Niel Gow Biography
Gow was born in Inver, Perthshire, as the son of John Gow and Catherine McEwan. He started playing the fiddle when very young and at age 13 received his first formal lessons from one John Cameron. In spite of being something of a musical prodigy, he originally trained as a plaid weaver, but eventually gave up that trade to become a full-time musician. He was widely considered the best fiddle player in Perthshire, an area which was renowned for its musicians - the story goes that at age 18 he entered a competition that was being judged by John McCraw, a blind musician, who awarded him the first prize and then went on to claim that he "would ken his bow hand among a hunder players" (detect Niel's style among a hundred players). This attracted the attention of the Duke of Atholl, who became Niel's patron, and also ensured Niel's employment for balls and dance parties put on by the local nobility. In time he became renowned as a fiddler.
Niel Gow was married twice. His first wife was Margaret Wiseman, and they had five sons and three daughters. His sons William, Andrew (1760), Nathaniel (1763) and John (1764) all followed their father as fiddlers and composers of fiddle music. Two of the daughters were Margaret (1759) and Grizel (1761). The youngest son Daniel (1765) died in infancy. William died in 1791 at age 40, and Andrew died in 1794. Of Niel's sons, Nathaniel is by far the most well-known and another fine composer of Scottish music, with nearly 200 tunes to his credit. After having been widowed, Niel married Margaret Urquhart from Perth in 1768, and they went on to share a happy married life until she died in 1805. Niel was deeply hurt by her death, and stopped playing the fiddle for a while. His friends finally convinced him to pick it up again, and the first thing he played was his '...Lament for the Death of his Second Wife' (see compositions). Niel died at Inver on 1 March 1807, aged 80.
Niel Gow composed a lot of dance music - according to John Glen (1895) he put his name to 87 tunes, "some of which are excellent" - much of which forms the backstay of Scottish country dance music even today. However it must be said that he was not above directly using good material from other composers to republish under his own name; Glen claims that from the 87, at least a quarter are derived from older tunes or are straight copies of tunes published earlier elsewhere, often under a different title. This being a common practice at the time, it didn't seem to hurt his reputation; in fact, the famous painter Henry Raeburn was commissioned to paint him several times.
Many of Niel Gow's compositions are still played today at ceilidhs and country dances. He himself spelled his name Niel, although others sometimes spell it Neil or even Neal. (To add to the confusion he had a very musical grandson (by Nathaniel) who did spell his name "Neil".)
The annual Niel Gow Fiddle Festival takes place in Dunkeld and Birnam, Perthshire, Scotland. It was established in 2004 to celebrate the life and music of Gow. It is envisaged that through time the festival and other activities will gather enough funds to erect a fitting memorial to him in Dunkeld and Birnam. The 2008 festival took place between 14-16 March.