Neil Gunn's Fiddle
I have always had a fascination with antique fairs, street markets and car boot sales.
When I was a music student in Glasgow I often used to frequent a famous market there called “The Barras” where there was an old man who had an instrument stall but mostly of violins and bows. The prices ranged from the equivalent of 50p to about £50 and this seems amazing today. I do still own one of the 50p violins I bought which is a lovely handmade three quarter size with a good tone.
However this story is not about that violin but about the one I play today.
On relocating to the north of Scotland I still made forays to auctions and antique fairs but it was not so easy and required a lot more traveling. One day I attended an antique fair in Strathpeffer, Ross-shire and one of the stall holders had several violins for sale. They weren’t really very nice ones but I got talking to the him and he said he had a few more at home including one in particular that he had recently bought from an old lady. The lady told him she had bought it at the house auction held at the Scottish author Neil Gunn‘s house after his death in 1973 (this story is around 1985).Neill Gunn wrote well known Scottish books Highland River, The Silver Darlings and The Grey Coast amongst other novels.
Neil Gunn lived in many places in the North Highlands and at the time of his death was living near Dingwall close to Strathpeffer. He was, like Robert Burns, a customs and excise officer before his writing took off and he did a lot of traveling around the Highlands.
I said I would like to see this violin as Neil Gunn was a popular author in our house and the dealer said he was glad I had heard of him as when he bought the violin he had thought the provenance would help him sell the violin but so far I was the only person to say I had heard of him! I also mentioned I had some surplus furniture I was interested in selling and he agreed if I liked the violin then maybe we could do a deal.
The following week he came to my house with a few fiddles including the one owned by Neil Gunn. The violin was very dark and dirty, and as it was not strung up I couldn’t try it but it did look interesting and old. It came in a battered old case with a label that said Lybster, N.M. Gunn Esquire, Customs and Excise and it had postage frank marks on it where it had obviously just been sent to various places by general mail!. Inside was a label “Fait par Jeanne - Robert Chibon, A Paris 1784”
We agreed on £20 and a surplus piano stool I had and we were both happy with the deal.
I got some good strings and cleaned it up and it was very exciting trying it for the first time.
It sounded fantastic and it is still the instrument I play today. I still have the case too.
I looked up information on Neil Gunn and his life and found an article describing him playing at many ceilidhs in the north and he was described as a good fiddler in this account.
I also looked up Jeanne - Robert Chibon and he turned out to to be a well known 18th Century violin maker in Paris. For me this was a wonderful opportunity to acquire a much treasured violin with a history and I know I was very lucky.