Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skene, James
SKENE, JAMES (1775–1864), friend of Sir Walter Scott, second son of George Skene of Rubislaw, near Aberdeen, and his wife Jean Moir, was born at Rubislaw on 7 March 1775. The family descended from Thomas, brother of Sir George Skene, a Danzig merchant who, returning to Scotland with a fortune, bought the estate of Rubislaw, was provost of Aberdeen for nine years prior to the revolution of 1688, and died in 1707. Sir George left Rubislaw to George Skene, the grandson of his brother Thomas, and James's father. George Skene died in the year following the birth of his son James, and in 1783 his widow settled in Edinburgh, with a view to the education of her seven children. James attended the Edinburgh high school. An elder brother dying in 1791, he became heir of Rubislaw. When twenty-one he went to Germany for further study, and, returning to Edinburgh, was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1797. Then began his friendship with Sir Walter Scott, whom he attracted by his knowledge of German literature. Both were ardent horsemen, and each loved natural scenery in his own way. In 1797 Skene became cornet of the Edinburgh light horse, the regiment largely organised by Scott, who was himself its quartermaster, secretary, and paymaster. Skene (said Scott) ‘is, for a gentleman, the best draughtsman I ever saw’ (Familiar Letters, i. 44). The dedication to Skene of the introduction to ‘Marmion,’ canto iv, is charged with reminiscences of their common interests.
In 1802 Skene revisited the continent and stayed several years. Greenough, president of the Geological Society of London, whose influence stimulated his friend's geological tastes, was his travelling companion for a time, and he became a member of the Geological Society. Returning to Edinburgh in 1816, he joined various literary and scientific societies, which he did much to improve. In 1817 he became a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and was for long the curator of its library and museum. He helped to stir the Scottish Society of Antiquaries into new life. For many years he was secretary to the board of trustees and manufactures, actively fostering the taste for art in Scotland. All along he was in constant and close contact with Scott. The original introduction to ‘Quentin Durward’ was inspired by Skene's intimate knowledge of France, gained on a visit in 1822, and the Jewish element in ‘Ivanhoe’ was at least partly due to his suggestion (Life of Scott, iv. 323; cf. ib. vii. 325).
Owing to indifferent health of some members of his family, Skene went to Greece in 1838, staying for several years near Athens, in a villa built to his own design. Here, as at home, he busied himself with art, and he is said to have left over five hundred water-colour drawings of Grecian scenery and antiquities. Returning in 1844, he settled first at Leamington and then at Frewen Hall, Oxford, where he enjoyed the best literary society. He died there on 27 Nov. 1864.
In 1806 Skene married Jane Forbes (1787–1862), youngest child of Sir William Forbes [q. v.], sixth baronet of Pitsligo. Her brother, Sir William, seventh baronet, married, in 1797, Scott's first love, Williamina Stuart. Mrs. Skene, like her husband, was highly respected by Scott, who writes of her (Journal, i. 75) that she was ‘a most excellent person, tenderly fond of Sophia.’ ‘They bring,’ he adds, ‘so much old-fashioned kindness and good humour with them that they must be always welcome guests.’ The surviving family consisted of three sons and four daughters, the second son, William Forbes Skene [q. v.], becoming a noted antiquary and historian. Lockhart, in the ‘Life of Scott,’ drew largely on Skene's manuscript memoranda, which display observation, feeling, discernment, and graceful expression. Skene was an accomplished linguist, speaking fluently French, German, and Italian. He produced, by way of illustrations of Scott, ‘A Series of Sketches of the existing Localities alluded to in the Waverley Novels,’ etched from his own drawings (Edinb. 1829, 8vo). Besides contributing to the ‘Transactions’ of the societies to which he belonged, and editing Spalding's ‘History of the Troubles in Scotland’ for the Bannatyne Club (1828), he wrote the able article ‘Painting’ in the ‘Edinburgh Encyclopædia.’ The elegant full-page illustrations in ‘The Memorials of Skene of Skene’ are from his drawings.
[Memorials of Skene of Skene, p. 139; Lockhart's Life of Scott, passim, but specially ii. 61–70, v. 253, vi. 184, 199, and passages noted in text; Scott's Journal and Familiar Letters; Burke's Peerage and Baronetage; Scott's First Love (brochure).]