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James Scott Skinner

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James Scott Skinner had a profound effect on the evolution of Scottish music. A master fiddler, Skinner wrote more than 600 compositions including "The Laird of Drumblair," which fiddler Tommy Peoples covered on the Bothy Band's self-titled debut album in 1975. Although trained in classical violin, Skinner devoted most of his life to preserving and building on the folk traditions of Scotland. A native of Banchory, Scotland, Skinner was the son of a gardener who died when he was 18 months old. Although his mother remarried, his stepfather was extremely harsh and he was beaten often. He soon found refuge in music. Taught to play violin and cello by an older brother, he took to the instruments quickly. By the time that he reached his eighth birthday, he had already begun performing, playing cello for fiddler and composer Peter Milne. Joining a youth orchestra, Dr. Mark's Little Men, in 1855, Skinner toured throughout the British Empire, performing in Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales. In 1858, Skinner and the Little Men performed for Queen Victoria in Buckingham Palace. Skinner balanced his involvement with the Little Men with serious study with violinist Charles Rougier. After leaving the group at the age of 17, he continued to study under dancing master William Scott. He was so inspired by Scott that he assumed the teacher's surname as his middle name. Although he performed briefly with a blackface minstrel show, Skinner soon turned his attention to composing. His first published collection, Twelve, released in 1865, was followed by Thirty New Strathspeys and Reels three years later. In addition to performing as a soloist, he taught dance at the palace of Balmoral and violin to private students. By the 1880s, most of his income came from contributions from wealthy patrons. The low point in Skinner's life began when his wife was admitted to the Elgin Lunatic Asylum in 1885. Following his brother's death, he was joined by his brother's widow who worked as a dance teacher and caretaker for his children. Despite his talents, Skinner had severe financial problems. He was unable to maintain payment for his wife's care at the asylum and she died a pauper in January 1899. Although he initially combined classical pieces by Mozart and Handel with traditional tunes and originals, Skinner devoted himself to the folk traditions of his homeland, wearing a kilt during his concert appearances, after returning from a tour of North America in 1893. Skinner continued to publish his compositions and arrangements of traditional tunes. The Miller O'Him Collection, published in 1881, was followed by Beauties of the Ballroom in 1882, the Elgin Collection in 1884, the Logie Collection in 1888, and the Harp and Claymore Collection in 1904. His most popular collection, The Scottish Violinist, published in 1900, compiled tunes from his previous publications. Skinner recorded several tunes in 1905, 1910, and 1922. He continued to perform in concert until he was in his eighties. He appeared at the London Palladium as one of the Caledonian Four in 1911 and the Royal Albert Hall in 1925. Except for a brief period (late '90s to 1909), when he lived with his second wife, Skinner lived in hotels and friend's homes. He bought his first house in 1922, at the age of 79. He died, on March 17, 1927, at the age of 84. Skinner's legacy continues to be celebrated. In celebration of his 150th birthday, Alaster Hardie recorded an album, Compliments to "the King," of his compositions in 1993. ~ Craig Harris

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05 August 1843

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