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Niel Gow

Master Of The Fiddle

Niel Gow has inspired an annual music festival, influenced students
around the world and now, more than 200 years after his death, will
soon be immortalized in bronze.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

Last March, in Little Dunkeld Church by the banks of the River Tay, an audience sat rapt as Pete Clark raised his bow to play one of the best-loved airs in the Scots fiddle repertoire, Niel Gow's "Lament for His Second Wife." The lovingly unhurried cadences filled the 18th-century Perthshire kirk and drifted faintly outside where, following a couple of days of fitful sunshine, the weather had settled into a steady early spring snowfall that whitened the kirk roof and blanketed the nearby grave of the tune's composer, Niel Gow, widely regarded as the greatest figure to emerge from the 18th-century "golden age" of Scots fiddle playing.

The church is situated between the adjoining villages of Birnam and Dunkeld, Gow having passed his entire life in a weaver's cottage that still stands in the hamlet of Inver, just across the Tay from Dunkeld. The instrument Clark was playing actually belonged to Gow during the later years of his life -- he died in 1807 -- and, indeed, was most probably the one on which he composed his best known air, that self-same lament.

The intimate recital was part of the annual Niel Gow Festival, which Clark, a highly regarded musician and champion of Gow's music, has organized since 2004, celebrating Gow's musical legacy and also, importantly, helping to raise the necessary funding to erect a fitting memorial to the Perthshire fiddle legend. And his tireless work will see fruition this coming March when the 17th Gow festival witnesses, at last, the unveiling in Dunkeld of an imposing bronze statue of the maestro, created by the well-known Scottish sculptor David Annand.

For many years, Clark has bemoaned the lack of a proper memorial to a musician and composer of Gow's stature, apart from a modest plaque affixed to the wall of his cottage in Inver, now a private dwelling. Just across the busy A9 highway and below a tree on the banks of the Tay known as Niel Gow's Oak is a carved wooden bench with an inscription from a song by Michael Marra about another, more contemporary local fiddler, Dougie MacLean: "I sit beneath the fiddle tree, the ghost of Niel Gow next to me...."

A suitably imposing memorial, however, has been lacking. Clark points out that Birnam, where he lived until last year, has long boasted a garden in memory of Beatrix Potter, the popular English children's author, illustrator and naturalist who regularly visited the village. Potter was a fantastic artist, he agrees, "But she only came here on her holidays, while Gow lived here for 80 years."

However, having assiduously raised funds over the years through the Gow Festival and through profits from his current album with pianist Muriel Johnstone, Niel Gow's Fiddle, Clark and the Niel Gow Festival Society last year commissioned a statue from Annand, a Fife-based sculptor whose subjects have included such well-known figures as the 18th-century poet Robert Fergusson, whose bronze likeness is a popular landmark in Edinburgh's Canongate, and Mary, Queen of Scots, at Linlithgow Palace.

The full text of this article is available in the Winter 2019 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo (left) courtesy David Annand.