LATER this month a flourish of fiddles will strike up in and around Dunkeld for the tenth annual Niel Gow Festival.
However, while celebrating once again the memory of the great 18th-century maestro, who was born in Inver, just outside Dunkeld, the festival will also mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of his similarly talented but less celebrated son, fiddler, cellist and music publisher Nathaniel Gow, who at one point was Scotland’s richest musician, yet today lies in an unmarked grave in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars’ kirkyard.
Birnam-based fiddler Pete Clark, the festival’s organiser, has long championed the music of the Gows – both Niel and his son – and feels that Nathaniel still doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves, even though he was possibly an even more accomplished musician than his illustrious father.
Born at Inver in 1763, Nathaniel Gow moved to Edinburgh and trained with such established musicians as fellow Perthshire fiddler-composer, Robert “Red Rob” Mackintosh, and dance band leader Alexander McLashan. He established himself as a highly successful music publisher, at one point worth £20,000, a tremendous sum for that day, according to Clark.
“Then it all went horribly wrong. He relied heavily on his business partner, William Shepherd, who was no businessman, and when Shepherd died, Nathaniel discovered that he hadn’t been keeping proper records and he was hugely in debt.
“At that time he was able to cover the debts, but then his daughter married someone with an interest in a coal mine and Nathaniel loaned him a lot of money and that failed, and things went from bad to worse. Then he had a stroke, which limited what he could do musically.”
Nathaniel, who died in 1831, was buried in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars’ kirkyard, but there is no memorial to him; neither does his name appear on the board of illustrious occupants at the kirkyard gate. I recall, a year or two ago, taking part in the “fiddle walk” Clark leads through musically resonant sites in Edinburgh during the capital’s own annual Fiddle festival. We stood, our little group, at the far end of the graveyard, close by a memorial plaque to violin-makers Matthew and Thomas Hardie who are buried there, while Clark lamented the fact that there was no such marker for the composer of such enduring airs as Caller Herrin’, Coilsfield House and the fine slow strathspey Sir George Clerk of Penicuik.
Edinburgh does not do its fiddle-playing heritage justice, reckons Clark, who points to the fact that the city’s Fiddle festival had to move out of the recently refurbished Assembly Rooms in George Street, originally built, he points out, as a venue for dances where the great players such as Gow and McGlashan exercised their elbows.
Back in Perthshire, however, hotels and halls in and around Dunkeld will celebrate the memories of both Niel and Nathaniel, as guest players converge on Perthshire’s fiddle heartland, including Iain Fraser, Alastair Savage, Stewart Hardie, Rua MacMillan, Gillian Frame and Patsy Reid and pianist Mhairi Hall. A returning regular at the festival is the renowned left-handed Lochaber fiddler Aonghas Grant, playing with guitarist Paul Connolly, while Clark himself joins with cellist Ron Shaw in a Saturday morning concert in the beautiful little chapel of Murthly Castle, where they will play repertoire featured on an album they’ve just recorded, due for release soon.
The weekend also sees fiddle historian Charlie Gore in discussion with Alastair J Hardie, a member of that same, fiddle-making and playing dynasty, about the life and legacy of Nathaniel Gow. It was the absence of any significant memorial to Niel which prompted Clark to start the festival ten years ago: happily, tunes by both Gows should be well aired over the weekend.
• The Niel Gow Festival runs from 22-24 March. For details see www.niel-gow.co.uk