Obituary: Basil Skinner

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?