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Early in 1901, John Pierpont Morgan dropped by the Manhattan mansion of Andrew Carnegie on 5 West 51st Street to celebrate the biggest commercial deal of that era. At the head of a syndicate of banks, Morgan had just bought out Carnegie’s colossal steel empire for $480m. After a 15-minute conversation, Morgan stood and shook the diminutive industrialist’s hand. “Mr Carnegie, I want to congratulate you on being the richest man in the world!” the famed banker said.
Ever since he had started work aged 12 as an immigrant bobbin boy in a Pittsburgh cotton factory, Carnegie had devoted himself with monomaniacal energy to making money. The steel produced by his vast furnaces built America’s railroads and bridges as it emerged as the world’s industrial powerhouse in the late 19th century. But at the age of 65, after much agonising, Carnegie ended his business career and spent the remaining 19 years of his life giving away the bulk of his incredible fortune.
The personal proceeds he received for the sale of his company was equivalent to about 1 per cent of US GDP at the time. In proportionate terms that would make Carnegie richer than America’s two wealthiest men, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, combined today.
As one of America’s “robber barons”, Carnegie was a wildly contradictory man, a ruthless capitalist and a mean-spirited boss who was, in his latter years, astoundingly generous. It is little exaggeration to say he invented modern philanthropy, donating the funds to build 3,000 libraries, install 7,200 musical organs, and endow a host of museums, universities and charitable trusts, as well as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Peace Palace in The Hague. “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” Carnegie wrote in an article, entitled “The Gospel of Wealth”.
Yet Carnegie did not stint on himself and his family during his lifetime, acquiring a string of vast homes in the US and abroad. The one closest to his heart was undoubtedly Skibo, a grand estate overlooking the Dornoch Firth in northern Scotland.
The description in the sale particulars, dated 1890, may be one of the few examples where an estate agent did not oversell the property. “It may be doubted whether any estate in the Highlands can rival Skibo in extent and variety of attractions. The beauty of its situation – the salubrity of its climate – with the magnificent modern residence on the site of the ancient seat of the Bishop of Ross – all contribute to the residential value and interest of an estate, with nearly 20,000 acres and over 200 tenants,” it said.
Born in Dunfermline, Carnegie loved nothing better than to return to his homeland for his summer holidays. Having acquired the Skibo estate in 1898, Carnegie invested heavily in turning it into one of the finest private homes of the time, where the likes of Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Asquith, Helen Keller, and Rudyard Kipling flocked to visit.
It was the perfect haven for Carnegie and his wife, Louise, to spend their summers and raise their young daughter, Margaret. Indulging his passions for Dr Golf (as he called it), salmon fishing, and sailing on his yacht, the Seabreeze, Carnegie finally dedicated himself to having some fun. One of his friends said he was like a child with a new toy. “Heaven itself,” Carnegie declared, “is not so beautiful as Skibo.”
Visiting the estate in late summer, it is easy to understand Skibo’s allure. Set in parkland with sweeping lawns and gnarled, fairy-tale trees, the castle rises out of the early morning mists of the Dornoch Firth. Its light-coloured freestone walls reflect an almost ethereal light.
The castle itself, extensively rebuilt by Carnegie, was a seat of luxury. Skibo was the first building in Scotland to install an Otis lift. Electric lights and hot and cold running water were standard in its 20 guest rooms. Its entrance hall contains a striking stained-glass window detailing Skibo’s Viking history and scenes from Carnegie’s life, including the modest cottage in Dunfermline where he was born and the ship that took his family to the US.
With its grand towers and Gothic battlements, Skibo is suffused with the spirit of Carnegie. Reflecting his patriotic allegiances, a flag with the Stars and Stripes on one side and the Union Jack on the other still flies on the castle’s roof. Tall guests have to stoop to reach the door handles or stare into his bathroom mirror. Carnegie was only 5ft 2in. The library contains one of Carnegie’s favourite aphorisms carved into a wooden book over the fireplace:
“He that cannot reason is a fool,
He that will not is a bigot,
He that dare not is a slave.”
Some of the quixotic traditions Carnegie established at Skibo have been revived by its current owner, the American investor, Ellis Short, who bought the estate for £23m in 2003 and runs it as an exclusive private club for 400 members.
At 8 o’clock every morning, a piper circles the castle summoning any sleepy guests to breakfast. Between 9am and 10am, an organist plays uplifting music on the organ in the entrance hall (Haydn, Bach or Wagner in Carnegie’s time – a more eclectic mix today).
Such was Skibo’s reputation that one afternoon in October 1902, King Edward VII unexpectedly popped in while staying in the neighbourhood. He wanted to examine the latest in luxury as he contemplated the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace. According to the history of Skibo, written by Carnegie’s biographer Joseph Wall, the organist, who had been in the swimming pool, scrambled back just in time to play “God Save the King” as the monarch entered.
The Carnegies’ five-year-old daughter, Margaret, recalled the visit in an interview some 70 years later: “A tall, bearded man was bending over and asking if I would give him a kiss. I never liked to kiss bearded faces [her father, presumably, excepted]. They had sloppy, wet lips, but this face was very different. This man knew how to kiss little girls. I gave the roses to him for the Queen and a rosebud ‘for your ownself’ which he put in his buttonhole.”
Peter Crome, Skibo’s urbane estate manager, has been buying back the furniture, paintings and books that were sold off by subsequent owners. “This is a family home rather than an ancestral castle. There is a sense of well being and calmness,” he says. “Someone told me it was because it was built on two ley lines.”
Two people who remember Skibo well as a family home are Margaret and William Thomson, two of Carnegie’s great-grandchildren who spent their school holidays at the castle and still live nearby. After their mother died tragically early in 1947, the pair – and a menagerie of animals – stayed regularly with “Grandma ‘Negie’”, Carnegie’s daughter, who had inherited Skibo.
Margaret, whose piercing blue eyes recall her Carnegie genes, fondly remembers the sailing expeditions to a little island where there was a summer house. “It was a magical place. You could run wild. My love of the outdoors came from our early life here. We learned to swim in the bay out there,” says Margaret, pointing through the library window.
William, who kept a hamster in his great-grandfather’s bathroom, is the honorary president of the Carnegie UK trust, established in 1913 “for the benefit of the masses as they advance”. He says the Scots are split about Carnegie’s legacy, in spite of the largesse he lavished on the country of his birth.
“There is still a strong 1950s socialist view that he was a robber baron, a harsh industrialist who made huge profits. And there is another view that he did a huge amount of good giving all this money away,” he says. “When we were growing up, we kept quiet about him in case we got thumped. But there are many more people who are complimentary about him today.”
In spite of the happy times that Carnegie enjoyed at Skibo, his last summer there was overshadowed by tragedy as all his efforts to promote peace were shattered by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. He received the news on the day he completed his memoirs. The final chapter recalled a meeting with Kaiser Wilhelm the previous year, when Carnegie had congratulated Germany’s leader on the silver anniversary of his peaceful reign. In a hastily written postscript, Carnegie wrote: “As I read this today, what a change! The world convulsed by war as never before! Men slaying each other like beasts! I dare not relinquish all hope.”
One hundred years ago this week, Carnegie bade farewell to his household staff, who were rapidly being diverted to military work, and headed to Liverpool for the voyage home. The laird of Skibo was never to return.
John Thornhill is the FT’s deputy editor; he was a guest of the Carnegie Club
Photographs: Robert Ormerod; Getty
Slideshow photographs: Robert Ormerod