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William Marshall

WILLIAM MARSHALL (1748-1833)

Image of William MarshallWilliam Marshall was born at Fochabers, Banffshire, on the 27th December 1748. When about twelve years of age he entered the service of the Duke of Gordon and soon rose to be butler and house-steward. That he was a great favourite with the members of the Duke’s family and with the many distinguished guests, especially ladies, who visited the castle may be gathered from the titles of many of his compositions. No doubt he felt flattered by such recognition of his musical gifts, yet J. MacGregor in his Memoir rather bluntly remarks: “Many, who perhaps imagined at the time that they were conferring honour on the minstrel by giving their names to being remembered at all, after their fleeting pilgrimage of life has passed away.”

In addition to composing music Marshall devoted much of his spare time to the study of mechanics, astronomy, architecture and land surveying, and even to the making of clocks. He was a keen sportsman; a dancer and athlete of considerable local repute. He left Gordon Castle in 1790 and, a short time after, settled at Keithmore farm. Soon he was appointed factor to the Duke and continued in that capacity up to 1817. About 1822 he retired to Newfield Cottage, Dandaleith, near Craigellachie Bridge. William Marshall died on the 29th of May, 1833, and was buried in Bellie churchyard.

Of Marshall’s earliest efforts 49 were published in two numbers by Neil Steward, Edinburgh, in 1781, while several of the airs written after that date appeared first in other composers’ works, particularly those of the Gows. At the request of his many patrons Marshall gathered his scattered compositions and sold their copyright in 1822 to Alexander Robertson, Edinburgh. Robertson issued 176 of them in the same year. A selection containing 81 of his then remaining and subsequent compositions – 2 of them being repetitions – was issued by the same publisher about 1845. The 1822 and 1845 collections contain between them almost all the airs in the 1781 collection with most of their names changed.

Burns proved himself to be a sound judge of Scots music when he dubbed Marshall “The first composer of strathspeys of the age.” The Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell (“The King of Strathspeys”), The Marquis of Huntly’s Strathspey (formerly “Reel”), The Marchioness of Huntly and Craigellachie Bridge have long been recognised as masterpieces. The most popular of his other compositions, especially for orchestras, are The Bog of Gight, The Duke of Gordon’s Birthday, Lord Alexander Gordon, Miss Agnes Ross (now called Lasses, look before you), Miss Farquharson of Invercauld (previously called Lady Louisa Gordon, and latterly Miss M’Leod’s Favourite), and Newfield Cottage (renamed Mr. Marshall’s Strathspey in Gow’s second collection and Mr. Marshall’s Favourite in Gow’s Beauties).

Although it is true that few of Marshall’s finest strathspeys look their best at H +188, the speed advocated by G.F. Graham J.T. Surenne, J.S. Skinner and others for the dance, it may also be argued that choosing a speed to take the most out of a so-called strathspey is more important form a musical point of view than restricting to a certain arbitrary speed an air which continues to be popular in spite of its gradual dissociation from the dance. We cannot equally commend any of Marshall’s 80 reel compositions: several of them appear to be deficient in that combination of buoyancy and easy flow more characteristic of south-country reels, and to have too much of that “deliberateness” to which, strange as it may seem, his strathspeys owe much of their beauty. But he as a wealth of slow and slowish strathspeys which have a repose and charm all their own. It may even be said that inasmuch as Marshall’s compositions best reflect the musical outlook of most Scots music enthusiasts they possess a native appeal which even greater brilliancy of effort on the part of another composer can scarcely diminish.