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Significant Scots
Nathaniel Gow


GOW, NATHANIEL, who, as a violinist and composer, well deserves a place in any work intended to perpetuate the names of Scotsmen who have done honour or service to their country, was the youngest son of the celebrated Niel Gow. His mother’s name was Margaret Wiseman, and he was born at Inver, near Dunkeld, Perthshire, on the 28th May, 1763. Nathaniel, and his three brothers, William, John, and Andrew, having all given early indications of musical talent, adopted music as a profession, and the violin, on which their father had already gained so much reputation, as the instrument to which their chief study was to be directed. All the brothers attained considerable eminence, and some of them acquired a fortune by the practice of this instrument but viewing all the circumstances applicable to each, it will not be looked on as invidious or partial, when we say, that Nathaniel must be considered the most eminent of his family or name, not only as a performer and composer, but as having, more than any other, advanced the cause and popularity of our national music during his time, and provided, by his publications, a permanent repository of Scottish music, the most complete of its kind hitherto given to the world.

Nathaniel was indebted to his father for his first instructions. He commenced on a small violin commonly called a kit, on which his father Neil had also made his first essay, and which is still preserved in the family. At an early age he was sent to Edinburgh, where he continued the study of the violin, first under Robert M’lntosh, or Red Rob, as he was called, until the latter, from his celebrity, was called up to London. He next took lessons from M’Glashan, better known by the appellation of king M’Glashan, which he acquired from his tall stately appearance, and the showy style in which he dressed; and who besides was in high estimation as an excellent composer of Scottish airs, and an able and spirited leader of the fashionable bands. He studied the violoncello under Joseph Reneagle, a name of some note in the musical world, who, after a long residence in Edinburgh, was appointed to the professorship of music at Oxford. With Reneagle he ever after maintained the closest intimacy and friendship. The following laconic letter from the professor in 1821, illustrates this:— "Dear Gow, I write this to request the favour of you to give me all the particulars regarding the ensuing coronation, viz...Does the crown of Scotland go? Do the trumpeters go? Do you go? Does Mrs Gow go? If so, my wife and self will go; and if you do not go, I will not go, nor my wife go." Gow’s first professional appearanee it is believed, was in the band conducted by king M’Glashan, in which he played the violoncello. After the death of M’Glashan, he continued under his elder brother William Gow, who succeeded as leader, a situation for which he was well fitted by his bold and spirited style; but having been cut off about the year 1791, at the early age of forty, Nathaniel took his place, and maintained it for nearly forty years, with an eclat and success far beyond any thing that ever preceded or followed him.

So early as 1782, when he could not have been more than sixteen years of age, Gow was appointed one of his majesty’s trumpeters for Scotland, a situation which required only partial attendance and duty, being called on only to officiate at royal proclamations, and to accompany the justiciary judges on their circuits for a few weeks, thrice in each year. The salary is small, but it is made up by handsome allowances for travelling expenses, so that in all it may yield the holder about 70 per annum. This situation he held to the day of his death, although during some of his later years, he was forced to employ a substitute, who drew a considerable portion of the emoluments.

He had for many years previously, by assuming the lead of the fashionable bands, become known not only as an excellent violin player, but as a successful teacher, and as having arranged and prepared for publication the first three numbers of the collection of reels and strathspeys published by his father. So much, however, and so quickly did he advance in reputation after this, and so generally did he become acquainted with the great and fashionable world, that in 1796, without giving up or abating his lucrative employment as leader, he commenced business as a music-seller on an extensive scale, in company with the late Mr Wm. Shepherd; and for fifteen or sixteen years, commanded the most extensive business perhaps ever enjoyed by any house in the line in Scotland. In 1813, however, after his partner’s death, the business was wound up, and whatever profits he may have drawn during the subsistence of the partnership, he was obliged to pay up a considerable shortcoming at its close.

It was in 1799 that he continued the work commenced by his father and himself; and from that time till 1824, in addition to the three first collections, and two books of Slow Airs, Dances, Waltzes, &c., he published a fourth, fifth, and sixth Collection of Strathspeys and Reels; three volumes of Beauties, being a re-publication of the best airs in the three first collections, with additions,— four volumes of a Repository of Scots Slow Airs, Strathspeys, and Dances—two volumes of Scots Vocal Melodies, and a Collection of Ancient Curious Scots Melodies, besides a great many smaller publications, all arranged by himself for the harp, piano forte, violin, and violoncel1o. During the life of his father, he was assisted by him, and the first numbers were published as the works of Neil Gow and son. Many collections had been published previously by ingenious individuals, the best of which, perhaps, was that of Oswald; but Gow’s collections, beyond all dispute, are the most extensive and most complete ever submitted to the public; embracing not only almost all that is good in others, but the greater part of the compositions of Neil and Nathaniel Gow, and other members of that musical family.

After an interval of a few years, Gow commenced music-seller once more, in company with his only son Neil, a young man of amiable and cultivated mind, who had received a finished education at Edinburgh and Paris for the profession of surgeon, but who, finding no favourable opening in that overstocked calling, and having a talent and love for music, abandoned it and joined his father. This young gentleman, who was the composer of the beautiful melody of "Bonny Prince Charlie," and a great many others, was not long spared to his father and friends, having been cut off by a lingering disease in 1823. The business was afterwards continued until 1827; but, wanting a proper head—Gow himself being unable to look after it—it dwindled away; and poor Gow, after a long life of toil, during which he had gathered considerable wealth, found himself a bankrupt at a time when age and infirmity prevented him from doing anything to retrieve his fortunes.

It is difficult to describe the influence, success, and reputation of Nathaniel Gow, during all the time he conducted the fashionable bands in Edinburgh and throughout Scotland; but certain it is, that in these respects he stands at the head of all that ever trode in the same department. Not only did he preside at the peers’ balls, Caledonian Hunt balls, and at the parties of all the noble and fashionable of Edinburgh, but at most of the great meetings and parties that took place throughout Scotland; and in several instances he was summoned to England. No expense deterred individuals or public bodies from availing themselves of his services; and it appears from his memorandum books, that parties frequently paid him from one hundred to one hundred and fifty guineas, for attending at Perth, Dumfries, Inverness, &c. with his band. One of the first objects in the formation of fashionable parties, was to ascertain if Gow was disengaged, and they would be fixed, postponed, or altered, to suit his leisure and convenience. He visited London frequently, although he resisted many invitations to settle there permanently. In the year 1797, when in London, the late duke of Gordon, then Marquis of Huntly, got up a fashionable ball for him, which was so well attended, that after paying all expenses, 130 was handed over to Mr Gow. He was in the habit, too, during every visit to the capital, of being honoured by invitations to the private parties of his late majesty, George IV., when prince of Wales and prince regent; on which occasions he joined that prince, who was a respectable violoncello player, in the performance of concerted pieces of the most esteemed composers. In 1822, when his majesty visited Scotland, Gow was summoned, with a select portion of the musical talent of Edinburgh, to Dalkeith palace, and the king evinced his enduring recollection of the musician’s visits to him in London, by quitting the banquet table to speak to him; ordering at the same time a goblet of generous wine to the musician, and expressing the delight he experienced not only on that, but many former occasions, in listening to his performances. Gow was overcome by his majesty’s familiar address, and all he could do was to mutter in a choked manner, "God bless your majesty." At the peers’ ball, and the Caledonian Hunt ball, his majesty took pleasure in expressing the satisfaction he derived from Gow’s music; so that when the latter rendered his account for his band, he added, "my own trouble at pleasure, or nothing, as his majesty’s approbation more than recompensed me."

Gow had an annual ball at Edinburgh during all the time he was leader of the bands; and, until a few years before his retirement, these were attended by all the fashion and wealth of the country, there being frequently above one thousand in the room, many of whom, who were his patrons, did not stint their contributions to the mere price of their tickets. He received, besides, many compliments beyond the mere charge for professional labour. At his ball in 1811, the late earl of Dalhousie, who was his staunch supporter on all occasions, presented him with a massive silver goblet, accompanied by the following note:—"An old friend of Gow’s requests his acceptance of a cup, in which to drink the health of the thousands who would wish, but cannot attend him to-night." He was presented with a fine violoncello by Sir Peter Murray of Ochtertyre, and a valuable Italian violin by the late Sir Alexander Don.

While his evenings were occupied at the parties of the great, his days were not spent in idleness. He had as his pupils the children of the first families in the country, for the violin and piano-forte accompaniment; from whom he received the highest rate of fees known at the time; indeed, it appears from his books, that at one time he went once a week to the duke of Buccleugh’s at Dalkeith palace, a distance of only six miles, and received two guineas each lesson, besides travelling expenses.

Although engaged, as already said, in the most extensively patronized musical establishment in Scotland, it is questionable if he ever at any time realized profit from it, while it is certain, that towards the close he was a great loser; indeed, it can seldom be otherwise where the proprietor has other avocations, and leaves the management to his servants. But from his balls, teaching, and playing, the emoluments he derived were very great, and he was at one time worth upwards of 20,000 pounds; but this was ultimately swept away, and he was forced, while prostrated by a malady from which he never recovered, to appeal to his old patrons and the public for their support, at a ball for his behoof in March, 1827, which he did by the following circular: "When I formerly addressed my kind patrons and the public, I had no other claim than that which professional men generally have, whose exertions are devoted to the public amusement. By a patronage the most unvarying and flattering, I was placed in a situation of comfortable independence, and I looked forward without apprehension, to passing the decline of my days in the bosom of my family, with competence and with happiness. Unfortunately for me, circumstances have changed. By obligations for friends, and losses in trade, my anxious savings have been gradually wasted, till now, when almost bed-rid, unable to leave my house, or to follow my profession, I am forced to surrender the remnant of my means to pay my just and lawful creditors. In this situation some generous friends have stepped forward and persuaded me, that the recollection of my former efforts to please, may not be so entirely effaced, as to induce the public to think that my day of distress should pass without notice, or without sympathy."

The appeal was not in vain—the ball was crowded, and handsome tokens of remembrance were sent by many of his old friends, so that nearly 300 was produced. The ball was continued annually for three years afterwards, and though not so great as the first, they still yielded sufficient to prove the deep sympathy of the public, and to afford him a consolation and support in his hour of trial and sickness. It should not be omitted, that the noblemen and gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt, who had, during all his career, been his warmest patrons, voted fifty pounds per annum to him during his life; and we will be forgiven for lengthening this detail a little, by quoting one letter out of the many hundreds received, which was from his ever-generous friend Mr Maule of Panmure: "Your letter has given me real uneasiness, but although Scotland forgot itself in the case of Burns, I hope the present generation will not allow a Gow to suffer for the want of those comforts in his old age, to which his exertions for so many years for their amusement and instruction, so well entitle him. My plan is this, that an annuity of 200, should be got by subscription, and if the duke of Athol, lords Breadalbane, Kinnoul, and Gray, (all Perthshire noblemen,) would put their names at the top of the list, it would very soon be filled up; this in addition to an annual ball at Edinburgh, which ought to produce at least 200 pounds more, would still be but a moderate recompense for the constant zeal, attention, and civility, which you have shown in the service of the public of Scotland during a long period of years. I, for one, shall do my part, because I never can forget the many happy hours I have passed, enlivened by the addition of your incomparable music." The subscription did not take place, but Mr Maule did his part indeed, for every year brought a kind letter and a substantial accompaniment.

In estimating the professional character of Nathaniel Gow, it will be more just to his memory to consider his merits in that department which he made his peculiar province, than as a general musician; for although he was well acquainted with the compositions of the great masters, and joined in their performance, and taught them to his pupils, yet his early aspirations, and his more mature delight and study, were directed to the national music of Scotland. As a performer he had all the fire and spirit of his celebrated father in the quick music, with more refined taste, delicacy, and clearness of intonation in the slow and plaintive melodies. To an equally fine ear, and deep feeling of the beauties and peculiarities of Scottish melody, he added the advantages of a more general cultivation of musical knowledge, with more varied and frequent opportunities of bearing the most classical compositions, executed by the most able performers. These, while they did not tempt him to sacrifice any of the character or simplicity of his native music, enabled him to give a taste and finish to the execution of it, which placed him, by general and ungrudging consent, as the master spirit, of that branch or department which he had selected, and in which, for a long course of years, he walked in unapproachable triumph. There are many living, contemporaries to whom less than even the little, we have said, will be necessary to make them concur in this statement; those who never listened to his playing, can only be referred to the universal subjugation of the world of fashion, taste, and pleasure, to his sway for so long a period, as a pretty certain testimony in support of our humble opinion.

As a composer, his works remain to support his claims. He has published in his collections, and in sheets, upwards of two hundred original melodies and dancing tunes, and left nearly a hundred in manuscript; which, along with his more recent collections, became the property of Messrs Robertson of Prince’s Street, Edinburgh. Of these we may only refer to a very few —his "Caller Herring," which was so much admired, that it was printed in London, and imitated by celebrated composers—"Sir George Clerk," and "Lady Charlotte Durham," as specimens of his slow compositions,—and to "the Miller of Drone," "Largo’s Fairy Dance," and "Mrs Wemyss of Castlehill," to which last air the song of "St Patrick was a Gentleman," is sung, as specimens of his lively pieces. There are many of our finest melodies, of which the composers are unknown; but we are persuaded that few will contradict us when we say, that from the number and talent of his compositions, no known Scottish composer, not even his celebrated father, can contest the palm with him, as the largest and ablest contributor to the already great stock of our national music.

Independently of these, he has claims upon our gratitude, not only for perpetuating in his very ample collections, so large a proportion of the scattered gems of national music; but for giving it, during his whole career, such prevalence and eclat, by his admirable execution, and constant encouragement, and exhibition of its spirit and beauty to the public. In all these respects he is entitled to the first praise as its greatest conservator and promoter. It is no doubt true, that of late years the introduction of foreign music and dances, has for a time neutralized his exertions, and kept somewhat in abeyance the native relish for our own music and. dancing. But there are such germs of beauty in the former, and such spirit and character in the latter, that we have little fear of their being soon revived, and replaced in all their wonted freshness and hilarity in their proper station among our national amusements. It is painful to hear some of the young ladies at our parties, reddening with a kind of horror at being asked to join in a reel or country dance, and simpering out, "I can’t dance reels—they’re vulgar;" at the same time that their attempts at the foreign dances are perhaps little superior to the jolting pirouettes of stuffed dolls, or pasteboard automatons in a raree show. How different from the time when the first nobles in the land were proud when a reel or strathspey was named after them, and would pay considerable sums for the composition. We have before us a letter of the late duke of Buccleugh to Nathaniel Gow, in which he says—"I wish that at your leisure you would compose (start not, gentle misses!] a reel according to the old style. It should be wild, such as your father would have liked—highland,---call it "the Border Raid;" and we are happy to learn that the present duke and duchess encourage the resumption of our national dances, whenever they have an opportunity. The neglect of them has no way improved the openness and cheerfulness of our female character.

Nathaniel Gow was a man of great shrewdness and good understanding—generally of a lively companionable turn, with a good deal of humour—very courteous in his manners; though, especially latterly, when misfortune and disease had soured him, a little hasty in his temper. He was a dutiful and affectionate son, as his father’s letters abundantly prove—a kind brother, having resigned his share of his father’s succession to his sister, who wanted it more than he did at the time; and indulgent and faithful in his duties to his own family. In his person he was tall and "buirdly"—and he dressed well, which, added to a degree of courtliness of manner on occasions of ceremony, gave him altogether a respectable and stately appearance. His illness came to a crisis in the beginning of 1831, and finally terminated in his death, on the 17th of January of that year, at the age of sixty-five. He was buried in the Greyfriars’ churchyard; but no stone points out to the stranger where the Scottish minstrel sleeps.

He was twice married. By his first wife, Janet Fraser, he had five daughters and one son, of whom two of the daughters only survive—Mary, married to Mr Jenkins of London; and Jessie, to Mr Luke, treasurer of George Heriot’s Hospital. By his second wife, Mary Hog, to whom he was married in 1814, he had three sons and two daughters, only two of whom survived him—namely, John, who was educated in Heriot’s Hospital; and Augusta, who became a teacher of music in Edinburgh, after having undergone five years’ training in London. A spirited likeness of Mr Gow was painted by Mr John Syme of Edinburgh, which, with the portrait of his father Niel, the Dalhousie Goblet, and small kit fiddle, are in the possession of Mrs Luke.


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