Flesh and Blood
On a bleak twenty-fifth day of November in 1835, a quixotic clan gathered in the one-room ground floor of a weaver's cottage in Dunfermline, Scotland, to await the arrival of its newest member. That day, Andrew Carnegie—or Andra as his relatives would call him—was born into a large family of political activists, radicals, and eccentrics. These blood relations, with all their passions and idiosyncrasies, would inspire and haunt Andra; they would infuse him with proletarian social and political convictions that would create merciless internal conflict as he came to embody the quintessential American rags-to-riches story.
The first in the family tree on record to protest the British monarchy and the oppressive living conditions suffered by the working class was James Carnegie, Andra's great-grandfather, who was of Celtic blood. 1 A shadowy figure in family lore, James had settled in Pattiemuir, just north of Edinburgh, where he leased land for farming and took up weaving. The village encompassed about a dozen cottages with red-tiled or thatched roofs nestled among softly rolling pastureland. During the Meal Riots of 1770, which followed a bad harvest, he was arrested for sedition against the local gentry who controlled the land and bore the blame for the food shortages. While he was in prison, a mysterious lady visited him and gave him a jewel-encrusted snuffbox, which prompted rumors that the Carnegie lineage was of a more exulted rank than mere peasant weaver. The earls of Northesk and of Southesk both bore the name Carnegie, but the family proudly denied any connection. Although James escaped conviction and quietly returned to his family, the name Carnegie, a Gaelic compound word meaning “fort at the gap, ” would be forever associated with the radical element.
James's oldest son and Andra's grandfather, Andrew Carnegie, was more of an eccentric than a radical. Also a natural leader, he was more blithe than his father and lived by the Scottish proverb “Be happy while you're living, for you're a long time dead”—a trait he bequeathed to Andra, who later reflected,