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The Scottish Nation

SKENE, a surname derived, according to the following tradition, from the word skian, Gaelic sgian, a dagger, dirk, or knife. King Malcolm II., on his return south from the defeat of the Danes at Mortlach in Moray, in 1010, was pursued by a ravenous wolf, through the wood of Culblean to the forest of Stocket near Aberdeen, where the fierce animal came up with, and was about to attack him, when a younger son of Donald of the Isles, or as Sir George Mackenzie states, of Robertson of Struan, seeing the king’s danger, thrust his left arm, round which he had wrapped his plaid, into its mouth, and with his dirk stabbed it to the heart. The king, in return for this service, gave him all the lands that form the parish of Skene, Aberdeenshire. In the New Statistical Account of Scotland (article SKENE) the king is said to have been Malcolm Canmore, while hunting in that district, and the animal is designated a wild boar. The armorial bearings of the Skene family have three dirks, with as many wolves’ heads above them, the shield supported by two Highlandmen, the one, dexter, in a gentleman’s dress, holding a dirk in his right hand, point upward, the other, sinister, in a gillie’s habit, his target on the left arm, and the darlach on the right side. (Nisbet’s Heraldry, vol. i. p. 331.) The reward offered by the king is said to have been as much land as was encompassed by a hound’s chase or a hawk’s flight. The young Celt preferred the latter. His dirk was long preserved in the charter chest of the family at Skene. The barony of Skene formed a portion of the extensive possessions of Allan Durward, who died in 1275, and it is conjectured that John de Skene, afterwards mentioned, obtained that estate in marriage with one of his three daughters, co-heiresses.

The first on record of the name was John de Skeen, who lived during the reign of Malcolm Canmore. After the death of that monarch he gave his allegiance to Donald Bane, who usurped the throne, and for doing so was forfeited by King Edgar. In the reign of Alexander I., he joined the royal army then marching against the rebels in the north, and was of great service in assisting them to pass the rivers, and otherwise facilitating their progress. The king, in consequence, restored his estate, and removed the forfeiture. This happened in 1118. From this laird of Skene was lineally descended another John de Skene temp. Alexander III., supposed to have been his great-grandson. In 1290, the latter was one of the arbitrators at Berwick in the competition for the crown betwixt Baliol and Bruce. In 1296 he and his son, Patrick de Skene, swore fealty to Edward I., when that “ruthless king” overran Scotland. Patrick’s son, Robert de Skene, was a staunch friend of Robert the Bruce, from whom, in 1318, he obtained a charter of the lands of Skene, erecting them in to a free barony. He married Marion Mercer, daughter of the baron of Aldie and Monclure, then provost of Perth. His grandson, Adam de Skene, was slain at the battle of Harlaw, in 1411, fighting against the lord of the Isles. Shortly previous he had married Janet Keith, a daughter of the great marischal of Scotland. From his father-in-law he borrowed 300 merks, to enable him to equip himself fitly for the field, mortgaging part of his estate for that sum. His wife was pregnant when he left her, and soon after his death gave birth to a son, William Skene of Skene, who died, a young man, in 1445. Alexander Skene of Skene, the fourth in direct descent from this laird, fell at Flodden in 1513, as his grandson, another Alexander Skene of Skene, did at Pinkie in 1547. This last Alexander had a son, James Skene of Skene, who, by a daughter of the family of Glenbervie, had three sons. 1. Alexander, his successor. 2. Robert Skene of Ramore. 3. Andrew Skene of Auchrie, ancestor of the Skenes of Hallyards, Fifeshire, represented by Skene of Pitlour. His great-grandson, James Skene of Skene, adhered to the cause of Charles I., and having suffered much on account of his loyalty, went to the continent, and served in the army of Gustavus Adolphus, the Lion of the north. He died before the Restoration, leaving two sons, John, who succeeded him in Skene, and James, who, for his adherence to the covenant, was executed in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh. The elder son, John Skene of Skene, had, with four daughters, three sons. 1. Alexander, his successor. 2. Major George Skene, a brave officer, who served under the duke of Marlborough in the wars during Queen Anne’s reign. In 1720 he purchased the estate of Carriston or Carrolstone, Forfarshire. 3. Thomas, also an officer in the army, killed in Spain. The eldest son, Alexander Skene of Skene, died in January 1724. With two daughters, he had four sons. 1. George, his heir. 2. Alexander, a merchant in Jamaica. 3. David, surgeon of an East India ship. 4. John, an officer, under General Cope, killed at the battle of Preston in 1745.

George Skene of Skene, the eldest son, married, first, his cousin, Elizabeth, daughter of Major George Skene, who entailed his estate of Carriston upon her and the heirs male of her body. He had 2 sons. 1. George, his successor. 2. James, a captain in the army. He married, 2dly, his first cousin, Sarah, daughter of Baillie William Simpson, without issue.

The family of Skene of Skene became extinct in 1827, when the estates, including Carriston, devolved on James, fourth earl of Fife, nephew of the last Skene of Skene; his father, Alexander, third earl of Fife, having married, April 17, 1811, Mary, daughter of George Skene of Skene.

Agnes Skene, daughter of Alexander Skene, younger of Skene, married Captain Watts of the royal army, who was at Culloden in 1746, and had a son, Vice-admiral E.G. Watts, C.B., a notice of whom is given under WATTS.


The Curriehill branch is descended from James, 2d son of Alexander Skene of Skene, who lived in the 16th century. He purchased the estate of Wester Corse, Aberdeenshire, and had 7 sons, of whom James, the eldest, was ancestor of the Skenes of Wester Corse and Ramore, a family long extinct; John, the 6th son, a celebrated lawyer, afterwards Sir John Skene, was progenitor of the Curriehill family, and Gilbert, the youngest, was ancestor of the Skenes of Rubislaw.

Sir John Skene of Curriehill is said, in a manuscript memoir of him in possession of his representative, Mr. Skene of Rubislaw, (quoted in Brunton and Haig’s Senators of the College of Justice, p. 230,) to have been the second son of James Skene of Wester Corse and Ramore, by Janet, second daughter of Alexander Burnet of Leys. He appears to have been born in 1549, and received his early education in Aberdeen and at King’s college, Old Aberdeen. In 1556 he went to the university of St. Andrews, where he took the degree of M.A. IN 1564 and 1565, he was a regent or professor in the latter university. He spent several years in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, which was afterwards of much use to him. On his return to Scotland, he selected the profession of the law, and was admitted advocate 19th March, 1575. The regent Morton commissioned him and Sir James Balfour to make a general digest of the Scottish laws, but they were prevented from completing it by the fall of that nobleman. Skene, however, for his labours, got from him an annual pension of ten chalders of meal, granted to him for life out of the revenues of the abbey of Aberbrothock, 10th June 1577. At the meeting of the General Assembly at Glasgow, 24th April 1581, it was agreed to submit to the king and council a proposal that a judge should be appointed to sit at Edinburgh, to decide upon the injuries and wrongs done to ministers in execution of their offices, and that Mr. John Skene should be nominated procurator for the ministers so injured. In 1587, he was named member of a commission appointed to consider the statutes passed in the two previous parliaments, and to determine how many of them should be printed. In January 1589, the year after the destruction of the Spanish Armada, when the intrigues of the Jesuits and the popish priests, as well as the treasons of the three popish earls, Huntly, Errol, and Crawford, threatened much danger to the protestant religion in this realm, Mr. John Skene was one of thirteen commissioners appointed at a public meeting held at Edinburgh “to meet every week to consult upon affairs pertaining to the weal of the kirk in so dangerous a time.” When Sir James Melville, the same year, was chosen by the king to proceed as ambassador to Denmark, for the purpose of concluding a marriage with the princess Anne, he selected Skene as he legal adviser. “His majesty,” says Melville, (Memoirs, p. 366,) “thocht then that ther were many better lawers. I said ‘that he was best acquainted with the conditions of the Germans, and culd mak them lang harangues in Latin; and was a gude, trew, stout man, lyk a Dutch man.’ Then his majesty was content that he sulk ga with me.” Melville was prevented by court intrigues from undertaking the intended embassy, but Skene accompanied the earl Marischal to Denmark in the summer of 1589. On the 22d October of the same year, when King James himself embarked at Leith for Norway, he was one of the persons selected to accompany him.

In 1589 he was appointed joint lord-advocate with Sir David M’Gill. In the following year he accompanied Colonel Stewart on an embassy to Germany. In 1591 he was himself ambassador to the States General. IN 1592 he was appointed one of the commissioners to examine “the lawes and actis maid in this present parliament, and all otheris municipall lawes and actis of parliament bygane:” and “to consider quhat lawes or actis necessarily wald be knawin to the subjectis,” and to cause the same to be printed. The execution of this undertaking was intrusted to Sir John Skene, who had been knighted by James VI. The first part was published in 1598, being the acts of parliament from James I. downwards. To this was appended Sir John’s well-known work, ‘De Verborum Significatione.’ In September 1594 he had been appointed clerk-register, and on the 30th of the following month admitted an ordinary lord of session, when he took the title of Lord Curriehill. He is said to have owed his preferment to the influence of Walter Stewart, prior of Blantyre, who was married to a sister of his wife, Helen, a daughter of James Somerville of Camnethan. In 1596 he was appointed one of the eight commissioners of the exchequer, known as the Octavians, but, with his fellow-commissioners, he resigned this obnoxious office in the following year. In July 1604, after King James’ accession to the English throne, he was, at a parliament held at Perth, named one of the commissioners for treating of the intended union between Scotland and England, which did not then take effect. In 1607, having completed his treatises of the Regiam Majestatem and Quoniam Attachiamenta, he presented them to the privy council, who recommended the work to the king in a letter, dated 15th March that year. The volume was afterwards presented to parliament, and ordered to be printed, commissioners being appointed to fix a sum of money to be paid to Sir John, to defray the expenses and for remuneration to himself. In the end of 1611, being then aged and infirm, he executed a resignation of his office of clerk-register, in favour of his eldest son, Sir James Skene, afterwards lord-president of the court of session, and sent him to court with it, instructing him not to make use of it, unless he found the king willing to admit him. Instead of the office of clerk-register, however, the son was induced to accept the less lucrative situation of an ordinary lord of session. On being informed of this, his father died, a few days after, of vexation. The works of Sir John Skene are: ‘Lawes and Actes of Parliament. Maid by King James Ist. of Scotland, and his Successors Kinges of Scotland,’ Edin. 1597, folio; ‘The Aulde Lawes and Constitutions of Scotland, collected furth of the Register, and other auld authentick Bukes, fra the days of K. Malcolme the Second, until the time of King James the First,’ Edin. 1609, folio; ‘Regia Majestas, seu Veteres, Leges et Constitutiones Scoticae, cum Annott.’ London, 1613, folio. In Scotch, 1774, 4to; ‘De Verborum Significatione; an Explanation of Termes, difficile Wordes, &c. contained in the 4 books of Regiam Potestatem,’ 1641, 4to; 1644, 4to. At the end of Acts of Parliament, &c. printed by him in 1597. Edin. 1681, folio. Seven Manuscript Collections of popular old Scottish Tunes, bound in one volume, and preserved in the Advocates’ Library, were at one period supposed to have been compiled by Sir John Skene, “when he was a very young man.” On the first leaf is the signature, “Magister Johannes Skeine,” being that of Sir John’s second son, John Skene of Hallyards, Mid-Lothian, by whom there can be little doubt the collection was formed, about the early part of the 17th century, apparently about 1615. IN 1838 they were published under the following title, and excited much interest among all admirers of Scottish music; -- ‘Ancient Scottish Melodies, from a Manuscript of the Reign of King James VI. With an Introductory Enquiry, illustrative of the History of the Music of Scotland, by William Dauney, Esq., F.S.A. Scot,’ Edin. 1838, 4to.

The eldest son, Sir James Skene, was admitted advocate 6th July 1603, and became a lord of session, in place of his father, 12th June 1612. In 1619 he narrowly escaped deprivation of his office for not taking the sacrament in conformity to the five articles of Perth. Calderwood (vol. vii. p. 383) says, “About this same time a warrant was sent from the king, to warn Sir James Skene, one of the lords of the session, before the lords of secret council, to hear and see himself deprived, for not communicating kneeling at Easter. He compeared the 22d of June. After protestation of his affection to the king and his service, he purged himself of contempt of the king’s proclamation, and alleged he was examining witnesses at the direction of the lords, in time of the preparation sermon. The lords accepted his excuse, and wrote to the king in his favour. Some ascribed his not conforming, not to conscience, but to the dissuasions of his mother-in-law, and her daughter, a religious gentlewoman.” He was appointed president of the court of session, 14th February 1626, and by Charles I. created a baronet of Nova Scotia 16th January 1630. He died at Edinburgh 15th, Sir James Balfour says, 20th October 1633. He had two sons, John and Thomas. The elder son, Sir John Skene, second baronet, sold the estate of Curriehill in 1637, and having raised a regiment of men at his own expenses, went to Germany, and died there, without issue. As his brother died unmarried, the representation of the family evolved upon the descendants of Gilbert Skene, younger brother of his grandfather, Sir John Skene, first of Curriehill. This Gilbert Skene was professor of medicine in King’s college, Old Aberdeen, and subsequently physician to the king. The latter office he resigned in 1594, and retired to a small property of his own, called Pollerton, Aberdeenshire, where he died. His eldest son, David Skene of Pollerton, married, first, a daughter of William Leask of Leask, by whom he had two sons, David, who succeeded him, and Thomas, whose grandson, George Skene, inherited Rubislaw. He married, secondly, a lady of the name of Seton, and had by her a son, George, who realized a large fortune, and purchased the estates of Rubislaw, Fintray, &c., Aberdeenshire. Under the designation of George Skene of Fintray, he was provost of Aberdeen from 1676 to 1685. He was afterwards knighted. He was succeeded by his grand-nephew, George Skene, above mentioned, grandson of Thomas Skene of Pollerton. The son of this George Skene of Rubislaw, also George Skene of Rubislaw, had an only son, another George Skene of Rubislaw, who married Jane, one of the daughters and coheiresses of James Moir of Stonywood, and had by her two sons and three daughters. The elder son, George, died, unmarried, 30th September 1791, while on his way to take possession of his paternal estate. James, the younger son, the friend and correspondent of Sir Walter Scott, succeeded to Rubislaw. The daughters were, 1. Margaret, the wife of Colonel Ramsay, with issue. 2. Helen. 3. Catherine, married to Sir Henry Jardine, with issue.

James Skene of Rubislaw, the second son, born 5th March 1775, in his youth resided several years in Saxony, where he obtained a thorough knowledge of the German language, and accumulated an excellent collection of German books. ON his return to Edinburgh, about the end of 1796, Sir Walter, then Mr. Scott, according to Lockhart, “requested to be introduced to him by a mutual friend, Mr. Edmonston of Newton; and their fondness for the same literature (the German) with Scott’s eagerness to profit by his new acquaintance’s superior attainment in it, thus opened an intercourse which general similarity of tastes soon ripened into the familiarity of a tender friendship.” “Among the common tastes,” he continued, “which served to knit these friends together was their love of horsemanship, in which, as in all other manly exercises, Skene highly excelled; and the fears of a French invasion becoming every day more serious, their thoughts were turned with corresponding zeal to the project of organizing a force of mounted volunteers in Scotland.” Of the Edinburgh light horse, thus raised, Mr. Skene of Rubislaw was one of the cornets, and Mr. Scott at first paymaster, quarter-master, and secretary. In 1822 Mr. Skene visited France, and on his return was enabled to furnish his friend Sir Walter Scott with the materials for his romance of Quentin Durward. He was an excellent draughtsman, and in the course of his tour “he had,” says Lockhart, “kept an accurate and lively journal, and executed a vast variety of clever drawings, representing landscapes and ancient buildings, such as would have been most sure to interest Scott, had he been the companion of his wanderings. Mr. Skene’s MS. collected were placed at his disposal, and he took from one of their chapters the substance of the original Introduction to Quentin Durward.” Mr. Skene also suggested some of the Jewish scenes in Ivanhoe. In Scott’s Diary, under date, Abbotsford, 4th January, 1826, there is the following notice of Skene and his wife: “Mr. and Mrs. Skene, my excellent friends, came to us from Edinburgh. Skene – distinguished for his attainments as a draughtsman, and for his highly gentlemanlike feelings and character – is laird of Rubislaw in Aberdeen. Having had an elder brother, his education was somewhat neglected in early life, against which disadvantage he made a most gallant fight, exerting himself much to obtain those accomplishments which he has since possessed. Admirable in all exercises, there entered a good deal of the cavalier into his early character. Of late he has given himself much to the study of antiquities. His wife, a most excellent person, was tenderly fond of Sophia. They bring so much old-fashioned kindness and good humour with them, besides the recollection of other times, that they must be always welcome guests.” Sir Walter’s last letter to him was dated at Malta, November 25, 1831, when he had set off in the Barham frigate in a vain search for health. It gave an interesting account of the remarkable submarine volcano, called Graham’s Island, which rose out of the Mediterranean and in four months disappeared. Mr. Skene married, 11th September 1806, Jane, daughter of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, baronet, with issue, three sons and four daughters. George, the eldest son, born in 1807, married in 1832, Georgina, daughter of Dr. Alexander Monro of Craig Lockhart, with issue. Henry, the third son, at one time an officer in the army, married, in 1853, Rhalon, daughter of Rhizos-Rhangale, niece of the last reigning prince of Wallachia.

John Gordon Cumming, Esq. of Pitlurg and Birness, Aberdeenshire, deriving his descent from Adam de Gordun, the first of the name who settled in Scotland in 1957, inherited in 1815 the estates of his relative, Skene of Dyce, the eldest collateral branch of Skene of Skene, and assumed the name of Skene, in addition to his own, in conformity with a deed of entail. The name of Cumming was also an assumed one, on his father, John Gordon, Esq. of Pitlurg, inheriting the estate of Birness, parish of Logie Buchan, in right of his mother, (who died in 1755), Barbara, daughter of Robert Cumming, Esq. of Birness. Mr. Gordon Cumming Skene also possesses a small property in the parish of Fintray.


Of this name, and belonging to one of the Aberdeenshire families of Skene, was Andrew Skene, an eminent advocate, the fourth son of Dr. George Skene, a distinguished physician in Aberdeen, and professor of natural history in Marischal college of that city. Mr. Skene was born there, February 26, 1784; and, after receiving the rudiments of his education at the grammar-school, completed his academical studies at Marischal college. He was originally destined by his friends for the practice of the law in his native place, but, preferring a higher field of exertion, he was removed to the metropolis, and entered as a student of law in the university of Edinburgh, in the winter session of 1803, when the civil and Scottish law classes were taught by the late Lord Newton and Baron Hume. He was a diligent student, and prosecuted his legal researches with perseverance and industry. In June 1806 he was admitted advocate; and, for some time after being called to the bar, he experienced much discouraging neglect. In the course of a few years, however, his great talents began to be appreciated, and, about the year 1815, he was fully established in respectable practice. In 1834 he succeeded Lord Cockburn as solicitor-general for Scotland. He had not, however, held his appointment many days when a change of ministry occurred, on which he tendered his resignation. At the end of the winter session of 1835 he seemed in his usual health, when he was suddenly seized with an alarming illness, which indicated an inflammatory affection of the brain. After a few days’ illness he expired, April 2, 1835, at the age of 51. An elegant monument to his memory, by Mr. Patric Park, sculptor, was erected by his sister in the New Calton burying-ground, Edinburgh, where he lies interred.

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