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The Scottish Nation

GOW, a surname derived from a Gaelic word signifying Smith. Cowan, when not a modulation of Colquhoun, is the same word as Gowan, and has the same meaning. The surname M’Gowan is the English Smithson. “The Gows,” says Lower, in his Essay of English Surnames, (vol. I. P. 104), “were once as numerous in Scotland as the Smiths in England, and would be so at this time had not many of them, at a very recent date, translated the name to Smith.”

GOW, NEIL, renowned for his skill in playing the violin, of humble origin, was born at Inver, near Dunkeld, Perthshire, March 22, 1727. He early displayed a taste for music, and was almost entirely self-taught till about his thirteenth year, when he received some instructions from John Cameron, an attendant of Sir George Stewart of Grandtully. His progress as a musician was singularly rapid. A public trial having been proposed amongst a few of the best performers in that part of the country, young Neil was prevailed on to engage in the contest, when the prize was decreed to him, the judge, who was blind, declaring that “he could distinguish the stroke of Neil’s bow among a hundred players.” Having obtained the notice, first, of the Athol family, and afterwards of the duchess of Gordon, he was soon introduced to the admiration of the fashionable world, and enjoyed the countenance and distinguished patronage of the principal nobility and gentry of Scotland till his death. As a performer on the violin he was unequalled. “The livelier airs,” says Dr. M’Knight, in the Scots Magazine for 1809, “which belong to the class of what are called the strathspey and reel, and which have long been peculiar to the northern part of the island, assumed in his hand a style of spirit, fire, and beauty, which had never been heard before. There is perhaps no species whatever of music executed on the violin, in which the characteristic expression depends more on the power of the bow, particularly in what is called the upward or returning stroke, than the Highland reel. Here, accordingly, was Gow’s forte. His bow-hand, as a suitable instrument of his genius, was uncommonly powerful; and where the note produced by the up-bow was often feeble and indistinct in other hands, it was struck in his paying with a strength and certainty which never failed to surprise and delight the skilful hearer. To this extraordinary power of the bow, in the hand of this great original genius, must be ascribed the singular felicity of expression which he gave to all his music, and the native Highland gout of certain tunes, such as ‘Tullochgorum,’ in which his taste and style of bowing could never be exactly reached by any other performer. We may add the effect of the sudden shout with which he frequently accompanied his playing in the quick tunes, and which seemed instantly to electrify the dancers, inspiring them with new life and energy, and rising the spirits of the most inanimate.”

      Neil Gow excelled also in the composition of Scottish melodies; and his sets of the older tunes, and various of his own airs, were prepared for publication by his son Nathaniel. In private life Neil Gow was distinguished by his unpretending manners, his homely humour, strong good sense and knowledge of the world. His figure was vigorous and manly, and the expression of his countenance spirited and intelligent. His whole appearance exhibited so characteristic a model of a Scottish Highlander, that his portrait was at one period to be found in all parts of the country. A woodcut of it is subjoined:

[portrait of Neil Gow]

Four admirable likenesses of him were painted by the late Sir Henry Raeburn, one for the County Hall, Perth, and the others for the duke of Athol, Lord Gray, and the Hon. William Maule, created in 1831 Lord Panmure. His portrait was also introduced into the view of a ‘Highland Wedding,’ by Mr. Allan, with that of Donald Gow, his brother, who usually accompanied him on the violoncello.

      Neil Gow died at Inver, March 1, 1807, in the 80th year of his age. He was twice married: first, to Margaret Wiseman, by whom he had five sons and three daughters; and secondly to Margaret Urquhart, but had no issue by her. Three sons and two daughters predeceased him, and besides Nathaniel, the subject of the following notice, he left another son, John, who long resided in London, as leader of the fashionable Scottish bands there, and died in 1827.

GOW, NATHANIEL, an eminent violin player, teacher, and composer of music, the youngest son of the preceding, was born at Inver, near Dunkeld, May 28, 1766. Having exhibited early indications of a talent for music, his father soon began to give him instructions on the violin; and afterwards sent him to Edinburgh, where he studied first under M’Intosh, and subsequently under M’Glashan, at that period two well known violinists, and the latter especially an excellent composer of Scottish airs. He took lessons on the violoncello from Joseph Reneagle, afterwards professor of music at Oxford. In 1782 he was appointed one of his majesty’s trumpeters for Scotland, and on the death of his elder brother, William, in 1791, he succeeded him as leader of the band formerly conducted by M’Glashan at Edinburgh, a situation which he held for nearly forty years with undiminished reputation.

      In 1796 he and Mr. William Shepherd entered into partnership in Edinburgh, as music-sellers, and the business was continued till 1813, when, on the death of the latter, it was given up. He afterwards resumed it, in company with his son Neil, the composer of ‘Bonny Prince Charlie,’ and other beautiful melodies, who died in 1823. The business was finally relinquished in 1728, having involved him in losses, which reduced him to a state of bankruptcy.

      Between 1799 and 1824 Nathaniel Gow published his six celebrated collections of Reels and Strathspeys; a Repository of Scots Slow Airs, Strathspeys, and Dances, in 4 vols.; Scots Vocal Melodies, 2 vols.; a collection of Ancient Curious Scots Melodies, and various other pieces, all arranged by himself. In some of the early numbers he was assisted by his father, and these came out under the name of Neil Gow and Son.

      During the long period of his professional career, his services as conductor were in constant request at all the fashionable parties that took place throughout Scotland; and he frequently received large sums for attending with his band at country parties. He was a great favourite with George the Fourth, and on his visits to London had the honour of being invited to play at the private parties of his majesty, when prince of Wales, at Carlton House. Such was the high estimation in which he was held by the nobility and gentry of his native country, that his annual balls were always most numerously and fashionably attended; and among the presents which at various times were made to him were, a massive silver goblet, in 1811, from the earl of Dalhousie; a fine violoncello by Sir Peter Murray of Ochtertyre; and a valuable violin by Sir Alexander Don of Newton Don, baronet. As a teacher of the violin and piano-forte accompaniment he was paid the highest rate of fees, and he had for pupils the children of the first families in the kingdom.

      In March 1827 he was compelled, by his reduced circumstances, and while suffering under a severe illness, to make an appeal to his former patrons and the public for support, by a ball, which produced him about £300, and which was continued annually for three years. The noblemen and gentlemen of the Caledonian Hunt were not unmindful of the merits of one who had done so much for the national music of Scotland, as they voted him, on his distresses becoming known, £50 yearly during his life; and he every year received a handsome present from the Hon. William Maule, subsequently Lord Panmure. He died January 17, 1831, aged 65. He was twice married: first, to Janet Fraser, by whom he had five daughters and one son; and, secondly, in 1814, to Mary Hogg, by whom he had three sons and two daughters; one of whom, Mary, was married to Mr. Jenkins, London; another, Jessie, was the wife of Mr. Luke, treasurer of George Heriot’s Hospital; and a third, Augusta, became a teacher of music.

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