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.
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 Peoples 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 othe 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 Marks
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.
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 Victorias 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 Skinners
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 Skinners first ever major published works.
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
|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 Skinners career, touring the country with the Caledonian Four concert party who ultimately played the London Palladium when requested by Sir Harry Lauder.||
|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.|
Other items of interest
Special collections houses a large amount of eighteenth and nineteenth century
Lynne Dent June 2000