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)

The Scottish Fiddler as Bimusical

Playing ‘by ear’ is and always has been a common approach to the performance of Scottish fiddle music: the fiddler who is able to take to the stage without music books makes an excellent impression, and the assertion that ‘you cannae take a music stand into a pub’ really emphasises the dynamism and spontaneity of pub music sessions. Indeed, this image of the Scottish fiddler is so popular that many people are surprised to learn of the extensive catalogue of printed Scottish fiddle music which goes back to the seventeenth century. Charlie Gore has been devoted to this catalogue and in 1994 published an index of the tunes contained in each collection, which numbered no fewer than 14,000 individual entries!

While it is common for fiddlers to play by ear, this is often the result of memorisation: they will learn a new tune from music notation, and since tunes are usually relatively short (sixteen bars) the written notes quickly become superfluous. Of course, it is also common for fiddlers to learn tunes from other fiddlers or recordings for which music notation is not required, but even then it can be useful as an aide-mémoire. The level of music literacy among fiddlers in Scotland is, and always has been, very high.

Ethnomusicologist, Mantle Hood, encouraged his classically-trained students to learn an instrument in the foreign, exotic, and unfamiliar music traditions they were studying in order to gain an insight into how these different musical systems worked. This method Hood termed bi-musicality, and it is useful for understanding the habits and practices of Scottish fiddlers of both today and the past. It needs to be tweaked a little, because most fiddlers don’t make a conscious decision to be bimusical – it is just a result of their upbringing and musical training, in which classical and traditional structures have combined – but none the less it can help explain a lot.

Historically, music was not categorised as being either classical or folk. Instead it was defined by its function: music for dancing, music for listening, or music for church. Thus, while today we would categorise Scottish fiddle music as folk (or traditional) music, that is not how it has always been thought of. In the eighteenth century, fiddlers such as Niel Gow or William Marshall were active as fiddlers in dance bands, dancing masters, and composers, for which they would need to be musically literate. Fiddler-composer Robert Mackintosh composed four collections of tunes but was also a musician in the Aberdeen Musical Society, an institution which existed from 1748 to 1805 to perform the compositions of Corelli, Handel, and Geminiani among others. This clashing of cultures (folk in the case of his collections of tunes and classical in the case of the Musical Society) strikes our modern sensibilities as incongruous, but when we take into mind categorisation by function and consider that Mackintosh was bimusical things are made clearer.

The case of Niel Gow is curious. While his name is attached to six collections of tunes (two of which appeared posthumously) it is not at all clear that he was musically literate. It was the business acumen of his son, Nathaniel, which made such a success of Niel Gow the composer, and it was he who managed the collections. (Niel, of course, was famous as a performer before being recognised in print as a composer). Nathaniel’s recollection that Niel’s favourite Italian composition was the ninth of Corelli’s Op. 5 Sonatas may have been yet another exercise in myth-making, but even if not it is still unclear if he performed the sonata or only enjoyed listening to it. Oh, to hear how it would have sounded from Niel Gow’s fiddle!

In the present, the concept of bimusicality highlights a particular strength of fiddlers/violinists who have highly developed skills for performing both from music notation and by ear. The massive amounts of energy required to learn to read music means it can become an end in itself, with learners focusing on the written page rather than the resulting sound. However, a combination of playing from notes and by ear can encourage a more aurally aware approach which results in the learner progressing faster.

Ronnie Gibson (11th February 2013)


The Waning of Scottish Fiddle Music: 1822–1881

The waning of Scottish fiddle music in the nineteenth century is a popular trope in the subject’s history: Alburger claims that ‘there was little creativity left’ after the so-called Golden Age of Scottish fiddle music from c.1780 to c.1820, during which time an unprecedented number of dance-tune collections were published. Similarly, Hunter asserts that ‘[b]y 1820 the great fiddle era was past’, not to peak again until the 1880s with the rise of fiddler-composer, James Scott Skinner. However, while it is true that the volume of publication decreased significantly from the 1820s, it is short-sighted to malign the period as one of dearth.

It was in 1822 that Marshall published his third collection of tunes, and Nathaniel Gow his sixth collection. After this date, the rate of publication slowed significantly, not because there was little creativity left but as a result of changing socio-economic factors. Publication had always been a precarious business with the majority of Golden Age collections being pay-rolled by the aristocracy, most commonly by subscription. The nineteenth century saw a move away from patronage-driven publication towards market-driven publication dictated by the public, but the transition would take time.

Marshall died in 1833 and Gow in 1831 (his famous father having passed years earlier in 1807) but reprints of their tunes would continue to be produced, and, in 1845, supporters of Marshall published a posthumous collection of his compositions, many of which had not been published before.

The names of Peter Milne, Joseph Lowe, and Willie Blair may not be as familiar to us today as Niel Gow, William Marshall, and James Scott Skinner, but in their time they were widely recognised for their abilities as performers and composers of Scottish fiddle music. Milne commanded a strong influence over Scott Skinner, and both Lowe and Blair were favourites of Queen Victoria at Balmoral. Indeed, it was Lowe who was tasked with the job of teaching the Royal Children to dance ‘Scotch’ reels.

An important tendency which emerges from this period is the move towards the formation of a canon of Scottish dance music, attempted to an extent in the late-eighteenth century by James Aird (in his six-volume Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and Foreign Airs) and Nathaniel Gow (Gow’s Repository of the Dance Music of Scotland), but more vigorously historicised in the efforts of John Thomas Surenne (The Dance Music of Scotland, 1851) and James Kerr (Kerr’s Merry Melodies, four volumes, 1870s). These ultimately led to James Stewart-Robertson’s Athole Collection of 1884 and John Glen’s two-volume compendium of Scottish Dance Music (1891-1895) which remain central sources of Scottish fiddle music for fiddlers today. Keith Norman MacDonald’s The Skye Collection (1887) also deserves mention in this vain.

Related to this change of approach from composition towards collecting was the establishment of the Edinburgh Highland Reel and Strathspey Society in 1881, the first such institution of its kind which existed to uphold and develop ‘the taste for our old national highland strathspey and reel music on the violin.’ Similarly, Alexander Murdoch’s The Fiddle in Scotland, published in 1888, can lay claim to being the first history of Scottish fiddle music.

It was in the years of the mid-nineteenth century that many of our modern ideas about Scottish fiddle music started to form. The very identification of an historical perspective had a significant impact, and enhanced the move away from dance and towards an appreciation of the music for its own sake.

Ronnie Gibson (8th Februrary 2013)