If you walk through the old market cross of Dunkeld toward the Cathedral, you might notice a round, blue plaque on the last house on the right, which says: “The Old Rectory… Dunkeld’s oldest surviving house. Fiddler Niel Gow and poet Robbie Burns entertained here 1787.”
Last year, in January, some 232 years after Burns and Gow met in Dunkeld, their violins met and made music together, at the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr. Ayrshire fiddler Alistair McCulloch, dressed as Robert Burns, greeted Perthshire fiddler Pete Clark, who personified Niel Gow, in a concert called “The Twa Fiddles.” They went on to perform again in September at the Scottish Parliament building, sponsored by Deputy First Minister John Swinney, whose district includes the homes of Niel Gow and Pete Clark. The concert was attended by several members of Parliament and about 60 invited academics, musicians, members of the National Trust for Scotland, and friends.
The pairing of these historic violins was the brainchild of retired schoolteacher Paul Creighton of Ayr. “I knew Pete was one of the few fiddlers allowed to play Neil Gow’s fiddle,” said Paul, “and Alistair was one of the few to play Burns’s fiddle. It occurred to me that we might have an opportunity to do something quite special.” Bringing together the two historic violins is certainly something special, and Alistair, Pete, and Paul are hoping to raise funds to present more Twa Fiddles concerts, as well as produce a video and an educational package for schools, so that the unique connection of Niel Gow and Robert Burns can be more widely appreciated.
The original meeting between Burns and Gow took place in late summer, 1787. Perhaps Burns was seeking more melodies for his project, the Scots Musical Museum. The first volume of this six-volume series had just been published by James Johnson, including such songs as “Auld Lang Syne,” and would ultimately total 600 traditional and contemporary Scottish songs, all collected by Robert Burns, many with lyrics written by Burns himself. To our knowledge, Burns did not write any of the melodies, but he had an impeccable ear and passion for preserving good melodies and lyrics representative of the Scottish tradition. Though known as a great poet, he was perhaps greatest as a songwriter. He wrote over 320 songs, nearly two-thirds of his artistic output.
Robert Burns was moved by Niel Gow’s fiddling and his compositions, using several for songs such as “My Love’s Like a Red, Red Rose” and “Braving Angry Winter’s Storms.” Gow was well known in his day for his powerful fiddling, and his son Nathaniel published an influential series of tune books that are central to the repertoire of Scottish musicians even today. The Duke of Atholl, who owned land from Blair Castle through Dunkeld and beyond, used to pay Niel Gow an annual retainer of £5 for his musical services – more than he paid his head gardener! At a time when classical composers like Mozart were patronized by aristocracy in mainland Europe, Gow and other Scottish fiddlers were patronized by Scottish aristocrats who cared deeply about their national music. A statue paying tribute to Niel Gow will be unveiled soon in Birnam, near the Royal School of Dunkeld, not far from where Gow is buried.
Burns’s violin was not, strictly speaking, owned by Robert Burns but appears to have been handed down in his family, and might actually have been played by the poet himself. There is speculation that Burns learned a bit of fiddling, but no clear proof. He was very musical, as is amply demonstrated by his ability to collect and preserve so many great melodies of Scotland. He could read and write music, and said himself that when he wrote a song, he first selected the melody and sang it to himself as he wrote the words. His songs are certainly a masterful blend of music and lyrics.
The violin associated with Burns was used by his dancing teacher, William Gregg. At age 17, Burns defied his father and went off to learn country dancing at the Bachelor’s Club at Tarbolton Lodge, a small building that can still be seen not far from Ayr. He claimed he wanted to “give his manners a brush” despite (and probably in open rebellion against) his father’s view that dancing was sinful. Like many dancing masters, William Gregg taught while playing the fiddle.
Made around 1750, the Gregg violin is beautifully and elaborately decorated on all sides. The violin fell into disrepair until 1995, when Wallace Galbraith, Alistair McCulloch’s violin teacher and founder of the Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra, learned that it was still in existence at a farm near Mauchline. The violin is now proudly on display in the Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr. These days it is Alistair McCulloch who looks after the violin and keeps it in use several times a year, including Burns Night celebrations at the cottage where Burns was born.
Alistair learned classical violin formally, but his father played fiddle and pipes, and introduced him to the local strathspey and reel society. For many years, Alistair played with the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, led the Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra for nine years, and now teaches violin and Scottish fiddle both privately and as a faculty member of the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow. His trio has toured and recorded, featuring whistle player Marc Duff, formerly of Capercaillie, and Aaron Jones of Old Blind Dogs on bouzouki, guitar and vocals. McCulloch’s latest project is the annual “Land O’ Burns Fiddle Weekend,” which was launched this past fall. Four great Scottish fiddlers – Gordon Gunn, Kevin Henderson, Rua Macmillan and Alistair himself – provided instruction and performances.
The Burns Museum entrusts Alistair McCulloch with care of the Gregg violin, and allows him to take it out of the museum for performances such as the Twa Fiddles concerts. In fact, in January 2020, McCulloch will be taking the violin over to the U.S. for a Robert Burns tour sponsored by the National Trust for Scotland in Boston, Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Blair Castle displays Niel Gow’s violin in the ballroom. Glued inside is a slip of paper inscribed “Niel Gow, 1787.” Curiously, that is not only the year that Burns and Gow met, but also the year Henry Raeburn painted the famous portrait of Gow now hanging above the violin’s display case. The only problem for the Twa Fiddles project is that Blair Castle will not permit the Gow violin to leave the premises.
Fortunately, Pete Clark found a way around this problem – by finding another violin belonging to Gow! One day, after discussing Niel Gow enthusiastically on television, Clark received a call from a retired clergyman in the Borders who asked Pete to come see an interesting violin. Accompanying the instrument was handwritten paperwork tracing it to a Peter Murray of Perthshire, who is known to have received directly from Niel Gow two violins and a cello. The label inside the violin is marked “Caspar de Salo” and links this violin with stories that Niel Gow played a violin made by the eminent 16th century Italian violinmaker, Gasparo da Salo. The misspelling of the name inside the violin, however, has led experts to believe it was probably a German copy of a da Salo violin. And being a violin owned by Niel Gow, it allows Alistair McCulloch and Pete Clark to continue bringing together the music and the fiddles of Burns and Gow.
Some time soon, you might visit Dunkeld Cathedral, where you can see Gow’s original tombstone, and take note of the Old Rectory nearby, where Robert Burns and Niel Gow met in 1787. You might even cross the river over the bridge to which Niel Gow dedicated his last tune. En route to Gow’s grave, you might notice someone watching you who is new to the area, and yet belongs there – the life-size statue of Niel Gow holding his fiddle and wondering which tune you’d like him to play.
©2019 Edward Scott Pearlman