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Elinor Florence (Company name) Elinor Florence

Andrew Carnegie Gave It All Away

I have two slender connections with the famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, but both are very meaningful: my hometown library, and my new book.

Lovely old two-storey red brick building silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky.

Welcome to Letters From Windermere, a monthly blog in which I write about:

  • HISTORY: mostly Western Canada history, plus anything else that interests me;
  • WRITING: behind-the-scenes info about my next work of historical fiction;
  • BOOKS: I recommend a good book every month.

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I knew about Andrew Carnegie from a young age, because his generosity paid for the public library in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, shown in the photo above.

As a voracious reader, the library was my refuge and my salvation, my personal version of Disneyland.

I can still hear the creak of the broad wooden steps leading up to the front desk, and the smell (oh, the smell!) of all those lovely printed pages. If I were transported back in time, I could walk directly to the section where the Lucy Maud Montgomery books were shelved.

And it was very clear who had provided this lovely building.

Sometimes called “The Patron Saint of Libraries,” Andrew Carnegie donated the funds for some two thousand public libraries, and not just in the United States.

There were 125 Carnegie libraries in Canada, all but fourteen located in Ontario. Click here for the complete list: Carnegie Libraries.

My own prairie province of Saskatchewan had two of them – one in Regina, which has now been demolished; and the other in North Battleford, which now houses the Allen Sapp Gallery. This is entirely appropriate since Allen Sapp (1928-2015) is our best-known Indigenous artist.

The artist loved having a gallery devoted to his paintings and often spent time there, delighting visitors by chatting about his work.

Elderly indigenous man with long dark braids and cowboy hat stands outside handsome brick building

Inside the gallery, you can view beautiful paintings like this one. The artist was inspired by his childhood growing up on the Red Pheasant Reserve, and the magnificent landscape that surrounded him.

Painting of winter scene, small cabin with smoking chimney and group of people standing in the snow with a team of horses and a wagon

The people of Saskatchewan owe a huge debt of gratitude to Andrew Carnegie for this beautiful heritage building.

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But Who Was Andrew Carnegie?

Born in Scotland in 1835 to working class parents, Andrew Carnegie emigrated to the United States and started work as a “bobbin boy” in a cotton mill, making $1.20 per week. He then secured a job in a railway company, saved enough money to buy ten shares in the company, and eventually made his millions in the steel industry. He became one of America’s richest men.


His most famous quote: “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.”

Whoever accused the Scots of being tight-fisted was obviously not referring to this generous soul.

Portrait of kind-faced elderly man with white beard

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Carnegie’s Castle in Scotland

My other connection with Andrew Carnegie came about in 2022, on a driving trip to Scotland. To see my travel photos, click here: Bonny Scotland.

My husband and I visited Dornoch, a charming town on the northeast coast of the Scottish Highlands, for two reasons: one branch of my family, the McDonalds, originated in a nearby village called Ascoilemore that was “cleared” by the dastardly Countess of Sutherland who evicted her tenants because she wanted to graze sheep on her estate instead. Read more about that here: Highland Clearances.

We located the stone foundations of Ascoilemore, which was razed to the ground in 1821. Most of the villagers, including my own McDonald clan, boarded the next ship to Canada. (They were probably better off in Canada, to be honest, but that doesn’t excuse their cruel treatment.)

For this reason, the main character in my new novel, Flora Craigie, comes from Dornoch and emigrates to Canada after her family was cleared from their little croft. I thought this was a fitting tribute to my own family history.

(As an aside, the Sutherlands still live there in the magnificent Dunrobin Castle just down the road. I visited the castle and I took this photo of the countess’s portrait, grinding my teeth with rage and reflecting that she could have learned a thing or two from Andrew Carnegie.)

Painting of a beautiful woman with pompadour hair and a cream-coloured dress

My other reason for visiting Dornoch was to meet fellow author Liz Treacher. We had previously contacted through the wonders of the worldwide web. Like me, she is toiling away in a remote area without much opportunity to network with other writers. Liz is a gifted author and I urge you to order her books online. My favourite so far is The Wrong Envelope.

She and her husband Martin live outside Dornoch and they invited us for homemade scones on what was my birthday in the merry month of May.

During our visit, we made the happy discovery that her husband Martin Treacher is a professional piper and pianist. Martin even played Happy Birthday on the bagpipes for me! Behind him is the view of Dornoch Firth, as seen from their house.

Man in Highland costume playing the bagpipes against a backdrop of water and mountains

Amazingly, Martin Treacher works at Skibo Castle, the former summer home of Andrew Carnegie and now home to the exclusive Carnegie Club!

Lovely castle in the verdant countryside of Scotland

When we visited the local Historylinks Museum in Dornoch, we learned more about the life and times of Skibo Castle’s famous former owner.

Display of three photographs showing Andrew Carnegie, his wife Louise and the couple with their baby in a carriage

Andrew Carnegie never married until the ripe old age of fifty-one because he was so devoted to his ailing mother Margaret. Five months after she died, he wed his long-time fiancée Louise Whitfield in 1887, who was then only thirty years old.

Unusual for those days, Louise signed a prenuptial agreement, renouncing any claims to Andrew’s millions. Louise endorsed his philanthropic attitude and became his most trusted confidante. Andrew said he never made one decision without first asking Lou’s opinion.

Couple standing arm in arm, a white-bearded man in a jacket and bow tie, and a middle-aged woman in a large ornate picture hat

The same year they were married, Andrew returned to his Scottish homeland, purchasing and refurbishing a rundown castle just outside Dornoch.

Skibo Castle is now the property of private members, frequented by the rich and famous. (Fun fact: Madonna and Guy Ritchie were married there).

Little has changed since Andrew and Lou lived in the castle. I can picture them sitting here, admiring the view while planning their next gift to charity.

Beautiful interior of chairs facing a set of full-length windows inside a stately mansion

It wasn’t until ten years after their marriage that the couple produced their only child, a daughter. How thrilled they must have been!

They named her Margaret, after Andrew’s mother. Here is Margaret with her fond parents.

Young woman wearing long dress seated beside her mother, while a white-bearded man, her father, stands beside them

Margaret married and had four children, and her children also had children, but not one of them received a cent from their famous grandfather’s estate.

Andrew Carnegie died in 1919. He did, however, leave their Manhattan home to his beloved wife Louise, who died in 1946. It is now a National Historic Landmark called the Andrew Carnegie Mansion.

Stately three-storey red brick building surrounded by vegetation

The rest of his vast fortune was left to charity. 

No doubt you have heard of Carnegie Hall. (Question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer: Practise, my boy, practise).

Andrew Carnegie also created trust funds for the advancement of international peace, education, the arts, scientific research, and even the betterment of social conditions in his tiny home town of Dunfermline, Scotland.

In today’s currency, Andrew Carnegie gave away FOUR BILLION DOLLARS.

Perhaps we should ALL take a lesson from this most generous of men!

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My Writing Journey

My focus on writing this month has been more about clothes than the written word! I’m busy packing for the “Writing and Publishing Voyage” on the Queen Mary 2, which leaves the port of Southampton on April 27 and arrives seven days later in New York City.

There is a theme night on board called the “Roaring Twenties.” After some research, I ordered a so-called “flapper dress” from an outfit in Thailand. It arrived ten days later, tied up in a satin ribbon with a hand-written note. Believe me, not all my online ordering experiences have been so positive!

Here’s a photo of the dress. I don’t have a parasol or a cloche, but I think I can find a long string of pearls. I’ll share a photo of myself wearing the dress next time!

Young woman wearing wine-coloured flapper dress and carrying a parasol

Our little group of thirty writers — most of them American, with only one male in the group (isn’t it typical that women like to take instruction more than men do?) will enjoy workshops in writing and publishing every morning from nine to noon, and then we are free for the rest of the day to wander around the vessel.

The Queen Mary 2 is the only passenger ship in the world. She sails back and forth between Southampton and New York every seven days. If you want to travel to Europe without flying, you can book your passage on the ship. I’ll share more info in my next blog post on May 15, 2024. Mark it on your calendar!

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Book of the Month

Until recently, I used to claim that my novel Bird’s Eye View was the only book ever written featuring a Canadian woman in uniform. That changed this month with the release of Genevieve Graham’s new novel, The Secret Keeper, about not one but TWO Canadian twin sisters named Dot and Dash (how cute is that?) who join the Royal Canadian Women’s Naval Service, otherwise known as the Wrens. I have read every one of Genevieve’s books and she never disappoints.

Book cover showing portrait of a woman with red lipstick and a yellow dress, her eyes in shadow

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Thank you to all my new subscribers for signing up in the last few months, and to all my “old” subscribers who have shared Letters From Windermere with your friends. I truly appreciate your support.

Coming up on May 15 is a description of my sea voyage, and a blog post on June 19 from the Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, Saskatchewan where I will be the writer in residence for the entire month.

PLEASE NOTE: Next month I will have a new email address in my own name, to protect both you and me from those horrible spam artists. Please delete and add this one to your contacts: My next email will come from this new address.

With gratitude for each new day, Elinor

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