04 November 2023

Who is the greatest-ever composer of Strathspeys?

It was the person we will go on to discuss in this article – at least in the opinion of Robert Burns (1759 – 1796).

That’s what he meant when he described William Marshall as the ‘first composer of strathspeys of the age’.

(Others who were alive more recently than Burns may disagree!).

Marshall was born in Fochabers, Moray, near the mouth of the River Spey.

The year was 1748

He was the third son of a large family.

As for most others in his village, working life (from age 12) was in the employment of Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon, at Fochabers’ impressive Gordon Castle. He rose to the rank of butler to the Duke but his talents stretched much further than that.

His thirst for knowledge brought him an understanding of astronomy, mechanics, horology and architecture.

He was a highly-regarded clockmaker.

It is said that Marshall showed a great deal of natural talent for music.

As a fiddler, he was well-known in the north of Scotland but his enduring appeal came from his talents as a composer.

He composed many beautiful tunes, some of which were published in collections during his lifetime (1781 and 1822), and many of which have continued to be published in all the best collections of Scottish music up to the present day.

He had a love for composing in “flat” keys, which tend to be more challenging to play in on the violin and, as such, he is quoted as having said that “he did not write music for bunglers”.

Burns may well have met Marshall when he dined with the Duke of Gordon during the poet’s Highland tour of 1787. He adapted Marshall’s dance tune, ‘Miss Admiral Gordon’s Strathspey’, to his love song, ‘O’ a’ the airts the wind can blow’.

James Hunter’s book The Fiddle Music of Scotland attributes 257 tunes to Marshall as composer.

The greatest Strathspey by the greatest composer of Strathspeys?! –

Latterly, as factor of a wide area of the Duke’s lands in Moray, Marshall lived at Dandaleith, near Craigellachie.

He would undoubtedly have been on hand to witness the construction and completion of Thomas Telford’s dramatic and iconic Craigellachie Bridge over the River Spey in 1815.


The River Spey at Craigellachie Brig

In honour of that landmark, Marshall composed what many regard to be the greatest Strathspey of them all, Craigellachie Brig.

Or is the best Strathspey a different one – still by Marshall? –

Hector MacAndrew (1903 – 1980) is regarded as one of the foremost Scottish fiddlers of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Fyvie in Aberdeen Shire.

In this YouTube video, MacAndrew was asked to explain the peculiarities of Marshall’s music that made him so partial to it.

Hector MacAndrew explains that one of the great Italian violinists of those days visited Gordon Castle at the time of Marshall’s employment there. Stabellini was his name. If you like, he was the Kreisler of his day. He saw a peculiar intelligence in Marshall’s compositions.

He goes on: “I think this is why Marshall wrote with so much elegance and grace – with these beautiful airs.” There is no doubt in Hector MacAndrew’s mind at all that Marshall was influenced by his encounter with this Italian master and that, in turn, left its mark on Scottish music.

As to the man himself, Hector McAndrew describes Marshall as an extremely clever man. He was a mathematician roads surveyor, astronomer. and made clocks.

“Everything he did was verging on genius.”

He made a clock that told the tides, the dates of the months, and the position of the moon and the sun in the sky at the various times of the year. This clock was a showpiece at Gordon Castle. Any visitor who came there would demand to see the wonderful clock that Marshall had made.

Hector MacAndrew then goes on to perform (from 2:10 in the video) the Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell (which he regards as the finest Strathspey in the Scottish idiom!), followed by The Marquis of Tullibardine’s Reel.

William Marshall died in 1833.

His fiddle – which had been given to him by the Duke of Gordon – was later presented to Charles Grant, one of Marshall’s pupils (a schoolteacher at Aberlour and composer of the famous air, Mrs Jamieson’s Favourite).

The fiddle is now in the collection of musical instruments at St. Cecilia’s Hall, part of Edinburgh University.

Marshall died at Dandaleith on 29 May 1833 and was buried in Bellie Parish churchyard in Fochabers.

William Marshall will always be best remembered for his music: beautiful melodies, lively jigs and reels, and stirring, finely-crafted Strathspeys.

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This is an edited and slightly expanded version of an article which first appeared in the SFO Newsletter for June 2022 (No. 92). If you would like to see back-copies and/or sign up to receive our quarterly newsletter via email, please click here.