Scottish fiddle dance music: Invitation to the dance

Fig 6. Niel & Donald Gow

The influence of fiddle dance music that emerged in 18th century Scotland still echoes through the reels and strathspeys of today.

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The 18th century is rightly seen as a golden age in Scottish fiddle music. The latter half of the century saw the first Scottish publications of vernacular dance music, beginning with publisher Robert Bremner’s A Collection of Scots Reels or Country Dances (c.1757–61). A boom in printed music together with the preponderance of literate fiddlers meant that Scotland had one of the best recorded vernacular violin traditions of the period. Here we see the emergence of the most important tune types in Scottish fiddling – notably the reel and strathspey – and the composition of many tunes that remain popular today. This was the period of many of our finest fiddler-composers, including William Marshall (1748–1833), Robert Mackintosh (c.1745–1807) and the Gow family, most famously Niel Gow (1727–1807) and his son Nathaniel (1763–1831). The composition and performance styles of these musicians remain the foundation of Scottish fiddle music, and some fiddlers can still claim a direct teacher– pupil lineage back to Gow and his contemporaries.

Access to 18th-century Scottish collections once relied upon visits to libraries, but material has become more accessible with recent digitisation projects by the National Library of Scotland, the Wighton Collection (Dundee) and Historical Music of Scotland. Collections and tunes have also been catalogued, for example in my own manuscript database at, by Charles Gore (Scottish Music Index) and as part of numerous wiki-based projects, such as the Traditional Tune Archive

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