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Significant Scots
Neil Gow


GOW, NEIL, a celebrated violin player and composer of Scottish airs, was the son of John Gow and Catharine M’Ewan, and was born at Inver, near Dunkeld, Perthshire, on the 22d of March, 1727. He was intended by his parents for the trade of a plaid weaver, but discovering an early propensity for music, he began the study of the violin himself, and soon abandoned the shuttle for the bow. Up to the age of thirteen he had no instructor; but about that time he availed himself of some lessons from John Cameron, a follower of the house of Grandtully, and soon placed himself at the head of all the performers in the country; although Perthshire then produced more able reel and strathspey players than any other county in Scotland. Before he reached manhood, he had engaged in a public competition there, and carried off the prize, which was decided by an aged and blind, but skilful minstrel, who, in awarding it, said, that "he could distinguish the stroke of Neil’s bow among, a hundred players." This ascendancy he ever after maintained, not only in his native place, but throughout Scotland, where it has been universally admitted that, as a reel and strathspey player, he has no superior, and, indeed, no rival in his own time.

Neil Gow was the first of his family, so far as is known, who rendered the name celebrated in our national music; but his children afterwards proved that in their case at any rate, genius and talent were hereditary. Although Neil was born, and lived the whole of a long life in a small village in the Highlands of Perthshire, with no ambition for the honours and advancement which, in general, are only to be obtained by a residence in great cities; and although he was in a manner a self-taught artist, and confined his labours chiefly to what may be considered a subordinate branch of the profession of music; yet he acquired a notoriety and renown beyond what was destined to many able and scientific professors, of whom hundreds have flourished and been forgotten since his time, while his name continues, especially in. Scotland, familiar as a household word.

Many causes contributed to this. The chief ones, no doubt, were his unquestioned skill in executing the national music of Scotland, and the genius he displayed in the composition of a great number of beautiful melodies. But these were enhanced in no small degree by other accessory causes. There was a peculiar spirit, and Celtic character and enthusiasm, which he threw into his performances, and which distinguished his bow amid the largest band. His appearance, too, was prepossessing—his countenance open, honest, and pleasing—his figure compact and manly, which was shown to advantage in the tight tartan knee-breeches and hose, which he always wore. There was also an openness and eccentricity in his manner, which, while it was homely, easy, and unaffected, was at the same time characterised by great self-possession and downrightness, and being accompanied by acute penetration into the character and peculiarities of others, strong good sense, and considerable quaintness and humour, and above all, by a perfect honesty and integrity of thought and action, placed him on a footing of familiarity and independence in the presence of the proudest of the land, which, perhaps, no one in his situation ever attained, either before or since. Many who never heard him play, and who are even unacquainted with his compositions, fired by the accounts of those who lived in his time, talk to this day of Neil Gow as if they had tripped a thousand times to his spirit-stirring and mirth-inspiring strains.

Living in the immediate neighbourhood of Dunkeld house, he was early noticed and distinguished by the duke of Athol and his family, which was soon followed by the patronage of the duchess of Gordon, and the principal nobility and gentry throughout Scotland. But while his permanent residence was at Inver, near Dunkeld, he was not only employed at all the balls and fashionable parties in the county, but was in almost constant requisition at the great parties which took place at Perth, Cupar, Dumfries, Edinburgh, and the principal towns in Scotland. So necessary was he on such occasions, and so much was his absence felt, that at one time, when indisposition prevented him attending the Cupar Hunt, the preses called on every lady and gentleman present to "dedicate a bumper to the better health of Neil Gow, a true Scottish character, whose absence from the meeting, no one could sufficiently regret." We have already said, that he lived on terms of great familiarity with his superiors, in whose presence he spoke his mind and cracked his jokes, unawed by either their rank or wealth—indeed, they generally delighted in drawing out his homely, forcible, and humorous observations; and while he, in turn, allowed all good humoured freedoms with himself, he at the same time had sufficient independence to repel any undue exhibition of aristocratic hauteur, and has brought the proud man to his cottage with the white flag of peace and repentance, before he would again consent to "wake the minstrel string" in his halls. With the duke of Athol and his family, a constant, kindly, and familiar intercourse was kept up; indeed, so much did the duke keep his rank in abeyance when Neil was concerned, that, when the latter was sitting for his portrait to the late Sir Henry Raeburn, his grace would accompany him to the sitting, and on leaving the artist, would proceed arm in arm with the musician through Edinburgh, as unreservedly as he would with one of the noble blood of Hamilton or Argyle. The duke and duchess walked one day with Neil to Stanley hill, in the neighbourhood of Dunkeld, when his grace began pushing and struggling with him in a sportive humour, until the latter at last fairly tumbled down the "brae." The duchess running to him, expressed her hope that he was not hurt, to which he answered, "Naething to speak o’,—I was the mair idiot to wrestle wi’ sic a fule !" at which they both laughed heartily. The duke, lord Lyndoch, and the late lord Melville, one day calling at Neil’s house, were pressed to take some shrub. Lord Melville tasted it, and was putting down the glass, when his host said, "ye maun tak’ it out, my lord, it’s very good, and came frae my son Nathaniel— I ken ye’re treasurer o’ the navy, but gin ye were treasurer o’ the universe, ye maunna leave a drap." The duke at the same time smelling his glass before he drank it, Neil said, "ye need na put it to your nose; ye have na better in your ain cellar, for Nathaniel sends me naething but the best." Being one day at Dunkeld house, lady Charlotte Drummond sat down to the piano-forte, when Neil said to the duchess, "that lassie o’ yours, my leddy, has a gude ear." A gentleman present said, "I thought Neil you had more manners than to call her grace’s daughter a lassie." To which our musician replied, "What wud I ca’ her? I never heard she was a laddie;" which, while it more astonished the gentleman, highly amused the noble parties themselves. On another occasion in Athol house, after supper was announced, a portion of the fashionable party lingered in the ball room, unwilling to forsake the dance. Neil, who felt none of the fashionable indifference about supper and its accompaniments, soon lost patience, and addressing himself to the ladies, cried out, "Gang doun to your supper, ye daft limmers, and dinna haud me reelin’ here, as if hunger and drouth were unkent in the land—a body can get naething dune for you." These sayings are not repeated so much to support any claim to humour, as to illustrate the license which his reputation, popularity, and honest bluntness of character procured him among the highest of the land."

When at home, during the intervals of his professional labours, he was frequently visited by the gentlemen of the county, as well as by strangers, whose curiosity was excited by the notoriety of his character. They would remain for hours with him, in unconstrained conversation, and partaking of whisky and honey, commonly called Athol brose, or whatever else was going. The late Mr Graham of Orchill, used to sit up whole nights with Neil Gow, playing reels with him, and on one occasion Neil exclaimed, "Troth, Orchill, you play weel;—be thankfu’, if the French should overturn our country, you and I can win our bread, which is mair than mony o’ the great folk can say." On one occasion, when the duchess of Gordon called for him, she complained of a giddiness and swimming in her head, on which he said, "Faith, I ken something o’ that mysel’, your grace; when I’ve been fou the night afore, ye’ wad think that a bike o’ bees were bizzing in my bonnet, the next mornin’."

In travelling he was frequently spoken to by strangers, to whom description had made his dress and appearance familiar. At Hamilton, once, he was accosted by two gentlemen, who begged to know his name, which having told them, they immediately said, "Oh! you are the very man we have come from -- to see." "Am I," replied Neil, "by my saul, ye’re the mair fules; I wadna gang half sae far to see you." On another occasion, when crossing in one of the passage boats from Kirkaldy to Leith, several gentlemen entered into conversation with him, and being strangers, instead of Neil, as was usual, they always addressed him as Master Gowl. When about to land, the Dunkeld carrier, happening to be on the pier, said, "Ou Neil, is his you?" "Whisht man," answered Neil, with a sly expression, "let me land or ye ca’ me Neil; I hae got naething but Maister a’ the way o’er."

There are few professions where persons are more exposed or tempted to habits of indulgence in liquor, than those whose calling it is to minister music to the midnight and morning revel. The fatigue of playing for hours in crowded and heated rooms—at those times too, which are usually devoted to sleep—requires stimulants; and not a few have fallen victims to habits acquired in such situations. But, though exposed to these temptations as much as any man ever was, Neil Gow was essentially sober and temperate. He never indulged in unmixed spirits, and when at home, without company, seldom took any drink but water. At the same time, he was of a social disposition, and delighted in the interchange of friendly and hospitable intercourse; and it befits not the truth of our chronicle to deny, that prudence, though often a conqueror, did not on every occasion gain the race with good fellowship, or in plain words, that Neil did not find at the close of some friendly sederunts, "the maut aboon the meal." At least we would infer as much, from an anecdote that has been told of him.— Returning pretty early one morning from Ruthven Works, where he had been attending a yearly ball, he was met with his fiddle under his arm, near the bridge of Almond, by some of his friends who lamented the length of the road he had to walk to Inver, when Neil exclaimed, "Deil may care for the length o’ the road, it’s only the breadth o’t that’s fashin’ me now." It was, perhaps, with reference to the same occasion, that a friend said to him, "I suspect Neil, ye’ve been the waur o’ drink." "The waur o’ drink?" responded the musician, "na! na, I may have been fou, but I ne’er was the waur o’t." His son Nathaniel frequently sent him presents of shrub and ale. In acknowledging one of them, he wrote, "I received the box and twenty bottles of ale, which is not good,—more hop than faith—too strong o’ the water, &c. My compliments to Meg, and give her a guinea, and ask her which of the two she would accept of first."

He was a man most exemplary in all the private relations of life—a faithful husband, an affectionate parent, and a generous friend. In more cases than one, he refused lands which were offered to him at a trifling purchase, and which would have been worth thousands to his successors, and chose the more disinterested part, giving money to the unfortunate owners to enable them to purchase their lands back. He not only had religion in his heart, but was scrupulous in his external observances. He was constant in his attendance at divine worship, and had family prayers evening and morning in his own house. In regard to his private character altogether, we may quote from a very elegant biographical sketch from the pen of Dr Macknight, who knew him well, and which appeared in the Scots Magazine in 1809. "His moral and religious principles were originally correct, rational, and heartfelt, and they were never corrupted. His duty in the domestic relations of life, he uniformly fulfilled with exemplary fidelity, generosity, and kindness. In short, by the general integrity, prudence, and propriety of his conduct, he deserved, and he lived and died possessing as large a portion of respect from his equals, and of good will from his superiors, as has ever fallen to the lot of any man of his rank."

In a professional point of view, Neil Gow is to be judged according to circumstances. He never had the advantage of great masters, and indeed was almost entirely self-taught. It would be idle to inquire what he might have been had he devoted himself to the science as a study. He did not, so far as is known, attempt the composition of difficult or concerted pieces; and it is believed, did not do much even in the way of arrangement to his own melodies. He was one of nature’s musicians, and confined himself to what genius can conceive and execute, without the intervention of much science—the composition of melodies: and, after all, melody is the true test of musical genius; no composition, however philosophical, learned and elaborate, can live, if it wants its divine inspiration, and the science of Handel, Haydn, and Mozart would not have rescued their names from oblivion, had the soul of melody not sparkled like a gem through all the cunning framework and arrangement of their noble compositions. He composed a great number of tunes, nearly a hundred of which are to be found in the collections published by his son Nathaniel at Edinburgh. The greater portion of them are of a lively character, and suited for dancing, such as reels, strathspeys, and quick steps. It would not be interesting in a notice like this to enumerate the titles of so many compositions; but we may safely refer to the beautiful air of "Locherroch side," to which Burns wrote his pathetic ballad of "Oh! stay, sweet warbling woodlark, stay," and which is equally effective as a quick dancing tune—to the "Lament for Abercairney," and his "Farewell to Whisky" - as specimens which entitled him to take his place among the best known composers of Scottish music, which our country has produced.

As a performer of Scottish music on the violin, we have already said that he was acknowledged to have been the ablest of his day; and we cannot do better than once more quote from the biographic sketch written by Dr M’Knight, himself a skilful violinist, and who frequently heard Neil play, to illustrate the peculiar character of his style: "There is perhaps no species whatever of music executed on the violin, in which the characteristic expression depends more on the power of the bow, particularly in what is called the upward or returning stroke, than the Highland reel. Here accordingly was Gow’s forte. His bow-hand, as a suitable instrument of his genius, was uncommonly powerful; and when the note produced by the upbow 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 ‘Athol House.’ To this extraordinary power of the bow, in the hand of great original genius, must be ascribed the singular felicity of expression which he gave to all his music, and the native highland gout of certain tunes, such as ‘Tulloch Gorum,’ in which his taste and style of bowing could never be exactly reached by any other performer. 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, and rousing the spirits of the most inanimate. Thus it has been well observed, ‘the violin in his hands, sounded like the harp of Ossian, or the lyre of Orpheus,’ and gave reality to the poetic fictions, which describe the astonishing effects of their performance."

Such was the estimation in which Neil Gow was held, that the late Sir Henry Raeburn, the most eminent portrait painter then in Scotland, was employed first to paint his portrait for the county hall of Perth, and afterwards, separate portraits for the duke of Athol, lord Gray, and the honourable Mr Maule of Panmure, besides his portrait, now in possession of his grand-daughter Mrs Luke, and many copies scattered through the country. His portrait has also been introduced into the "View of a Highland Wedding," by the late Mr Allan, along with an admirable likeness of his brother Donald, who was his steady and constant violoncello.

Neil Gow was twice married - first to Margaret Wiseman, by whom he had five sons, and three daughters. Of these, three sons, and two daughters died before himself, but not before two of his sons, William and Andrew, had acquired a reputation as violin-players, worthy of the name they bore; the former having succeeded M’Glashan as leader of the fashionable bands at Edinburgh, and the latter having acquired some wealth in London in prosecuting his profession. He was kind and affectionate to all his children, and during his last illness of his son Andrew, he brought him from London. On this subject he wrote, "If the spring were a little advanced and warmer, I would have Andrew come down by sea, and I will come to Edinburgh or Dundee to conduct him home. We will have milk which he can get warm from the cow, or fresh butter, or whey, or chickens. He shall not want for any thing." Andrew’s eyes were closed by his father under the roof where he was born. Neil Gow took as his second wife Margaret Urquhart, by whom he had no family, and who pre-deceased himself a few years. He retained his faculties to the last, and continued to play till within a year or two of his death. About two years before that event, he seemed to feel the decay of his powers, and wrote to his son Nathaniel – "I received your kind invitation to come over to you, but I think I will stay where I am. It will not be long, for I am very sore failed." He died at Inver, where he was born, on the 1st of March, 1807, in the 80th year of his age, after acquiring a competence, which was divided among his children. He left behind him two sons and a daughter: John, who settled in London as leader of the fashionable Scottish bands, and died in 1827, after acquiring a large fortune; Nathaniel, who settled in Edinburgh, and of whom we have given a brief memoir; and Margaret, now the only surviving child, who is at present living in Edinburgh. Neil Gow was buried in Little Dunkeld church, where a marble tablet has been raised to his memory by his sons, John and Nathaniel.

Here are two chapters about Gow from this book in which they discuss Gow and Burns

Chapters IV & V


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