Niel Gow lived from 22 March 1727 to 1 March 1807. He was the most famous Scottish fiddle player of the 1700s. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Niel Gow (whose first name is sometimes wrongly spelled as "Neil") was born to John Gow and Catherine McEwan in the family cottage in Strathbraan, to the west of Dunkeld. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Inver, close to Dunkeld. John Gow was a plaid weaver, and while still a child Niel Gow trained to follow in his footsteps. It isn't clear whether he gained an interest in the fiddle from his father, or heard it being played in the inns and market at Dunkeld. What is clear is that he was a prodigy, receiving lessons from John Cameron of Grandtully, becoming widely known for his fiddle playing while still a boy.
At the age of 18 he won a fiddle contest being judged by John McCraw, a blind fiddle player who declared Gow's style to be highly distinctive. The contest brought him to the attention of James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl, who became a patron, employing him to play at balls and other events held at Blair Castle and paying him a retainer of £5 per year. Niel Gow rapidly became established as Perthshire's best fiddle player, but despite his increasing fame never moved from the family home at Inver.
Niel Gow married twice. His first wife was Margaret Wiseman, with whom he had eight children, four of whom went on to become musicians or composers. After her death he married Margaret Urquhart and they lived happily together until she died in 1805. Her death affected Niel deeply and he stopped playing the fiddle for a while. When he restarted, it was to play a tune he had composed entitled "Lament for the Death of his Second Wife".
As well as playing tunes composed by others, Niel Gow also composed many of his own: to date, some 87 tunes have been identified as having been written by him. In 1787 Gow was visited there by Robert Burns during the latter's tour of the Highlands. Gow died at Inver on 1 March 1807, a fortnight short of his 80th birthday. Since 2004 Niel Gow's life and music has been celebrated by the Niel Gow Annual Scottish Fiddle Festival, held each year in Dunkeld & Birnam. He is also remembered at Blair Castle, where his portrait and fiddle hang on the wall of the ballroom, and where is chair is on display.