Andrew Carnegie and me

At the moment I am rereading the autobiography of Andrew Carnegie. For me he is a leading example of a ‘good capitalist’. I see some parallels between my early life and that of Carnegie and I have been thinking about similarities and differences. We were both born in Scotland to parents who were not rich. His father was a weaver. At some stage advances in technology meant that his form of industry was no longer viable. The family had difficulty earning their living and decided to emigrate to America. While still in Scotland Carnegie’s mother started a business to supplement the income of her husband.

My father was a farmer. When he began the size of the farm (70 acres) was sufficient. (I recently noticed the coincidence that the father of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, also had a farm of 70 acres.) Later there was a trend where the size of farms increased and the machinery used to work them became more advanced. In order to do this the farmers, who were mostly not rich, had to borrow money to buy more land and better machines. The banks were eager to lend them that money. Of course this meant a certain risk but many of the people concerned were prepared to take that risk. My father, on the other hand, never borrowed any money in his life and so he missed taking part in this development. This meant that under the new conditions the farm was too small (and in fact some of it was not very good land – it was too wet) to support our family (my parents, my grandmother and myself) very easily. My mother did everything she could to supplement the income of my father. In particular she took in bed and breakfast guests during the summer. I should point out that we were not poor. We did not lack anything essential, living in part from our own produce such as milk, butter, cheese, eggs, potatoes and meat. My grandmother kept a pig and hens. The school I attended, Kirkwall Grammar School, was the school for all children in the area – there was no alternative. The parents of many of the other children I went to school with were better off financially than my parents. As a sign of this, I mention an exchange between our school and one in Canada. Many of the other pupils took part in that. My parents could not afford to finance it for me. At a time when many people were getting their first colour TV we still had a very old black and white device where with time ‘black’ and ‘white’ were becoming ever more similar. I did not feel disadvantaged but I just mention these things to avoid anyone claiming that I grew up in particularly fortunate economic circumstances.

Both Carnegie and I benefitted from the good educational system in Scotland. School was already free and compulsory in his time. My university education was mostly financed by the state, although I did win a couple of bursaries in competitions which helped to make my life more comfortable. In my time parents had to pay a part of the expenses for their childrens’ university education, depending on their incomes. My parents did not have to pay anything. Some of the people I studied with should have got a contribution from their parents but did not get as much as they should have. Thus I actually had an advantage compared to them. Carnegie’s father was involved in politics and had quite a few connections. My parents had nothing like that. It might be thought that since my parents did not have very much money or connections and since there were very few books in our house I started life with some major disadvantages. I would never make this complaint since I know that my parents gave me some things which were much more important than that and which helped me to build a good life. I grew up in a family where I felt secure. My parents taught me to behave in certain ways, not by command but by their example. They taught me the qualities of honesty, reliability, hard work and humility. Carnegie received the same gifts from his parents.

Let me now come back to the question of books. As a child I was hungry for them. We had a good school library which included some unusual things which I suppose not all parents would have been happy about if they had known the library as well as I did. For instance there was a copy of the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’. What was important for my future was that there were current and back issues of Scientific American and New Scientist. There was also a public library from which I benefitted a lot. Apparently this was the first public library in Scotland, founded in 1683. In the beginning it was by subscription. It became free due to a gift of money from Andrew Carnegie in 1889. He spent a huge amount of time and effort in supporting public libraries in many places. In 1903 Carnegie also gave the money to construct a building for the library and that is the building it was still in when I was using it. He visited Kirkwall to open the library in 1909. Thus it can be said that I personally received a gift of huge value from Carnegie, the privilege of using that library. His activity in this area was his way of returning the gift which he received as a young boy when someone in Pittsburgh opened his private library to working boys.

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