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Mr. Lincoln Goes to Edinburgh

The recent 4th of July American Independence holiday, got me thinking about the fascinating historical connections that Scotland and the United States have with each other.

For example, many locals and visitors to Edinburgh are not aware of the fact that there is a statue of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, here in the city. It’s always fun to surprise visitors with that bit of trivia on our Wee Golden Walk II. We’ll come back to the statue, but, first, I think some context will help to set the stage for our American/Scottish connection.

I am proud to say that there is quite an important history of the abolition movement in Scotland. Back in January, I was fortunate to visit a lovely exhibit at the National Library of Scotland, Strike for Freedom: Slavery, Civil War and the Frederick Douglass Family in the Walter O. & Linda Evans Collection; the exhibit highlighted Frederick Douglass’ and his family’s time in Scotland. It was fascinating to learn about their time here spreading the anti-slavery message (with his family who were also strong activists).

Frederick clearly felt a personal connection with Scotland because, according to the exhibit information, he took his freedom surname, ‘Douglass’, from “the hero of Walter Scott's 'The Lady of the Lake'. It is also said that the first book he bought after he escaped from slavery, was a book by Robert Burns (you can read more about Walter Scott and Robert Burns here). Furthermore, according to Alasdair Pettinger, author of the book, Frederick Douglass and Scotland, 1846: Living an Antislavery Life, "He picked up the fact that Douglas [or Douglass] was a name that resonates in Scottish history." And Douglass gladly discussed that most famous of allies of Robert the Bruce, the ‘Black Douglas’, in order to make better connections with his Scottish audiences when he travelled throughout Scotland.

It is important to note that, of course, Scotland has its dark history and involvement with the transatlantic slave trade just as our neighbours to the south did. However, by 1846 (13 years after Britain enacted the Slavery Abolition Act), Mr. Douglass had an audience that believed in his abolitionist cause here in Scotland and was interested in hearing the first-hand experiences of a man who had escaped the horrors of slavery. And the interest was mutual- specifically regarding his love of Edinburgh. In a letter that he sent back home to a friend, Douglass commented about Edinburgh, “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 enjoy every thing here which may be enjoyed by those of a paler hue—no distinction here. I have found myself 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.”

Our story now moves ahead 44 years, to 1890, and brings us to an explanation of the birth of the Lincoln monument. I want to credit and give thanks to a fantastic article written by Caroline Hurley in the American Studies Journal, Lincoln in Scotland: A Gift of the Gilded Age, that provided invaluable research for this article.

And so, the tale of how the Abraham Lincoln statue came to be in Edinburgh is- in true Scottish fashion- quite a story to be told. I hope I have laid the groundwork for the understanding that there were many Scots who were sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. Frederick Douglass' successful visit to Scotland certainly supports this.

The action of a monument was spurred on when the widow of a Scottish soldier, Mrs. McEwan, had fallen on hard times and went to the U.S. Consulate to request her husband's pension because he had fought in the American Civil War. Yes, you read that correctly. Her husband, a Scot, signed up and went and fought for the Union in the United States. She spoke to the Consul's wife, who in turn, spoke to her husband, the U.S. Consul- Wallace Bruce. What better name can you think of than that for the person responsible for bringing an Abraham Lincoln statue to Edinburgh?! You can't get more Scottish sounding that's for sure. Mr. Bruce was an American whose parents had Scottish heritage and he had a deep love for his birth country and his ancestral country.

Mr. Bruce was so moved by Mrs. McEwan's story, he set about getting the funding for a statue to honour her husband and five other soldiers who also fought in the American Civil War. Some of the funding came from none other than the famous Scottish ex-pat and Gilded Age Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. Mr. Bruce also secured a plot of land in Old Calton Cemetery.

I am not surprised that Mr. Bruce chose Abraham Lincoln as the way to honour Scots who fought for the American Union. After all, he was (and still very much is) the symbol for the person who fought to keep the States united and issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

As I discussed at the beginning of this article, the abolitionist movement was one that Scots believed in and for which many advocated. Therefore, choosing a statue depicting Lincoln and a freed slave was the perfect way to honour Scots who went above and beyond to fight for this message and action of freedom.

There was a great demand to be at the grand unveiling of the monument on the 21st of August 1893, and only those lucky enough to get an entrance pass could attend.The statue is quite majestic. The figures are made of bronze and the base is marble.

So, I hope you have enjoyed this little side adventure through history. I think it well demonstrates the historic bonds that grew after the birth of America between the U.S. and Scotland. Perhaps it will leave you admiring the connection between Frederick Douglass, the Scottish men who bravely fought in the Civil War, and a President who was the embodiment of what it means to be a true American patriot- because I know it does for me.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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