Musica Scotica 2015

Fiddle music was considered by a few speakers at this year’s excellent Musica Scotica conference held at the Glasgow Museum of Religious Life and Art. There was also talk, over coffee, of the exciting project getting underway today: Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band. This, as I understand it is an ensemble of crack fiddlers who will use baroque violins to explore hand-picked pieces from the eighteenth century fiddle collections to see what happens. This is the kind of practical research that I love hearing about and can’t wait to enjoy the results of their efforts. I have suggested that the rehearsals should be recorded fly-on-the-wall style and the files archived for future academic use. Its probably too late now, but it would also be valuable to interview the performers (separately and/or together) on their expectations of the project before, or at an early stage, in the project with a view to a further survey after the experiment has matured.

Many traditional music revivals have been strongly focused on placing renewed attention on the older “period” versions of the instruments involved. The clarsach world has, since the early 1980s been greatly concerned with the old ways of the wire strung harp and in piping we have seen the revival of the bellows-blown pipes and reconstructions of early sets of Highland pipes. Both of these movements have led to a greater appreciation of the early repertory, styles and creative potential of the instruments.

Perhaps because of its dominance in Western music and its centrality in Scotland’s music  there has been relatively little such attention paid to the violin. At last there is some movement.

As I mentioned in a very early posting here ( See foot of page), I have been dabbling a little with an old eighteenth-century Scottish fiddle strung with gut and played with a baroque bow.

To me, it is potential for producing low-key, intimate,music that is proving to be the greatest revelation. As a folk fiddler without any formal strings training (classical or traditional) I find it an absolute pleasure, and something of a relief to escape from the demands of the dance and folk band and the expectations of up-front technical accomplishment associated with the violin, and play within the ‘restrictions’ of the old instrument. That said, I can’t wait to hear the Gow Band’s handling of the more up-tempo material.

The following rather rough and ready home recordings are some of my first explorations:

Whistle o’er the lave o’t : attr. J. Bruce

Huntly Lodge : Nathaniel Gow

Lady Charlotte Campbell : Nathaniel Gow

A Port : Straloch Ms

My Favourite Niel Gow

On 12 March I posted a poor scan of an image of Niel Gow that had been brought to my attention. Imagine my delight when I returned home from foreign parts to find an original copy of the engraving waiting in my mail:


The likeness, which is one of my favourities, could not possibly have been drawn from life as the young artist, was born after Gow had died. It is possible that he worked from another’s sketch but the Raeburn painting was clearly the most likely inspiration.

The engraving was published in the Portrait Gallery section of Hogg’s Instructor (Edinburgh, 1854-), a serial publication from the son of the poet and Ettrick Shepherd of the same name. Unfortunately I do not yet know which volume it is from but the sender kindly included two pages from a longer biography of Niel (pages 289 and 230) that will be essential reading for Gowites.

The artist was Francis Croll (c. 1826 – 1854). The Dictionary of National Biography tells us:

CROLL, FRANCIS (1826?–1854), line engraver, was born at Musselburgh about 1826. At a very early age his talent for drawing attracted the notice of the Scottish sculptors, Alexander and John Ritchie, who urged his friends to cultivate it. He was accordingly articled to Thomas Dobbie of Edinburgh, an excellent draughtsman and naturalist, but less known as an engraver, under whose tuition Croll made good progress in drawing, but not so much in engraving. The death of his master, however, before the completion of his apprenticeship led to his being placed for two years to study line engraving under Robert Charles Bell [q. v.], and during the same time he attended the schools of the Royal Scottish Academy, then under the direction of Sir William Allan [q. v.], from whose instruction and advice he derived much benefit. His earlier works were some plates of animals for Stephens’s ‘Book of the Farm,’ some portraits for ‘Hogg’s Weekly Instructor,’ and a small plate from James Drummond’s picture of ‘The Escape of Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh.’ In 1852 he executed for the ‘Art Journal’ an engraving of ‘The Tired Soldier,’ after the picture by Frederick Goodall in the Vernon Gallery. He also engraved for the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland one of a series of designs by John Faed to illustrate ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night’ of Robert Burns. During the progress of this plate he was attacked by heart disease, and soon after its completion a career of much promise was closed by his death in Edinburgh, 12 Feb. 1854, at the early age of twenty-seven.

[Scotsman, 18 Feb. 1854; Art Journal, 1854, p. 119.]

R. E. G.