James Scott Skinner

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James Scott Skinner's gravestone, Allanvale Cemetery JamesScottSkinnerGravestoneAllanvaleCemetery(ColinSmith)Aug1992.jpg
James Scott Skinner's gravestone, Allanvale Cemetery

James Scott Skinner (5 August 1843 – 17 March 1927) was a Scottish dancing master, violinist, fiddler, and composer.

Violin bowed string instrument, usually with four strings tuned in perfect fifths

The violin, sometimes known as a fiddle, is a wooden string instrument in the violin family. Most violins have a hollow wooden body. It is the smallest and highest-pitched instrument in the family in regular use. Smaller violin-type instruments exist, including the violino piccolo and the kit violin, but these are virtually unused. The violin typically has four strings tuned in perfect fifths, and is most commonly played by drawing a bow across its strings, though it can also be played by plucking the strings with the fingers (pizzicato) and by striking the strings with the wooden side of the bow.

Fiddle musical instrument

Fiddling refers to the act of playing the fiddle, and fiddlers are musicians that play it. A fiddle is a bowed string musical instrument, most often a violin. It is a colloquial term for the violin, used by players in all genres including classical music. Although violins and fiddles are essentially synonymous, the style of the music played may determine specific construction differences between fiddles and classical violins. For example, fiddles may optionally be set up with a bridge with a flatter arch to reduce the range of bow-arm motion needed for techniques such as the double shuffle, a form of bariolage involving rapid alternation between pairs of adjacent strings. To produce a "brighter" tone, compared to the deeper tones of gut or synthetic core strings, fiddlers often use steel strings. The fiddle is part of many traditional (folk) styles, which are typically aural traditions—taught 'by ear' rather than via written music.

Composer person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition

A composer is a musician who is an author of music in any form, including vocal music, instrumental music, electronic music, and music which combines multiple forms. A composer may create music in any music genre, including, for example, classical music, musical theatre, blues, folk music, jazz, and popular music. Composers often express their works in a written musical score using musical notation.


Early years

Skinner was born the youngest of six children in Arbeadie village which later became part of Banchory, near Aberdeen . His father William Skinner was a dancing master on Deeside. His mother Mary Skinner (née Agnew) was originally from Strathdon. James was only eighteen months old when his father died. When he was seven, his elder brother, Alexander Forbes Skinner, gave him lessons in violin and cello. Soon the pair of them were playing at local dances. In 1852 his mother remarried and he moved to Aberdeen where he lived with his sister Annie, attending Connell's School in Princes Street, Aberdeen.


Three years later he left to join Dr Mark's Little Men, a travelling orchestra. This involved spending six years intensive training at their headquarters in Manchester. It also involved touring round the UK. The orchestra gave a command performance before Queen Victoria at Buckingham on 10 February 1858. Skinner attributed his own later success to meeting Charles Rougier in Manchester, who taught him to play Beethoven and other classical masters. Finally he took a year's dancing tuition from William Scott. Skinner could now earn his living as a dancing master for the district around Aberdeen.

Manchester City and metropolitan borough in England

Manchester is a city and metropolitan borough in Greater Manchester, England, with a population of 545,500 as of 2017. It lies within the United Kingdom's second-most populous built-up area, with a population of 3.2 million. It is fringed by the Cheshire Plain to the south, the Pennines to the north and east, and an arc of towns with which it forms a continuous conurbation. The local authority is Manchester City Council.

Queen Victoria British monarch who reigned 1837–1901

Victoria was Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 20 June 1837 until her death. On 1 May 1876, she adopted the additional title of Empress of India.

Buckingham Palace Official London residence and principal workplace of the British monarch

Buckingham Palace is the London residence and administrative headquarters of the monarch of the United Kingdom. Located in the City of Westminster, the palace is often at the centre of state occasions and royal hospitality. It has been a focal point for the British people at times of national rejoicing and mourning.

In 1862 he won a sword-dance competition in Ireland. The following year he won a strathspey and reel competition in Inverness. Gradually he broadened his district of clients until Queen Victoria learned of his reputation. She requested him to teach callisthenics and dancing to the royal household at Balmoral. In 1868 he had 125 pupils there. In the same year his first collection of compositions was published. By 1870 he had married and was soon living in Elgin. For twelve years he continued as a dancing master and violinist. He gave virtuoso concerts, with his adopted daughter joining him as a pianist. In 1881 his wife became seriously ill and died a couple of years later. For the next ten years he spent little time in any one place. The 1880s did see three more collections of tunes published. In 1893 he toured the United States with Willie MacLennan, the celebrated bagpiper and dancer.

A strathspey is a type of dance tune in 4
time. It is, simply stated, a reel played at a slightly slower tempo, with slightly more emphasis on certain beats. This emphasis can be the same measure to measure or vary throughout the tune, depending on the player. Cut-dot snap rhythms, or "Scotch snaps", are a feature of both. These are short notes before a dotted notes, which in traditional playing is generally exaggerated rhythmically for musical expression. An example of a strathspey would be the song "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond", provided it is sung staccato:

Reel (dance) form of dance and genre of accompanying music

The reel is a folk dance type as well as the accompanying dance tune type. Of Scottish origin, reels are also an important part of the repertoire of the fiddle traditions of the British Isles and North America. In Scottish country dancing, the reel is one of the four traditional dances, the others being the jig, the strathspey and the waltz, and is also the name of a dance figure.

Inverness City in the Scottish Highlands, Scotland, UK

Inverness is a city in the Scottish Highlands. It is the administrative centre for The Highland Council and is regarded as the capital of the Highlands. Inverness lies near two important battle sites: the 11th-century battle of Blàr nam Fèinne against Norway which took place on the Aird and the 18th century Battle of Culloden which took place on Culloden Moor. It is the northernmost city in the United Kingdom and lies within the Great Glen at its north-eastern extremity where the River Ness enters the Moray Firth. At the latest, a settlement was established by the 6th century with the first royal charter being granted by Dabíd mac Maíl Choluim in the 12th century. The Gaelic king Mac Bethad Mac Findláich (MacBeth) whose 11th-century killing of King Duncan was immortalised in Shakespeare's largely fictionalized play Macbeth, held a castle within the city where he ruled as Mormaer of Moray and Ross.

After returning to Scotland he virtually gave up dancing and concentrated on the fiddle. In 1897 he remarried and wrote some of his best work. In 1899 he made his first cylinder recordings. In 1903, he wrote one of his best known tunes, Hector the Hero, a lament for Scottish Major-General Hector MacDonald, a friend of Skinner's who committed suicide following accusations of homosexuality. In 1904, Skinner published The Harp & Claymore Collection, his biggest collection of music, edited by Gavin Greig. [1]

Phonograph cylinder medium for recording and reproducing sound

Phonograph cylinders are the earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound. Commonly known simply as "records" in their era of greatest popularity, these hollow cylindrical objects have an audio recording engraved on the outside surface, which can be reproduced when they are played on a mechanical cylinder phonograph. In the 1910s, the competing disc record system triumphed in the marketplace to become the dominant commercial audio medium.

"Hector the Hero" is a classic lament penned by Scottish composer and fiddler James Scott Skinner in 1903. It was written as a tribute to Major-General Hector MacDonald, a distinguished Scottish general around the turn of the century. MacDonald, a friend of Skinner's, had not long before committed suicide following accusations of homosexuality.

Hector MacDonald British Army general from the Black Isle, Scotland

Major-General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald,, also known as Fighting Mac, was a Victorian soldier.

In the period from 1906 to 1909 he lived a settled life in Monikie but had so little money that he could not afford to publish his work. He sent manuscripts to friends who copied them out and played them to create a market. Those precious scraps of paper, the backs of envelopes and hand-bills are now in museums. Skinner frequently used the word "genius" to describe himself. This might explain the fact that in 1909 his wife "resigned" and moved to Rhodesia. He threw himself into another round of concert tours. Several of his 1910 recordings for Columbia in London are available on a CD on the Temple label. These include traditional tunes as well as his own works, presenting a unique window into early twentieth century fiddle playing and probably back to the 1850s.

Rhodesia former country in Africa

Rhodesia was a country in southern Africa from 1965 to 1979, equivalent in territory to modern Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was the de facto successor state to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, which had been self-governing since achieving responsible government in 1923. A landlocked nation, Rhodesia was bordered by South Africa to the south, Bechuanaland to the southwest, Zambia to the northwest, and Mozambique to the east.

In 1925 he was still top of the bill on five tours of the UK. Skinner entered a reel and jig competition in the United States in 1926. He immediately had musical differences with the pianist and strode off stage without completing his test pieces. He died on 17 March 1927 without giving another public performance. His body was buried in Aberdeen, where his marble memorial gravestone was unveiled by Sir Harry Lauder.


Over 600 of his compositions were published, among the best known being "The Bonnie Lass of Bon Accord," "Cradle Song," "Bovaglie's Plaid," "The Music o' Spey," and "Hector the Hero." He made over 80 recordings.

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  1. Ballantyne, Pat The Harp & Claymore Collection. Accessed 26 January 2009