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Updated 07/12/2019


The Dolls' Levee
James Scott Skinner

James Scott Skinner (August 5, 1843 - March 17, 1927) was a Scottish dancing master, violinist and fiddler.  Skinner was born in Banchory, near Aberdeen. His father was a dancing master on Deeside. James was only eighteen months old when his father died. When James was seven, his elder brother, Sandy, gave him lessons in violin and cello. Soon the pair of them were playing at local dances. In 1852 he attended Connell's School in Princes Street, Aberdeen.

Three years later he left to join "Dr Mark's Little Men", a travelling orchestra. This involved spending six years intensive training at their headquarters in Manchester. It also involved touring round the UK. The orchestra gave a command performance before Queen Victoria at Buckingham on February 10, 1858. JSS attributed his own later success to meeting Charles Rougier in Manchester, who taught him to play Beethoven and other classical masters. Finally he took a year's dancing tuition from William Scott. JSS could now earn his living as a dancing master for the district around Aberdeen.

In 1862 he won a sword-dance competition in Ireland. The following year he won a strathspey and reel competition in Inverness. Gradually he broadened his district of clients until Queen Victoria learned of his reputation. She requested him to teach calisthenics and dancing to the royal household at Balmoral. In 1868 he had 125 pupils there. In the same year his first collection of compositions was published. By 1870 he had married and was soon living in Elgin. For twelve years he continued as a dancing master and violinist. He gave virtuoso concerts, with his adopted daughter joining him as a pianist. In 1881 his wife became seriously ill and died a couple of years later. For the ten years he spent little time in any one place. The 1880s did see three more collections of tunes published. In 1893 he toured the USA with Willie MacLennan, the celebrated bagpiper and dancer.

After returning to Scotland he virtually gave up dancing and concentrated on the fiddle. In 1897 he re-married and wrote some of his best work. In 1899 he made his first cylinder recordings. In 1903, he wrote Hector the Hero, for his friend Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald.

In 1925 he was still top of the bill on five tours of the UK. Skinner entered a reel and jig competition in the United States in 1926. He immediately had musical differences with the pianist and strode off stage without completing his test pieces. He died on 17 March 1927 without giving another public performance. His body was buried in Aberdeen, where his marble memorial gravestone was unveiled by Sir Harry Lauder.

The Doll’s Levee began as a setting for a poem by Skinner’s friend Gramin – the schoolmaster of Lumsden in western Aberdeen. The “Ross” in the lyrics refers to the famous piper Uilleam Ross, the Queen’s (Victoria) own first piper.


Weel may Lumsden coup and caper,
Nane will ferlie at her glee,
Nane will wonder if she drape her
In the robes o' jubilee.
Ring the bells and bang the leather_
Spread the news frae sea to sea!
Queen Victoria, through the heather,
Comes to grace the dolls' levee.

A' the dolls are waitin' ready,
Mim and trim, as dolls should be;
Yonder comes the royal lady,
Ilka dolly crooks her knee.
"Rise, ye crood o' little beuties,
Dinna creenge and kneel to me;
Ere I bore my queenly duties
Dance I at a dolls' levee.

"Noo I've grown an ancient granny,
Stout and portly, as ye see,
Tho', sin' I lost my cantie mannie,
Nae so blithe's I used to be;
But my ehart's as young as ever_
Goodness, what I widna gie
That my limbs were half as clever
As the were in '33!

"Dance, ye bonnie smillin' teddies,
Jeffrey, gie your bag a squeeze,
Sune ye'll ha'e them, lads and leddies,
Bizzin' ower the floor like bees.
Alick, mate wi' Annabella,
Hairry, dance wi' fa' ye please,
Jamie, rise ye lazzy fellow,
Lollin' there at a' your ease!

"Mary, wi' your broken leggie,
Can ye hirple through a reel?
Good o' you, my cripple Meggie,
Dancin' sets you unco weel!
Ella, Flora, Henrietta,
Ye've been at the dancin' squeel;
Jeffrey, cease your allgretto,
What they want's a hearty dreel.

"Haith, my lad, ye're pipin' rarely_
That's as weel as Ross could dee;
Tennyson ye cappit fairly
When ye sang the 'Jubilee.'
I maun shortly noo examine
Which o' a' the gifted three_
You, or Willie LA, or Gramin_
Future Laureate shall be.

"Noo, my deears, ye're het and reekin'
Jeannie Souter, Lay the tea;
Soon the gait I maun a seekin',
Back again to Bonnie Dee.
Cares o' state in endless measure,
Plague me sair, I winna lee,
But I'll aye reflect wi' pleasure
On the Lumsden Doll's Levee."