James Skene: Research Blog (3) 26th October 2012

26th October 2012

Central Library:

James Skene

 Research blog (Day 3):

Continued assessment of material in the Central Library:

  •  Skene’s 1823 outline of Reekiana;
  • Cursory analysis of watercolour contacts;
  • Skene’s Memoirs of Scott;
  • Some questions:

Skene, as his journals suggest, is both a draftsman and antiquarian.  The collection of watercolours is, without exception, of historical interest.  Skene is a draftsman a generation before the advent of photography.  Broader themes embrace:

  • Reportage – eg visit George IV, the music festivals at Parliament House
  • The growth of the New Town place during JS lifetime
  • OldTown – a sense of capturing Edinburgh’s medieval past.

Skene’s Memoirs of Scott (relevant page numbers are italicised) (ED Thomson, 1910)

Skene’s first meeting with Scott took place in 1794 at South Castle Street.  The two had nic names for each other – Baron (Skene), Earl Walter (Scott). Scott had raised the idea of publishing Skene’s foreign drawings as early as 1805.  He had sent a few to be perused by his friend the Rev.  Edward Foster in London (22). 

Skene was a frequent visitor to Ashiestiel and joined Scott on his expeditions to the Yarrow and Ettrick Valleys.  Skene used the travels as an excuse to draw – “for he “Scott) was ready and willing to alight where any scene attracted our notice”.  Scott would work on an appropriate ballad, or narrate the traditions of the glen, as Skene sketched nearby.  (32)  Skene refers to a particular episode by Loch Skene above Greymare’s Tale where their party got bogged down in mud.  According to Skene, Sir Walter Scott drew on this scene in Old Mortality.  Skene contributed a drawing of “Todd Willie” for the publication, Waverley Mortalities.  There is a description of an expedition to St Mary’s Loch with WS and the Ettrick Shepherd.  Skene describes the Borders as the “debatable land” (38).

In 1815, JS is keen to get his foreign drawings published.  At the same time, WS is proposing that they both travel to the continent together

Scott describes the site of his future grave at Dryburgh (69) to JS.   From his memoirs, the dating is unclear, but Skene indicates that he had spent time at Baden Baden, whilst Reekiana was in gestation .  By the time of his return (93) “circumstances had occurred altogether to prevent its publication.  The drawings I had prepared for the purpose had been seen, and the delay gave time for the idea to be taken up and turned to use by others”.

On April 4th 1823 (104) Scott writes to Skene, responding to the Reekiana proposal.  It’s not clear whether the letter is a direct response to Skene’s letter of 28th March (see previous blog entry).  Scott suggests that further consideration should await his publisher, Constable’s response.  A subsequent letter – to be followed up – suggests that Constable was not particularly encouraging in his response (107)



Where is the first reference to the expression Reekiana?  How far did Reekiana following Skene’s letter of 23rd March 1823?   Did Archibald Constable, Scott’s publisher, put a damper on the project?


To what extent can James Skene’s later Reekiana text of 1836 correspond with his existing Edinburgh watercolours?  Was the text to be matched with lithographs as in his 1823 proposal to Sir Walter Scott?  How far did the project progress?  If Chambers was the intended publish, why did the project founder?  Chambers had published his Tradtions of Edinburgh in the meantime – is this significant?

Edinburgh as the subject of antiquarian narrative:

Who had taken the opportunity to publish similar treatments of Edinburgh during Skene’s absence in Germany?  To what extent were accounts such as this in vogue during the late 18th century and early 19th century?

The draftsman as antiquarian:

As an artist and antiquarian, to what extent is Skene part of a larger tradition?


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