John Murdoch Henderson (1902-1972)
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Musicians' Biographies I
From The Flowers of Scottish Melody, Biographies and Criticisms, 1935.


NIEL GOW (1727-1807)

Niel Gow was born at Inver, near Dunkeld, Perthshire, on the 22nd March, 1727. Violin playing was almost his sole occupation. Although he was not a player of high culture he displayed in his performances that almost unrestrained abandon which, then as to-day, swayed audiences as much as the music itself. In addition there were undoubtedly certain elements in his playing by which he could give strathspeys and reels an interpretation beyond the powers of any of his contemporaries. Foremost amongst these was his powerful up-bow stroke, vaguely and not always too aptly described as a receding stroke. J. Scott Skinner has suggested that it was acquired through the frequent use of the up-driven bow, certainly a most effective stroke all too little used now, but the latter can scarcely be called a receding stroke and Niel Gow's ablest contemporaries could and would have employed it.

We are almost certain it was his ability to "lift the bow smartly off the strings with a peculiar jerk of the wrist" in the rendering of the semiquavers of a strathspey that gave the dotted quavers that extra length and strength, perhaps more noticeable in the ascending stroke, and the whole strathspey a bolder and more distinctive character. He also made frequent use of the up-bow in the playing of reels. This sometimes involves slurring two notes, the latter a quaver (2/4 time), to add additional power where required, sometimes the slurring of three, though occasionally more, mainly to improve the phrasing.

As a composer of original melody we feel that Niel Gow has been overestimated. He claims or is given the credit of about 90 airs, but too many of these possess more fire than originality. His son, Nathaniel, who arranged the Gow publications, should have written "as played by Niel Gow" instead of the often misconstructed "Niel Gow" after the titles of several of the above airs.

Whatever failings he may have had, Niel Gow may still be considered one of the greatest popularisers of the Duke of Atholl and other members of the nobility throughout the country. Even today strathspey and reel enthusiasts are under a debt of gratitude to the Dunkeld violinist. Niel Gow died at his native Inver on the 1st of April, 1807, and was buried in Little Dunkeld churchyard.

The Marquis of Huntly's Snuff Mull, a pastoral from Niel Gow's 4th Collection, arr JMH.



Biographies of this talented musician, familiarly known as "Red Rob" have been comparatively short, not through lack of appreciation of his great musical gifts but because his life was probably less eventful and is certainly less well known than that of any other Scottish musician of note.

We have it that Robert Mackintosh was born in Tullymet, Perthshire, about 1745. By 1773 he had settled at Skinners' Close, Edinburgh, and advertised himself as a musician. Besides teaching music - Nathaniel Gow is believed to have been one of his pupils - he held concerts from time to time and must have built up for himself an enviable reputation as a violinist. Indeed he and Peter Baillie (c 1774-1843) were considered Niel Gow's most serious rivals as exponents of Scottish dance music. In 1783 Mackintosh published his first music collection. Amongst its 54 airs are 17 reels, 12 of which had previously appeared in parts 7 and 8 of N. Stewart's collection. From about 1785 to 1788 Red Rob resided in Aberdeen and led the band in the Gentleman's Concerts. He then returned to Edinburgh. Included among the 73 airs of his second collection, issued in 1793, are some new reels and the first samples of his strathspey compositions. His third collection, containing 117 airs, appeared in 1796. About 1803 he removed to London and , perhaps the following year, published there his fourth and last collection, which contains 113 airs. According to Wm. Stenhouse (c 1773-1827), Mackintosh died in London in 1807.

As a composer of original Scottish melody Robert Mackintosh occupies an exalted position. His reels, in our estimation, are equal to and more original than those of the Gows, although several of them are so twisted in structure that w question if even their composer could have straightened them out with his dashing bow. His strathspeys, on the other hand, are as a whole not quite up to the same standard, whether in quality, quantity or originality. So, in order that a fair comparison be made between Red Rob and other Scottish composers, we would venture to suggest that the composition of a good strathspey may be considered a greater musical achievement than that of a good reel.

Since Robert Mackintosh's works are not sufficiently well known we shall append the names of some of his best efforts: Book 1: The Diamond Reel - called Miss Steel of Norwich in his Fourth collection, and arranged as a hornpipe in J.S.S.'s Harp and Claymore collection. Book 2: Honourable Mrs. Campbell of Lochnell; Miss Elizabeth (Betty) Robertson - called Miss Jane Fraser in Lowe's collection; Miss Ann Munro's Quickstep. Book 3: Miss Margaret Campbell; Miss Campbell of Saddell; Miss Robertson - one of our special favourites: Miss Mariane Oliphant. Book 4: Honourable Mrs. E. Macleod: Lady Charlotte Campbell's Strathspey and Reel - previously published in Gow's Second Repository, 1802. We prefer the last-mentioned strathspey at a slower speed than H =188. The reel of the same name is at once the finest and the most difficult reel in B flat. In the Fourth Book are also found Lady Charlotte Cadogan and Miss Campbell's Reel which, though claimed by Robert Mackintosh, previously appeared unacknowledged in John and Andrew Gow's collection, London, c 1794, as The Firth of Cromarty and Taymouth respectively. A splendid selection from the above works is found in John Glen's Collection of Scottish Dance Music.

Miss Campbell of Saddell, a pastoral from Mackintosh's 3rd collection, 1796



William Marshall was born at Fochabers, Banffshire, on the 27th December 1748. When about twelve years of age he entered the service of the Duke of Gordon and soon rose to be butler and house-steward. That he was a great favourite with the members of the Duke's family and with the many distinguished guests, especially ladies, who visited the castle may be gathered from the titles of many of his compositions. No doubt he felt flattered by such recognition of his musical gifts, yet J. MacGregor in his Memoir rather bluntly remarks: "Many, who perhaps imagined at the time that they were conferring honour on the minstrel by giving their names to being remembered at all, after their fleeting pilgrimage of life has passed away."


In addition to composing music Marshall devoted much of his spare time to the study of mechanics, astronomy, architecture and land surveying, and even to the making of clocks. He was a keen sportsman; a dancer and athlete of considerable local repute. He left Gordon Castle in 1790 and, a short time after, settled at Keithmore farm. Soon he was appointed factor to the Duke and continued in that capacity up to 1817. About 1822 he retired to Newfield Cottage, Dandaleith, near Craigellachie Bridge. William Marshall died on the 29th of May, 1833, and was buried in Bellie churchyard.

Of Marshall's earliest efforts 49 were published in two numbers by Neil Steward, Edinburgh, in 1781, while several of the airs written after that date appeared first in other composers' works, particularly those of the Gows. At the request of his many patrons Marshall gathered his scattered compositions and sold their copyright in 1822 to Alexander Robertson, Edinburgh. Robertson issued 176 of them in the same year. A selection containing 81 of his then remaining and subsequent compositions - 2 of them being repetitions - was issued by the same publisher about 1845. The 1822 and 1845 collections contain between them almost all the airs in the 1781 collection with most of their names changed.

Burns proved himself to be a sound judge of Scots music when he dubbed Marshall "The first composer of strathspeys of the age." The Marquis of Huntly's Farewell ("The King of Strathspeys"), The Marquis of Huntly's Strathspey (formerly "Reel"), The Marchioness of Huntly and Craigellachie Bridge have long been recognised as masterpieces. The most popular of his other compositions, especially for orchestras, are The Bog of Gight, The Duke of Gordon's Birthday, Lord Alexander Gordon, Miss Agnes Ross (now called Lasses, look before you), Miss Farquharson of Invercauld (previously called Lady Louisa Gordon, and latterly Miss M'Leod's Favourite), and Newfield Cottage (renamed Mr. Marshall's Strathspey in Gow's second collection and Mr. Marshall's Favourite in Gow's Beauties). Although it is true that few of Marshall's finest strathspeys look their best at H +188, the speed advocated by G.F. Graham J.T. Surenne, J.S. Skinner and others for the dance, it may also be argued that choosing a speed to take the most out of a so-called strathspey is more important form a musical point of view than restricting to a certain arbitrary speed an air which continues to be popular in spite of its gradual dissociation from the dance. We cannot equally commend any of Marshall's 80 reel compositions: several of them appear to be deficient in that combination of buoyancy and easy flow more characteristic of south-country reels, and to have too much of that "deliberateness" to which, strange as it may seem, his strathspeys owe much of their beauty. But he as a wealth of slow and slowish strathspeys which have a repose and charm all their own. It may even be said that inasmuch as Marshall's compositions best reflect the musical outlook of most Scots music enthusiasts they possess a native appeal which even greater brilliancy of effort on the part of another composer can scarcely diminish.

The Marquis of Huntly, a strathspey from William Marshall's 1781 collection


NATHANIEL GOW (1763-1831)

Nathaniel Gow, the fourth son of Niel Gow, was born at Inver on the 28th of May, 1763. He and his elder brothers, William, John and Andrew, chose music as their profession. His younger brother, Donald, died in infancy. In 1782 Nathaniel received a permanent appointment as one of H.M.'s herald trumpeters for Scotland, and in 1796, in partnership with Wm. Shepherd, he started a very extensive business as music seller with premises at 41 North Bridge, Edinburgh. Soon he rose to eminence as a musician and for many years took a prominent part at the Caledonian Hunt Balls and other important assemblies throughout the country. Like his father, he enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Atholl's family. Nathaniel Gow died on the 19th of January, 1831, and was buried in Greyfriar's churchyard.

As an arranger and composer of Scottish music Nathaniel Gow displays more culture than perhaps any of his predecessors. His better musical training has helped him to get out of the old, conventional rut in not a few of his musical compositions and to add much needed variety to several of the older melodies. Yet we question if ever he will be forgiven for publishing other composers' airs, particularly those of Wm. Marshall, deliberately changing their names and suppressing their authorship. And in the case of several other airs associated with his name, how much more decorous it would have been for him to mention the original source of each, where known, and add "Arranged by Nathaniel Gow" instead of the too equivocal "Nath. Gow." The public was then and still is easily gulled in such matters. Those who have taken it upon themselves to unravel the tangle of so many strathspeys and reels have perhaps the best grounds for censuring Nathaniel Gow. Yet we consider that few airs have been touched by him that have not been improved. Indeed several airs owe much of their present vogue to his "helping hand." As a creator of original melodic structures, especially strathspeys, we unhesitatingly place him after Wm. Marshall. Few of Nathaniel Gow's strathspey compositions are played by the best musicians of today, and it will probably never be conclusively proved that he composed The Miller o' Drone, one of the finest strathspeys ever written. Of the twenty-odd collections he arranged, the most important are Gow's six Collections of Strathspeys, etc. - containing in all over 560 airs - the first editions of which were published in 1784, 1788, 1792, 1800, 1809-10 and 1822 respectively. These volumes were a distinct advance on the few previous Scots collections and were regarded as the chief standard of reference up to about 1840. Through his publications alone Nathaniel Gow has won for himself a distinguished name in the history of Scottish music.

Loch Earn, a reel by Nathaniel Gow, from his 2nd collection, 1788

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