Stars and gripes: When US President Ulysses S Grant came to Scotland


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Smithsonian Institution

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Ulysses S Grant was the first US president to visit Scotland

There has been much speculation about whether Donald Trump will come to Scotland during a trip to the UK next month. If he does, the visit will come 140 years after Ulysses S Grant was the first American president to tour Scotland.

Like Trump, Grant was a Washington outsider, despised by Democrats and many detractors within his own Republican Party.

The two men also share close connections to Scotland. Trump’s mother was from the Isle of Lewis, while Grant was also proud of his Scottish roots.

But, unlike today’s US president, Grant was a war hero who had risen from poverty to become the commanding officer of the Northern Armies during the American Civil War.

He defeated the Confederate forces of Gen Robert E Lee in 1865, bringing an end to slavery.

After the war in 1869 Grant’s fame propelled him into the White House.

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Getty Images

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Grant made his name commanding the armies of America’s North in the civil war

While he had successes as president, such as helping to safeguard the rights of recently freed African Americans, by the end of his second term his administration had been tainted by corruption scandals.

By 1877 he was out of office, but considering standing again in the next presidential elections. In an effort to boost his own damaged reputation back home and the prestige the US abroad, Grant decided to embark on a world tour.

Britain was his first destination.

‘Funny American way’

However, his attempt to sow the seeds of what was to become the special relationship, got off to a slightly rocky start when he met Queen Victoria at a private supper at Windsor Castle.

Grant was travelling with his wife Julia and their 19-year-old son Jesse.

Victoria had arranged for Jesse to dine with the servants, but the Grants complained and the young man joined his parents for supper with the queen.

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Smithsonian Institution

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Grant was known as a man of few words

The monarch was not amused by the group, later remarking that Jesse was “a very ill mannered young Yankee” while Julia had been “civil and complimentary in her funny American way”.

Grant was cheered by large crowds wherever he went during his time in Britain. Having Scottish ancestors on both his mother’s and father’s side, he got a particularly enthusiastic welcome north of the border.

In letters home he said he was “very gratified” by the response and compared his warm reception at railway platforms to how he had been received in northern American towns in the immediate aftermath of the civil war.

Scottish warriors

But by the time Grant crossed the Tweed he was three months into his world tour and it seems he was beginning to find the constant meetings with dignitaries from town and city councils a little tiresome.

He was made a freeman of several towns and cities including Edinburgh , Glasgow and Inverness, where he was welcomed as a returning member of the Clan Grant.

After the ceremony in Inverness’ station hotel Grant, who was famous for being a man of few words, wrote that the public engagements were “very irksome to one so little inclined to speaking”.

He also complained to an American journalist about his arm hurting from having to shake so many hands remarking that it was “a great nuisance, and it should be banned”.

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Getty Images

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Grant refused an invitation to shoot a Highland stag, saying he regretted previously killing wild animals

Grant did manage to pack some of his own interests into his three week stay in Scotland, such as visiting Stirling to pay tribute to famous Scottish warriors Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.

He visited writer Walter Scott’s former home Abbotsford house in the Borders. Grant had read Scott’s novels to Julia while courting.

A trip to Ayr was a homage to Robert Burns. Grant would quote Burns’ poems during battle in the civil war, while the Bard’s songs were popular with those keen to abolish the institution of slavery.

‘Small city’

Grant had a keen interest in new technology. So where better to visit than the then almost complete Tay Bridge at Dundee? At almost two miles in length it was the longest bridge in the world.

Grant boarded a ship so he could look up at the vast piece of engineering from below. He also walked out along the bridge, which two years later collapsed while a train was crossing with the loss of at least 60 lives.

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Libraries, Leisure and Culture Dundee

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Grant visited the Tay Bridge before its construction was completed

But Grant appears to have been particularly monosyllabic during this trip. His one comment of note recorded by the press was that it was a “big bridge for a small city”.

This snub to Dundee is remembered in a song by the late singer-songwriter Michael Marra.

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Andrew Tyron/Geograph

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Grant observed efforts to improve land in the Strath of Kildonan

Grant was to visit another massive, but ultimately ill-fated, engineering scheme while being entertained by the Duke of Sutherland in the Northern Highlands.

The duke had invited Grant to go deer stalking and to shoot a stag, which would then be hung with Grant’s name on it in the duke’s Dunrobin Castle.

But Grant declined the offer saying that “twice in my life I killed wild animals and I have regretted both acts ever since”.

Instead, he accepted the duke’s offer to visit what was and still is the largest land reclamation scheme ever attempted in Britain.

Ruinously expensive

The Duke of Sutherland was obsessed with new technology and was attempting to use steam ploughs to improve tens of thousands of acres of land, previously cleared of most people in the Highland Clearances.

Grant spent several hours watching the steam engines at work in the Strath of Kildonan. The Inverness Courier reported that he had been “greatly interested and much gratified at the marked success which had attended the operation”.

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The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Re

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The Duke of Sutherland at the wheel of a steam plough, nicknamed the Duke’s Toothpick

However, this project did not have a happy ending. The steam ploughs required huge amounts of manpower, and the crofters were becoming increasingly sceptical of the benefits the machines were bringing.

One observer commented that they needed “a coal mine in front of them and a river behind them to make them work”.

Dr Annie Tindley from Newcastle University, who has studied the Sutherland reclamations, says the venture was ruinously expensive.

“In today’s money it would have cost about £20m and the Duke sold shares, paintings and even took out a mortgage on his estate to help pay the bills,” she says.

The duke eventually abandoned the scheme and most of the land quickly reverted to peat bog. An area, near Lairg, where the reclamations were relatively successful was later flooded by a hydro scheme.

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Smithsonian Institution

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Grant’s world tour did not work out the way he had hoped it would

Grant’s visit to Scotland on his world tour ultimately did not help with his fight to return to the White House.

But a bigger battle lay ahead for the old soldier.

After losing his lifesavings to a financial scam, the cigar smoking general was diagnosed with throat cancer.

Before he died, whilst in huge amounts of pain, the man of few words managed to write his memoirs, which included his recollections of the American Civil War.

They were published to great critical acclaim and commercial success saving his family from poverty.



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