James Scott Skinner

A Quirky Scottish Genius

On the cover of my old copy of The Scottish Violinist, first published by Bayley & Ferguson in Glasgow in 1900, one finds this inscription: “Talent does what it can; Genius does what it must.”  Well, Scott Skinner had many fine qualities, though modesty was not among them.  In his (probably ghost-written) autobiography Scott Skinner goes so far as to state “I have no intention of wearying my readers with the details of my life’s output of original music, which, frankly speaking, has been colossal”. Well, like I said, many fine qualities….

In the What’s New? section of this website, I posed the (rhetorical) question: “Who among us ever received a truly well-rounded musical education in any real sense of the term?”.  Well, “Stand up James!”  Scott Skinner started as a fiddler, of course (he was Scottish, after all).  His studies began under his older brother when he was only six years of age.  The same older brother also taught him ‘cello which may have helped him integrate into “Dr. Mark’s Little Orchestra”, a light classical orchestra that he joined at the age of twelve.  It was also around this time that Scott Skinner began formal violin studies with a skilled French orchestral violinist, Charles Rougier of the Halle Orchestra.  He acquired a level of technical polish that places his fiddle compositions among the most difficult in the repertory.  Now one might be forgiven for assuming that these achievements would have been enough for anyone, yet they were not sufficient to satisfy Scott Skinner.  Restless as always, he returned to his home town of Aberdeen at the age of eighteen to train as a dancing instructor.

The recipient of many prizes, both for his playing and his dancing, he was chosen by Queen Victoria to teach violin at Balmoral Castle, and many of Scotland’s wealthiest families hired him as a violin teacher for their children.  On the performing side Scott Skinner also did very well, frequently packing London’s Palladium Theatre or the Royal Albert Hall.

For those who have an interest in the composer’s personal life, we are able to confirm that it contained a great measure of unhappiness.  His first wife (also a dancing instructor) was confined to a mental institution, and his second wife ran off to Rhodesia, cleaning out the house- “even the bedclothes”- or so the story goes. Scott Skinner’s disagreeable habit of reminding everyone of how accomplished he was may have played a role in his attracting misfortune to himself.  Never shy or retiring, he signed many of his letters “The Strathspey King”.  Of course any individual who exhibits a precocious talent is bound to elicit some resentment, and Scott Skinner was surely no exception in this regard.

But what about the music itself?  Well, Scott Skinner was most likely a working musician from about the age of twelve.   As a very young boy, he would work himself to exhaustion playing barn dances and other such prosaic engagements.  As an adult, looking back on a long and very full career, he wrote the following:

“The great work of my life has been composing music for the people of Scotland.  The music that reaches and lives in the hearts of the people is the music that they whistle or sing at their daily toil or in their ours of recreation, that the mother croons over the cradle, and that accompanies her children, a joyous companion, through life.”

This was not music for the concert hall; this was music to be used day-to-day.  From the stylistic point of view, Scott Skinner’s music shows many of the most characteristic traits of Scottish fiddle music: incisive rhythmic patterns, alternating duplet and triplet figures, the “double tonic” practice of repeating melodic figures on notes a tone apart and many other elements of the style. To these are added pure flights of fancy, such as long scale-type runs up and down the fingerboard which are reminiscent more of Romantic violin music than of anything else.  How much music did Scott Skinner actually leave behind? Well, most sources seem to agree that his output numbers around 600 compositions, which is a sizeable quantity of music.

Yet there is much more to Scott Skinner’s legacy than just the music, though much of it is exceedingly beautiful.  He was one of the first musicians to bridge the gap between the worlds of classical and folk (fiddle) music.  A skilled performer of Paganini and Mozart, who were among his preferred composers, he stands in stark contrast to most of the classically-trained musicians of his day.  Most of these players tended to despise “fiddling” and all it stood for, i.e. the music of an uneducated and illiterate Highland peasant class.  As to his longevity as a performer, he displayed a durability that few have ever matched.  Among other feats of sheer endurance, he performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London at the age of 82.  This was two years before he undertook his final concert tour of North America.

There is perhaps a final feature of the violinist’s work that we should mention.  Like Saint-Saens, or Fritz Kreisler, Scott Skinner lived into the electric age, and in common with these two other artists, he left us some recordings, both on wax cylinders and on 78 RPM records.  Like all “historical” recordings, they offer us a fascinating glimpse into the history of our art.

Finally, a closing observation: Now that almost a century has passed since Scott Skinner’s death (on March 17, 1927), some people have begun to question how “authentic” or “sincere” the Scottish composer’s music was.  Indeed the whole edifice of “Romanticized Highland Culture” (one is reminded here of Thomas Hardy’s Romantic portrayal of rural England, set in the same historical time frame) has come under attack lately.  Was there ever really an authentic Highland Fiddle Style, and if there was, would it resemble Scott Skinner’s music, minus the showy virtuosity, of course.  Well, there are many, many people better qualified that I am to pronounce on this subject; however, I think that when history finally does rule on this question, and no matter the verdict, I think we can be sure that at least some of Scott Skinner’s music will always remain in the fiddle repertory.