Obituary: Basil Skinner

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Basil Chisholm Skinner, historian: born Edinburgh 7 November 1923; Director of Extra-Mural Studies, Edinburgh University 1966-79; married (two sons); died Edinburgh 5 April 1995.

In the Linlithgow Constituency, on the south bank of the Forth, there stands Hopetoun, one of the very finest Adam houses in Britain. Built by the Hope family, pawnbrokers and subsequently distinguished bankers to the Stuart Scottish Kings, Hopetoun had by 1979 fallen on difficult times. The then Lord Linlithgow had suffered grievously as a prisoner of war for five years and was plagued by consequent illness. His father, the second Marquess of Linlithgow, had been a controversial and subsequently much maligned Viceroy of India. His grandfather had been Governor-General of Canada. Hopetoun and Hopetoun Estate had not been the centre of their attention. There was a crisis.

It was fortunate indeed, therefore, that a man with a passionate zeal for local history should urge the setting up of a Preservation Trust and become its chairman. That man was Basil Skinner. If Hopetoun has returned to its former glories, the Hope family would be the first to say how much is owed to Skinner, and his rescue operation. And as a much-involved local MP and fellow council member with Skinner of the National Trust for Scotland at the time, I know they are right. Skinner was a champion oflocal history in Scotland - erudite and a conveyer of enthusiasm.

Born in Edinburgh, Skinner was sent to school in Cumberland, at Harecroft Hall, which looks towards the screes above Wastwater, where he had the great good fortune of being taught by two remarkable men - Major John Hughes and Tom McClelland - who gave him a grounding in classics and an appreciation of beautiful things which was to be with him throughout his life. He moved on to Edinburgh Academy where he won the much- coveted Aitken Prize in Classics which took him to Edinburgh University. His studies were interrupted by the Second World War and he went to Normandy with the East Riding of Yorkshire Yeomanry, graduating to the Intelligence Corps.

Skinner once told me that he approached many of the conundrums of local history in the same way that he was taught to approach problems in the Intelligence Corps. Indeed Skinner's style was rather military. Friends of mine who were part of a research team from Edinburgh University were allocated by Skinner the task of surveying the old turnpike roads around the city and of travelling by horse-drawn coach over the 18th-century route between Howgate and Carlops, the village in the northern most part of Peeblesshire, which nestles in the Pentland Hills. Skinner thought nothing of requiring his students involved as passengers to get out and help push the coach uphill from time to time. Few of those who were studying transport in the 1700s forgot that lesson very quickly.

Graduating with honours in history and winning the Cousin Prize in Fine Art, Skinner was appointed in 1951 librarian at the Glasgow School of Art. Three years later he was made Assistant Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery at the unprecedented age of 31. Much of the prestige of the gallery can be traced to Skinner's innovative work and energetic imagination.

Skinner's greatest contributions were perhaps the series of spectacularly successful exhibitions. Among the highlights were "Scots in Italy in the 18th Century", in 1963; "Shakespeare in Scottish Art", 1964; and the Sir Walter Scott Bicentenary Exhibition, held in Parliament Hall, Edinburgh, in 1971. Skinner made many contributions to the Edinburgh Festival including "King James the Sixth and First" at the Royal Museum. His book Scots in Italy in the 18th Century (1966) contained much original research in a hitherto untapped field.

But perhaps his most original contribution came in studies such as The Cramond Ironworks (1968) and The Lime Industry in Lothian (1969). Skinner was very unusual in the attention which he made his students pay to the techniques by which buildings and works of art were actually achieved.

As convenor of an Edinburgh University Conference on the future of the Union Canal, Skinner played a prominent role in the campaign against a proposal put forward by the Stirlingshire County Council to fill in a five-mile stretch of the canal. Indeed the increasing number of those who get leisure enjoyment from boating on the canal can thank Skinner for his prescience at a time when the whole atmosphere was in favour of closing canals.

In all his work he was supported enthusiastically by his wife Lydia Mary. Few Scots will have left behind them such a range of grateful students, not least those who studied under Skinner when they were over 50 years of age. Basil Skinner believed passionately that it was never too late to learn and that the avenue to academic study should be kept open for everyone.