Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: John Frame

An unexpected surprise greeted me that served to soothe my frayed nerves and allowed me to sleep easy for a short time.  I received a letter from Andrew Carnegie.  My letter to him was, he maintained, one of several oases of support from Great Britain within a vast desert of indifference and disdain.  His book, Triumphant Democracy, had received a great deal of criticism, especially in England – but in the Scottish newspapers too – largely because it argued for the abolition of the monarchy.  Thus, it was deemed, he had gone too far.  People clung to elements of their society’s past that made them feel safe and connected to their ancestors, and they feared the new and unknown.  The argument people always made about the monarchy was, “what will we put in its place if it were abolished?” and my reply was always: “whatever you want!”

            Carnegie was clearly delighted by my unbridled enthusiasm for his platform.  He thanked me and expounded upon how he was going to tackle the situation in Britain through both the press and the ballot box.  The following extract struck me as particularly eloquent:

            The first duty of a Republican is to bow to the decision of the ballot box and the weapon of Republicanism is not the sword but the pen.  It is up to men like you, Robert, to take that weapon and wield it for the good of mankind.

            The dawn has come and the full day approaches when there shall be no official in any free state who does not derive his authority direct from the vote of the people and submits himself, and his acts, from time to time for their august approval.  When that day comes in Britain, believe me that the spirit of the nation will be sensibly raised.  Your young men will be freer from snobbery, your middle-aged men will be more self-reliant, your old men will be free from the pitiful hunt after rank and title, and all classes will be prouder, and will have good reason to be prouder, of the glorious little isle which you are so privileged to call our motherland.

            I wrote back immediately, thanking him for his reply, and commenting on the lamentable criticism that Triumphant Democracy had received in the British press.  In this letter I revealed that I was a self-made businessman who wanted to put my money and position to good use and further the causes he espoused.  I also congratulated him on his recent marriage and asked about his plans to visit Scotland.  Again, after a couple of months I received a reply, this time with a Scottish postmark.  This second letter proffered the best news I had that year.  Carnegie invited me to his residence at Cluny Castle near Kingussie.

            The journey was not, by any means, an extensive one.  We now both lived on different sides of the Spey River; his castle overlooking Ben Alder, my house dominated by Ben Rinnes.  He was within spitting distance of Kingussie, south of Inverness, while I was close to Braeside, south of Elgin.  We were close geographically but, obviously, still worlds apart when it came to lifestyle and culture and wealth.  I rode out there myself, figuring that it would take less time than the train.

            The castle was in a remote and beautifully rough area of the country – I could see why he chose to live there – and the views were breathtaking to the point that all one could do was stand and stare in awe.  Carnegie himself came out to greet me at the gate and extended a hand and a greeting that sounded half American and half Scottish.

            “How are you?  I hope you managed to find the place easily.  We have just recently moved in, so you will have to excuse the baggage and all the mess.”  Carnegie, who was much shorter than I imagined him to be, prepared me for the tour of the castle, after which, he said, we would have tea and discuss politics.  I walked beside him as he talked about the estate and the Clan MacGregor and the Jacobite Rebellion and his plans to help the education of Scotland’s youth.  He talked a lot.

            “If I may say, sir, it is an honor to be invited to your residence.  I am delighted to meet you,” I said, when I could get a word in.

            “Nonsense.  You are a like-minded individual, a man who pulled himself up with no help from above…you are the sort of person we need to lead this country to greater heights.  Plus, you liked my book and you live nearby…it seemed like a good idea to get to know you!”

            After my tour of the castle, which included a history lesson about the surrounding area and a discussion of the game of shinty, Carnegie and I sat down to high tea in his withdrawing room.  There I was drinking tea and eating sandwiches with the richest man in the world.  It was hard to take in.  I felt quite shy and at a loss for words.  I took out my copy of Triumphant Democracy in order that it could receive the great man’s signature.  He was amused that I was so starstruck, but happily signed the inside cover, including the message: to my dear friend Robert, “It’s coming yet for a’ that.”  We then talked for the best part of two hours on various subjects.  I asked him how he felt about the critiques of his book.  He stroked his beard, which looked like bright, straight, cotton in his hands, and got slightly flustered, maintaining that it was very well-received in the United States.

            “The main problem in this country is the fact that the majority of the newspapers are in cahoots with the establishment…it is difficult to break the status quo.  I am trying my best to undo those reactionary chains, through my newspapers, my writing, and my lecturing.  You should do as much as you can to further the cause as well, you know.  There is so much to be done, it’s hard to know where to begin.”

            “Do you really think we can rid ourselves of the monarchy?”  I asked what I thought was the burning question of the day, at least for me, in the year of the Golden Jubilee.  “Would that be the best place to start or is it an insurmountable edifice?”

            “I believe that if a vote were taken throughout Great Britain today a majority would be in favor of electing a chief executive after the death of the Queen.”

            “Really, despite the huge celebrations of the reign of Queen Victoria and the amount of vitriol leveled against you for saying so?”

            “The newspapers are not the people, thankfully.  They think they are, but they are not.  They certainly help to sway opinion, but the real keys to all of this are the election of decent men and the education of the masses.  I would not have been honest, Robert, had I not admitted that I would destroy, if I had the power, every vestige of privilege in Britain and give to every man equal and exact privileges.”

            “But, what if that leads to instability and revolution, as the Conservatives charge?”

            “I would not shed a drop of blood, nor violate a law, nor use violence in any form, to bring about what I so much desire.”  He was very passionate about his beliefs and, every so often, he stood up and paced around as he talked.  “As for the Queen’s jubilee celebrations I should say that she is a popular figure and people are fond of her and are used to her.  But the majority of the population has not been, and will not be, in favor of every man or woman who assumes the crown.  The problem is that no-one can vote out the unpopular monarchs!”

            “I am self-educated, sir,” I confessed, changing the subject, “as well as self-made in a similar manner to yourself – although on a much smaller scale – and I feel that it fair liberates the spirit to know that I relied upon no-one but myself to get where I am.  How do you think we can ensure that men become educated in the proper manner and learn to raise themselves up out of poverty?”

            “Well, that is a key problem and I am determined to address it by providing monetary aid that will help universities and libraries across the land.  It will all come in good time…the march toward progress…and the more surely from the gradual spread of education, and by peaceable discussion, than by any other means.”

            Lastly, I brought up my favorite subject: religion.  Henry George, the land reformer, soured me a little on his whole program by attaching to it religious arguments that were designed to reel people in and I hoped that Carnegie was not going to provide any of the same justifications for mixing theological points with politics for the sake of expediency.  Fortunately, Carnegie was as scunnered as I was with the sectarian divides in Scotland.

            “This clash between denominations, Catholic and Protestant, Presbyterian and Free Church, is such a distraction from the real issues at hand, don’t you think?  I have moved away from organized religion to a philosophy called positivism.  It smashes the idols…it places physics above metaphysics, Darwin above Knox, and man above the supernatural.”  He talked in a way that made me want to educate myself further and explore as many philosophical and scientific works as I could, alongside the political and economic writings I was attempting to approach.  As I sat there and listened to him, I genuinely felt that we were cut from the same cloth…brothers in arms…peas in a pod…all the clichés.  He formulated points of view that were germinating in the back of my mind and articulated policies that coincided exactly with mine.  At some point during that afternoon, I distinctly remember thinking that, despite the age difference of approximately twenty years, I could be a good friend of this man.

            After a couple of hours passed, during which Carnegie ignited my interest in stepping further into the political realm, it was almost time for me to depart.  As I readied myself to leave, my host leaned toward me.  “After all this talk about our political ideas, I lost sight of my manners and forgot to ask what line of business you are in Robert.”  This was a perfectly innocuous question and I answered him plainly.

            “I am in the Scotch whisky business, sir.  I own a distillery here in Speyside and one in the burgh of Simpster in Caithness.”  Carnegie was visibly shocked.

            “Are you serious?  Do you mean to tell me that the young man before me who proposes to improve the lot of the ordinary people of this country is in the evil business of making and selling alcohol?”  His face turned red as he rose from his seat once more and clenched his fists.  I was a little taken aback by his outburst and attempted to defend myself.

            “Aye, that’s right Mr. Carnegie, I make and sell whisky and I also own a pub.  They bring in a good living for myself and my family.”

            “Do they?  Well then!  Robert, don’t you see?  You are profiting from the misery of others.  What you do for a living leads to no good.”  The conversation had taken a turn for the worse and was beginning to take the sheen off the whole day.  I was no longer sitting beside an inspirational, autodidactic, captain of industry.  Carnegie was turning into a moralizing bore.  So much for free will and individualism!

            “Sir, I did not come here to justify what I do for a living.  People are free to make their own choices about drinking alcohol.  This has been the case for hundreds of years.  I simply make it and sell it.  I do not force it upon people.  Surely you cannot be in the temperance camp.”  I found myself in turmoil.  The atmosphere soured to the point that I half thought about throwing the midget windbag from the top of one of the castle’s turrets.  Unfortunately his wife and servants were aware of my presence.

            “Mr. Bain,” he started, addressing me formally again.  “There are people in this world who make and sell weapons that are used in warfare.  They content themselves with the knowledge that wars have been waged for hundreds, even thousands, of years.  Man will forever commit violence against his fellow man.  That, in my opinion, does not justify the sale of weapons, it simply serves to placate, so that those who profit in this way may be able to sleep at night.”  Carnegie paused.  “How do you sleep Mr. Bain?”

            “I sleep fine, Mr. Carnegie,” I lied.  Actually, my sleeping patterns were awful, but it was not because of what I did for a living.

            “Well, my brother Thomas is asleep forever thanks to the evils of alcohol.  He died last year.”

            “I am sorry about that, sir,” I said, sinking back into my chair.  I had no idea that his brother was an alcoholic.  That certainly explained his change of attitude.

            “You provide a service that I find quite at odds with the program I am hoping to push into public discussion and, to that end, I am afraid that we have no use for you.  We will have to part company on that note.  My servant will see you out.”  And with that final, clear, statement Andrew Carnegie briskly strode out of his ‘drawing room.  I sat there in a state of shock, trying to absorb what had just happened, as one of the servants entered and escorted me from the premises.


John Frame was brought up in Wick, Scotland. He is a teacher and has lived in Aberdeen, New York City, Columbus, Ohio, Qingdao, China, and Dakar, Senegal.  He is the author of the article ‘Social Justice in the Staffroom,’ published by American International Schools in the Americas.

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