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Book of the Month

June 2000

James Scott Skinner:
 The Miller O'Hirn

Edinburgh: 1881

Sp Coll Ca11-y.17

Talent does what it can, genius does what it must  James Scott Skinner

This month's book takes us to "traditional" Scottish music in the form of The Miller o’ Hirn Collection of Scotch Music by James Scott Skinner, dancing master, performer and moreover composer. 

Binding: front cover 

Our copy was published in 1881 by Home and Macdonald, engravers and printers, Edinburgh and is the fourth edition, first impression "greatly enlarged". This is a board back folio covered in dark red cloth, with the cloth being slightly damaged and faded. Both the front and back covers have embossed emblems of thistles and vertical patterns containing small images of thistles. 

James Skinner (the Scott was to be added later) was born on 5 August 1843 in Banchory on Deeside in Aberdeenshire. His father was a gardener until he lost several fingers from his left hand during a traditional firing of arms at wedding festivities. He then followed the trade of a dancing master and a left handed fiddler (later to be a title of a Scott Skinner tune), playing the fiddle with a loop round his left hand to move the bow. Skinner's father died when he was a baby and Skinner was left in the care of his elder brother Sandy who taught him the fiddle and the bass fiddle (‘cello).

By the age of eight we find Skinner playing with Peter Milne, vamping on the ‘cello with Milne's band for dances in Deeside and surrounding area. In My life and Adventures, a selective autobiography that was published in The People’s Journal in twelve instalments, Skinner recalls long trudges to attend dances only to fall asleep on his ‘cello, playing unconsciously. In The Miller o’ Hirn Skinner attributes the writing of ' The Shakins o’the pocky' (literally the shakings of the pocket) both to himself and to Peter Milne. 

After a brief education in Aberdeen, Skinner left the Northeast to tour Great Britain playing the ‘cello with Dr Mark’s Little Men, a latter day boy band consisting of around forty juvenile boys playing in an orchestra. When not travelling the boys were based in Manchester and the Little Men attended the Royal College of Music. It was during this period that Skinner learned to read music and received his classical training from Charles Rougier, a French violinist who had studied at the Paris Conservatoire. It was this training that allowed Skinner to perform pieces by composers such as Paganini and Mozart alongside his own "traditional" pieces and also compose technically difficult pieces such as 'The President'. Skinner felt that these compositions put him above his contemporaries such as Marshall and Neil Gow. 

Notably, the frontispiece displayed here, with a portrait of Skinner, has been signed "Yours faithfully, James Scott Skinner" in a suitably flamboyant style.

Signed Frontispiece 

Page 55 (tune no. 106): The shakins of the pocky

After absconding from Dr. Mark's Little Men Skinner returned to Aberdeen where he was introduced to William Scott of Stoneywood, a dancing master and the man that Skinner would take his middle name from. Whether this was out of reverence for his teacher or simply to make himself sound more Scottish is debatable. Under Scott, Skinner learnt to be a dancing master, a career that would take him on travels round the Northeast and North of Scotland from Inverness to Balmoral. Among his patrons were the tenants of Queen Victoria’s estate in Balmoral and many aristocratic families of the Northeast. It was during this period that Skinner began publishing his works, including the Miller O’ Hirn in 1881.

The title page states that this is the complete edition of Skinner’s strathspeys and reels and "… is respectfully dedicated to all lovers of Scotch music", containing over one hundred strathspeys, reels, highland schottisches, slow airs, hornpipes and jigs, all composed by Skinner himself. Unlike future publications such as The Scottish Violinist (1900), this piece also contains lyrics for which Skinner had written music. The song words have been written by R. Grant, The Baird o’ Ugie, Peterhead, and La Teste of The Palace, Elgin. Lyrics contained in this work range from the title piece of the work, 'The Miller’ o Hirn', a schottische or strathspey to 'Our Highland Queen', a solo strathspey written for Queen Victoria. Certainly, this collection could be described as Skinner's first ever major published work' although he had had minor works published from an early age with the Highland Polka being printed when he was only seventeen years old. This was followed up the next year with the Ettrick Valley Quadrilles. Twelve New Strathspeys and Reels were published in 1865 being followed in 1866 with Thirty New Strathspeys and Reels, with both of these pieces being incorporated into The Miller o’ Hirn giving us Skinner’s first ever major published works. 



Page 1 (tune no. 1): The Miller O'Hirn 

In this collection Skinner began to attempt to demonstrate and regularise bowing, especially with regards to strathspeys. This can be seen in the title piece of the book 'The Miller O’ Hirn'. Skinner introduces three symbols:
the straight slur (bar one) , the arrow (bar two) and the loop (bar four)

At the bottom of the first page Skinner explains exactly the way in which these "examples of bowing" are to be played. These devices are used throughout The Miller O’ Hirn but are not used systematically in future publications

Page 1: instructions in bowing

In 1893 Skinner embarked on a tour of the United States and Canada with the famous dancer and piper Willie McLennan, however, McLennan was to die there and the tour was a disaster. When Skinner returned to Scotland he decided to "have done with dancing" and to concentrate on being a solo violinist. As far as Skinner was concerned there was no other Scottish violinist of eminence at the time so the way was clear for his own success. It was at this point that Skinner came into his own as a solo performer, playing for listening rather than dancing. However, it should be noted that this was not a new phenomenon with Neil Gow and Simon Fraser already playing slow airs for listening. Skinner also decided that he would always wear the kilt on stage. He came to embody the romantic Victorian ideal and fantasy of "Scottishness", becoming the kilted "Strathspey King". This new ultra Scottish image appears to have helped Skinner’s career, touring the country with the Caledonian Four concert party who ultimately played the London Palladium when requested by Sir Harry Lauder.

Page 36 (tune no. 69): Bonnie Banchory

Skinner went on to compose and publish over 600 pieces of music, the quality of which varied from piece to piece, going form the fairly dull ' Highland Cradle Song' to the very difficult and almost "classical" piece, ' The President'. He continued to tour, play and compose until his death in 1927 always retaining his Scottish kitsch image. He was foremost a composer and his tunes are still played today whether for listening, dancing or in sessions. Furthermore, it should be noted that Skinner was the first fiddler player to be recorded on cylinder.

Special collections houses a large amount of eighteenth and nineteenth century Scottish music. 
From Skinner we also have The Logie Collection (1888) Ca11-y.18, also signed; a copy of My Life and Adventures by Skinner can be found at STA M.a.37
Music from Neil and Nathaniel Gow including A collection of strathspeys and reels, Neil Gow (1784) Ca12-y.35; various editions of Gows Repository (1802-26) Ca12-y.39; Gows Complete Repository 3rd edition (1820) Ca12-y40; Beauties of Neil Gow etc. (1804-1830) Ca12-y.43. 
Also The Skye Collection collated by Keith Norman MacDonald, 2nd edition (1887) Ca11-y19. Highland Airs by Captain Simon Fraser book number 269 with the tunes being " Chiefly acquired during interesting period of 1715 to 1745" Ca12-x.63. 
We also house various collections of reels, strathspeys etc by composers such as Oswald, MacDonald, Bowie, Grant and Mackintosh. Much of of our musical material can be found in the Euing collection and the Farmer collection.

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

Lynne Dent June 2000