- William Donaldson
Skinner, John (1721–1807), songwriter and ecclesiastical historian, was born on 3 October 1721 at Balfour in Birse, Aberdeenshire, the only child of John Skinner (c.1696–1776), parochial schoolmaster of Birse, and his wife, Jean Gillanders (d. c.1723), widow of Donald Farquharson of Balfour. He received his early education at the parish school of Echt, to which his father had transferred in January 1726, and from 1734 at Marischal College, Aberdeen, graduating AM in 1738. From 1739 he worked as assistant teacher at Monymusk, Aberdeenshire, where some of his early poetry was written. About this time he left the Presbyterian for the Scottish Episcopal church and was baptized in the church at Leith. Through the influence of Bishop Robert Forbes (c.1708–1775) he became in 1740 tutor in the family of Robert Sinclair of Scalloway in Shetland. It was here that he met and on 12 November 1741 married Grissel Hunter (c.1719–1799), eldest daughter of the Revd John Hunter, the Scottish Episcopal minister of Shetland. They had four sons and five daughters. Skinner was ordained on 15 August 1742 and appointed to the important charge of Longside, near Peterhead, where he was to minister for the following sixty-four years.
Skinner was not a Jacobite (unlike most of his colleagues), and he tried to prevent members of his congregation from taking part in the rising of 1745. On 19 May 1746 the episcopal chapel at Longside was burned by government soldiers, the action having been set in motion by Elizabeth Ferguson, Lady Kinmundy, who is said to have presided over the chapel's destruction, riding round the blazing building crying, 'Haud in the prayer books!' (Bertie, 3). Skinner's parsonage was plundered on the night of 29 July 1746. His outrage at these acts, and of Lady Kinmundy's hypocrisy (she was not a member of the established Church of Scotland but a recent convert to the Secession church), was expressed in a series of satires lampooning the perpetrators, with Lady Kinmundy portrayed as a shrine-destroying Jezebel. Within a month of its passing Skinner complied with the Penal Act of 1746 permitting Scottish Episcopal ministers to remain in office having sworn allegiance to George II. The Scottish Episcopal church considered compliance to be a sin and in the following year Skinner submitted to his bishop and repented of his action. A further Penal Act in 1748 restricted him to conducting services only to members of his household and four others, under pain of imprisonment or transportation. In May 1753 Skinner was imprisoned for six months in Old Aberdeen for ministering to a larger congregation. The information had probably been lodged by the family of Lady Kinmundy; though she had died three years earlier, Skinner's satires continued to circulate.
During the 1750s and 1760s Skinner's influence steadily grew, thanks to his learning and ability and a number of published works, chiefly of ecclesiastical controversy, but including a Hutchinsonian essay on Messianic prophecy. In 1765 he was instrumental in overturning the election of the Jacobite bishop Robert Forbes to the diocese of Aberdeen and having a politically safer candidate installed in his place. The closing up of three episcopal chapels in 1770, one of the last overt legal actions against episcopalians in Aberdeenshire, prompted Skinner to compose a satire against the procurator fiscal for Aberdeenshire. Skinner was made dean of Aberdeen in 1774. Resisting pressure to accept the office of bishop himself, he saw his son John become coadjutor bishop of Aberdeen in 1782. One of their first acts was to arrange for the consecration of Samuel Seabury as bishop of Connecticut in 1784, a necessary step since Seabury could not take the oaths of allegiance to the British crown. This ensured that the Scottish liturgy was used in America, and that episcopal succession came down through the Scottish rather than the English line. The younger John Skinner became bishop of Aberdeen in his own right in 1786 and in 1788 primus. Since the main strength of Scottish Episcopalianism lay in the north-east, this left the Skinners effectively masters of the church, and the long struggle between those who continued to owe allegiance to the exiled Stuarts, and those who felt that some accommodation with the Hanoverian state must be reached, was at last resolved. There followed a declaration of severance from the Stuart cause in 1788 upon the death of Charles Edward Stuart and a bill granting relief from the penal statutes in 1792.
Skinner's main fame is as a writer. His polemical and theological works are now forgotten, but he acted as adviser to Dr George Gleig when the latter was editing the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and his two-volume Ecclesiastical History of Scotland (1788) remains one of the most vigorous and trenchant accounts of its subject, although from a strongly Episcopalian point of view. He was a fluent and nimble verse-maker in Latin, English, and Scots, pioneering the literary use of north-east Scots in poems such as 'The Monymusk Christmas Ba'ing'. Robert Burns greatly admired his work and the two corresponded, Skinner supplying material for The Scots Musical Museum. Burns praised 'The Ewie wi' the Crookit Horn'—it has been suggested that this song refers to an illicit whisky still, but such references all appear to date from after 1859—and 'Tullochgorum' which he declared 'the best Scotch song ever Scotland saw' (Walker, 149):
Come, gie's a sang, Montgomery cry'd,And lay your disputes all aside,What signifies't for folks to chideFor what was done before them?Let Whig and Tory all agree,Whig and Tory, Whig and Tory,Whig and Tory all agreeTo drop their Whig-mig-morum:Let Whig and Tory all agreeTo spend the night wi' mirth and glee,And cheerfu' sing alang wi' meThe Reel o' Tullochgorum.
Bertie, 108Skinner was a genial, gregarious, and witty man and greatly loved. He died in Aberdeen at the house of his son, the bishop, on 16 June 1807 and was buried in the churchyard of Longside, where a monument was erected to his memory.
- W. Walker, The life and times of the Rev. John Skinner (1883)
- J. Skinner, Amusements of leisure hours, or, Poetical pieces, chiefly in the Scottish dialect (1809)
- Theological works of the late Rev. John Skinner, 2 vols. (1809)
- Chambers, Scots. (1835)
- W. Stephen, History of the Scottish church, 2 vols. (1894–6)
- Journals of the episcopal visitations of the Right Rev. Robert Forbes, ed. J. B. Craven (1923)
- A. Jervise, Epitaphs and inscriptions from burial grounds and old buildings in the north-east of Scotland, 2 vols. (1875–9)
- J. B. Pratt, Buchan, rev. R. Anderson, 4th edn (1901)
- R. Burns and others, The Scots musical museum, ed. J. Johnson, 6 vols. (1787–1803)
- D. M. Bertie, ed., John Skinner: collected poems (2005)
- private information (2012) [D. M. Bertie]
- NL Scot., MS 1022
- U. Aberdeen
- NL Scot., Abbotsford collection, MS 877
- T. Woolnoth, stipple, BM, NPG; repro. in Chambers, Scots.
- oils, repro. in Walker, Life and times