Obituary: Danus George Moncrieff Skene, academic and politician

Born 2 April 1944 in Dundee. Died 19 August 2016 in London, aged 72

Born 2 April 1944 in Dundee. Died 19 August 2016 in London, aged 72

In last year’s general election Danus Skene stood as the SNP candidate for Orkney and Shetland and narrowly lost to Alistair Carmichael – cutting the former Scottish Secretary’s majority. Earlier in the year Skene’s campaign activities were halted when he suffered a torn aorta after visiting a Kenyan school that he had helped to establish with his teaching pension. Despite still recovering from heart surgery this year, Skene stood against sitting MSP Tavish Scott in the Scottish Parliament elections. He lost, but the courage he showed throughout both campaigns won him much respect throughout Shetland.

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Friends and political opponents remember a man of integrity and concern for the community. “Danus was a gentleman and a scholar” one commented this week. “He was a much-admired politician.” Nicola Sturgeon, with whom Skene had shared a platform in April at the Shetland Museum, said: “The SNP has lost one of our finest.”

Skene had an amazingly varied career – teacher, civil servant, politician and chief of the Clan Skene. He had stood unsuccessfully in the two general elections in 1974 as the Labour candidate in Kinross and West Perthshire (losing to the former Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home) and was voted on to the Party’s Scottish Executive Committee. In 1976 he was one of the ardent Scots (with Jim Sillars) who founded the Scottish Labour Party – by then Skene was already committed to Scottish independence. In 1979 he joined the Liberal Party and secured a place on the Perth and Kinross Council. He stood unsuccessfully for North Tayside in the 1983 General Election and four years later for Moray. In 1999 he was a candidate for the European Parliament.

He was 70 when he stood for Orkney and Shetland and fought a hard campaign – despite smashing his car into one of the only two phone boxes on the isle of Whalsay. Aged 37, he ran in the first London Marathon.

Danus George Moncrieff Skene was brought up in Fife and attended Eton College and then studied African Studies at Sussex University, Public Administration at Chicago University and Education at Aberdeen University. Skene was briefly a Whitehall civil servant but in 1974 he trained as a teacher at Dundee College of Education. He held teaching posts at senior schools in Selkirk High School and Elgin, then Forres, where he was appointed Deputy Head. In 1990, Skene was given the Secondary Head Teacher post in Tayside as Extension Coordinator and he later became a board member of the Scottish Qualification Authority.

From 1999 Skene taught at Tabeeth School, the Church of Scotland’s multi-faith school in Israel, and was principal of Coast Academy in Mombasa, Kenya – an independent school for 13-18 year olds.

In 1994, to his considerable surprise, Skene received a message from the Clan Skene Association in America that he was the legitimate Clan Chief of the Clan Skene. The Lord Lyon agreed that the claim was valid and confirmed Skene as Chief of the Name and Arms of Skene, a title that dated from the 11th century.

Alex Salmond last year called David Cameron a “posh boy”. This cut no ice with Skene, a fellow Etonian, who replied firmly: “I did go to Eton 50 years ago and have forgotten all about that. I am quite happy for people to judge me for things I have said and done since. I live on Commercial Street, Lerwick.”

Significantly, in his last election address Skene wrote: “My greatest single ambition in seeking to be your MSP is to achieve progress in securing greater decision-
making autonomy for Shetland.” He listed amongst the SNP’s achievements on Shetland: “The new Anderson’s High School is being built.”

Skene was a passionate supporter of the Shetland Arts Development Agency, of which he was a founding trustee. He was enthusiastic about the creation of the Mareel Centre from the outset and took pride in it being “the UK’s most northerly arts centre”. As chairman of the trust, Skene guided it through its expansion and transition: his advice and calm judgement proved invaluable throughout the construction. In his chairman’s report of 2014 he roundly stated: “Mareel is the cornerstone of our social enterprise activity.”

Skene was renowned as a genial host, wrote regularly in the Shetland Times and was an elder in his local kirk. He was an enthusiast for music (playing flute in the local orchestra) and had built up a substantial personal library. He was an admired member of the community – political foes and colleagues always respected his grace and courtesy. When asked about his various changes of heart politically, he replied, “I am really an old-fashioned, relatively moderate, lefty.”

Skene was married to Anne Audrey (Campbell). She and their children, Hannah, Dugald and Abi, survive him.