Niel Gow statue will put the fiddler and his legacy at the heart of Dunkeld

Time and Gow are even now, / Gow beat time, now time’s beat Gow.” That was the anonymous epitaph for the musician often considered to be the greatest to emerge from the 18th-century golden age of Scots fiddle playing. More recently, however, many have thought it high time that the Perthshire maestro was properly celebrated with a memorial in Dunkeld, just across the Tay from the hamlet of Inver where he passed his days and where his only recognition has been a modest plaque affixed to the cottage where he was born.

Fiddler Pete Clark, organiser of the annual Niel Gow Fiddle Festival
Fiddler Pete Clark, organiser of the annual Niel Gow Fiddle Festival

Until now, that is. As the adjoining villages of Dunkeld and Birnam host the 16th Niel Gow Festival later this month, a bronze statue of Gow, who died in 1807, has been commissioned by the Festival Society from sculptor David Annand, with hopes that the life-sized figure will be installed at the cross of Dunkeld by next year.

“We estimate the final cost will be in the region of £35,000. In our account we’ve got something over £20,000 so we’re more than half-way there,” reports Pete Clark, fiddler, champion of Gow’s music and director of the festival, profits from which (as well as from his current album, Niel Gow’s Fiddle) have gone towards the memorial fund. “So we’re optimistic enough to have commissioned David Annand to do the work. He’s already started, and I was down at his studio near Cupar last week.”

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In fact, Clark was posing for Annand in his Niel Gow outfit, enabling the sculptor to take photographs from which to work. The finished sculpture will be the “conspicuous and lasting” memorial which Clark has long felt should celebrate the Perthshire community’s greatest son. It has long seemed incongruous that while Birnam has a much publicised commemorative garden and interactive exhibition for the artist and children’s author Beatrix Potter, who regularly holidayed in the area, Gow remained unsung.

Now the fiddler, of whom one blind judge said he could distinguish his bow stroke among a hundred players, looks set to preside over the Cross of Dunkeld: “When people visit Dunkeld,” says Clark, “the Cross is the one place they’ll always go.”

Gow, whose legacy included innumerable enduring tunes as well as several musician sons, most notably Nathaniel, who became a prolific composer and music publisher in his own right, is buried in Little Dunkeld kirkyard. As part of the forthcoming festival, Clark will give a brief solo recital in the kirk, playing a mid-18th century violin once owned by Gow himself and lent by its current owners.

Other events, mainly at Birnam Arts, include a tribute to Nathaniel Gow by Kist of Music, featuring fiddlers Alastair Savage and Alastair Hardie as well as actor John Shedden; award-winning young fiddler (and student of Clark’s at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) Ryan Young with guitarist Chris Amer; and Fife-based fiddler Lesley Thompson with guitarist Innes Watson, while another of Clark’s protégés, local player Hannah Fisher, appears with Mull guitarist Sorren Maclean, along with the Dunkeld & District Strathspey and Reel Society.

Also appearing are Highland musicians Iain MacFarlane and Ingrid and Allan Henderson as well as multi-instrumentalist Suzanne Fivey. Two transatlantic guests are Jocelyn Pettit from British Columbia, accompanied by cellist Ellen Gira, and, from Virginia, Sean Heely, while further international interest comes from the trio of well-known Scots accordionist Sandy Brechin with Swedish musicians Jimmy Johansson and Christopher Andersson Bång.

As well as workshops, non-concert events include a guided walk to Gow’s cottage, led by Clark, and a showing of the 1974 documentary Mr Menuhin’s Welcome to Blair Castle, chronicling the classical violinist’s immersive meeting with Perthshire fiddlers, presented by its director, James Hunter.

The festival, it might be argued, has in itself become a living memorial to Gow. As of next year, however, a more substantial physical presence of the master will grace his native turf all the year round. - Jim Gilchrist

The Niel Gow Festival runs from 15-17 March, see www.niel-gow.co.uk/2019