Gow, Niel (DNB00)

GOW, NIEL (1727–1807), Scotch violinist and composer, was born at Inver, near Dunkeld, Perthshire, on 22 March 1727. His father was a plaid weaver, and at first intended the boy to follow his calling. At a very early age he showed a decided talent for music, and at nine began to practise the violin. Up to the age of thirteen he was self-instructed, but about that time he took lessons from John Cameron, a retainer of Sir George Stewart of Grandtully, under whom he made rapid progress. He was first heard of as a player in 1745, when he carried off the prize in a public competition. Living near Dunkeld House, he early attracted the attention of the Athole family, through whom he was gradually introduced to the leading nobility of Scotland, and employed at fashionable parties. His fame soon reached London, whither he was frequently called to play Scotch dance music. He lived on terms of great familiarity with his social superiors. The Duke of Athole often walked arm in arm with him in Edinburgh, and when at home he was frequently visited by the gentlemen of the county. In the autumn of 1787 Burns met him at Dunkeld, and the poet describes him as ‘a short, stout-built, honest Highland figure, with his greyish hair shed on his honest social brow; an interesting face, marking strong sense, kind open-heartedness, mixed with unmistrusting simplicity.’ Gow is popularly, but it would seem erroneously, believed to have been a man of intemperate habits (see M'Knight). He retained his faculties to the last, and continued to play till within a year or two of his death, which took place at Inver on 1 March 1807. He was buried at Little Dunkeld, where a marble tablet marks his grave. He was twice married, and had by his first wife, Margaret Wiseman, five sons and three daughters. One of the sons died early; the other four, William, John, Andrew, and Nathaniel [q. v.], all acquired a reputation as violin-players in the same style as their father. Four portraits of Gow were painted by Sir Henry Raeburn; one is now in the County Rooms, Perth, another is in the possession of the Duke of Athole, and a third is held by the Dalhousie family. A mezzotint by Say has been called ‘the perfection of a likeness’ (Drummond). All his portraits show him dressed in tight tartan knee-breeches and hose, and holding his violin in the old manner, with the chin resting on the inner side of the tail-piece.

As a player of Scotch dance music, especially of reels and strathspeys, Gow was in his time without superior or rival. The power of his bow, particularly in the upward ‘stroke,’ is remarked on by his contemporaries, and to this power ‘must be ascribed the singular felicity of expression which he gave to all his music’ (M'Knight). He composed a large number of melodies, nearly a hundred of which are included in the volumes published by his son Nathaniel. They are mostly of a lively character, chiefly reels, strathspeys, and quicksteps. The air ‘Locherroch Side’ (to which Burns wrote, ‘Oh! stay, sweet warbling woodlark, stay’), the ‘Lament for Abercairney,’ and ‘Farewell to Whisky,’ are deserving of special mention.

[Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, 1855, ii. 487; Dr. M'Knight in Scots Mag. 1809; Drummond's Perthshire in Bygone Days; Grove's Dict. i. 615, where ‘Strathband’ is printed for ‘Strathbraan,’ his native district.]

J. C. H.