Biography:J. Scott Skinner

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J. Scott Skinner

 Given name:     James
 Middle name:     Scott
 Family name:     Skinner
 Place of birth:     Arbeadie
 Place of death:     Aberdeen
 Year of birth:     1843
 Year of death:     1927
 Profile:     Collector, Composer, Musician, Publisher
 Source of information:     

Biographical notes

James Scott Skinner (1843-1927) was a famous Scottish fiddler and composer who played with a definitive classical style that influenced contemporary and subsequent Scottish fiddlers and their music for over a century. In addition, Skinner was quick to use the technology of the post-Victorian era and had recorded more than 30 tunes by February, 1910, on the new medium of the cylinder recording. He was a consummate showman, and had the technique to back it up, though his once-great reputation is somewhat diminished nowadays in part due to accusations of his being pompous and ego-centric (a perception unfortunately not helped by his own memoirs).

Skinner was born in Arbeadie, a village in the parish of Banchory-Ternan in Aberdeenshire, on the 5th of August 1843, the youngest of six children. Both his father William Skinner and his brother Alexander “Sandy” Forbes Skinner were musicians, although the former started only after his career as a groundskeeper was cut short due to the loss of three fingers of the left hand when the gun he was firing as part of a wedding celebration exploded. His father died in 1845, right about the time the Highland Potato Famine started (it will carry on into the 1850s): as James writes in his music collection “the Scottish Violinist”, he was born “'wi’ mair feet than stockings'”.

It was his brother Sandy who taught James from a very young age the basics of the violin and the cello, and by the time he was eight he was playing at dances vamping on the cello for Sandy and Peter Milne (1824-1908). For this, Peter Milne gave him five shillings a month, which helped the struggling Skinner family. From an account of his childhood Skinner left in the People’s Journal of 3rd February 1923:

The barns in which the dancing took place had earthen floors and were not always quite level. Planks laid on sacks of corn turned on their sides formed the sitting accommodation. Tallow dips mounted on wooden brackets on the walls supplied the lighting, candles not being introduced until about ten years (later). The preliminary arrangements were made in the neighbouring farmhouse by a Committee (…) who generally saw that a gallon of whisky was included in the refreshments. The (…) dancers divided themselves according to sex (…) the males sitting on one side of the barn and the females on the other (…) but once they were all on the floor they were not decorous, let alone sanctimonious.

Stewards went round at a suitable interval, generally when the “cratur” (whisky) had made the dancing gallants amiable, and took up a “lawin” (collection) to defray the expenses. Men were expected to contribute not less than sixpence, the hauflins (adolescents) threepence, the “fair sex” getting in free. After several hours dancing, refreshments were served (…) about midnight. These consisted of ginger wine for the ladies and whisky “toddy” (a mix of liquor, water and honey) for the men. Bread and cheese were carried round and served out from a riddle, which was made presentable by a wide white cloth.

The musicians at the far end of the barn extemporized a platform out of the fanner (a winnowing machine). The orchestra generally consisted of small fiddle, bass fiddle (cello) for vamping, and octavo flute. About four o’clock in the morning the ball broke up and many of the lady dancers had to trudge home a distance of from eight to ten miles, and of course, their chiels (young men) would have to perform double the distance at least. I often wonder how I, a boy of eight or nine years, survived the physical strain and the loss of sleep which my duties with the band occasioned. It was nothing unusual for Peter and me to trudge eight or ten weary miles on a slushy wet night in order to fulfil a barn engagement (…). There were times even when I slept over the bass fiddle at dances, and kept up the vamp subconsciously.

James started attending the school in Aberdeen, the very city where in 1855 arrived the “Dr Mark’s Little Men”, “the most famous juvenile musical combination of its time” (as advertised in the People’s Journal of 10th Feb 1823). Sandy Skinner decided to arrange for James to audition with the band, and he was successful and invited to enter a six-year apprenticeship (on cello and violin) at the age of eleven. Dr Mark formed this “complete Juvenile Orchestra, composed of little English Boys from five to fifteen years of age” and educated them, fed them and clothed them, in order “to illustrate an entirely new and highly successful method of Musical Education, their performance being characterised by the unanimous voice of the press and public testimonials as the most pleasing, instructive, interesting and highly approved musical entertainment ever introduced to the public” (quotes taken from the Slater’s Directory of Manchester, 1861). It might be that James’ build as well as his musical skills played a role in this initial success, as he was a small boy who looked younger than his years (even in adulthood he was about 5 feet 3 inches, or 160cm), and in a later document from 1860 he’s listed as “Master James Skinner, cellist, 11 years of age” whereas he was at least 16 at that time; it probably suited Dr Mark to lower the age of the performers to gain sympathy from the audience.

Skinner joined the busy touring schedule of the Little Men, claiming that before he turned sixteen he had visited at least six hundred different towns and villages. When not on tour, the orchestra was based in Manchester and the musicians took lessons at the recently formed Royal College of Music. James was taught by Charles Rougier, a violinist who had studied at the Paris Conservatoire. Rougier quickly realised that James had never been taught to read music, and started teaching him theory alongside technique. Skinner would later acknowledge the importance that Rougier’s lessons had in his formative years to help him develop into the successful musician he would become.

Life with the Little Men carried on between highs and lows, from playing in front of Queen Victoria in 1858 to being reduced to busk on the streets of Bristol because the doctor’s finances were in distress, but with only three months left on his apprenticeship, he ran away from the band to return to Aberdeen.

Through his former band leader Peter Milne, Skinner is introduced to “Professor” (as dancing masters went by) William Scott.

For two nights a week for nearly a year I trudged out and in the four miles between Stoneywood and my home in order to put me in the way of earning my livelihood as a dancing teacher. The “Professor” taught me the quadrilles, polkas, etc. When I had become proficient, I sallied forth as a full-blown teacher, carrying my operations away up into the Strathdon region. I gathered a number of classes for which I acted both as a dancing instructor and fiddler. (People’s Journal, 10th Feb 1923)

As a student, Skinner won the 1861 dancing competitions in Belfast and Dublin, however once he “graduated” as a professional dancing master, he could no longer compete: he instead decided to enter the violin competitions, the first one in Inverness in 1862. Skinner wins the competition playing William Marshall’s “Marquis of Huntly’s Farewell”, and during the finale he plays “Auld Robin Gray” and the strathspey and reel “Clach na Cuddin”. This victory gives Skinner exceptional visibility and he’s invited to teach violin and dance at Balmoral Castle for more than a hundred pupils among the court members.

It was around this time that he finally found firm musical setting with the publication of his first collections for the fiddle, Twelve New Strathspeys (1865), followed by Thirty New Strathspeys and Reels (1868). He also forwarded his personal life by marrying a dancer he met at Balmoral, Jane Stuart, and father a daughter, Jeanie, and a son, Manson.

Skinner made his living in much the same way his first mentor, Peter Milne, did: by teaching and performing whenever he could, although he was rather more successful at engaging the gentry to be his patrons. His performing repertoire consisted of classical pieces, traditional Scottish music and his own compositions, and, after more than a decade of work, he “had the patronage of all the big private families in Ross-Shire, Inverness-shire, Elginshire and Bannffshire.” He was earning steady money, and making a comfortable living when tragedy struck. In 1885 his wife Jane was admitted to the Elgin Lunatic Asylum, diagnosed with “excitement,” never to be released (she died in 1899). Skinner tried to keep up payments to her, but had his own financial troubles as a result of the dissolution of the household, and Jane died a pauper. Soon after Jane’s hospitalization Skinner’s brother Sandy died, although his widow, Madame de Lenglee, then joined Skinner’s household as governess and dance teacher.

Aberdeen became his home as he worked to pull his life back together. During a tour of America in 1893, however, he appeared to have an epiphany of sorts and declared to all that he would give up trying to make a living teaching dancing, and would concentrate solely on a career as a solo violinist. He also adopted the kilt as his stage dress, committing himself to an identity as a Scot and to Scottish music. Skinner had kept up with composition and publication, releasing The Miller O'Hirn Collection (1881), The Beauties of the Ballroom (1882), The Elgin Collection (1884), The Logie Collection (1888) and The Scottish Violinist (1900). All except the latter were prior to his American epiphany, indicating that his determination was not all that newfound—he had been playing and composing Scottish music all along—and may have had more to do with aging knees for dancing and opportunities for self-promotion and marketing that became clear to him while he was in America.

After the turn of the century Skinner’s career peaked. He married for a second time, a union that lasted ten years before his wife moved on her own to Rhodesia. His most famous collection, The Harp and Claymore, was published in 1904, and he found his cylinder recordings (made in 1905 and 1910) lucrative for a time. His fame allowed him to tour repeatedly until he was quite elderly. In 1925, at the age of 82, he played at the Royal Albert Hall and then went on a second tour of America. Unfortunately, the tour was not successful, and the fiddler died in his home in Aberdeen soon after, in 1927.