Retro Nostalgia 1877 - Scotland gives a rousing welcome to US President

General, later President, Ulysses S Grant - pictured on campaign at the height of the American Civil War.  He was the first US President to visit Scotland
General, later President, Ulysses S Grant - pictured on campaign at the height of the American Civil War. He was the first US President to visit Scotland

There have been several US Presidential visits to the UK capital over the years, but few to Scotland – and with one or two notable exceptions these have been fairly low key.

Woodrow Wilson (meeting King George V and David Lloyd George in 1918) didn’t make it further north than Carlisle, but in 1959 President Dwight D Eisenhower met the Queen and Harold Macmillan at Balmoral.

Then in 1995 George W Bush (of “Mission Accomplished” fame) attended the G1 Summit in Gleneagles, which was the focus of massive protests and an enormous security operation.

But the ire was directed at several of the key players rather than solely at Mr Bush, and the “visit” wasn’t a social call anyway.

So until this week President Donald Trump’s arrival in Scotland has arguably been the most colourful and unusual US Presidential visit (private or otherwise) that has ever taken place here.

Or it would have been but for his great 19th century predecessor, President Ulysses S Grant.

Grant, formerly General Grant – commander at the pivotal battle of Shiloh, and ultimately of all Federal armies in America’s Civil War (1861 – 1865) - was on a world tour.

It was towards the end of his second Presidential term in 1877, and its British leg was a resounding success – Grant was lionised across England, and he, his wife and son dined with Queen Victoria in London.

He was just as popular in Manchester, where the textile workers lauded him as the man who won the Civil War, thereby ending slavery.

However (after rather oddly detouring to visit Germany and Italy next) there was an even bigger welcome awaiting him in Scotland.

Ulysses S Grant had Scottish ancestry on both sides of his family, and was passionately interested in Scottish history and culture, so in 1877 – like some time-slipped Outlander fan from the US – he was happy to become the ultimate “American in search of his roots”.

The first ever US Presidential visit to Scotland began – inevitably – in Edinburgh, then he visited sites associated with Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and paid tribute to Wallace and King Robert I with a visit to Stirling (with a reception in the Golden Lion Hotel).

Grant sadly omitted to take a trip to nearby Falkirk – where he would surely have been impressed by the town’s industrial progress.

In Inverness he was welcomed as a hero by Clan Grant, whose leading lights treated him as a noble warrior son returning to the land of his fathers, and in Glasgow – another city whose workers had staunchly supported the Union cause in the Civil War – he was granted the Freedom of the City.

Yet for a man with a colossal worldwide reputation as general, statesman and conciliator he could hardly be more different from today’s President in his demeanour, because he was the polar opposite of “flamboyant”.

During the Civil War Grant, a slight man a little below average height, habitually chewed a great many cigars, and was notorious for his “dress down” approach to uniform.

In social company he was invariably quiet, polite, shy and unassuming – often described as the sort of man you would struggle to spot in a crowd.

On the battlefield he had the cold-eyed killer instinct of a hardened ace poker player, but despised war (even although he was so good at it).

In Scotland he snubbed aristocratic invitations to participate in shoots, because unlike most of his social contemporaries he hated blood sports.

He had risen from obscurity and poverty to the highest military command of the USA by a mixture of good fortune (being spotted) and sheer talent, and in the course of a conflict which became total war emerged as the “terrible swift sword” of Abraham Lincoln’s crusade to reunite the States.

Ulysses S Grant, who in war succeeded where boasters and queue-jumpers had proved useless, later went on to win unqualified praise for his humanity from the man who had been his arch enemy – the Confederate general Robert E Lee.

With this impressive cv, and his strong Scottish roots, Grant’s September visit to Scotland was a rapturous procession of banquets, cheering crowds and speeches, some might argue well-earned.

He later noted that the one thing he really hated was having to shake so many hands that your arm ached – commenting “I would ban it”.

Fast forward to this week’s trip to Scotland by President Trump and some fairly sharp contrasts between the two visits are not terribly difficult to discern – but then a giant of American history like General Ulysses S Grant (1822 – 1885) was always going to be a tough act to follow.