Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Skinner, John (1721-1807)

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SKINNER, JOHN (1721–1807), song-writer, was born on 3 Oct. 1721 at Balfour, parish of Birse, Aberdeenshire, his father, John Skinner, being parish schoolmaster. His mother died while he was a child, and his training devolved on his father, who became parish schoolmaster at Echt, Aberdeenshire, and sent Skinner thence, at the age of thirteen, with sufficient Latin scholarship to gain a bursary at Marischal College, Aberdeen. Having completed his curriculum, he taught for a few months in the parish school of Kemnay, Aberdeen, whence he removed to Monymusk as assistant-teacher. Some fugitive verses written here arrested the attention of the wife of Sir Archibald Grant, bart., of Monymusk, whose large and choice library was straightway made free to him. Partly from development of his own views, and partly through the influence of the episcopal clergyman of Monymusk, Skinner now abandoned presbyterianism and became a Scottish episcopalian. In 1740 he was appointed tutor to the only son of Mr. Sinclair of Scalloway, Shetland; and, after the death of his patron, about a year later, he married Grace Hunter, daughter of the episcopal clergyman of Scalloway, and presently returned alone to Meldrum, Aberdeenshire, to qualify for the ministry. Ordained at Peterhead, he was appointed in 1742 minister of Longside, Aberdeenshire, and settled with his wife, who now joined him, in a cottage at Linshart in the parish. Although not an ardent Jacobite, he was one of the sufferers from the restrictions imposed on episcopal ministers after 1745–6. His little church was destroyed, and in 1753 he was six months in prison for preaching in his house to an audience of more than four. Throughout his troubles he was resolutely devoted to his profession and his people, to whom, after the political excitement was over, he ministered for the rest of his working life.

As his family increased in narrow circumstances, Skinner, about 1758, bethought him of farming as an additional source of income, and for some time rented, unsuccessfully, the farm of Mains of Ludquharn, in his neighbourhood. His ‘Letter to a Friend’ humorously depicts his agricultural woes. He wished to return to his studies as ‘the fittest trade for clergymen.’ Besides being a successful pastor he worked steadily at theology and church history, and did not shrink from ecclesiastical polemics. His faculty of occasional rhyming was also steadily in request in the household and among his friends, and certain of his lyrics speedily became popular.

When Burns was on his northern tour in 1787 he met Skinner's second son, John (1744–1816) [q. v.], bishop of Aberdeen, in the office of Chalmers, the Aberdeen printer, and this led to a correspondence between the poets. Burns secured several of Skinner's best songs for Johnson's ‘Musical Museum,’ rallying him at the same time on his indifference to his work, ‘for,’ he assures him, ‘one half of Scotland already give your songs to other authors.’ Skinner had attached small importance to his lyrics, regarding them as mere diversions of his spare time, but Burns thought him one of the foremost of Scottish song-writers, and this view has prevailed.

Mrs. Skinner died about the end of 1799, and Skinner continued at his post till 1807, when he retired and joined his son, the bishop, in Aberdeen. Here he lived only twelve days, dying on 16 June 1807. He was buried at Longside, the parishioners erecting a monument with a suitable inscription at his grave.

Skinner's earliest extant poem is a graphic and vivacious football idyll, ‘The Monymusk Christmas Ba'ing,’ written in the manner of ‘Christ's Kirk on the Green,’ a lyric in high favour with him from childhood. His breezy and captivating ‘Tullochgorum,’ constituting a protest against extremes of political feeling, was reckoned by Burns ‘the best Scotch song ever Scotland saw;’ nor is this fervid and characteristically generous estimate specially extravagant, if Burns's own songs be excluded from the comparison. Skinner's ‘Ewie wi' the Crookit Horn,’ developing an abortive attempt of Beattie, is humorously pathetic, and it may have prompted touches in Burns's ‘Mailie.’ Other noteworthy lyrics are: ‘John o' Badenyon’ (this and ‘Tullochgorum’ were issued separately in ‘Two excellent New Songs,’ 1776, fol.), ‘The Marquis of Huntly's Reel,’ ‘Lizzie Liberty,’ and his domestic picture (as he tells Burns) ‘The Old Man's Song.’ Skinner wrote a clever and diverting ‘Ode Horatiana, metro Tullochgormiano,’ metrical Latin verses of several Psalms, and of ‘Christ's Kirk,’ and other pieces, all evincing scholarship as well as literary skill. In 1746 he published ‘A Preservative against Presbytery;’ in 1757 a ‘Dissertation on Job's Prophecy,’ cordially welcomed by Bishop Sherlock; and in 1767 a pamphlet in defence of episcopacy. In 1788 appeared his ‘Ecclesiastical History of Scotland,’ 2 vols. 8vo, with Latin dedication to his son. Narrating from the introduction of Christianity into Scotland, the author dwells with special fulness on the development of Scottish episcopalianism after the Reformation.

Bishop Skinner published his father's ‘Theological Works,’ with prefatory biography, 3 vols. 1809; and in the same year appeared ‘Amusements of Leisure Hours, or Poetical Pieces chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,’ and ‘A Miscellaneous Collection of Fugitive Pieces of Poetry’ (both Edinburgh, 8vo). H. G. Reid edited Skinner's ‘Songs and Poems,’ with sketch of his life (Peterhead, 1859, 8vo).

[Biographies in text; Walker's Life and Times of the Rev. John Skinner; Chambers's Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; The Bards of Bon-Accord.]

T. B.