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Andrew Carnegie’s Love of Robert Burns

Posted: 25 January 2020

On the 25th January people throughout Scotland - as well as Scots descendants across the diaspora - will celebrate Burns Night. This annual evening of poetry, haggis and whisky commemorates Scotland’s national Bard, Robert Burns. Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire in 1759. The son of a farmer, he is regarded today as one of Scotland’s greatest writers. Though he died aged just 37, the Ploughman Poet left a legacy that endures over two centuries after his death. One of Burns’ greatest admirers was Scottish industrialist and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, who called him the “Poet Prophet of his age.”1

Carnegie was born in Dunfermline in 1835, almost four decades after the death of Burns. Growing up, he was very close to his uncle George Lauder, and cousin, George ‘Dod’ Lauder. Uncle George was a great storyteller and taught the two boys about Scottish history and culture, thrilling them with stories of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and introducing them to the works of writers like Walter Scott and James Hogg.  The poet Robert Burns was a particular favourite of Andrew’s. He would later write that “the words of Burns […] created in me a vein of Scottish prejudice (or patriotism) which will cease to exist only with life.”2 He took the poet’s words “thine own reproach alone do fear” as his motto, and no matter where life took Carnegie he never lost his love of his homeland – or his love of Burns.3

In 1885, when it was decided to open the Hall of Heroes at the Scottish National Wallace Monument to celebrate Scotland’s most significant historical figures, Carnegie was the first to contribute. He chose - of course - Robert Burns, and a marble bust sculpted by artist D.W. Stevenson was unveiled in a ceremony at the monument on 4 September 1886. The proceedings concluded fittingly with a rendition of ‘Scots Wha Hae’, a popular patriotic song with lyrics by Burns.4

Bust of Robert Burns, gifted by Andrew Carnegie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1891.

Bust of Robert Burns, gifted by Andrew Carnegie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1891.

In 1890, Carnegie commissioned sculptor Charles Calverley to cast a bronze bust of Burns for display in his library. Pleased with the likeness, Carnegie ordered a second bust in 1891 which he gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.5

Carnegie was an Honorary Patron of the Burn Exhibition, held in 1896 at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in commemoration of the Centenary of the death of Robert Burns.6 He also spoke at numerous ceremonies and celebrations of Burns life, including the unveiling of a statue to Burns in Montrose in 1912 where he waxed lyrical about the talents and legacy of the ‘Immortal Bard’, telling the crowd that:

It was not his genius, his insight, his vision, his wit or spirit of manly independence, nor all of these combined, which captured the hearts of men. It was his spontaneous, tender, all-pervading sympathy with every form of misfortune, pain or grief; not only in man but in every created form of being., he loved all living things, both great and small.7

Given his love for Burns, it is unsurprising that Carnegie was Honorary President of the Burns Federation for a decade.8 He also befriended Burns’ descendants, becoming close friends with Burns’ granddaughter Jane Emma Burns and great-granddaughter Jean Armour Burns Brown.9 He was described as a “sincere and devoted” friend in Brown’s obituary.10

Robert Burns portrait by Robert Nasmyth; copy of the portrait on display in Skibo Castle

Robert Burns portrait by Robert Nasmyth; copy of the portrait on display in Skibo Castle

At Skibo, a copy of Alexander Nasmyth’s portrait of Robert Burns hangs in the Card Room. It is apt that it hangs at the entrance to the castle library, as on the shelves within sits Carnegie’s personal three volume set of The Poetical Works of Robert Burns. These books contain Carnegie’s bookplate – bearing the motto “Let there be light” – and the original library catalogue numbers handwritten in pencil.

Carnegie’s admiration for Burns and love of his work endured throughout his life. At the unveiling of the Burns statue in Montrose, Carnegie proclaimed: “We are met to-day to testify that the immortal Bard still lives in our memory, that his fame increases with time – that his place in the world as in our hearts strengthens with the years.” Those words were true in 1912 and even truer in 2020, as all across the world Scots and Burns-lovers alike sit down to supper on the 25thJanuary to toast the immortal memory of the Ploughman Poet.


1 Andrew Carnegie, Address by Andrew Carnegie at the Unveiling of a Statue to Burns (Dunfermline: A. Romanes & Son, 1912), p.6.

2 Andrew Carnegie, Biography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920), p.16.

3 Andrew Carnegie, Biography of Andrew Carnegie (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1920), p.3.

4 William Harvey, Robert Burns in Stirlingshire (Stirling: Eneas Mackay, 1899), p.119-20.

5 Thayer Tolles (ed.), American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vol. I: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born Before 1865 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), p.162.

6 Memorial Catalogue of the Burns Exhibition Held in the Galleries of the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts (Glasgow: William Hodge & Co., 1898), p.xi.

7 Andrew Carnegie, Address by Andrew Carnegie at the Unveiling of a Statue to Burns (Dunfermline: A. Romanes & Son, 1912), p.3.

8 Anon, ‘Burns Federation’, The Scotsman, 8 September 1919, p.3.

9 Anon, ‘Death of a Granddaughter of Robert Burns’, The Scotsman, 26 September 114, p.4.

10 M.H. McKerrow, ‘Obituary: Miss Jean Armour Burns Brown’, Burns Chronicle and Club Directory, Vol XIV (Kilmarnock: The Burns Federation, 1939), pp.116-7, p.117.

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