“Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his life for the good of the community”. ~ Andrew Carnegie
I am quite excited to share this week’s article with you as we are going to explore a place that has been on our must-visit list for quite a while- The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum. Now, I know that many of our readers in North America are particularly familiar with the historical industrialist figure, Andrew Carnegie. However, what you might not be aware of is that he was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. Dunfermline- as the ancient capital of Scotland- is an incredible place that we will discuss more in future posts. However, for this week, we will mostly focus on the Carnegie family and their role in Dunfermline.
To get to Dunfermline and the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum, we need to head north west of Edinburgh with the journey only taking about 30 minutes by car. Conveniently, there is a city car park right next to the Museum.
Attached to the Exhibition Hall and Museum shop (where you enter the Museum) is the cottage where the Carnegie family once lived. The ground floor showcases a room with a large handloom. This is because Andrew Carnegie’s father, William, was a weaver of damask linen. During the time the Carnegie family lived there, the entire ground floor would have been a weaving workshop. William employed an apprentice to use a second loom that would have been in the other room. The handloom on display is almost 200 years old but is not the original used by William Carnegie. Nevertheless, it is the same type he would have used and provides a great visual of the scope of this kind of work.
Having explored a bit of the ground floor and the family's workspace, let's head up the cottage's narrow staircase, to see where the Carnegie family lived.
When I entered the room, I was immediately struck by the extremely humble beginnings Andrew Carnegie was born into on 25th of November 1835. Looking around the tiny room, it must have been incredibly cramped for the family to eat, sleep, play, and work in this space. The family had to sell all their furniture and belongings to get money for passage to the United States (more on this in just a bit). Therefore, the furniture in the room is not original- except the wee writing desk in the corner of the room. That was originally William Carnegie’s desk, and it was donated to the Museum in the early 1900s.
By 1848, the family were struggling to make ends meet, and William and Margaret decided to move their family and join other family members who had already migrated to the United States. As I mentioned above, the Carnegie’s had to sell all their belongings (including the handlooms) to raise the funds for their passage. Unfortunately, they were still short of the total needed, and had to borrow the rest from Andrew's uncle, George Lauder, Sr. Amazingly, they paid him back in full once they got to the U.S. and were able to start making money.
Andrew Carnegie’s life was forever linked to Scotland- even after moving to the United States. The Exhibition Hall at the Museum does an excellent job at providing a comprehensive overview of his life once he moved to the U.S., becoming an industrial icon, his connections with Scotland as an adult, and his incredible role as philanthropist. I will highlight just a few of our favourite exhibits on display and save the rest for fun surprises and further exploration when you visit in the future.
As a former anthropology student, one of the exhibits that particularly caught my eye was the display and discussion of Carnegie’s interests in anthropology and resulting travels around the word from 1878-1879.
As a result of his travels and studies of other peoples and cultures, Carnegie astutely observed, “Go and see for yourselves how greatly we are bound by prejudices, how checkered and uncertain are many of our own advances, and how nearly all is balanced. No nation has all that is best”.
Andrew Carnegie never forgot his country of birth and divided his time between the U.S. and Scotland. He bought Skibo Castle in 1897 as his ‘Highland retreat’ and he and his wife, Louise, created a beloved family home; they increased the size of the manor house and built a lake and 9-hole golf course. The Museum has a lovely exhibit of some of Carnegie's furniture and personal items from his study at Skibo.
Many famous guests were happy to receive invitations to visit the Carnegies at Skibo Castle. The Museum points out how it was ‘like a fine resort hotel, with a steady stream of political leaders, authors, journalists, educators, and British royalty’. There is a visitor guest book on display that shows the signature of someone that many people may have not heard of before- Bertha von Suttner. She was an Austrian pacifist and novelist, and, notably, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
One fun fact about Andrew Carnegie is that he helped the word dinosaur become part of the common vernacular. He financed the expedition, in the late 1800s, where paleontologists unearthed the skeleton of a Diplodocus dinosaur. A composite skeleton- named Dippy- was eventually put together and displayed at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1907. Dippy’s fame crossed the Atlantic when King Edward VII (also a trustee of the British Museum) admired a display of sketches of Dippy’s bones while visiting Skibo Castle. As a result, Carnegie had a plaster cast of Dippy made for the British Museum. We were fortunate to see that Dippy at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow when he went on tour in 2018.
One of the most important legacies Carnegie established was his philanthropy. The Museum does an excellent job at illustrating how his philanthropy was ‘never an after-thought or driven by guilt- it grew out of the values instilled in him by his family and a vivid sense of duty’. Many people of wealth in today’s age could take a page out of Carnegie’s book and learn some important lessons.
We see ourselves as lifelong students and, having worked in the field of education, we have always had deep admiration for Andrew Carnegie’s commitment to learning and education. For example, he spent over $60 million and created 2,811 public libraries around the world. Fittingly, the very first public library he had built was in Dunfermline and his mother, Margaret, laid the memorial stone. What a wonderful moment that must have been for her and the family- to be able to give such an important gift to the city. The first public library- the Central Library- here in Edinburgh was built thanks to a fund of £50,000 by Carnegie.
The Museum highlights how Andrew Carnegie ‘regarded teaching as one of the highest professions. He believed education was the key to equality and democracy, and the more people who were educated, the better’. Therefore, he set up a foundation to help provide financial security and advancement opportunities for teachers. He also generously gave money towards various institutions of higher education- sometimes having them built. In the United States, he built Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and in Scotland- Carnegie College in Dunfermline.
As we end our visit to the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum, we can’t resist the chance to share a bit of a ghost tale (this is Scotland after all). The painting below was commissioned by Carnegie to commemorate a parade which was part of his homecoming visit to Dunfermline in 1881. For the triumphant trip, he took some American friends and his mother, Margaret, who was celebrating her 71st birthday (in fact, this is the trip where she laid the memorial stone for the building of the Dunfermline library that I mentioned above).
Interestingly, not everyone was happy about Carnegie building the library. In fact, there are two gentlemen in the painting with their backs to the parade as a demonstration of their displeasure. The Museum points out that they are ‘thought to be town councillors who disapproved of Carnegie’s library, as they would have to raise taxes to maintain their part of the bargain to maintain and staff the library and this would not make them popular'. However, these are not the most intriguing characters in the painting. If you look closely at the bottom left the painting, there is a ghostly figure…. his identity is a haunting mystery to this day!
With that mystery, we end our exploration of the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum. However, this article is just the beginning of a series we plan to do as Carnegie had a deep impact on Dunfermline. Therefore, there are many more Carnegie connections throughout the town that we will visit in future blog posts.
It really is no surprise that the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum won the Family Friendly Museum Award in 2019. It is a wonderful place to visit for people of all ages as it offers a variety of ways to learn more about Andrew Carnegie, and we highly recommend a visit to this lovely museum. Be sure to check their website for the most up to date information.
There is an oft-quoted poem that goes:
The children o’ Scotland may roam the world o’er
But oor thoughts aye return
to the land we adore
Where the saltires fly proudly
high in the sky
And the skirl o’ the pipes
brings a tear tae to yer eye
I think this poem encompasses Andrew Carnegie and his feelings about Scotland- even after he ‘made it big’ abroad. Scotland will be forever linked to the Carnegie legacy and that is something that should not be forgotten. The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum is certainly doing their part to ensure this does not happen.
Until next time- Explore & Discover!