Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skene, William Forbes
SKENE, WILLIAM FORBES (1809–1892), Scottish historian and Celtic scholar, was second son of James Skene [q. v.] of Rubislaw, near Aberdeen, by Jane, daughter of Sir William Forbes [q. v.], sixth baronet, of Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire. Born on 7 June 1809 at Inverie Knoydart, the property of Macdonell of Glengarry, William was educated at the High School of Edinburgh, and there began on his own account to study Gaelic, of which he had some opportunity of learning the rudiments through his maternal relationship with Macdonell, the chief of Glengarry in the West Highlands, but still more through his being boarded for a time at Laggan, Inverness-shire, with the parish minister, Mackintosh Mackay [q. v.], on the recommendation of Sir Walter Scott. In 1824 he went with his elder brother, George, to Hanau, near Frankfort, where he acquired German and a taste for philology, which he afterwards turned to account in Celtic studies. On his return to Scotland he spent a session at St. Andrews University, after which he served an apprenticeship under his uncle, Sir Henry Jardine, W.S., and passed writer to the signet in 1832. Soon afterwards he became a clerk of the bills in the bill chamber of the court of session, an office he held till 1865. He practised as a writer to the signet for about forty years.
While never neglecting official and professional duties, his discharge of which was highly appreciated by his clients and the court, he had his eye from earliest manhood on highland history and Celtic scholarship. In 1837 he published a book on ‘The Highlanders of Scotland, their Origin, History, and Antiquities,’ for which he received a prize from the Highland Society—a work of great ingenuity and learning, though further research altered some views expressed in it. Constant occupation in his profession did not allow of his publishing anything further till 1862, when he contributed an introduction and notes to the Dean of Lismore's ‘Collection of Gaelic Poetry,’ edited by Dr. McLachlan. In this introduction Skene took his stand against the older school of Irish antiquaries by asserting, in carefully chosen language, that ‘prior to the battle of Ocha in 483 A.D. the Irish have, strictly speaking, no chronological history.’ That battle established the dynasty of the HyNeill on the Irish throne, and ‘the order of things which existed subsequent to that date is the chronological era which separates the true from the empirical, the genuine annals of the country from an artificially constructed history.’ He also took the position, since almost universally adopted by scholars, as to the Ossianic controversy, admitting the claims of Ireland to Fenian legends and their attendant poems, yet maintaining it had ‘not an exclusive possession of them,’ but that ‘Scotland possessed likewise Fenian legends and Ossianic poetry derived from an independent source, and a Fenian topography equally genuine.’
In 1868 he published ‘The Four Ancient Books of Wales,’ an attempt to discriminate what was truly historical from what was imaginative or artificial in Welsh-Celtic historic poetry. He had made himself by this time a sufficiently good scholar of the written Irish and Welsh dialects for historical purposes. In 1869 he printed an ‘Essay on the Coronation Stone of Scone,’ originally read before the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, in which he overthrew the Scottish legend that this stone was the ‘Lia Fail’ on which the Irish kings were crowned at Tara, with as acute and unbiassed criticism as that he had applied to Irish and Welsh legendary history. He afterwards edited ‘The Chronicles of the Picts and Scots’ (1867) for the series of ‘Chronicles and Memorials’ published under the direction of the lord-clerk register of Scotland, and a critical edition with a translation of the chronicles of John of Fordun and his continuators (1871) for the series of ‘Scottish Historians’ published by Edmonstone & Douglas.
The former work collected for the first time the earliest fragments of Scottish history from Irish and Welsh sources, as well as the older mediæval legends and annals which had not been absorbed into the chronicles of Wyntoun and Fordun. In the latter work he put into the crucible the ‘Scotichronicon’ as published by Goodall, and by a thorough inspection of the manuscripts discriminated the portion written by Fordun himself from the additions of Walter Bower or Bowmaker [q. v.], the abbot of Inchcolm, and other continuators. In the notes he contributed the results of several important special inquiries, in particular as to the origin of Scottish thanages. He subsequently published in the same series, under the editorship of his nephew, Mr. Felix Skene, the ‘Liber Pluscardensis,’ the authorship of which he attributed to Maurice Buchanan, treasurer of the unfortunate dauphiness Margaret, daughter of James I of Scotland, and wife of Louis XI when dauphin. Along with his cousin, Bishop Forbes of Brechin, he published in 1874, again for the same series of ‘Scottish Historians,’ a rearranged introduction, somewhat condensed, of Bishop Reeves's edition of Adamnan's ‘Life of St. Columba,’ along with the text and a translation.
Thus thoroughly equipped for the undertaking he always had in view, and comparatively free from the cares of business, Skene published in three volumes (1876–80) his chief work, ‘Celtic Scotland: a History of Ancient Alban.’ ‘History and Ethnology’ form the subject of the first, ‘Church and Culture’ of the second, and ‘Land and People’ of the third volume. Following in the path of sound criticism in Celtic history first opened by Father Thomas Innes [q. v.], and provided with better and fuller texts, as well as better methods from his acquaintance with the German schools of criticism, both in philology and history, Skene accomplished more for the annals of his native country than any writer of the present century. He extended the period during which it is possible to have some certain light from the reign of Malcolm Canmore to the era of St. Columba, a period of more than five centuries.
Skene was eminently ingenious as well as critical, and his reconstruction of Scottish history is in some points assailable. His application of Ptolemy's geography and his explanation of the Roman invasion of Scotland are instances of this. The Celtic portion proper also contains views which may be deemed hypothetical, e.g. the supposed suppressed century of Dalriad history and the theory of Pictish kings in the early portion of the Scottish royal genealogy. But he will be an ungrateful follower in their steps who does not acknowledge that Father Innes, Lord Hailes, and Skene have cleared more stumbling-blocks out of the way than all other Scottish historians. Skene's only other publications (besides papers contributed to the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland, a list of which will be found under his name in the ‘Proceedings’ published in 1892), consist of ‘A Humorous Story for Children: the History of Tommy Brown and the Queen of the Fairies,’ and a ‘Gospel History for the Young’ (3 vols. 1883–4), all published by his friend Mr. David Douglas of Edinburgh.
His versatile activity was not limited either by his extensive business or historical labours. An ardent but discriminating philanthropist, he acted as secretary for the relief committee in the highlands, rendered necessary by the potato famine, from 1846 to 1850, which distributed about a quarter of a million in relief and relief work; and he was for many years a director of one of the leading Scottish banks. He was keenly interested in St. Vincent's Church in Edinburgh, a congregation belonging to what was often, though not accurately, called the English episcopal church; and having become satisfied, towards the end of his life, that the position of that body was untenable, he successfully carried through a union of St. Vincent's Church, acquired and largely maintained by his contributions, with the episcopal church of Scotland. Skene received honorary degrees from the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford (in 1879), and on the death of John Hill Burton in 1881 was appointed historiographer royal for Scotland. He died at Edinburgh on 29 Aug. 1892.
Skene did not marry, but brought up with the care of a father several members of a large family of one of his nieces. Through life he was looked up to by many as a kind and judicious adviser. While carefully husbanding his time from the encroachments of society for his duties and studies, he was a hospitable host.
Skene had many advantages for the task of a Scottish historian: a talented father, an intellectual home, a boyhood spent in the atmosphere of Walter Scott, a thorough knowledge of the Highlands and their natives, a taste for languages and philology, especially Celtic, with opportunities for cultivating it both at home and abroad, ample preparation by the study of Celtic sources at first hand, and a long life. Yet all these would not have sufficed had he not possessed an historic instinct and a patriotic desire to enlarge the boundaries of the history of Scotland and throw new light on its darkest age. His portrait, by Sir George Reid, P.R.S.A., is now in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland.
[Skene's Memorials of the Family of Skene, published by the New Spalding Club, 1887; obituary notice in Proceedings of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries; personal knowledge; and private information.]