To most fiddlers tune titles are an abstraction. They don't think about what a Mississippi Sawyer does, what happened on the 8th of January, or where an Arkansas Traveler might be going. But to the Scottish fiddler Pete Clark, the titles of the tunes he plays are part of his highland landscape. When I visited him in November of 1998, he took me on a brief tour of his Perthshire neighborhood and as we drove along the small one lane road to his 17th century farmhouse, his description of the local landmarks sounded like a recitation of titles from a collection of Scottish fiddle tunes.
"We are just coming into the 'Braes of Tullymet.' That's Scottish for hills. A few miles down that road is the 'Dunkeld Bridge' and back there is the old public house where the 'Landlady of Inver Inn' used to preside." And then we passed a building that explained why so much of the local landscape was named in tune titles. "If you look between those trees you can just see Niel Gow's cottage."
Niel Gow was born in 1727 in Inver, not far from Pete Clark's house. In Gow's long life he composed dozens of strathspeys, reels and jigs that have become staples of the traditional fiddler's repertoire. His slow airs, particularly the "Lament for the Death of his Second Wife," are some of the most haunting melodies ever composed. Although Gow was a very popular musician and traveled widely throughout the highlands playing for the aristocracy his patrons included the Duke of Athole and the Duchess of Gordon he chose to live his entire life in the village where he was born. Many of the tunes he composed bear the names of the local rivers, villages and people of his native Perthshire.
In late 1997 Pete Clark paid tribute to Inver's favorite son by recording Even Now, a compact disc of tunes that Gow composed or was known to have played. The idea of making a recording of tunes associated with Niel Gow started with a benefit concert held at Blair Castle for Heartland FM, the local radio station. As Clark recalls, "The promoter wanted me to play some of Niel Gow's tunes on Gow's own fiddle, which is preserved at the castle." To everyone who attended the fundraiser, the highlight was hearing Gow's melodies played on the instrument on which they were composed two centuries ago. But Clark did more than just play some old tunes on an old fiddle. "I wanted to keep the arrangements and instrumentation as close as possible to what Gow would have played, so I used the same instruments he did: two violins, a cello and, on occasion, a piano. I went through the collections of Gow's compositions and chose the ones I liked. I made sets from the dance tunes and let the slow airs stand alone." Clark rounded up some local musicians to make up the band. Martin MacLeod played the second violin and viola, Neil Johnstone played cello, and Jim Leighton was the pianist.
The concert went so well that Neil Johnstone suggested that they make a recording. They approached Martin Hadden of Smiddymade Records, who was very receptive to the idea, and a few months later they were back in Blair Castle making a compact disc. Clark had played there before and knew that the ballroom had fine acoustics, which was just as well because he discovered, "The curators weren't too keen to let the fiddle out of the castle. The ballroom was built after Gow died so he didn't play in that very room, but he did play at the castle."
After the recording was finished, the group sat about trying to think of a title. Martin Hadden came up with "Even Now," which was based on a couplet about Gow that appeared in Scots Magazine in 1812:
"Time and Gow are even now,
Gow beat time, and time beat Gow."
Clark said the title "has a nice poetic sound and to me it means that even now, 200 years later, Gow's music is played and enjoyed."
One of the most exciting parts of the project was getting to actually play on Niel Gow's violin. "It's an old Scottish-made fiddle. It looks its age but there is really nothing remarkable about its construction. But it has a lot of character. There is no purfling on the belly and it has a few cracks here and there. It's as light as balsa wood. You think its going to crack as soon as you touch it. It spends most of its life in a small glass case on display at Blair Castle. It's probably not the only fiddle Niel Gow played on or owned. There are various other people who claim to have Gow's fiddle but no one really knows which fiddle was the one he played on most of the time."
The fiddle has a curious inscription inside: "Neil Gow's Fiddle." Clark explains why this is odd. "Gow always spelled his first name N-I-E-L rather than N-E-I-L. That suggests to me that perhaps after his death someone thought, 'We don't want to forget who this fiddle belongs to,' so they wrote out a label and stuck it inside. There is also a date inside of 1787. Gow died in 1807 so maybe the person who made it, or a patron like the Duke of Athole, gave it to him as a present. In either case Gow probably didn't put the label in there himself."
One of the unexpected benefits of making this record has been getting to meet the descendants of some of the dedicatees of the tunes. "There was a man, Major Montgomery from Ayrshire, visiting the school where I teach and I was introduced to him. On a hunch I asked him if the name Coilsfield House meant anything to him. He said that it was his family's ancestral home but that it had burnt down a few years ago. I had my fiddle with me so I played Nathaniel's tune 'Coilsfield House' and asked if he recognized it. He said no and when I told him that it was probably written for his great-great-great grandfather, he was flabbergasted."
[For the full text of this article and a transcription of "Niel Gow's Lament for the Death of His Second Wife," purchase the Summer 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]