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Updated 05/08/2013


Neil Gow's Farewell to Whisky
Neil Gow

Niel Gow (1727-1807) was possibly the most famous Scottish fiddler of the 18th century.  Gow was born in Inver, Perthshire, as the son of John Gow and Catherine McEwan. He started playing the fiddle when very young and at age 13 received his first formal lessons from one John Cameron. In spite of being something of a musical prodigy, he originally trained as a plaid weaver, but eventually gave up that trade to become a full-time musician. He was widely considered the best fiddle player in Perthshire, an area which was renowned for its musicians - the story goes that at age 17 he entered a competition that was being judged by John McCraw, a blind musician, who awarded him the first prize and then went on to claim that he "would ken his bow hand among a hunder players" (detect Niel's style among a hundred players). This attracted the attention of the Duke of Atholl, who became Niel's patron, and also ensured Niel's employment for balls and dance parties put on by the local nobility. In time he became renowned as a fiddler. 

Niel Gow was married twice. His first wife was Margaret Wiseman, and they had five sons called William, John, Andrew, Nathaniel, and Daniel, as well as three daughters. While Daniel probably died as a child, the other four became musicians and/or music sellers; Niel survived William (who died in 1791 at age 40) and Andrew (who died in 1794). Of Niel's sons, Nathaniel is by far the most well-known and another fine composer of Scottish music, with nearly 200 tunes to his credit. After having been widowed, Niel married Margaret Urquhart from Perth in 1768, and they went on to share a happy married life until she died in 1805. Niel was deeply hurt by her death, and stopped playing the fiddle for a while. His friends finally convinced him to pick it up again, and the first thing he played was his '...Lament for the Death of his Second Wife' (see compositions). Niel died at Inver on 1st March 1807, aged 80

Niel Gow composed a lot of dance music - according to John Glen (1895) he put his name to 87 tunes, "some of which are excellent" - much of which forms the backstay of Scottish country dance music even today. However it must be said that he was not above pinching good material from other composers to republish under his own name; Glen claims that from the 87, at least a quarter are derived from older tunes or are straight rip-offs from tunes published earlier elsewhere, often under a different title. This being a common practice at the time, it didn't seem to hurt his reputation a whole lot; in fact, the famous painter Henry Raeburn was commissioned to paint him several times.


Lyrics by Neil Gow

Ye've surely heard o famous Neil,
The man that played the fiddle weel;
I wat he was a canty chiel.
An' dearly lo'ed the whisky, O.
An' aye sin he wore tartan hose,
He dearly lo'ed the Athole Brose;
An' wae was he, you may suppose,
To bid fareweel to whisky, O.

Alake, quo' Neil, I'm frail an' auld,
And find my bluid grows unco cauld,
I think it maks me blythe and bauld,
A wee drop Highland whisky, O.
But a' the doctors do agree
That whisky's no the drink for me;
I'm fleyed they'll gar me tyne my glee,
Should they part me and whisky, O.

But I should mind on 'auld lang syne',
How paradise our friends did tyne,
Because something ran in their min'-
Forbid, like Highland whisky, O.
While I can get both wine and ale,
And find my head and fingers hale,
I'll be content, though legs should fail,
And though forbidden whisky, O.

I'll tak my fiddle in my hand,
And screw the strings up while they stand,
And mak a lamentation grand
For guid auld Highland whisky, O!
O! a' ye pow'rs o music, come.
I find my heart grows unco glum;
My fiddlestrings will hardly bum
To say, 'Fareweel to whisky, O'.