(Above – the hall at Skibo Castle with the organ to the left of the stairs).
Skibo Castle is a vast, semi-Gothic Victorian mansion set in 20,000 acres of land in Sutherland, a remote and beautiful area in the north-east of Scotland. In 1898 it was bought by Andrew Carnegie, the famous steel magnate who had made his way from humble beginnings as a weaver’s son from Dunfermline, Fife to become one of the richest men in the world. Carnegie spend a huge amount renovating the castle, adding a golf course and a swimming pavilion. One of Carnegie’s great passions was music, particularly organ music. In 1901, as part of his wide-reaching philanthropic work, he began paying for organs to be installed in thousands of churches across the US. He even had one installed in his mansion on 5th Avenue in New York. When he renovated Skibo he did the same, installing a church organ built by Brindley and Foster in the large hall of Skibo, at the foot of the stairs. When they spent their first summer at Skibo, his wife Louisa hired an organist as a surprise for her husband. It became tradition from then on that the organist would play every morning as the family and their guests had breakfast.
In 1908 my great-grandfather, David Stephen, became the summer organist for Andrew Carnegie at Skibo. It sounds like a grand position – a summer spent in the lap of luxury in the north of Scotland, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and possibly even royalty. Great-grandfather was 39, a well respected composer, conductor and music teacher in his own right and supervised the installations of church organs throughout Scotland as well as being able to play one. In reality the position of organist at Skibo was one of the duties he had to perform on becoming Director of Music for the Carnegie Trust in Dunfermline. He was treated very well by the Carnegies at the castle, but his wife and children could not accompany him on the summers he spent there. 3 large volumes of diaries that he kept throughout his life have some fascinating entries describing his experiences there and give us a personal account of how the Carnegies lived and who they spent time with.
Great-grandfather’s first trip to Skibo was in August 1908 and his mood was upbeat on arrival at the house of the man he often referred to as “Mr C.” or “the Laird”:
“Hurrah for the Highlands! Here I am seated in the gun-room (or smoking room) of Skibo Castle far removed from Dunfermline. I came up here yesterday. I had never travelled on the Highland Railway beyond Blair Atholl. Consequently it was rather interesting, at least as far as Inverness….
Mr and Mrs Carnegie gave me a very cordial welcome, while Mr C. took me to the house where I am to live during my sojourn here. Later on I dined at the Castle. There is not a very large house party at present, but it includes several rather interesting characters. A Baroness (Bertha Von) Suttner, an Austrian, who has caught on by a novel, “Lay Down Your Arms”, written in the interests of universal peace….To me a still more interesting person was Felix Moscheles, son of the friend of Mendelssohn, and a god-son of the great composer. His recollections of Mendelssohn and many other musicians are very racy.”
He was initially homesick whilst finding his feet – and his place – in the elaborate remoteness of Skibo:
“Here there is absolutely nothing. I come up to the Castle at 8; play for half and hour then loaf all day until 9.30 when dinner ends, play a bit, leave about 10.30 and so on, ad lib or rather not ad lib but at tempo, for if I had a way, I should throw it all up, pack my bag and make for Dunfermline.”
Less than a week later he seemed to have recovered his sense of worth at the Castle and was beginning to enjoy his duties:
“I feel I have established my reputation here as this morning Mr Carnegie was quite delighted with the music and expressed himself in no uncertain way regarding it. He says that Gale, his American organist, and myself are the only two who have played to make him feel himself “a poor miserable sinner” and that this is the object of the playing in the morning. It is quite an easy matter for me to do this as it simply means playing chorales and psalm tunes full force all the time. He wants to hear it.”
In the privacy of his diary he would pass comment on the situation he found himself in, (effectively the Court musician for the Laird), sometimes with mild criticisms of the lack of culture of some of the house guests:
“The life here to me seems to be of the nature of that of the musicians who held Court appointments in the past, only the potentates under whom Haydn, Mozart and others served had a considerable knowledge of and liking for the best in classical style. Another point of difference is that in most of the cases the Court musiker was treated simply as one of the ordinary servants and not as an equal. Here I must say such a state of affairs does not exist. Both the Laird and Madame are extremely considerate and so are the guests.”
The first summer at Skibo great-grandfather recorded rounds of golf with Carnegie and friends; trips to Highland Games; church outings with the other house guests; and some of the interesting conversations and interactions he had of an evening when he would play after dinner, and was not limited to the church music so favored by Carnegie. He rarely seemed in awe of the positions held by guests – British and American politicians, businessmen and newspaper owners – or their connections:
“I have had several very interesting talks with Miss Whitfield, Mrs Carnegie’s sister. She is keenly musical and has a mind of her own on the subject too. She is extremely partial to Tchaikovsky, especially his more serious work. She mentioned that on the occasion of one of his visits to America he stayed with them. I hinted at what Professor Niecks said of him, in comparing him with Bach, but of course she would not enter into that.”
Clearly great-grandfather had some opinions on Tchaikovsky v. Bach that he would have liked to air here but Miss Whitfield, having had Tchaikovsky as a house guest, would not take the bait!
Many of the people he met were great of their time but are forgotten names today. One diary entry recorded a congenial meeting with a female guest, Lady Sarah Wilson:
“The latter …stayed with me while I played bits of “Parsifal”, Walkurie” etc. She seems a go-ahead sort of woman, one seemingly of the “fast lot”, or smart set. She asked me if I thought they would mind her smoking in the hall. I replied that I had never seen it done. I should have liked to see her light up.”
This “go-ahead” sort of woman who wanted to smoke in the hall of Skibo, when most men were confined to the smoking room (Andrew Carnegie hated the smell of smoke), may or may not have been familiar to great-grandfather. Her full name was Lady Sarah Isabella Augusta Spencer-Churchill. In 1899 she had been recruited by the Daily Mail to cover the Siege of Mafeking during the second Boer War. She was, effectively, the country’s first female war correspondent. She was also the aunt of Winston Churchill.
If great-grandfather was not especially intimidated by the guests, there were certain other things that did make him feel uncomfortable. The Castle itself seemed to be a time capsule in its own right, including a fabulous library of volumes bought second-hand and bound specifically for Skibo, as well as many tomes which had been presented to Carnegie “on the occasion of openings of libraries and presentations of freedom of cities”. Great-grandfather was desperate for some good books to read to pass some time when he wasn’t working, but was loath to take anything from the castle library:
“In the Castle library [books] are of course super-abundant, but in their magnificent bindings one is afraid to take them outside the walls.”
On another occasion he admitted to his diary that he hid from the Carnegies so as not to have to accept an invitation to go out on the yacht with the house party. This may have been because, once he found his feet, he preferred to spend some of his time between the morning organ playing and the evening session working on his own musical compositions and arrangements, some of which were expected by the Carnegie Trust and the Dunfermline School of Music. He was, first and foremost, a working musician who could not afford to while away his time frivolously.
Despite blowing hot and cold on his experiences at Skibo, this passage from the end of the summer season in 1909 best sums up his thoughts on work for the Laird:
“In most ways I was glad to leave the home of the millionaire; glad to get back to “my ain folk”; but at the same time Skibo has its attractions. The place and the district are both ideal, the Laird and his charming lady are very pleasant and do their best to make me feel perfectly at home, while one has the opportunity of coming into personal contact with many great and notable personages. That in my humble opinion is really the greatest privilege I have enjoyed, looking back on my two seasons there. Mr Carnegie honored me by giving me a signed photograph of himself…”
I don’t know what became of the signed photograph of Carnegie. Great-grandfather continued as a working teacher, choral director and composer for the rest of his life. His 3 children – Herbert, Kemlo and Margaret – all became professional musicians too. He continued to keep a diary of family life and his musical work but did not return to Skibo after the summer of 1912. Skibo is now an exclusive luxurious country club but the organ remains in the hall and is still played at breakfast time as guests gather downstairs for breakfast.