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The Highlanders of Scotland
Life of Skene


WILLIAM FORBES SKENE was born at Inverie, in Kincardineshire, in 1809. His father was James Skene of Rubislaw, near Aberdeen, Scott’s great friend, a lawyer and litterateur; his mother was a daughter of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo. Young Skene was reared among surroundings that brought him into contact with the best literary men of that day in Scotland. He received his early education in Edinburgh High School, and even at that early age he devoted some attention to Gaelic, which was no doubt natural, as he was connected maternally with the Glengarry family. Besides, being somewhat delicate as a young lad, he was, on Scott’s suggestion, sent to Laggan, in Badenoch, to board with the famous Gaelic scholar, Dr. Mackintosh Mackay. These facts account for his devotion to Celtic history, and also, no doubt, as has been suggested, for his bias towards the families of Cluny and Glengarry as against Mackintosh and Clanranald. In 1824 he went to Germany, where he sojourned for a year and a half, and where he acquired a taste for philology, which, however, never passed the amateur stage with him. Thereafter he attended St. Andrew’s University for a session, and for another Edinburgh University, and being destined for the legal profession he served his legal apprenticeship with his relative, Sir William Jardine, and became W.S. in 1832. He held an appointment in the Court of Session for many years, becoming latterly Depute-Clerk of Court. In the meantime he had become the head of a prominent legal firm, a position which he held to his death. It is interesting to note that Robert Louis Stevenson spent some of his time trying to learn law in Dr. Skene’s firm. In the later years of his life he devoted himself, in the comparative freedom which he attained from business cares and engagements, to putting his thoughts and researches in Scoto-Celtic history into shape, and "Celtic Scotland" appeared in 1876-1880 in three volumes—his magnum opus. He succeeded Burton in 1881 as Historiographer Royal for Scotland, and had been made LL.D. of Edinburgh University and D.C.L. of Oxford in 1879. Dr. Skene took much interest in religious and philanthropic work, and produced in this connection a work entitled "Gospel History for the Young" (3 vols., 1883-4). In Church polity he belonged to the Episcopalian communion. He died at Edinburgh, unmarried, in August, 1892.

His first work was the "Highlanders of Scotland," published in 1837. He contributed many valuable papers to the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries"; in 1862 he wrote a long preface to Dr. Maclachlan’s edition of the "Book of the Dean of Lismore," where he defends Macpherson’s Ossian; he edited the chronicles of the Picts and Scots in 1867—a most valuable work containing most Irish and Scottish documents relating to the ancient history of Scotland; next year he issued the Four Ancient Books of Wales in two volumes, with an elaborate introduction; and he edited Fordun and Reeves’s "Adamnan" for the Historians of Scotland series. Lastly came his chief work, "Celtic Scotland." The second volume of this work, dealing with the "Church and Culture," is the best piece of work that Skene has done; the first and last volumes are not so satisfactory. They are both spoiled by his ethnologic views in regard to the Picts. Much of the third volume applies only to the Irish tribes, the Picts being supposed to be like them in polity and culture. Of Dr. Skene’s intellectual qualities, Prof. Mackinnon says (Proceedings of Royal Soc. of Edinburgh, 1894):

"He had a vigorous intellect, a powerful memory, a judgment in the main calm and clear. He possessed in no small measure, the constructive faculty that was able to fit together into whole isolated facts gathered from many quarters, the historical imagination that could clothe the dry bones with flesh and skin, and make the dead past live again."

Dr. Skene was undoubtedly possessed of high constructive ability, but he was weak in the critical faculty. This is shown in his method of dealing with his authorities and his historic materials. The Sagas, for example, throw little real light on Scottish history from 800 to 1057 ; yet Skene undertakes to write the history of Scotland for that period by their light. His belief in the "Albanic Duan" as against the native Chronicles is another case. The Celts of Scotland, however, owe Dr. Skene a deep debt of gratitude, for he was the first to draw their early history out of the slough into which it had got, and to make it respectable. For this end he lent the weight of his learning and position to the cause of the Scottish Celt at a time when it was sorely needed; and he made writers of Scottish history devote fuller attention to the Celtic side of Scottish affairs.


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