b. 1931), got me thinking about the place of Highland fiddle music in the broader history of Scottish fiddle music: I’ve talked before about the bias of scholars towards literate traditions of fiddle music, but geographical bias is also to be found in how the history of this music has been written. Ultimately, the two biases are connected: the paucity of published collections of tunes from the Highlands as a result of general non-literacy has lead to the region’s exclusion from the prevailing historical narrative.

With the ‘discovery’ of Aonghas at the TMSA competition at Blairgowrie in 1969, Highland (or, Gaelic) fiddle music was put back on the map. Admittedly, Farquhar MacRae, along with many other Highland fiddlers, had been recorded by ethnographers from the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s, but Aonghas was the first to achieve competition success outside the Mòd and release an album (Angus Grant: Highland Fiddler, 1979).

The patronage of fiddle music in the Highlands was (is) vastly different from patronage in the North-East: the influence of Scott Skinner’s classical approach, with technically challenging tunes and solo concert performances, contrasts with the community-based structures that supported music in the Highlands, where the influence of classical music was limited and performances took place in the context of dances first and foremost.

The literate/non-literate binary is more helpful than geographic division in diagnosing bias in the received history of Scottish fiddle music. It is just the case that figureheads from the North-East have tended to be literate whereas those from the Highlands have tended to be non-literate. Historically, it was certainly the case that non-literacy was prevalent among fiddlers everywhere, with different mechanisms of learning to those of literate musicians.

If I’m right about Gow, it creates an irony throughout the history of Scottish fiddle music: that it’s ‘founding father’ was, in fact, a non-literate Gael dramatically alters our reception of practice in the present day.

Post Scriptum: A Contemporary Twist

The perceived privileging of Gaelic culture by arts funding bodies has incensed many non-Gaelic traditional musicians in Scotland: while no-one would disagree that it’s important to safeguard the language, the representation of Scotland as Gaelic does a great disservice to the many speakers of other languages or dialects (if you make a distinction) and their associated cultures that make up the nation. In a similar vein, William Lamb’s recent reappropriation of the strathspey for the Gaels, while raising many interesting issues in the process, is ultimately no more than a rebranding of Scotland’s most emblematic musical genre.

With the 2014 Independence Referendum looming, it’s essential to be on guard for ideologically derived narratives and motivations. It’s perhaps unfair of me to reduce Dr Lamb’s excellent paper to an exercise in ‘rebranding’: he is quite right to interrogate the origins of the strathspey, shrouded as they are in uncertainty. Ultimately, it is necessary to mediate between Gaelic and non-Gaelic histories with the aim of recognition and representation.

Ronnie Gibson (20 August 2013)


Since publishing my speculations concerning Niel Gow’s musical literacy, my friends working on the Bass Culture project have alerted me to evidence which strongly suggests he could, in fact, read music: his name appears in the list of subscribers to John Bowie’s 1789 collection and there is a collection of Scots tunes in a North American library of which Niel is said to have been its former owner (and it includes annotations purportedly in his hand). Regardless, I remain adamant that, historically, fiddlers’ engagement with the notated text was far more creative than a literal interpretation of the notes would suggest, and it’s the mechanisms of that creativity which interest me the most.

RG (12 November 2013)

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