William Marshall didn’t write music for bunglers. One of the foremost composers of Scottish dance music, Marshall excelled at so many studies and athletic endeavors, one wonders when he slept.
William Marshall was born at Fochabers in December 1748 to a large family. He received six months’ education at the parish school, some instruction from his father, and lessons from the staff at Gordon Castle, where he served starting at age 12 under the house steward, eventually being appointed butler and house steward to the fourth Duke of Gordon. Besides composing Scottish dance music and playing violin, Marshall studied mechanics, astronomy, architecture, land surveying and clock-making and was a superb athlete and dancer, all while holding employment with the Gordon family.
Marshall expanded the definition of Scottish fiddle music by writing difficult tunes with wide compasses and in flat keys, which were not normal fiddle keys and are harder for the less experienced musician. Fiddle tunes were traditionally written in keys corresponding to the violin’s open strings: G, D and A, which make the violin ring with sympathetic vibrations and require simpler fingerings, not that any fingering on the violin is easy. Upon hearing a complaint about the difficulty of his tunes, he responded “all the tunes could be played, and that those performers must learn to play better, as he did not write music for bunglers.”
A memoir of Marshall introducing an 1845 posthumous collection of his tunes said Marshall “knew little, if anything, of thorough-bass, counterpoint, or arrangement. He was nature’s, not man’s, musician.” “The melodies of Marshall cost him little labour in the production, and were frequently the results of one effort. He generally took up his Violin when some happy thought struck him, and almost at once mastered the object he had in view. He seldom came back upon his compositions with the view of retouching or refining them.”
Marshall played new tunes for his wife who, though not a musician, had good taste, in his view. “... what she condemned, he condemned; but when she approved, he immediately wrote down the favoured airs, which he did with great facility and rapidity from memory ...”
Marshall composed 257 tunes, many still popular with Scottish fiddlers. “Miss Admiral Gordon’s Strathspey” was used by Robert Burns for the song “Of a’ The Airts the Wind Can Blaw,” an immensely popular tune in Scottish circles. “Airts” means “direction,” and Burns’ tune is as sweet and plaintive as the dance upon which it is based is driving and exciting.
Marshall applied his drive for perfection and love of learning to many fields. Using his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, he built a clock that indicated the day and month, difference between clock and sun time, the moon’s age and revolution around the earth, the sun’s place in the zodiac, the sun’s declination north or south above the equator, time of sunrise, length of the day and night, and the equinoxes and solstices. He adjusted and repaired telescopes for neighbors; mapped his farm, Keithmore; was skilled in falconry; and was an excellent shot and an expert rod fisher and dresser of trout flies. The memoir said he excelled all his countrymen in throwing the hammer, long jump and foot races.
While Marshall’s talents portray him as an 18th-century Enlightenment man, he is best remembered for his music. A friend said the correctness of his ear was unrivaled, he had complete command over his instrument, and simply tuning and running the bow over the strings demonstrated his mastery. “His style was characterized by fullness of intonation, precision, and brilliancy of expression ...” It was said that a blind fiddler played under the window one day while Marshall was dining, and one of the guests asked the fiddler to hand up his fiddler and he would let him hear a loon who was just beginning music. After Marshall played several tunes, the blind fiddler said, “Na! na! that’s no a loon’s playin’; I’ll wager a groat that’s Mr. Marshall o’ Keithmore, for there’s naebody hereabouts that could play like that but him.” He didn’t write for bunglers, and no bungler was he.