Buying the old world
The planets had aligned with the moon, and the goddess Fate blessed Carnegie with good fortune and cleansed his conscience of doubt. The most incredible piece of evidence that Carnegie was a chosen one lay inside his wife. Louise was pregnant.
Shortly after their romantic stay in Venice, somewhere in the Tirol, perhaps, the 60-year-old Carnegie’s seed had taken. What had been accepted as impossible had happened. Louise would be turning 40 in March 1897, the month their baby was due; and while that was old for a first birth, this was no time to worry about physical limitations, this was a time to celebrate.
But then the harsh winter weather, compounded by business concerns and the excitement of impending fatherhood, took its toll on Carnegie. In late February he fell ill with pleurisy, stricken with a fever, a cough, and laboured breathing. With the baby due in March, a trip to Florida to regain his health was out of the question, so Louise and he went to Greenwich, Connecticut, to escape New York City’s smog. As the time neared for the birth, Louise returned to the 51st Street mansion to be attended to by the best doctors, while Carnegie remained in Greenwich. On 30 March, Louise gave birth to a daughter, named Margaret in honour of Carnegie’s mother.
Now that they had a child, Louise wanted more stability in their lives, especially during the summer season in Scotland. She wanted a place to make home - their own home, not a leased property where they were at the whim of the owner [of Cluny Castle, where they currently stayed]. He was to marry and would most likely take back his ancestral home. The subject of buying their own Highlands estate took on more weight.
As the Carnegies coached through the wild mountain land of the Grampian Hills and passed into the Spey Valley, their eyes searching for the white granite turrets, they feared it would be their last journey to this raw paradise. Once settled in Cluny, Carnegie approached the owner about purchasing the castle, but he was equally determined to return with his bride to his ancestral home and would not sell. The search for a new summer home commenced at once.
Carnegie had three criteria: a view of the sea, a trout stream and a waterfall. To fulfil his quest, he enlisted the help of Hew Morrison, the resourceful librarian at Edinburgh Library, who was well acquainted with the historic homes of Scotland. The first estate that came to Morrison’s mind was Skibo, a Highland castle on the east coast overlooking the Dornoch Firth, and he brought maps, plans, and the deed for Carnegie’s review. Because the castle itself was too small, had fallen into disrepair, and had no waterfall, Carnegie dismissed Skibo.
The Duke of Sutherland had several magnificent estates that sounded promising, however, and a two-week coaching trip was organised to investigate the prospective properties and visit friends. But none of Sutherland’s estates proved worthy; they were too far inland. The coaching trip now brought them to Bonar Bridge, on the coast of the North Sea and within eight miles of Skibo Castle. Again, Morrison suggested they look at the estate. Carnegie relented, but refusing to further inconvenience his fellow charioteers in what had turned into a wild goose chase, he insisted they go alone. He rented a wagonette and driver at Bonar Bridge and set out for Skibo along a winding coastal road that passed through picturesque hamlets and deep woods of bracken, oak, birch, and larch.
The beauty did not escape Carnegie as they approached the Dornoch Firth, where the air was strangely mild and embracing, like the northern Riviera. The prevailing winds and sea gave the area its own unique climate zone, Morrison explained; the place was still lush in mid-October, and in some years the rhododendrons bloomed in January. Carnegie began to sense that he was entering a romantic and magical realm, rich with history. In fact, Skibo was the simplification of the name originally given the castle in the year 1225, Schytherbolle, which, depending on whether one was Norse, Celtic or Gaelic, was loosely translated as either a place of peace or a fairyland.
The wagonette turned on to an unpretentious, narrow avenue that opened into the castle’s main drive, lined with ancient beech trees and yews. They came to a halt in a circular drive before the white sandstone castle. Although abandoned, Skibo was impressive in its Scottish baronial style, with ornate bay windows and third-story cupolas, gabled roofs, and a circular turret. As they walked the stone terrace, Carnegie had a commanding view of the countryside: the sparkling firth, the blue hills, the rocky streams, the woodland and the pasture. It was not the rugged yet enchanting terrain of Cluny; it was a magnificent, bucolic panorama.
The castle’s park-like grounds encompassed 22,000 acres, about 4,000 under cultivation. There was plenty of wild game; the region was renowned for grouse and herds of roe deer. The fishing was excellent, too, for both salmon and trout, and the firth, shining silver beneath the hills, was ideal for a yacht. But there was no waterfall. That can be built, Morrison suggested slyly.
When the two men entered through Skibo’s main doors, they stepped into a great hall with a sweeping, circular staircase. The musty smell of the wood, the stone fireplaces, the long cast of sunlight through tall windows and still air stirred Carnegie’s imagination. History was alive here. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Skibo had been home to the bishops of Dornoch Cathedral, four miles distant.
When Carnegie returned to Cluny, he overwhelmed Louise with his enthusiasm. Skibo was four miles from the parish of Dornoch, which had its own castle, as well as an 11th-century cathedral and a golf course second in reputation only to St Andrews. And ten miles away lay Macbeth’s castle - Macbeth, Shakespeare, all signs. She had seen this semi-crazed look and behaviour before, impetuous and headstrong; and, like his business partners, she reined him in. Louise had not seen Skibo, nor would she that summer; they agreed it would be better to lease the estate for 1898 with an option to buy.
The Carnegies arrived at Skibo on 31 May. As they stepped across the threshold of their new home, the swelling tones of the organ greeted them. The organist played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a work that aroused feelings of heroism.
Every morning the organist played music, which, for Carnegie, was a fine substitute for family prayer. It also became a Sunday night tradition for all - family, guests, neighbours, and servants - to gather in the great hall and sing hymns.
It did not take Louise long to agree with her husband that Skibo was indeed their heaven on earth, and Carnegie paid $425,000 for the property. His Dunfermline solicitor, John Ross, handled the transaction, and Carnegie hired an architectural firm in Inverness to draw up plans for renovations and an elaborate addition. He was intent on transforming the run-down estate into a true castle to establish his reign, to show the lords who was king. But it was also to be a warm home, not a gaudy palace filled with priceless treasures in which Margaret and her young friends would fear to play.
Louise flourished at Skibo as a mother and a business manager - she worked closely with the architects and became known as the power behind the throne - and she expressed her exuberance in a letter to the Rev Eaton: " Yesterday Mr Carnegie was trout fishing on a wild moorland loch surrounded by heather while I took Margaret to the sea and she had her first experience of rolling upon the soft white sand and digging her little hands in it to her heart’s content, while the blue waters of the ocean came rolling in at her feet and the salt sea breeze brought the roses to her cheeks. She is strong and hearty and so full of mischief - a perfect little sunbeam."
In 1898, following the Spanish-American war, the US captures the Philippines from Spain and decides to pay them $20 million for the islands. Carnegie regards the move as "imperialist" and offers the islanders $20 million to buy their independence. That year, Carnegie moves into finished steel products, threatening the interests of business rival J P Morgan, and organises several of his companies into one, Carnegie Steel.
On 7 June, 1899, the Carnegies arrived for their second summer at Skibo, their first as its owners, and as the coach passed through the villages within the estate the family was greeted by homes and shops decorated with glass and bunting. Children were dressed in their Sunday best and bagpipe bands played. At the castle’s gate, the oldest tenant , nearly 90 years of age, officially presented Skibo to its new laird. An emotional Carnegie responded by pointing at Louise and saying, "Here is an American who loves Scotland." He then pointed to himself and said, "And here is a Scotchman who loves America, and" - now pointing at Margaret - "here is a little Scottish-American who is born of both and will love both; she has come to enter the fairyland of childhood among you."
The castle was now undergoing major reconstruction. As the family settled in one protected wing and the servants in a cottage, work on the castle pushed ahead rapidly. Hundreds of men were hired, barracks built for them, and a 120-foot bridge was built across a ravine at the rear of the castle for bringing in the steel beams, marble, and stone. Carnegie made sure enough meat was supplied to the men to keep up their strength, and he offered to pay 10 per cent more in wages to every man who abstained from drinking. The only griping was from some of the locals who mourned the cutting down of many old trees.
The vastly enlarged home soon took shape. The great hall was expanded to give it noble dimensions; it included marble columns, an elaborately panelled ceiling, a staircase of Sicilian marble and stained-glass windows with scenes depicting Carnegie’s voyage to America and his rise from bobbin boy, as well as others with scenes depicting the history of the castle. There was a gun room with a separate entrance for the gillies and gamekeepers, a billiard room, a smoking room and a dining room with an immense table that could seat 30 or more. (Carnegie’s chair was two inches higher to improve his stature.)
Carnegie insisted on a spacious library, and off the library was his office, in which was a custom-built set of drawers labelled for Carnegie Steel Company Reports; Correspondence about Libraries; Pittsburgh Institute; Grants and Other Donations; Applications for Aid; Autograph Letters to Keep; and Skibo Estate, among others. Maps on the wall had little flags marking arenas of action. This was his war room.
In 1900, Carnegie Steel’s annual profit is $40 million. The Carnegie Institute of Technology is established. By the following year, Carnegie has sold out to J P Morgan for $480 million, allowing Morgan to create US Steel and making Carnegie the richest man in the world.
Nicely bronzed from their Mediterranean respite in the spring of 1901, the Carnegies made their customary visit to London for hobnobbing and shopping before proceeding to Skibo. Morgan was also in town, so talk of US Steel could not be avoided. If Carnegie still had the feelings of a bereft father, he didn’t show it when both Morgan and he attended a dinner hosted by the London Chamber of Commerce for the New York Chamber of Commerce at Grocer’s Hall. Carnegie appeared to be the happiest man there, while, the newspapers noted, Morgan with his deformed nose hid behind a Mr Morton when the photographer’s camera flashed.
Besides being the world’s richest man and in the spotlight, Carnegie had another good reason to be happy - he was in the midst of planning a great benefaction for Scotland. The Scottish universities at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews had been neglected for years, while the Scottish aristocracy sent their boys to Oxford or Cambridge. The Fortnightly Review had published a piece titled "The Scottish University Crisis" in December 1900, pointing out that the Scottish universities were second-rate educational institutions and estimating that it would take an endowment of $7.5 million to reorganise and modernise the schools.
Thomas Shaw, a native of Dunfermline and a member of parliament, was actively trying to revitalise the schools. As part of his campaign he proposed some money be used to help students pay their tuition, thus attracting a larger and hopefully brighter body. In stepped Carnegie. He approached Shaw shortly after arriving in Britain and offered $5 million in US Steel bonds, the income to subsidise tuition. Based on the desired student enrolment, it was quickly determined that amount wouldn’t be sufficient, so Carnegie offered an additional $5 million. It appeared he was breaking from his creed of self-help. British critics certainly thought so, charging he would "pauperise" youth who should earn their education, and they resented his intrusion. Blackwood’s Magazine was ferocious: "Maybe Mr Carnegie has never heard the fable of Midas. If for a moment he can overcome his loathing of the past, we would urge him to read it. ... Push and screw; buy cheap and sell dear.… To get money you must strangle joy and murder peace. … Presently the American ideal of life will be our own.… In old days, a rich man enjoyed his wealth - and if he did the community ‘no good’ at least he did not insult it with ‘patronage’."
"Loathing of the past" referred to Carnegie’s derision of a classical education. More than ten years earlier, in the New York Daily Tribune, he had written an article titled "How to Win Fortune", in which he concluded, based on the overwhelming number of businessmen dominating industry who started poor and had no university degree, that "college education as it exists seems almost fatal to success in that domain". He had seen no use in studying the classics ; instead, he supported polytechnic and scientific schools, which were turning out men who made a real impact on manufacturing. Since then Carnegie had modified his views. He had realised both technical and classical education played a role, but Blackwood’s cut him no slack.
Supporters of tuition relief rallied around Carnegie, charging the English critics with desiring to suppress Scottish youth. Before proceeding, Carnegie wisely elected to consult with Lord Balfour of Burleigh, secretary of Scotland, the Earl of Elgin, and Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour. Willing to hear all sides, Carnegie was hardly the autocratic monster his enemies made him out to be, but he was tenacious in his determination to help his homeland. Over a series of meetings, the group decided a balance between tuition aid and funds to enhance scientific research would be the most beneficial and would quiet the critics.
After the deliberations, he judiciously created the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and endowed it with $10 million in US Steel bonds, with revenue from $5 million going toward tuition aid for qualified youth who might otherwise not have a chance to attend a university, and revenue from the second $5 million going toward "improving and extending the opportunities for scientific study and research". History, literature, and modern languages were also provided for. Based in Edinburgh, the elite board of trustees included Prime Minister Balfour, ex-prime minister Rosebery, future prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the Earl of Elgin, among others. These names alone were testimony to the power Carnegie and his money wielded in Britain.
There was little ammunition left for the critics, especially considering that the pre-existing combined endowments of the four universities - Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St Andrews - generated just $350,000 annually, while Carnegie’s gift would generate $500,000. Beginning in 1901, Carnegie met with the heads of the Scottish universities annually at Skibo, and the first week of September became known as Principals’ Week. By 1910, a St Andrews official could claim, "At the present time, the university has a larger number of students and is doing a greater variety of work in all departments of study than at any period in its history."
At Skibo, the renovation was still under way. The main hall and new wings were completed but now required decorating and furnishing. Other ambitious projects were in various stages of completion: a man-made lake, Loch Ospisdale, which would be stocked with brown trout; two ponds, Lake Louise and Margaret’s Loch, for water lilies and other plants; a dam at the mouth of the Evelix River to create a loch with a salmon ladder; a nine-hole golf course, which would be expanded to 18, nestled between Loch Evelix and Dornoch Firth; and the marble, indoor swimming pool, 24 metres long and nine metres wide, heated and filled with salt water pumped from the sea. The county of Sutherland prospered as both the unskilled and skilled found plenty of work, with even "walkers" hired to walk the estate’s roads looking for bumps and ruts to repair.
There was still one thing missing, however - a waterfall. Carnegie solved the problem by convincing the Duke of Sutherland to sell him a large tract of land to the north and west, nearly doubling the estate’s property, which included a section of the River Shin and a fine waterfall. The river also offered excellent salmon fishing. Without the intensity of business competition to expend his energy, he punished the fish mercilessly, his passion famous among friends. Charles Flint enjoyed telling the story of when he took Carnegie fishing: "I was interested to see how $300,000,000 would fish. He went at it as though he were pulling in another million."
Skibo was in stunning shape and ready for hordes of visitors. "Fishing, yachting, golfing," Carnegie wrote to a friend, "Skibo never so delightful; all so quiet. A home at last. …The average American wouldn’t like our life at Skibo. There aren’t enough of ‘other people’ to go around - no casinos, nor dancing, and all that. But we love it. … I am off to the moors, all alone. Mist on the hills. But I’m a Celt, not a prosaic Englishman like - well, like a very good fellow I know." When tramping through the moors, Carnegie was like a boy; he never hesitated to lay in the heather and, looking up at the sky, croon o’er an auld Scotch sonnet. At such moments, he was unspoiled by wealth.
This annual period of relative isolation also afforded him the opportunity to bond with his daughter - "Baba" - who seldom interacted with her father for any extended length of time.
His adoration for her was all too obvious in letters to family and friends. He wrote: "So sorry I shall miss you … Baba fine - in third class now and reading a little. She repeated a verse she had learned at school, which I praised highly. Then she said, ‘Yes, and that isn’t Shakespeare either, Papa. Glad some people could do better than he could.’ Mean, wasn’t it, to attack my God among men?" And: "Baba keeps on showing her American precocity. Tells her mother and me names of flowers we don’t know. Her latest remark: ‘Don’t step on the nemophila.’ Gardener says he told her the name a few days ago. Madam has been told several times but forgotten it."
In another letter, he proudly announced that eight-year-old Margaret "made golf score of 54 today. Her mother beaten badly." And to Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Nineteenth Century magazine, "Madam and I very well and Margaret very sprightly. We think she is progressing well. Eats well, sleeps well and keeps us on the go. Her chief work is making up parties who never had a motor ride and taking them as her guests. Already the young socialist crops out. Why should some be rich and others poor? Why do we invite rich people and give them everything when they have plenty at home - and the poor haven’t? Questions easier to ask than to answer."
After becoming the richest man in the world, Carnegie began the process of giving away his fortune; the Carnegie Institution, to fund colleges and universities, was established; the Carnegie Teacher’s Pension Fund was founded with $10 million; then the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and finally the Carnegie Corporation; in all he gave away 90 per cent of his wealth. At the outbreak of the First World War, Carnegie left Scotland for the last time. He died in 1919, aged 84, at his estate in Shadowbrook in Massachusetts. Stone from Skibo marks his grave.
Extracted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons, from Carnegie c2003 by Peter Krass. This book is available at all bookstores, online booksellers and from the Wiley website at www.wileyeurope.com
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