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Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band

Guest article by Aaron McGregor 

Scottish early music group Concerto Caledonia has recently launched the series Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band: Ceilidh Nights, taking place in Glasgow venues Òran Mór and The Glad Cafe, January to March 2017.

The nights explore the musical world of a dance band from the 1780s, bringing together some of Scotland’s finest traditional and early music performers, including viola player Mairi Campbell, cellist Alison McGillivray, piper Callum Armstrong, and fiddlers Aaron McGregor, Lauren MacColl, Shona Mooney, and Marie Fielding.

Nathaniel Gow's Dance Base

Concerto Caledonia - Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band (© Mikah Smillie 2015)

The project combines old and new elements to reimagine the 18th-century dance night. The group incorporate the format, the informal and social aspects of a modern Scottish ceilidh, led by a team of callers including historical dancer Steve Player. The band performs on period instruments, with music and country dance instructions taken from 18th-century Scottish collections such as those by Robert Bremner, Alexander ‘King’ McGlashan, and of course the Gow family.


Niel and Nathaniel Gow

Niel Gow has often been described as the founding father of Scottish fiddle music, not only for the composition of many tunes, but for his distinctive performing style, particularly the strength of his up-bow. Niel was also the founder of a musical dynasty, thanks to the success of his four fiddle-playing sons, most notably John (1764) and Nathaniel (1763), who had parallel careers in London and Edinburgh, as publishers, and leaders of the two most successful Scottish dance bands of their day.

Nathaniel had mixed success as a businessman, but he clearly saw the opportunity of building on the Gow brand, publishing collections under the name ‘Niel Gow and Sons’, such as The Beauties of Niel Gow (1819-1822) and the four volumes of The Complete Repository (1799-1813). These collections were an important step in transforming material from more ephemeral 18th-century collections into a distinct canon of tunes, deliberately simplifying and homogenising features such as rhythm and ornamentation. 

Whilst Nathaniel is remembered as an important figure in Scottish fiddle music, a considerable amount of his output is centred around music and dance which wouldn’t be considered Scottish or even ‘traditional’ by today’s standards. Dance bands and publishers focussed on what was popular: Strathspeys, Reels and other ‘Scottish’ forms had continued to be in vogue in the nineteenth century, but Scottish society also looked to London and Paris for the new and fashionable forms, such as minuets, waltzes and cotillions.

In March 1817, Nathaniel Gow introduced the French Quadrille to Scottish society in a ball held at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. This event will be celebrated this year with a concert and dance workshop (20-21 January) and a Regency Ball (11 March) at the Assembly Rooms on George St, led by Talitha Mackenzie, Stuart Marsden and Concerto Caledonia.

A Collection of Strathspey ReelsCollection of Scots Reels and Country Dances

1. Stumpie Strathspey’ from Niel Gow, 'A Collection of Strathspey Reels (1784). Image from Historical Music of Scotland []
2. Typical cello basses from Robert Bremner, A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (c.1757). Image from Historical Music of Scotland []


The 18th-century Scottish dance band

The eighteenth century Scottish dance band differed from its modern counterparts. As noted, repertoire included continental forms, but even ‘local’ forms such as the reel were presented through the lens of 18th-century style, with ornaments such as trills, appoggiaturas, and turns. The idea of a ‘set’ of tunes seems to have developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: in the 1780s, a single country dance was usually accompanied by one tune of the same name.

The Highland Wedding at Blair AthollDavid Allan, The Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl (1780)

With the ascendancy of harmony instruments such as the piano, accordion, and guitar, modern ears have become accustomed to the sound of chords. The backbone of the dance band of the 1780s was the fiddle and bass fiddle (i.e. cello), as seen in David Allan’s 1780 painting of Niel and Donald Gow (a piper also helps himself to a drink in the background!). The many printed collections from this period present cello bass lines, most often consisting of two repeated notes in crotchets, with a cadence for each section. These basses not only outline the harmonies, but offer a pulsing, driving rhythm - what Scott Skinner later referred to as an ‘accented drone’.

Whilst the fiddle-cello duo was the mainstay of dances, some bands included additional instruments: collections by Abraham Mackintosh and Isaac Cooper include two fiddle parts, playing additional harmonies, or in unison. Some bands included full string sections and wind players: the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms in the mid-eighteenth century included oboes alongside a string section, and there are two records of Gow bands in the early nineteenth century including four fiddles and cello alongside instruments such as french horn, tambourine and harp. Pipers are also mentioned as being present at dances alongside fiddlers - did the two ever play together for dancing? The Nathaniel Gow’s Dance Band project offers an opportunity to experiment with these various different options.


Nathaniel Gows Dance Band: Ceilidh Nights returns to Òran Mór (23 January & 27 March) and The Glad Cafe (23 February). For tickets and more info, see:


Nathaniel Gow's Dance Band: Ceilidh Nights are supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland's Open Project Fund.