A MEMORIAL service was held in Lerwick on Friday afternoon for the late Danus Skene. Best known in Shetland latterly as an SNP politician and chairman of Shetland Arts, Skene fitted a remarkable number of achievements in politics, education, sport, religion, music and culture into his 72 years.
Shetland News asked Robbie McGregor of the local SNP branch to pull together a tribute to Skene, and when embarking upon the exercise Robbie soon realised that there was so much more to the man than his involvement in the political arena in which they worked together.
“I only knew Danus for a short time, but we quickly became good friends as well as political colleagues,” Robbie said. “I was so pleased to be his election agent in Shetland in two elections. We came so close at the general election, reducing a 10,000 majority to 817 votes.”
He said Skene was “committed to the cause of independence for Scotland coupled with the idea of social justice and I am sad that he did not live to see this coming to pass. I am in no doubt that he has made a huge contribution to these ideals”.
His wife Audrey Skene, who Danus met on an Aberdeen University course, lists an astonishingly broad range of accomplishments made by an archetypal “man of many parts”. He fathered three children, Hannah, Duglad and Abi, and was granddad to Jeannie, Maggie and Rosanna.
The Dundee-born chief of the Skene clan worked as a history and modern studies teacher before becoming an education official at Tayside regional council.
He went on to teach in Uganda and Israel before founding the Tarnos School in Kenya for 3-14 year olds – in an area of tribal boundaries where there had previously been no school.
He helped enable two-way exchange trips for teachers and students between Kenyan and Scottish schools. He also sat on the board of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and worked briefly at the UK Treasury.
Outwith the classroom he was a runner and triple jumper, running and organising marathons, later becoming a hill walker. He climbed Kilimanjaro in 2001, and by 2003 had scaled all of the Munros.
Among an extensive list of hobbies, Danus played the flute, double sax, tin whistle and saxophone, enjoyed jazz and orchestra and was often found taking part in music sessions at the Lounge Bar.
He also served as Shetland Arts chairman, helping steer the organisation through the difficult early years of Mareel.
Irvine Tait described Skene as an “outstanding” chairman who “played an important part in getting Mareel up and running”, adding he was “calm and measured in everything he did and will be a great loss to politics and the arts”.
Fluent in French and a keen motorcyclist, Skene also found time to serve as a kirk elder for the past three years, chaired the Scottish Churches house board of management for several years from 2005 and was a member of the Church of Scotland’s board of world mission and a committed member of the Christian Iona Community.
Latterly he was a valued member of the Lerwick and Bressay Parish Church, where his “friendly nature and genuine interest in people’s lives meant that he was known and respected by the entire congregation”, according to Rev Dr Caroline Lockerbie.
Invited to join the Kirk Session in 2013, as an elder he “led thoughtful discussion and brought to the session a wisdom gained from wider Scottish and international experience”, she said.
He fitted in time to volunteer with the Shetland Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), which the organisation’s Sue Beer said “exemplifies Danus’ commitment to public service and his fellow human beings”, and the local Rotary Club where he was always putting his name down for its voluntary activities.
Skene was a student flatmate of Thabo Mbeki, the South African who succeeded Nelson Mandela as president. A supporter of the ANC, he had a long-standing commitment and involvement in the anti-Apartheid movement including membership of Action for South Africa.
Politically, Skene was involved in the stormy US Democratic convention in 1968 where riots ensued. He was arrested and gave a false name before later being released. His political interest continued through the anti-Vietnam War protest movement.
In March 1964 he took part in his first general election campaign, helping the Labour candidate secure victory following six recounts and a slender seven-vote winning margin.
Loyal to ideas, not organisations
He stood for Labour in both 1974 elections in the Kinross and West Perthshire constituency before being asked to leave the party due to his pro-independence stance.
He wrote a ground-breaking paper on Scottish land reform and served as a district councillor in Perthshire, before joining the Scottish Liberals. He stood as a general election candidate in North Tayside in 1983 and then in Moray in 1987. He was also a European Parliament candidate in 1999.
Skene’s political home in his later years became the SNP. He stood unsuccessfully as an SNP candidate in the Lerwick North and Bressay ward in the 2012 council election before running Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael very close in 2015 – reducing the incumbent’s majority of 9,928 to just 817 votes.
Following a major health scare in January this year, Skene surprised many by pressing ahead with his candidacy for the Shetland seat in May’s Scottish Parliament election, where he won 23 per cent of the vote and was comfortably defeated by Tavish Scott.
Local politician Jonathan Wills said he did not think Skene’s political goals changed much over the years: “His prime loyalty was to ideals, not organisations. The political situation changed a lot during his lifetime so Danus found himself moving house politically. To my mind, this was a sign of consistency, not of a political butterfly.”
Like himself, Wills said, Skene had started out as a Labour candidate and “later come to the conclusion that the only realistic prospect for preserving and extending social democracy in our own country was self-determination for Scotland – call it independence, home rule or devo max, as you wish.”
“What never wavered was his commitment to the public interest,” Wills said. “This came to the fore in the last months of his life, when the illness that afflicted him just before and during his final parliamentary campaign would have persuaded a lesser man to take it easy.
“Taking it easy was not his style. He loved intelligent arguments and actually enjoyed canvassing. He enjoyed political gossip and his sense of humour, not to say his sense of the utterly absurd, carried him over the rockier moments out on the campaign trail.
“Danus was a friend and inspiration. I wish I had met him earlier.”
Brian Nugent campaigned alongside Skene with Yes Shetland during the 2014 independence referendum. He recalled the campaign’s first meeting, where Skene enquired how they were going to pay for the room and was promptly told that he was treasurer.
Nugent described him as a “thoughtful politician” who would “consider the question asked and then give his response in slow and measured terms, a gentlemanly, informed response to questions from friend or foe alike”.
Skene died aged 72 on 19 August after complications during surgery. McGregor said he could do no better than to quote Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she learned of his passing: “The SNP has lost one of our finest.”