The Reverend John Skinner, poet, theologian and Episcopalian minister, died on the 16th of June, 1807.
The Reverend John Skinner was the author of several popular Scotch poems and songs. The list includes ‘John o’ Badenyon’ and ‘Ewie wi’ the Crookit Horn’, although he is perhaps best known for his song ‘Tullochgorum’. That latter was complemented by Scotland’s very own Robert Burns in a letter sent to Skinner as, “the best Scotch song ever Scotland saw.” Skinner was also the author of the ‘Ecclesiastical History of Scotland’, and many other theological works. According to his biographer, The Rev. William Walker, M.A., of Monymusk, “[Skinner] had in him a vein of true poetry, which, if freely worked out in his own native dialect, would have raised him to a high place on the roll of Northern poets.” It is less well known that Skinner also wrote Latin, both in prose and verse, with remarkable purity.
John Skinner was born at Balfour, in the parish of Birse, in Aberdeenshire, on the 3rd of October, 1721. From an early age, he displayed the marks of talent and, when he was thirteen, his superior scholarship got him a considerable bursary to go to Marischal College, in Aberdeen. After leaving the College, he became Assistant Teacher to the Schoolmaster of Kenmay and later, to the Schoolmaster of Monymusk. He made friends with Lady Grant of Monymusk House, whose library consisted of several thousands of well selected works from every department of literature. Skinner was allowed access to these volumes and they significantly contributed to his intellectual improvement.
In the late 1730s, he forsook the Presbyterian establishment in which he had been reared and adopted the principles of the Scottish Episcopal Church. He then spent two years in Shetland as Preceptor or Tutor to a son of the Sinclairs of Scalloway, after which he began his studies for the Church, reading for his orders at Meldrum. Skinner was ordained as Deacon by Bishop Dunbar of Peterhead on the 13th of August, 1742, and in November, 1742, was appointed Minister at Longside, near Linshart in Buchan, where he remained without a wish to “change his place” until retiring to Aberdeen in 1807. In Skinner’s day, there were no Very Reverend Deans or Lord Bishops in Scotland and so he never took such title, being content with that of Reverend.
Skinner was no Jacobite and although he was willing to subscribe to the oath of allegiance, he suffered for the Jacobitism of his Church. His Chapel was one of those that were burnt by ‘The Campbells’; the soldiers of the ruthless ‘Butcher’ Cumberland who were egged on by the same local persecutor Skinner lampooned in his sermons. In 1753, Skinner was jailed in Aberdeen for six months for the offence of ministering to a gathering of more than four people. Skinner used to officiate to his own family within his house, while the people stood outside and listened through the open windows.
Earlier, in 1746, Skinner’s first religious publication appeared, which was a pamphlet entitled, ‘A Preservative against Presbytery’. It was designed to reassure the minds of his people who feared the total extirpation of Scottish Episcopacy. Over the next decade, he published several dissertations and pamphlets in vindication of Episcopacy and then, in 1788, he published his ‘Ecclesiastical History of Scotland’. This was a detailed account of the affairs of the Episcopal Church, from the time of the Reformation up to the death of Charles Stuart, when its Ministers consented to acknowledge the existing dynasty. Skinner dedicated this work to his son the Bishop in elegant Latin, ‘Ad Filium et Episcopum’. He was also asked by Bishop Gleig to contribute to the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’, which he did with materials on ‘The Origin of Language’, ‘Episcopacy’ and ‘The Wisdom of the Egyptians’.
The song, ‘Tullochgorum’, which Burns so enjoyed, was suggested by a Mrs Montgomery, who was the wife of the Inland Revenue Officer in Ellon. As there were many Scottish airs like ‘The Reel o’ Tullochgorum’ that lacked words, she thought Skinner would be able to write a few verses to accompany the popular tune. Not an easy task, if you listen to the piece, and quite an achievement I’d say. Burns, on his Highland Tour, unwittingly passed only four miles from Skinner’s home, but the two didn’t meet, which, when he later found out how near he’d been, was a great disappointment to Burns.
Skinner subsequently wrote Burns a long verse epistle, to which Burns answered on the 25th of October, 1787, that it was “by far the finest poetic compliment I ever got in plain dull prose.” Burns asked Skinner to send him three songs for inclusion in ‘Johnston’s Miscellany’, in the second volume of which Burns arranged for ‘Tullochgorum’, ‘John of Badenyon’ and ‘Ewie wi’ the Crookit Horn’ to be included. Skinner received a copy on the 14th of February, 1788, “as a mark of the veneration I have long had, and shall ever have, for your character.”
Here’s the opening verse of ‘Tullochgorum’…
And gie’s a song, the lady cry’d, and lay your disputes a’ aside
What signifies’t for folks to chide for what was done before them
Let Whig and Tory a’ agree
Whig and Tory, Whig and Tory
Whig and Tory a’ agree to drop their Whig-malorum
Let Whig and Tory all agree to spend the night in mirth and glee
And cheerful sing alang wi’ me the Reel o’ Tullochgorum
In latter life, Skinner was presented with the ‘Freedom of the City’ of Old Aberdeen. The Reverend John Skinner died in Aberdeen on the 16th of June, 1807, in the house of his son the Bishop, with whom he had been staying. He was buried in the Kirkyard in Longside, where there is a monument erected to his memory.
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Tullochgorum, and John o Badenyon, etc