Dunfermline, Scotland: Birthplace of Carnegie and Forbes is Pittsburgh's soulmate

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DUNFERMLINE, Scotland -- They stand just about a half mile between them, door to door. A modest weaver's cottage and a 378-year-old noble estate, where two men emerged from circumstance as different as the centuries they were born in. And while this town is sacred ground to the Scots -- none other than Robert the Bruce is buried here -- it should be nearly as such to anyone who calls Pittsburgh home.

On Nov. 25, 1758, Gen. John Forbes, a native of this ancient capital of Scotland, captured the abandoned French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River for the British and renamed it "Pittsburgh" after his boss, the English statesmen who saw Britain through the French and Indian War, William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham.

Exactly 77 years to the day later, the man who would become father of Pittsburgh steel and philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie, was born here in 1835 in his family's 12-by-15-foot single-room living space.

Of the almost cosmic connection between the two towns, Frank Connelly said in a healthy Scottish brogue, "This is our sheerd hesstray" (shared history). An energetic native Dunfermlinian, and an unabashed civic booster with an encyclopedic knowledge of his hometown (think a Scottish Rick Sebak), Mr. Connelly is the director of Dynamic Dunfermline, an organization among whose principal objectives is strengthening ties between his town and the American city so heavily shaped by two of its most famous native sons.

On Monday, they'll honor Carnegie's 178th birthday with a day full of educational events around the town. Perhaps not coincidentally, the event is being promoted with a colorful, Warholian-influenced poster of Carnegie (that other Pittsburgh Andy, whose work was recently feted in the Scottish Parliament).

Carnegie's humble home

The 30-minute train ride to Dunfermline from Edinburgh includes a breathtaking few moments crossing the massive, cantilevered 123-year-old Forth Rail Bridge, the first steel structure in Britain. Below is the Firth-of-Forth, and on the horizon, the North Sea. Dunfermline straddles a hillside, a strategic location.

There is evidence of settlements here dating to the Stone Age, but the town's "modern" history begins nearly a thousand years ago. The Scottish national hero Robert the Bruce ruled here and is buried in the 900-year-old Romanesque Dunfermline Abbey, now partial ruins.

In his autobiography "The Gospel of Wealth," Carnegie wrote, "Fortunate in my ancestors, I was supremely so in my birthplace," and although he lived there only until age 12 it's clear that the Dunfermline of his youth remained of paramount influence to one of the wealthiest self-made men in human history. And although two Scottish and two British kings were born here (and the lead singer of Jethro Tull), it is Carnegie's impact that is still felt here on a daily basis as it is in Pittsburgh.

The first of 2,811 Carnegie Libraries worldwide was opened here in 1883. Showing the timeless wisdom of politicians, its construction was actually opposed by town councilman who worried about raising taxes to pay for its upkeep. Like so many Carnegie Libraries in and around Pittsburgh, it's a regal structure of a long-gone era, but inside a working modern-day library like any other -- unremarkable in appearance, invaluable in utility.

A Carnegie Hall, constructed in 1937 in Art Deco style, is a hub of the town's arts community. And even at the Guildhall & Linen Exchange, a centuries-old commerce building retrofitted into a modern pub that serves American craft beers, a placard of Carnegie quotes hangs prominently behind the bar. Until this year when it merged with another school, a nearby college was called Carnegie College.

The son of a handloom weaver -- the town was a center for linens prior to the industrial revolution -- Carnegie was born in a tiny house on Moodie Street, which the primary exhibit of the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum. Curator Lorna Owers said it was here that Carnegie absorbed the struggle of poverty, and had many of his lifelong philosophical beliefs solidified by his father and uncle, both staunch "Chartists" who championed the common man and the possibility of upward mobility.

The family's tiny living quarters (the house was shared with another family) are above a room with a working replica of the Jaquard handloom his father used. The downstairs room is where William Carnegie toiled and Andrew learned the trade as a bobbin boy.

The main exhibition hall follows his life from his adolescence in Pittsburgh through the height of his empire, and his later life as a globe-trotting philanthropist. An at-times ruthless businessman yet benevolent benefactor, a pacifist whose steel fueled the wars of the world (and his fortunes), Carnegie is a study in contrasts, Ms. Owers said.

"He was just a dynamo that wouldn't stop," Ms. Owers said of Carnegie's lifelong curiosity about the world, zeal for success and relentless optimism.

Some artifacts show his connection to his powerful or famous contemporaries: a signed letter and photograph from King Edward VII, inscribed photos from Helen Keller and from Czar Nicholas II, a walking stick made from the hide of a rhinoceros shot by Theodore Roosevelt.

Others symbolically reflect the reach of his philanthropy: original Carnegie Hero medals, a Carnegie Mellon football helmet, Sesame Street Bert & Ernie puppets (Carnegie money ultimately helped fund the Children's Television Workshop), and a fossilized dinosaur egg gifted from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, a Delft plate of the Peace Palace at The Hague, the construction of which he underwrote.

Ms. Owers also has good news for native Pittsburghese speakers: she said that "kar-NAY-gee" -- as is said in Western Pennsylvania -- is the correct pronunciation of the family name, not "KAR-nuh-gee," as is said in New York and elsewhere.

Forbes' fine estate

Forbes was born a short distance away on the Pittencrieff Estate in 1710, but less is known of Forbes' early life in Dunfermline.

The estate grounds date back more than 700 years, the house to 1635. Forbes' father came into possession of it in 1701.

Surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens and wooded passages, the orange-ish 'Laird's" house has a plaque on the outside denoting Forbes' birth there, and a handsome granite and bronze marker commemorates his 300-mile march "through the Pennsylvania back country" from Philadelphia to "the forks of the Ohio River." (The same marker is found at Fort Ligonier.) The house today is a natural history museum.

The narrative on Forbes picks up with his distinguished military career, the culmination of which was the capture of Fort Duquesne. Shortly before his death, he wrote to Pitt of the victory:

"I have used the freedom of giving your name to Fort Du Quesne, as I hope it was in some measure the being actuated by your spirits that now makes us Masters of the place. ... these dreary deserts will soon be the richest and most fertile of any possest by the British in No. America."

Although Forbes died nearly 80 years before Carnegie was born, they are connected by more than simply the town. Forbes' home of Pittencrief had changed hands between various gentry in the subsequent years. When Carnegie was a boy, Pittencrieff's then-current occupants, the Hunt family, had a dispute with Carnegie's maternal grandfather and forbade any and all of his descendents from ever entering the grounds on the one day of the year it was open to the general public.

Fortunes changed. As Carnegie amassed Croesus-like riches, the in-debt Hunt family offered to sell the entire estate to him. In his best-selling biography of Carnegie, David Nasaw writes that taking possession of Pittencrief was among the seminal moments of Carnegie's life.

Mr. Nasaw said that in a letter to a friend, Carnegie wrote, "Pittencrieff is the world of charm to me and has so been since childhood. No title is precious in all the world as Laird of Pittencrieff."

And as the new (and final) Laird of Pittencrieff, Carnegie immediately decided to make it a grand public park for the working classes of Dunfermline. In his autobiography "My Own Story," Carnegie wrote, "Pittencrieff Glen is the most soul-satisfying public gift I ever made, or ever can make, to the people of Dunfermline forever. This is the crowning mercy of my career! I set it apart from all my other public gifts."

Pittsburgh and Dunfermline forever

Today, Dunfermline could be considered a bedroom community of Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, 17 miles to the southeast. But with a population of nearly 50,000 and a charming High Street with gorgeous architecture, it is a formidable town in its own right.

However, Dunfermline has been diminished from its past glories and Mr. Connelly sees the town's connection with Pittsburgh as an important part of the history and as a link to the future as well. After all, if any place knows about reinvention, it's Pittsburgh.

He's visited Pittsburgh several times, most recently this summer, gave a webinar with Robert Morris students just last week and is developing relationships with the British American Business Council and the St. Andrews Society. He'll be here again in January for the Carnegie Museum's annual Robert Burns supper. Furthermore, a large delegation from the Carnegie visited Dunfermline in October during the centenary celebration of the Carnegie Trust UK.

"I want to take on the role of pushing forward the links with Pittsburgh," he said and to "get links across a whole wide range of organizations -- for instance, school links between your schools and our Carnegie Primary School."

After all, Mr. Connelly said, "Dunfermline's history is part of your history as well."

A sheerd hesstray, that is.

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @gigs412.

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