Nae fabled wizard’s wand I trow,
Had e’er the magic airt o’ Gow,
When wi’ a wave he draws his bow
Across his wondrous fiddle.
These lines by Robert Burns (though some dispute their authorship), celebrating the legendary 18th-century Perthshire fiddler Niel Gow, are recited by fiddler and Gow champion Pete Clark on his recent album Niel Gow’s Fiddle, in which, accompanied by pianist Muriel Johnstone, he plays a violin owned by Gow himself. And next weekend, that fiddle will once again cast its magic as Clark plays it during the 15th annual Niel Gow Festival, which sees exponents of various Scottish fiddle styles converge on Gow’s (and Clark’s) home turf of Dunkeld and Birnam.
The festival, however, goes further than merely celebrating the maestro’s legacy – profits from it, as well as from the album, have been accumulating towards the erection of a life-sized sculpture of Gow, possibly seated on a bench at the end of Dunkeld Bridge (to which Gow, who lived in the nearby hamlet of Inver, dedicated a reel, although the Telford structure wasn’t completed till after his death).
In the meantime, next weekend’s event attracts such luminaries of the tremblin’ string as Argyllshire player Archie McAllister, North-east stylist Paul Anderson (accompanied by Runrig guitarist Malcolm Jones), Perthshire’s own Patsy Reid and, returning to her native turf, Hannah Fisher, as well as the Glasgow-based Routes Quartet.
The festival’s focus on young players includes Royal Conservatoire of Scotland student and runner-up in the Niel Gow fiddle competition at Blair Castle, Roo Geddes, as well as a concert featuring players from Strathallan and Ardvreck schools and from the RCS.
When Clark himself, the festival director, gives a recital in Little Dunkeld Church (where Gow is buried), along with Ayrshire fiddler Alastair Savage, he’ll play the 17th-century fiddle which he uses on the album and which was apparently a favourite instrument of Gow himself. It is thought to have possibly been made by the Italian luthier Gasparo Bertolotti (1542-1609) – known as “Gasparo da Salo” – although that has never been verified.
Whatever its origins, it ultimately passed into the hands of Lindsay Thomson, latterly minister of Trinity Church in Hawick and an enthusiastic Scots fiddler.
Thomson died in 2014, but Clark met him in 2007, after the clergyman contacted him on hearing him interviewed on radio about Gow. Clark recalls Thomson as “hugely entertaining and great company. I could easily picture him enjoying a night of revelry in some 18th-century alehouse with Messrs Gow and Burns”.
Clark believes there to be at least four instruments attributed with Gow ownership in circulation and, 20 years ago, he borrowed the one in Blair Castle, home of Gow’s patrons the dukes of Atholl, for his album Even Now.
The instrument attributed to da Salo, which Clark is borrowing from Thomson’s family, has, he says “a lovely, immediate response when you play it. The first time I saw it was over ten years ago and you could tell that there was good voice in it.
“They both have a nice voice,” he says of it and the Blair Castle instrument, “the more recent one has a far more powerful tone.”
Given that Birnam has long maintained a garden dedicated to the author and artist Beatrix Potter, who regularly visited the area on holiday, it seems bizarre that the area hasn’t made more of Gow, its native son and arguably the greatest player from the golden age of Scots fiddle playing, whose tunes remain hugely popular today.
Hopefully that will change before too long: the end of last year saw Clark and the festival society advertise for expressions of interest from sculptors for the creation of a life-sized, possibly bronze, figure of the fiddler, with a completion date of 2020. Later in the spring he and Muriel Johnstone hope to perform in the Scottish Parliament. “It’s a great opportunity of raising the whole profile of Gow and his music.”
The Niel Gow Festival runs from 16-18 March, see www.niel-gow.co.uk