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The long weekend of holidays took me north to Wick in Caithness, where my father’s family are from, and found me once again walking down Station Road which lies to the north of the Hospital running from the train station to the town centre.

Ambling by, my eye was caught by an old plaque erected in the wall which I had all but forgotten.  It commemorates the great and the good who had visited the Burgh from 1850 through to 1923.  Amongst the names of the long forgotten, one entry leapt out at me, that of General Ulysses S Grant, President of the United States.

Now, dimly I remembered that following his stint of two terms as president, Grant had embarked on a world tour in 1877.  Partly it seemed to escape complaints about corruption in his administration.  But why on earth was he here in Wick, so far to the north of pretty much anything?

General Grant was, it seems simply being ahead of his times.  Long before the like of Kennedy’s visit to Wexford, or Clinton’s sloping off to Fermanagh, or indeed our own dear Obama’s upcoming tour of Ireland later this month, Grant was a forerunner of the-Presidential-trip-as-family-reunion.

It turns out that he was up here seeing, amongst other people, some relatives.  The story being that he had a cousin Janet (always known as Jessie) Grant who had married a local farmer.  So between trips with Provosts (a Scottish mayor) and Dukes, Lords-Lieutenants, Magistrates and the local unco guid, the General was looking to stop in for a cuppa with his long lost cousin.  That little human touch, all  homely and couthie,  is what plays so well with the ethnic  voters back home then as now.

A Wealth of Notions:  Sir John Sinclair, Bart.
By kind permission of Highland Council 

Fascinating as this was, it was not the sole brush that this old herring town had had with Presidents of the United States.  In the Town Hall,  above the bend in the stairs leading to the Council Chambers, stands a magnificent portrait in oils of former Provost of Wick, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, Baronet, proudly holding in his hand, one of his greatest possessions, a letter from Washington himself.  Sinclair was of that generation of outwardlooking forward thinking Scots such as Adam Smith the economist.  Sinclair’s field was being  the great proponent of eighteenth century agricultural improvements and he tirelessly toured the world seeking meetings with kings and premiers, and anyone who would listen, to push his ideas on the new agriculture.  Those he could not meet he wrote to, and this letter it seems is the reply from the great man himself.  Its contents are not clear, but so taken was Sinclair to receive this epistle written by Washington himself and not some secretary, that he instructed the artist Benjamin West, to ensure that the handwriting was faithfully copied so all might be certain it was from Washington himself.

By kind permission of Highland Council

But even this does not exhaust this tiny corner of the world’s connections with the greatest office in the world.  The town next door, Thurso, rises to a full blown President.  Arthur St Clair.  St Clair is now largely forgotten even in the county of his birth, but figured as a general  in the wars of Independence, a President of the United States (In Congress Assembled), and governor of Independnt territories.

His career was a magnificent story spectacular in its rise, and catastrophic in its collapse.

A wonderful weekend.

Copyright
David Macadam 2011

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