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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > Jul - Aug 2019 > From Portlethen to Paris: James Duncan at the 1919 Paris peace conference

From Portlethen to Paris: James Duncan at the 1919 Paris peace conference

Neil McLennan offers a new assessment of the life and legacy of James Duncan, a little-known Scot who was a delegate at the Paris peace conference
Duncan pictured around the time of his mission to Russia in 1917

James Duncan was born in Portlethen in 1857. His grandfather hailed from Edinburgh and his grandmother was born in Dunnottar, Kincardineshire. In 1827 they gave birth to David who married Mary Forbes in Banchory in 1854. David is described as a crofter on the birth certificate of his son James, who was born at Hillside, a farm which no longer exists.

Although the area was mainly agricultural at this time, blue granite could be found in the region where Duncan grew up, and indeed, granite from nearby Aberdeen was used to build the terraces of the Houses of Parliament and Waterloo bridge in London. It was this trade that was to precipitate James Duncan’s decision to move overseas.

He emigrated to America in 1881, finding work as a granite cutter. Duncan was migrating from Scotland at a time when there was a slump in the Aberdeen economy and hundreds of men were leaving the north east to travel to places like the granite yards of Barre, Vermont. Granite cutting was in demand in America, both for memorials and for building work. During the period from Duncan’s emigration to the start of the century American granite cutters’ wages rose alongside the wages of similar cutting and building crafts, as shown in the table opposite.

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