African American Activists in Scotland Letter of Frederick Douglass, 1846

‘I am now in Edinburgh. It is the Capital of Scotland and is justly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it’
Frederick Douglass

During his time in Edinburgh, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) lived at various addresses. These include the York Hotel, on the site of the present day Festival Theatre, and a private house on Salisbury Street, a residence that was closely connected to the family of the white radical Scottish abolitionist Eliza Wigham (1820-1899). While Douglass was officially appointed as ‘Scotland’s anti-slavery agent,’ he lived at 33 Gilmore Place. It was from this address that he corresponded with abolitionists and coordinated his antislavery lecture tours. The letters he writes there are of vital importance to researchers not only for their powerful statements on human rights but also for the information they reveal about his speaking itinerary. Working tirelessly, Douglass delivered hundreds of public lectures in various locations in Edinburgh and across Scotland.

Commerorative plaque.33 Gilmore Place is of fundamental importance in commemorating Douglass’s life not only as an orator and activist but as a published author: it is while he is living here that he corresponded with his white Irish editor, Richard D. Webb (1805-1872), his Irish publisher, to arrange for the publication of the Irish editions of his first autobiography. Equally importantly, it was while living at this address that he built friendships with Edinburgh’s key white abolitionists – including Eliza Wigham (1820-1899) and Elizabeth Pease (1807-1897) – that were to last a lifetime.

Below is an extract of an especially powerful letter that Douglass writes from Gilmore Place. It is addressed to William A. White (1818-1856), a white US radical and a close friend. Here Douglass poignantly writes of their exposure to a shared suffering during an earlier antislavery tour that took place on US soil in which they barely escaped with their lives after suffering a brutal beating at the hands of a white murderous racist mob.

Extract: Frederick Douglass to William A. White, 30 July 1846

‘...I dreamed last night that you would not be angry at receiving a letter from your friend Frederick Douglass. It may be all a dream, yet for once I feel like acting under the direction of a dream. I have thought of you a thousand times since I left the U.S. and have as often promised myself the pleasure of writing to you but some how or other I have managed to postpone it until now I am prompted by a dream. What you may the more readily excuse for me presuming to dream of you I will mention that I went to bed thinking about Pendleton Indiana – You may remember such a place and also certain events which transpired in what region in the summer of 1843. All dreams aside I shall never forget those days and I may add those nights I shall never forget how like two very brothers we were ready to dare do, and even die for each other. Tragic awfully so yet I laugh always when I think how comic I must have looked when running before the mob, darkening the air with the mud from my feet. How I looked running you can best describe but how you looked bleeding I shall always remember. You had left home and a life of ease and even luxury that you might so some thing toward breaking the fetters of the slave and elevating the despised black man –and this too against the wishes of your father and many of your friends. When I thought I did indeed wish to bleed in your stead – such noble blood so warm so generous was too holy to be poured?? out by the rough hand of that infernal mob. Dear William from that hour I you have been loved by Frederick Douglass. I hold you in grateful and affectionate remembrance and though I have not written to you before I assure you it has not been for want of the disposition. Among those who stand forth prominently in in [sic] behalf of the Antislavery cause. I looked none upon whom I can rely in the trial now more than yourself. I am with you in spirit, and shall welcome the day which shall again find me by your side in this good cause. I write thus freely to you because I know you to be above the miserable and contemptible prejudices too common even among those who claim to regard the negro as a brother.


You will perceive that I am now in Edinburgh. It is the Capital of Scotland and is justly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I never saw one with which for beauty elegance and grandeur to compare it. I have no time even had I the ability to describe it. You must come and see it if you ever visit this country. You will be delighted with it I am sure. The Monument to Sir Walter Scott on Princes Street is just one conglomeration of architectural beauties. The Calton Hill Salsbury Cragg and Arthur Seat give the city advantages over any City I have ever visited in this or in your country. I enjoy every thing here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue no distinction here. I have found my self in the society of the Combes the Crowe’s and the Chamber’s the first people of this city and no one seemed alarmed by my presence.


William do you think it would be safe for me to come home this fall? Would master Hugh stand much chance in Mass? Think he could take me from the old Bay state? The old fellow is evidently anxious to get Hold of me, Staying in this country will be apt to encrease [sic] his love for me. I am playing the mischief with the character of slaveholders in this land.’