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Issue 62 - The Clan Skene

Scotland Magazine Issue 62
April 2012


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The Clan Skene

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

In the days when Clan Donald controlled the Hebrides and much of the western Highlands it was by far the most powerful clan and created an alternate centre of power to the court of the King. Consequently many smaller clans thought it added to their prestige to claim descent from Somerled and the Lords of the Isles. Clan Skene, uniquely, has a tradition that its founding father was a son of the chief of Clan Donnachaidh, the Robertsons.

The story goes that the female heir of the Celtic earls of Atholl, whose ancestry goes back through King Duncan to St Columba and everyone who was anyone in Dark Age Scotland and Ireland, carried the title into a Lowland family. When the King took it back and granted the earldom to his own Stewart kinsfolk, the Clan Donnachaidh, who possessed the lands of Atholl through their own descent from the Celtic earls, were under pressure to surrender land to the new earldom. A second son of an early chief took his followers north in search of new territory and founded the Skene clan. This tale has supporting evidence in the arms of the chief which shows the same wolves’ heads as the arms of the chiefs of Clan Donnachaidh.

The name Skene comes from sgian - a dirk. It may be the clan chief took his name from the lands he possessed but the story goes the clan progenitor slew a wolf that was giving King Malcolm II a hard time. As a thank you, he was granted the land covered by a hawk’s flight by Loch Skene in Aberdeenshire where he built Skene castle.

The first of the family was Duncan and the Clan has been called Clan Doncha of Mar after him.

Their territory is on Deeside, out with the Highland line and thus they are not a strictly Highland Clan. However their origins and the fact that the authorities deemed them as such when they chose to ban the wearing of the kilt in Aberdeenshire after the Rising of 1745 means that they have always been considered Gaels and Highlanders. The records of many clans have been lost over the centuries, burnt by redcoats or destroyed in raids by neighbours. This allows room for tales of heroism and a glorious past to flourish without the risk of contradiction. Nowhere is this more obvious when it comes to the battle of Bannockburn. No clan worth its salt was not present, fighting on the side of Bruce.

But the Skene story is history, thanks to W. F.

Skene, an indefatigable historian of the Highlands for more than half a century and Historiographer Royal for Scotland for 11 years until his death in 1892. Naturally he delved deep into the extensive archives of his clan and found that many of its old stories were without firm foundations.

The first of the name to appear on the record were signatories on the Ragman Roll in 1296. John and his son Patrick held lands near Edinburgh.

John is said to be the son of Duncan, the first chief.

Their homage to King Edward, given when he toured the defenceless nation with an army of 35,000, proved as transitory as everyone else’s. The clan’s participation at Bannockburn is firmer ground than many for, within four years of the battle, the chief was granted a barony of the lands of Skene in a charter signed by King Robert Bruce.

Tradition is still on firm ground when, in 1411, the Lord of the Isles brought an army west to try to seize the earldom of Ross from the king’s regent, the Duke of Albany. Adam de Skene mortgaged his lands to borrow money to raise and equip his followers to join the Earl of Mar to repel these savage invaders. At Red Harlaw, he and many of the gentlemen of the north were killed but the invasion was halted and their antagonists withdrew. The papers of the chief’s family list the legal difficulties that followed when they tried to retrieve their lands from the lender, the Earl Marischal.

Flodden and Pinkie are other great national disasters in which many clans claim to have made sacrifices. The Skenes claim that their chief led the clan in each and died.

For Flodden there is no evidence and the chief cannot have participated since Alexander de Skene was a boy at the time of the battle and most certainly survived. Similarly in 1542, the year of Pinkie, the ‘Little Laird’ was chief and he died in 1604 aged 87. He was so called since he was hunchbacked after being dropped by his nurse while she was climbing the tower of Skene Castle with the baby in her arms. In this case, the chief may not have fought in the battle, but other Skenes most certainly did and died.

The direct line of chiefs ended in 1827 when the clan lands passed to the chief’s nephew, the earl of Fife who was created Baron Skene in 1857, but by then the family had many branches after many centuries of successful mercantile activity and profitable marriages. Skenes had prospered in and around Aberdeen, been pioneers of medicine, distinguished lawyers, authors, gallant soldiers both in Britain and on the continent. Some fought for the Jacobites; some fought against them.

One was lieutenant-governor of the forts at Crown Point and Ticonderoga, another a governor of New Jersey. The son of one chief was a Covenanter and ‘was hanged, with two others, at the Cross of Edinburgh, on the 1st December, 1680, Skeen being all cloathed in white linnen, to his very shues and stockings, in affectation of puritie and innocence’. The son of another was executed in London for forgery.

The clan has only been recently re-united under their first chief for nearly two centuries. Members of the US-based Clan Skene Association persuaded Lord Lyon that the Skenes of Pitlour were the senior surviving family of the name of Skene and in February 1994 Danus Skene matriculated his coat of arms as Skene of Skene.