James Skene – An extraordinary span: Research Blog (1) 12th October 2012

After preliminary meetings with Jimmy Hogg on 24 September and Hil Williamson on 2 October, I formally began my internship at the Central Library yesterday Friday 12 October.

James Skene (1775-1864) is the object of my research.  So far, of course,  I know little of Skene – this is the beginning of my reseach – but Skene’s connections with Edinburgh, his friendship with Sir Walter Scott and his legal background I find tantalising.  The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Skene’s Memories of Sir Walter Scott (ed Basil Thomson – London 1909) which containts a  copy of Sir Henry Raeburn’s portrait of Skene  as a frontispiece –  and Skene’s own 1836 transcript of Reekiana are useful starting points.  

Skene was a native of Rubislaw in Aberdeenshire.  He inherited his father’s estate early, and in 1783 arrived with his mother in Edinburgh  to attend the High School.  His arrival  coincided with the beginnings of James Craig’s New Town.  Robert Mylne’s North Bridge had finally been completed, after an unfortunate early collapse,  and the “Mound” was in its very early, no doubt very muddy, stages. In the introduction to the 1836 text of Reekiana, Skene writes “My first impressions of Edinburgh were entirely confined to the old town, for of the new town now so extensive and splendid, merely an embryo existed at that time, perhaps half a dozen strange houses which had grazing about the fields at the termination of the North Bridge” (4 – the transcript and the orginal handwritten text mercifully share the same pagination – quite an achievement for the transcriber).  At the High School, as a near contemporary of Henry later Lord Cockburn, (1779-1854) Skene was present at the opening of the new College on the west side of South Bridge, the old High School being located beyond the old infirmary at the foot of what we now call Infirmary Street.  His friend and school fellow at the time was Andrew Greig later an admiral in the Russian Navy (a connection to be followed up   A first year pupil at the High School (151) was known as a Gite (an expression adopted at the Edinburgh Academy founded in 1824). A sense of looking backwards into the 18th century reminded me of Lord Cockburn’s perspective.  Cockburn too had written of the opening of the new college  and how as a pupil at the High School, he had crossed boards laid across the new South Bridge.  The scope and subject matter of Skene’s Reekiana and – and I so far I have only an overview -reminded me of Robert Chambers Traditions of Edinburgh (1824).

At the back of the transcript there’s a wonderful photograph of Mr and Mrs Skene dated 1860.  What an extraordinary span he had.  This is somebody whose life time links Hume with Stevenson.  I’ve always been fascinated by spans and links like this.  My paternal grandmother, when she was a very young girl, was introduced to Florence Nightingale (1820-1910).

The Scott link began relatively early and seems to fall into two different phases (per Basil Thomson) – first as a confederate (young men pursuing the same, often out door pursuits) then as a confidant.  It was to Skene that Scott first confessed his bankrupty (but not his authorship of the Waveley novels – that came earlier).  Skene had travelled in France and Germany and picked up languages.  In particular he could speak German – and this attracted Scott with his interest in contemporary German literature.  Scott draw on Skene’s experiences of France in Quentin Durward.

Skene was called to the Scottish Bar but on the face of it didn’t appear to practise much.  Captain Edward Topham an English visitor to Edinburgh at the end of the 18th century has something to say on advocates in general and non practising advocates in particular – comments worth following up in future reseach. In Reekiana I did notice a couple of interesting references to Parliament House in the context of celelbrations – one connected with the arrival of George IV in 1822 (31) and also a musical festival in 1815 (there are accompanying water colours – Skene was clearly taken with this).  There was reference to the top third of PH being partitioned.  Skene says that toys were sold beyond the partitions.

I perused Miscellaneous Papers which contains three essays worked up into addresses to the Scottish Antiquarians and dating to the 1820s – the topics include an Aberdeenshire Hill Fort,  the Well House Tower below the castle and a German (Swabian) archaeological site.  The second of these looks fascinating and makes ghoulish reading – very much what was found when the Nor Loch was drained:  bodies, coffins etc.  Skene writes from first hand experience.

In a file marked Lithographs etc, I found a letter to Walter Scott dated 28th March 1823 in relation to the Reekiana project.  Scott’s reply appears to be incorporated in the Memoires (91).  I noticed evidence that a previous intern had looked at this before – relevant sections relating to Reekiana underlined in pencil, but nothing else. The original idea was that Scott was to write the words, drawn from his immense knowledge and love for history, and Skene produce the lithographs. The 28th March letter contains quite a bit of technical detail about the project.  An accompanying handwritten sheet itemises the intended lithographs.  I can only assume – at this stage – that Skene revisited the idea after Scott’s death and decided to write his own descriptions.

I began to look at the first volume of Domestic and Ecclesiastic Architecture of Scotland, and some of Skene’s exquisite watercolours.

At lunchtime, I was brought rudely back to the present. I visited my flat at Candlemaker Row where I discovered that the lower sash of one of the windows overlooking the churchyard had been kicked in.  Somebody had clearly climbed onto one of the gravestones, and leaning back on the stone had booted the window. I noticed when I became aware of noise in the churchyard and then the wind blowing against my cheek.   My research was cruelly curtailed for the day. I felt disappointed and sad.   Skene’s life and times, however,  I shall enjoy hugely.


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