As previewed in my April 16th post, I had the good fortune to be in Dunfermline, Scotland for the unveiling of the striking bronze marker honoring Brigadier General John Forbes at his birthplace. Dunfermline is a beautiful town just across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. The marker (made in Pittsburgh by Mathews International, the oldest company in Allegheny County) is a permanent reminder of the deep ties that exist between western Pennsylvania and Scotland.
Pittsburgh and Edinburgh share both history and the “burgh,” but we also share crazy April weather (it was sunny, raining, snowing and sleeting all in one day), as well as a neighborly penchant to take anyone a “wee bit” lost by the hand, and deliver them personally to their destination.
“General Forbes,” “Andrew Carnegie” and a real-life Forbes descendent, Lawrence Keppie, joined me in unveiling the marker. I thought the Forbes re-enactor looked just as he should and just as I’d imagined the general. When I asked him what he liked about portraying Forbes, he said it was actually a somewhat new experience as he usually portrays kings (he does a great Robert the Bruce, apparently). It was fun to talk about these historic figures with someone who helps bring them to life for the public.
Joining me in Scotland for the festivities were Scott Stephenson, an expert on the Seven Years War in North America and curator of collections at the Museum of the American Revolution, soon to be under construction in Philadelphia, and Joanne Hanley, a trustee of Fort Ligonier and the president of the Gettysburg Foundation. Joanne and I found Scott to be a marvelous guide, with incredibly deep and resonant knowledge of the people and places in Scotland that helped shape events in 18th-century North America.
Historic Dunfermline and members of the Fife Council welcomed us with a memorable dinner at Pitfirrane House, the family seat of the Halkett family which was built in the 1540s. Sir Peter Halkett and his son James were both killed at the Battle of Braddock in 1755, and are buried somewhere near the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, PA. At the dinner we also met members of the Carnegie UK Trust who are discussing a possible exhibition with The Andy Warhol Museum, and who regularly work with counterparts in the U.S. on the Carnegie philanthropy awards. We all agreed it makes compelling sense to connect the various relationship threads to create a more coherent and vibrant ongoing transatlantic partnership.
The chance to meet some truly engaging and thoughtful people, especially our facilitator extraordinaire Frank Connelly, made for many happy memories. But we also experienced powerful and sometimes melancholy reminders of how individual decisions and actions quite literally can change the course of history. Seeing the refined and orderly world that John Forbes called home made the wilderness and sheer terror of the frontier he faced in Pennsylvania even more compelling. His sense of duty, honor and perseverance — even in the face of fatal illness — exemplifies the power of such personal influence. We also encountered another startling example. We spent a morning enthralled by the Forbes papers at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. There we saw a letter from George Washington to John Stanwix, then British commander in Pennsylvania, dated March 4, 1758, just a month before the Forbes campaign got underway.
In his letter, Washington complains of an ongoing and debilitating gastric illness that surely made the reality of mid-18th century daily life an ordeal. In the same letter, he told Stanwix of his keen disappointment to have received no promotion in the British military, and he was, in fact, contemplating complete retirement from the army. Talk about a “What if”! Had Washington actually retired, he most certainly would not have played a significant role 20 years later in 1776, as his French and Indian War service is what led to his starring military role in the American Revolution.
In 2013, we’ll have the chance to invite our friends in Scotland to Pittsburgh for the completion of reconstruction of Point State Park. That is when we’ll be able to install permanently our own Forbes Trail marker here. It will be another occasion to celebrate some common bonds and a shared appreciation for the power and importance of our historic sites.
The Scotland Courier ran this story about the unveiling ceremony.