Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skene, John
SKENE, Sir JOHN (1543?–1617), of Curriehill, clerk-register and lord of session, under the title of Lord Curriehill, was the sixth son of James Skene of Watercorse and Rainnie, Aberdeenshire, by his wife Janet Lumsden, daughter of Lumsden of Cushnie. According to tradition, the progenitor of the Skenes was a younger son of Robertson of Struan, who for saving the life of Malcolm I when attacked by a wolf received from him the lands of Skene, Aberdeenshire. The oldest of the family of whom there is documentary evidence was John de Skene, who was an arbitrator of the treaty of Berwick in 1290, and in 1296 swore fealty to Edward I. His son Robert de Skene was a supporter of Robert the Bruce, and in 1318 received from him a charter of the lands of Skene erected into a free barony. Adam de Skene, grandson of Robert, fell at Harlaw in 1411, and representatives of the main line also fell at Flodden in 1513 and at Pinkie in 1547. The Skenes of Watercorse were descended from James, second son of Alexander, ninth of Skene (1485–1507).
Sir John Skene is sometimes stated to have been born in 1549, but he was incorporated in St. Mary's College, St. Andrews, as early as 1556; and he was probably therefore born in 1543 or 1544. In 1564–5 he acted as regent in St. Mary's College. He then spent several years in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, and, after prosecuting the study of law in Paris, he returned to Scotland and passed advocate 19 March 1575. His rapid rise at the bar is attested by the frequent occurrence of his name in connection with cases before the privy council, and his legal attainments are evidenced by his selection, along with Sir James Balfour, by the regent Morton to prepare a digest of the laws. Morton did not live to see the task completed, but before his retirement from the regency he, in June 1577, granted to Skene for his services an annual pension of ten chalders of meal out of the revenues of the abbey of Arbroath (Acta Parl. Scot. iii. 89).
Skene, unlike many other Scottish statesmen of his time, enjoyed the confidence of the kirk, and in 1581 the general assembly suggested to the king that he should be appointed procurator for certain ministers who had received injuries in the execution of their offices, and for the trial of whose case a special judge was appointed (Calderwood, History, iii. 522). In 1589 also, when the kirk was in great dread of the schemes of the ‘jesuits, seminary priests, and other seducers of the people,’ he was appointed one of ten commissioners who were to meet weekly to consult as to measures for ‘the weal of the kirk in so dangerous a time’ (ib. v. 4). His friendship with the kirk may account for the remark of the king to Sir James Melville (when Melville proposed that Skene should accompany him to Denmark to conclude a treaty for the king's marriage with the Princess Anne) that there ‘were many better lawyers.’ But when Sir James replied that Skene ‘was best acquainted with the conditions of the Germans, and could make them long harangues in Latin, and was a good true stout man like a Dutchman,’ the king agreed that he should go (Melville, Memoirs, p. 366). On account of various delays Melville deemed it best that he himself should resign the appointment of ambassador, but Skene accompanied the new ambassador, the Earl Marischal (Moysie, Memoirs, p. 78). He was also chosen to accompany King James when he himself set sail for Denmark on 22 Oct. (Calderwood, v. 67). The same year he was named joint king's advocate with David Macgill, and in this office specially commended himself to the king by his zeal in witch prosecution; the horror of his proceedings is perhaps unsurpassed in the annals of superstition. Not long afterwards he received the honour of knighthood, and in 1591 was appointed ambassador to the States-General. In 1592 he was named one of a commission to examine the laws and acts of parliament, and to consider which of them should be printed, and he was finally entrusted with the preparation of the work. It was published by Robert Waldegrave on 15 May 1597, under the title ‘The Lawes and Actes of Parliament maid be King James the First and his successors kings of Scotland, visied, coffected, and extracted forth of the Register,’ and on 3 June the privy council remitted to the lords of session to enforce the purchase of it by all subjects of sufficient ‘substance and habilitie’ (Reg. P. C. Scotl. v. 463).
In September 1594 Skene was appointed clerk-register, and on 30 Oct. he was admitted an ordinary lord of session with the title Lord Curriehill. On 9 Jan. 1595–6 he was named one of the eight commissioners of the exchequer known as the Octavians (ib. p. 245), who demitted their offices on 7 Jan. of the following year. He subsequently served on various important commissions, including that for the union of Scotland with England in 1604. On 26 July of this year he is mentioned as having resigned his office of clerk-register in favour of his son James (Reg. P. C. Scotl. vii. 6); but the resignation, for whatever reason, did not then take effect. In 1607 he completed his work on the laws of Scotland previous to James I, and on 23 Feb. 1608 an act was passed for printing it at the public expense (Acta Parl. Scotl. iv. 378). It appeared in 1609 under the title ‘Regiam Majestatem. Scotiæ Veteres Leges et Constitutiones, ex Archivis Publicis, et antiquis Libris manuscriptis collectæ, recognitæ, et notis Juris Civilis, Canonici, Normannici auctoritate confirmatis, illustratæ.’ It includes, besides the ‘Regiam Majestatem,’ the so-called laws of Malcolm II, the ‘Quoniam Attachiamenta,’ or baron laws, and the statutes of some early kings. The ‘Regiam Majestatem’ is now regarded as not properly belonging to Scotland at all, but based on the legal system of England. In 1597 was also published ‘De Verborum Significatione—the Exposition of the Termes and Difficill Words conteined in the four Buiks of Regiam Majestatem and uthers, in the Acts of Parliament, Infeftments, and used in practicque in this Realme … collected and exponed by Master John Skene’ (Edinburgh, by Robert Waldegrave; new edit. London, 1641, 4to).
In 1611 Skene again executed a resignation of his office of clerk-register in favour of his eldest son, Sir James Skene, and sent him to court with a charge not to use it unless he found the king willing to grant him the office; but the son nevertheless agreed to make the resignation on receiving an ordinary judgeship, and the office was bestowed on Sir Thomas Hamilton [see Hamilton, Thomas, Earl of Melrose]. According to Spotiswood, so deeply did Sir John Skene take the disappointment to heart that, although the king did his best to satisfy him, and succeeded in reconciling him and his son, ‘so exceeding was the old man's discontent, as within a few days he deceased’ (History in the Spottiswood Society, iii. 215). The latter statement is, however, quite incorrect, for Skene survived the disappointment for several years. He did not retire from the privy council until 18 June 1616, when his son was admitted in his room (Reg. P. C. Scotl. x. 540). He died in 1617. By his wife, Helen Somerville, he had four sons and four daughters: Sir James (see below); John, ancestor of the Skenes of Halyards; Alexander; William; Jane, married to Sir William Scot of Ardross; Margaret, to Robert Learmonth; Catherine, to Sir Alexander Hay, lord Foresterseat; and Euphemia, to Sir Robert Richardson of Pencaitland.
Sir James Skene (d. 1633), the eldest son, was admitted advocate on 6 July 1603, and on 12 June 1612 became a lord of session. On 12 June 1619 he was summoned before the privy council for endeavouring, at Easter, to evade one of the five articles of Perth, requiring that the communion should be taken kneeling, by failing to attend; but excused himself on the ground that he was examining witnesses by direction of the lords at the time of the preparation sermon, and his excuse was accepted (Reg. P. C. Scotl. xi. 595–6; Calderwood, vii. 383). ‘Some, however,’ says Calderwood, ‘ascribed his not conforming, not to conscience, but to the dissuasions of his mother-in-law and her daughter, a religious woman’ (ib.) His wife was Janet Johnston, daughter of Sir John Johnston of Hilton. On 14 Feb. 1626 he succeeded Thomas, earl of Melrose, as president of the court of session, and on 16 Jan. 1630 he was created by Charles I a baronet of Nova Scotia. He died on 25 Oct. 1633 at his own house in Edinburgh, and was buried in the church of the Grey Friars.
John Skene (d. 1644), second son of Sir John Skene, lord Curriehill, is mentioned in 1612 as one of the ordinary clerks of the exchequer (Reg. P. C. Scotl. ix. 344), and on 2 July 1616 he was appointed deputy to the clerk-register (ib. x. 556). He died in December 1644. He was, in all likelihood, the compiler of a very important manuscript collection of so-called Scottish tunes preserved in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh. The manuscript, which bears on the first leaf the signature ‘Magister Johannes Skeine,’ was at one time attributed to the father, but must have been written either by the son or a later Skene. It was published in 1838 under the title ‘Ancient Scottish Melodies, from a manuscript of the reign of King James VI. With an Introductory Enquiry, illustrative of the History of Music in Scotland, by William Dauney, esq., F.S.A. Scot.’
[Histories by Calderwood and Spotiswood; Sir James Melville's Memoirs; David Moysie's Memoirs and History of James the Sext, in the Bannatyne Club; Sir James Balfour's Annals; Acta Parl. Scot. vol. iv.; Reg. P. C. Scotl. vols. ii.–xi.; W. Forbes Skene's Genealogy of the Skenes in the New Spalding Club.]