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Scott Skinner

The Strathspey King

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Born 1843 at Banchory, Aberdeenshire, James Scott Skinner composed over 600 tunes, was a favourite violinist among royalty and common folk, and was technically the most formidable of any Scots fiddler who ever lived. His recognition as the Strathspey King arose because nobody will ever play these tunes like he did. For Scotland he was the first world wide superstar.

James's was brought up by his sister in Aberdeen and aged eleven he joined a celebrated juvenile orchestra called 'Dr Mark's Little Men' touring the UK performing concerts in major towns. Charles Rougier, violinist of the famous Halle orchestra, took an interest after discovering that James played by ear and he was selected to play solo for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1858. Unfortunately his performance was abandoned and despondent he later returned to Aberdeen. Aged seventeen he published his first composition and took dancing lessons from Professor Scott, of Stoneywood, whose surname he adopted. He won many prizes for his fiddle playing; taught dancing at Balmoral Castle before Queen Victoria in 1868; and appeared in black face and wig with a Christy minstrel show. With his first wife Jane he set up as dancing teachers, however, financial hardships damaged Jane's health and in 1885 she was admitted to the Elgin Lunatic Asylum, dying there a pauper in January 1899. This tragedy coincided with the death of his brother and teacher Sandy and is reflected in the lovely air, 'Gane is my Jean', published in 1888.

Skinner now concentrated on composition and performance rather than teaching dance, and as a classical violinist he took pride in being known as the 'Scottish Paganini'. Concert programs often combined Scots fiddle music with European pieces for the violin, but by the 1880's some audiences preferred European. In 1888 his 'Logie Collection' when published was something of a scotsmusic manifesto with Skinner relishing the role of Scottish cultural hero. While attending Highland Gatherings he befriended Willie McLennan, a popular piper and dancer, and joined a tour of USA and Canada. It was unsuccessful, ending tragically when McLennan died in Montreal. Returning home, Skinner concentrated on Scottish Music appearing only in Highland dress. Soon he met his second wife Gertrude and shortly after Jane's death they married, but in 1909 she left him.

Harry Lauder persuaded him to join 'The Caledonian Four' with baritone George Walker, soprano, pianist Jeannie Middleton, and Jeannie Hendry, a noted Scottish dancer. They appeared at the London Palladium in 1911 in a Lauder sponsored production which played shamelessly on a public love of nostalgic tartanry, but despite the play's shortcomings Skinner received an ovation for his music. In Scotland his appearances were in demand and now nearly 70 he could command good fees and save enough money by 1922 to buy his house at 25 Victoria Street, Aberdeen, where he lived till his death. He revisited America in 1926 to take part in a music festival in Maine; but changing fashions and problems with his American accompanist made his appearance an anticlimax but despite this he was enthusiastically received elsewhere.

When Skinner died on 17 March 1927, Aberdeen city street's were lined for his funeral. Four years later Harry Lauder unveiled a memorial, where the plaque celebrates the enduring work of James Scott Skinner's life: which, was providing 'music for the PEOPLE of Scotland'. Even today he can be called one of Scotland's greatest ever musicians. His work can be found in his five major published collections:
Miller o' Hirn Collection (1881)
Elgin Collection (1884)
Logie Collection (1888)
The Scottish Violinist (1900)
Harp and Claymore Collection (1904)

Scott Skinner the Strathspey King

(Thanks to 'The Aberdeen Leopard', June 1993. by John Hargreaves)