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Carnegie's summer home returns to glory days

Sunday, July 14, 2002

By David Bear, Post-Gazette Travel Editor

SUTHERLAND, Scotland - His is the prototype of the classic American Horatio Alger story: poor immigrant boy from Scotland starts with nothing, works hard and becomes the world's richest man.

In 1887, after spending two decades single-mindedly and often ruthlessly jump-starting the American steel industry and centering it in the Pittsburgh area, Andrew Carnegie had already turned day-to-day management of his empire over to Henry Clay Frick and begun devoting more of his attention to other matters.

Although the ongoing reorganization of his various steel companies certainly occupied his thoughts, these other matters also included his bride, the former Louise Whitfield.

In April 1887, after the deaths the previous fall of his mother and younger brother Tom, the 51-year-old Carnegie married the New York ingenue to whom he had been secretly betrothed for several years.

After the wedding, he whisked Louise off to Britain for a four-month honeymoon. They spent much of that time in Scotland, where Carnegie's fortune and philanthropic inclinations had already earned him celebrity status.

Louise found Scotland so enjoyable, the Carnegies began spending several months there each summer. After several years, they began to rent Cluny Castle in the central Highlands, the ancestral home of Clan Macpherson.

The arrangement worked well for a decade, but in 1897 when Louise gave birth to their only child, Margaret, Carnegie, then 62, decided it was time for the family to have a permanent home in Scotland.

His first thought was to buy Cluny Castle, but although Carnegie was one of the world's richest men, he couldn't convince its laird, Ewen Macpherson, to sell his ancestral home. So he began looking for suitable property elsewhere.

He had three stated requirements for that property: it needed a view of the sea, a trout stream and a waterfall.

While Carnegie loved Scotland, he found its cold, rainy climate difficult. Upon the advice of Hew Morrison, an old friend and head of Edinburgh Library, Carnegie decided to explore the remote area that extended north of Inverness along the North Sea.

Though sharing a latitude with Juneau, Alaska, the first 50 miles of these eastern coastal lowlands are embraced on three sides in the lee of mountains and high moors and warmed by the Gulf Stream, creating a mild micro-climate. The shoreline along three long, narrow bays or firths -- Moray Firth, Cromarty Firth and Dornoch Firth -- boast more sunny days per year than any other location in Scotland.

Prehistoric remains indicate humans inhabited the area as early as 1000 B.C., but the first recorded settlers were early 10th-century Norse invaders, who found the climate balmy compared with their homeland. They called the area Sutherland and found it an excellent base from which to launch raids to the south.

The 20,000-acre estate along the firth's north shore that Morrison showed Carnegie had first been delineated in 1275, as the castle of "Schytherbolle," which in Celtic translates as "place of peace."

The charter for the estate was granted in support of the new cathedral established that year in the town of Dornoch, situated four miles to the east along the coast. An ecclesiastic residence built on the grounds functioned as an abbey until 1545, when it passed into the first of a long chain of private hands.

Sharing the next 41/2 centuries of Scotland's checkered history, the estate now known as Skibo, or "ship-shaped place" in Norse, saw many changes. Its fortunes and fields waxed and waned and a succession of increasingly baronial mansions were erected. The most recent of those mansions was a semi-gothic edifice built in the mid-19th century whose construction costs had helped drive its owner into bankruptcy.

When Carnegie rode up Skibo's long entrance lane, it was love at first sight. The long swath of fertile, south-facing fields turns to gorse and broom as it fringes the northern shore of Dornoch Firth, which, though miles wide when the tide is in, retreats into a narrow channel twice each day.

Though the estate had several trout streams and a magnificent view of the firth, there was no waterfall, but Carnegie was quickly assured that one could be constructed anywhere he wished.

Carnegie quickly agreed to lease Skibo for one year with an option to buy, but a few months later he negotiated a purchase price of 85,000 pounds, or about $425,000 at the time.

Almost immediately, the Carnegies set to the task of creating their idealized Highland home. Occupied by his business interests, including the struggle with Frick over ownership of Carnegie Steel Co., Carnegie approved the plans for the castle and then turned supervision of its construction over to Louise.

The existing structure was gutted to the walls, and two large additions were added to create a four-story baronial mansion with more than 200 rooms and clad in rose-tinted stone cut from local quarries. The cornerstone of the addition reads "Margaret Carnegie laid me June 23rd 1899," an auspicious undertaking for a child who was then just 2 years old.

Although Skibo's construction expenses were carefully managed, no detail was overlooked, and no luxury was spared. Skilled craftsmen were imported to execute the fine masonry and woodwork. Hundreds of area residents found steady employment on the project for two years.

From the beginning, Skibo was also intended to be a showplace for modern amenities, with electrical wiring and the most up-to-date plumbing throughout. It boasted the first Otis electric elevator in Britain and prototype toilets by Thomas Crapper. The furnishings and fixtures were also of the finest quality, with tooled leather wall coverings, carved woodwork and stained glass.

Mindful of Skibo's history, Carnegie even had several stone walls from the original 13th-century abbey incorporated into the structure.

All told, the two-year refurbishment cost Carnegie an additional $1.5 million. By coincidence, he had recently claimed about that much money when Frick had to forfeit a deposit he had put up in his failed attempt to raise enough capital to buy out Carnegie's steel interests.

Years later, after the pair had parted acrimoniously, Carnegie delighted telling Skibo guests who were awed by its magnificence that the whole thing was just "a nice present from Mr. Frick."

By the time the Carnegies moved into Skibo in the summer of 1901, he had negotiated his exit from the steel industry, selling his controlling interests to J.P. Morgan for nearly $300 million.

Although beginning what would be nearly two remarkable decades of philanthropy and social activism, Carnegie was more than ready to enjoy his retirement.

Other than Louise and Margaret, Skibo was his greatest joy and pleasure. He called it his "Heaven on Earth," and thereafter the Carnegie family spent five months there each summer, arriving in May and staying until mid-October.

Physically vital for his 65 years, Carnegie relished his estate, savoring all the pastoral pleasures his wealth could buy. He avidly fished its private waters, pulling trout from its rivers and salmon from the loch he had enclosed. He cruised in his yacht on the firth and swam in Skibo's Olympic-sized, heated, saltwater, indoor pool.

For golf, which had become a passionate pastime for him, he had his own nine-hole course or the seaside links of nearby Royal Dornoch.

More than 8,000 books hand-picked by Morrison lined the shelves of the large library Carnegie had built next to his private offices.

The Carnegies also kept court at Skibo, entertaining the steady procession of guests, both illustrious and obscure, who made the trek north to the train station at the village of Bonar Bridge at the head of Dornoch Firth.

Skibo Castle was fit for entertaining royalty, though Carnegie's guest list was considerably more egalitarian. He delighted in organizing eclectic gatherings, inviting and mixing his guests without regard for their nationality, social background, religion or politics. Old cousins and radical thinkers came and made conversation with business tycoons, prime ministers, poets and philanthropy seekers.

Visitors who occupied the 20 ample bedrooms ranged from King Edward VII and Lloyd George to Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, the Rockefellers, Helen Keller and Booker T. Washington.

All guests had free run of the house, grounds and gardens, with instructions to enjoy its pleasures as if it were their own.

There was, however, another eccentric routine, to which all guests were subject, no matter how distinguished. Each morning at 8, a bagpiper in full Highland kilted regalia would march around outside Skibo playing tunes that roused late sleepers from their dreams. (The practice continues today.)

The morning meal was served in the breakfast room off the main entrance hall, accompanied by Bach and Haydn pieces played on the huge pipe organ. On the first visit, each guest would be given a spoon embossed with "Skibo" in silver lettering, but only if they had finished their porridge.

The Carnegies were certainly unstinting hosts, particularly Louise, who was in charge of the logistics of the entertaining, always serving the best money could buy.

Dinner was always a formal affair in the main dining room, with up to 80 guests around the grand table, seated according to plans devised by their hosts to ensure lively conversations.

Those conversations often would continue into the evening, as guests retired to the living room or billiard tables.

By most accounts, Carnegie was also a beneficent master to the 85 or so locals who were either employed at the estate or tenant farmers who worked its fields.

He paid generous wages and was known to help his employees with their financial difficulties and often their personal problems. Numerous photographs depict the tweed-suited Carnegie standing amid a group of smiling workers.

The Carnegies returned to Skibo every year until 1914, when the outbreak of World War I so disillusioned the pacifist Carnegie that he couldn't bring himself to return to his private heaven the following summer.

Carnegie was almost 80, and his vigor and health began to wane. A new country residence, Shadowbrook in the Berkshire Hills near Lenox, Mass., provided some consolation for Carnegie, but it was not Skibo. By the time the war ended in 1918, he was too frail to make the long trans-Atlantic journey, and he died on Aug. 11, 1919.

Louise, however, also loved Skibo dearly, and in 1920, she resumed the family's annual summer residence, often joined by the then-married Margaret and her family.

Although the grand days of entertaining dignitaries were much diminished, the estate and castle were faithfully maintained throughout Louise's life. The coming of World War II in 1939 brought an end to Louise's Skibo summer visits, and she died in June 1946 without returning.

Margaret and her children continued summering at Skibo for decades, maintaining the estate as best they could. Large tracts of property were sold off, and the house and other estate buildings were mothballed.

But by the late 1970s, the expenses and difficulties of managing so large a property finally induced Carnegie's heirs to seek a buyer outside the family.

The main house at Skibo was still in serviceable shape, with virtually all of its original furniture, fixtures and decoration intact, but it seemed unlikely any buyer would be interested in assuming the enormous task and cost of maintaining such a large building, despite its former magnificence and historic significance.

In 1981, investors bought Skibo. For eight years, various schemes for using it were considered, including using it as a prison or an orphanage. It was considered for use as a hotel, but it was deemed to be too far north and too remote to attract enough business or justify the enormous cost of bringing it up to date. Finally, the owners decided to break up the estate and sell it and its contents piecemeal.

Then in 1990, Peter de Savary, an English real estate entrepreneur and yachtsman, entered the picture. Having started the St. James Clubs, a string of private hotels, de Savary saw a unique opportunity where others saw only overwhelming chaos.

He intended to transform Skibo into a private club where members could enjoy the same privileged amenities, ambiance and experience of Carnegie's guests.

Paying $10 million for what remained of the estate, he immediately set about making necessary repairs and restorations, such as fixing holes in the roof and reclaiming the grounds, which had been overgrown.

De Savary also retrieved as much of Skibo's original furniture as he could find. For example, the great dining room table had been packed up and was ready to be shipped off to an American buyer, when de Savary snatched it back. Donald Steele, a leading British golf designer, was hired to lay out a 6,650-yard, 18-hole championship links course along the firth.

Several years ago, a second nine-hole course was added, following the plan of Carnegie's original course.

All told, de Savary has invested another $30 million into the project, despite setbacks in other areas of his financial empire.

In 1994, the Carnegie Club was ready to host its first guests, offering them an experience much like the one Carnegie had created a century before.

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