Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

R B Cunninghame Graham

– in the Scottish Parliament on 20th June 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-03173, in the name of Rob Gibson, on remembering Cunninghame Graham. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament congratulates Alan MacGillivray and John C McIntyre on the publication by Kennedy & Boyd, Glasgow, of the collected stories and sketches of R B Cunninghame Graham in five volumes of one modern edition; celebrates their four years of work to present the works of what is considered one of Scotland’s finest writers for modern audiences to enjoy and so that they may assess his place in Scotland’s national literature; recalls the cross-party support for motion S3M-04228 by Rob Gibson, Remember Cunninghame Graham, “That the Parliament recalls the birth of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham on 24 May 1852; celebrates his adventurous life, which led him to champion the miners, the gauchos, the native Americans, the crofters and many others whom he considered were exploited by the wealthy and privileged; remembers that he took pivotal roles in founding the Scottish Labour Party, with Keir Hardie, in 1888 and the National Party of Scotland in 1928; considers that, after his tenure as an MP from 1886 to 1892, his trenchant and humane writings inspired many others and, in particular, inspired Joseph Conrad to write The Heart of Darkness and Nostromo; commends his writing to all those who value humanity and social justice today, and calls on the Parliament and Scottish Government to prepare appropriate celebrations in 2012 for the 160th anniversary of his birth.”, and considers that there is a need for a major celebration of Cunninghame Graham in 2012.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

It is no easy task to summarise the adventurous life of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham and explain why I believe that he deserves widespread recognition. I will explore the reasons why he has been neglected for decades and how his life is an inspiration for us today—indeed, he ranks as a great Scot in our long history.

On a monument that was erected at Dumbarton—now relocated to Gartmore—a year after his death in 1936 we can read the words:

“FAMOUS AUTHOR,

TRAVELLER AND HORSEMAN

PATRIOTIC SCOT

AND CITIZEN OF THE WORLD ...

HE WAS A MASTER OF LIFE

A KING AMONG MEN.”

Born in London on 24 May 1852, Robert was the eldest child. His father was an army officer, his mother part Spanish and part Scots. He was aristocratic on all four sides, with long family connections to Finlaystone, Ardoch and Gartmore in the west of Scotland. His direct descent from King Robert II of Scotland via the defunct earldom of Mentieth gave him a better claim to the throne than Queen Victoria. His ancestors were radically minded lairds on the Lowland-Highland border, where their 10,000 rushy acres around Gartmore and the Lake of Mentieth produced little income and mounting debts.

As children, he and his brothers would ride ponies around the Gartmore policies in the summer. He disliked English public schooling, from experiences at Leamington Spa and Harrow. His family links to South America produced a bright boy who soon became fluent in Spanish. He received no classical university education, but he learned fencing and French at finishing school in Brussels. As an adolescent, he saw his father become practically insolvent and thoroughly insane from wounds received on army duty in Ireland.

Unsure of a career in the army or imperial service, Robert expressed the wish to ranch in Argentina, which turned into a lifelong love affair with the life on the pampas and the wild mixed-race gauchos—the South American cowboys. For seven years, on and off, he spent time cattle and horse trading while absorbing the atmosphere and the nature of the frontier and the young republics, from Argentina to Brazil—hence the sobriquet Don Roberto. He sympathised with the marginalised, the downtrodden and victims of progress, and he became the political champion of the gauchos, the Sioux indians and tribes across the globe in his extensive writings that began after six years in the imperial Parliament, which he dubbed “the Theatre Royal, Westminster”.

Robert eloped with a struggling actor whom he met in Paris—Gabriela de la Balmondière—who was apparently a Chilean orphan. They loved to travel and she loved to write on mystical subjects. Their visits to Texas, Mexico and Spain ended only with her early death in 1906. He buried her on the isle of Inchmahome, where he, too, is interred.

The death of Robert’s father in 1883 brought managerial responsibilities at Gartmore and, in the next few years, an entry into active politics. Robert was finally elected as a Liberal MP for north-west Lanarkshire in 1886, when Lord Salisbury and the Tories won a six-year term. With wit and an outspoken style in the chamber, his campaigns championed the miners, crofters, the dock workers and the chain makers of Cradley Heath. He stood for home rule all round; he befriended Charles Stuart Parnell, without agreeing on economic policies; and he promoted Keir Hardie. The collaboration of Graham and Hardie helped to birth the Scottish Home Rule Association and the Scottish Labour Party in the late 1880s.

Robert’s forebears were radical Liberals, and he himself opposed aggressive foreign policies and the game laws. He was for Scots and Irish home rule, a graduated income tax, reform of the land laws, the abolition of primogeniture and entail, free education and local options on the sale of liquor. That placed him as a substantial landowner campaigning against landlordism. Indeed, he had to sell Gartmore in 1900.

He quickly drew members’ attention at Westminster, where his speeches and suspensions became big news. He became the first socialist MP in a growing circle of varying degrees of fervour. For his part, he maintained a lifelong commitment to parliamentary democracy and the need for working people to be their own representatives. George Bernard Shaw captured his immortal phrase, “I never withdraw”, for his play “Arms and the Man”. That was Graham’s response to his second suspension from the house for protecting miners from predatory Tory legislation that would have damaged the miners in his constituency.

After failing to be re-elected in 1892, he began writing from early notes for his own amusement. He travelled and wrote many short stories and sketches, which included acerbic political comments in many periodicals. By 1900, he was seen by others as a writer’s writer. That trenchant and humane writing inspired many in his wide circle of literary friends, in particular Joseph Conrad, who wrote “Heart of Darkness” and “Nostromo”, both of which exposed the evils of imperialism and so-called progress in the Belgian Congo and in South America. Robert’s history of the Jesuits in Paraguay became the modern film “The Mission”, and his histories of South American dictators warned the world in the 1920s and 1930s against the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.

The Parliament should congratulate Alan MacGillivray and John C McIntyre on the publication in the past year, by Kennedy & Boyd of Glasgow, of the collected stories and sketches of R B Cunninghame Graham in five volumes of one modern edition. Their four years of labour to present the works of one of Scotland’s finest writers will allow modern audiences to enjoy and assess Cunninghame Graham’s place in Scotland’s national literature.

The golden thread of his life deserves new understanding and analysis. Many of the causes of his lifelong campaigns ring a bell for us today, not least his determination in later life to help found the National Party of Scotland in 1928. He became the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934. I hope that we share his concerns for the downtrodden and enjoy his descriptions of nature and the people of his native Mentieth, or of Morocco or the Argentine pampas—lands threatened by the hand of progress about which he was so sceptical. His writings should be known to all who value humanity and social justice.

The motion

“calls on the Parliament and Scottish Government to prepare appropriate celebrations in 2012 for the 160th anniversary of his birth.”

To help, I have secured, on top of the debate, a place in the festival of politics to further explore the adventurous life and the ideas of this famous Scot.

I hope that the Parliament can honour Don Roberto by etching one of his trenchant quotes on the wall outside. I modestly suggest, in these continued days of constitutional change, a phrase that he used in a rally at Stirling in 1930. He said:

“The enemies of Scottish Nationalism are not the English, for they were ever a great and generous folk, quick to respond when justice calls. Our real enemies are among us, born without imagination.”

Viva Cunninghame Graham.

Photo of Joan McAlpine Joan McAlpine Scottish National Party

I am delighted to speak on the life of R B Cunninghame Graham and I congratulate my colleague Rob Gibson on securing the debate.

Every article that I have read on Cunninghame Graham, from my time at university onwards, and every event such as this debate, seems to seek to reclaim him from undeserved obscurity. We regularly rediscover him and then forget him just as quickly. There is so much that we should remember: in particular, his campaigning on behalf of Lanarkshire miners, whom he was elected to represent as a Liberal in the 1880s when there were still 300 boys under the age of 12 who laboured in the pits beside adult men and women. In the space of a few weeks in 1887, he spoke at 60 meetings of Scottish miners to publicise the coal mines regulation bill, and all 60 supported his eight-hour day amendment. Unfortunately, he could not secure the support of Parliament. When MPs rejected the eight-hour amendment for the whole of Britain and Ireland, Cunninghame Graham attempted to get an opt-out for Scotland—the purpose of his public meetings in Lanarkshire—but that was voted down too, and, for him, that was a very strong vindication of his lifelong support for home rule, which was tied to his passion for social justice.

In 1889, shortly after he entered the House of Commons, he said that the demand for a Scottish Parliament came

“from the extreme misery of a certain section of the Scottish population, and they wish to have their own Members under their own hands, in order to extort legislation from them suitable to relieve that misery.” —[Official Report, House of Commons, 9 April 1889; Vol 335, c 97.]

Forty years later, he told the Reynolds Illustrated News that he wanted a Scottish Parliament to reduce unemployment, raise wages and nationalise the coal mines—all matters that remain reserved to London.

However, he was not always so consistent. He was a colourful, mercurial and uncompromising character. For example, he hated Gladstone, his party leader, and boasted regularly of out-staring him in meetings when the old leader had called him in to give him a dressing down. He also described the Liberal leadership as

“timorous, miserable inveterate animals who ... are really Tories at heart.”

He campaigned as a pacifist ahead of the outbreak of world war one, and then volunteered to serve at the age of 62 when hostilities began in order to show solidarity with the troops at the front line. However, it was his thrawn individualism that resulted in his being sent to prison for protesting against unemployment in Trafalgar Square, and it was the same rebel spirit that got him ejected from the Commons for the dreadful crime of using the word damn, which was no doubt in response to some injustice.

I believe that there are practical and economic reasons for our national amnesia about Cunninghame Graham. The fires of our collective memory need to be fuelled with stories. When we had a vibrant newspaper publishing industry in Scotland, Cunninghame Graham was a household name. I, too, congratulate the Glasgow publisher who has given us Cunninghame Graham’s written works this year. However, the written word has been replaced by film, radio and television as the main means of recording and sharing information and telling stories. There has been one good documentary on Cunninghame Graham—“The Adventures of Don Roberto”, in 2008—but it was shown on BBC 2 Scotland only. Compare that with the time devoted to his contemporaries, men whom he inspired, such as William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, as well as other greats of late Victorian and Edwardian London such as the pre-Raphaelites and the early Bloomsbury set—and think about the amount of celebration and scrutiny that they receive through television, drama, debate and discussion.

Modern Scotland must address the absence of such attention to our culture and history if we are to keep it alive, relevant and vibrant. Scottish studies in schools will help, but we need to use the modern media as well through a Scottish digital network that funds production for and about this country and through better means of securing funding for films, which is a point that was made just this week on “Good Morning Scotland” by the “Rob Roy” producer Peter Braun. He has been trying for years to raise money to make a film of James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, one of our greatest works of literature. However, its author, like Cunninghame Graham and so many other figures in our history and culture, has been unjustifiably marginalised. The film-maker Ken Loach, whose most recent movie is “The Angels’ Share”, said that we need to tell more stories of Scotland on both radio and TV.

R B Cunninghame Graham’s life could inspire dozens of different films and programmes, critical as well as celebratory, but the man who inspired Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” and who has museums in his honour in Argentina is condemned to random rediscovery in his own land. That is not acceptable.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I, too, congratulate Rob Gibson on securing the debate and on his tenacity in championing Robert Cunninghame Graham.

Rob Gibson suggested that a quote from Cunninghame Graham should be included with those that adorn the wall outside this place, and I have no problem with that, although I would perhaps have a problem with the particular quote that he chose. I have a suggestion for another Cunninghame Graham quote to use, which consists of words that he used to begin a speech in Parliament and which might stand as a lesson to us all. On this particular occasion, the witty, urbane and passionate Cunninghame Graham announced to Parliament,

“Gentlemen—”

for they were gentlemen—

“I shall be brief but tedious.”

Exhausting he may have been, but I would argue that he was never tedious.

For too long, Cunninghame Graham has been ignored by historians and biographers alike, so I am pleased that his contribution to literature is now being recognised. His travel writing in particular is witty and stylish, and it resonates today. Although it speaks of countries that have changed so much since the time when he was writing, it tells stories that still have meaning for us.

Of course, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham—Don Roberto—was not only a writer. He was, as the late Caroline Benn described him, a

“fluent linguist, explorer, naturalist and undoubtedly the most accomplished equestrian to enter Parliament.”

He was also an early supporter of animal welfare, an opponent of capital and corporal punishment and in favour of prison reform and the free opening of museums on Sundays. He was hailed as the first socialist MP and as the uncrowned king of Scotland—as Rob Gibson said, he was a direct descendant of Robert II through the earls of Menteith.

Cunninghame Graham was dashing and rode a black horse everywhere he went. The horse was called Pampa and was an Argentinian mustang that apparently he discovered when it was pulling a Glasgow tram. That may sound unlikely, but so does much else about the man’s life. Apparently, on discovering the horse, he immediately arranged to obtain it. It travelled by railway horse-box to London, where it was reunited with its master, who then rode it into the stables at Westminster.

Cunninghame Graham was an extremely colourful character, but he also had an excellent political brain. He became a mentor to Keir Hardie and, together, they worked hard for the miners, against injustice wherever it was to be found and for home rule. They were inseparable for six years; Glasier said that they “went about in harness”.

That Cunninghame Graham influenced Hardie goes without question, but I want to focus on a chapter of his life that shows his commitment and courage. During 1887 there were almost daily demonstrations in London on the issue of unemployment. The authorities eventually banned the use of Trafalgar Square, including its use for an event on 13 November at which Cunninghame Graham was to speak. That action of the authorities quickly turned the demonstration into one that was as much about free speech as it was about unemployment. Marchers converged on the city, and those coming from Battersea, Notting Hill and Rotherhithe were ambushed by police. The Army blocked all the entrances to the square. Many marchers decided to turn and run, but not Cunninghame Graham or John Burns, his fellow speaker. They made their way, pushing and shoving, to the front and climbed on to a plinth to speak. Both men were stopped by the army, but not before they received heavy blows to the head. They were arrested and charged with infringing the riot act, and Cunninghame Graham received a six-week sentence, which he spent recovering from his head wound. He was later to claim that the prison was far more comfortable than the many others he had experienced in his travels. That event was extremely embarrassing and depressing for the early progressive movement, but it led to the creation of Britain’s first civil liberties association.

Like Robert Burns, there is something about Cunninghame Graham that can attract everyone, wherever they come from in Scottish society. Although we may not all agree with all of his beliefs, he is someone whose place in Scotland’s history should be better understood and better recognised. I was delighted to find at the weekend that his novels and story books, which I have from years ago, are now available on Kindle.

I again congratulate Rob Gibson on securing the debate, and I congratulate the publishers on their efforts to try to bring Cunninghame Graham to a wider audience.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I too congratulate Rob Gibson on bringing this debate to the Parliament. I have an admission—sadly, I had not read very much of Cunninghame Graham’s work until the motion was lodged. However, I was aware of many of his sayings. One of the most satirical was about Henry Campbell-Bannerman, about whom Cunninghame Graham said:

“He has all the qualifications for a great Liberal Prime Minister. He wears spats and he has a beautiful set of false teeth.”

That is absolutely amazingly funny.

G K Chesterton proclaimed Cunninghame Graham to be

“the Prince of Preface Writers” and famously declared in his autobiography that although Cunninghame Graham would never be allowed to be Prime Minister, he instead

“achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham”,

which George Bernard Shaw described as

“an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance”.

That sums up the man.

I also have to admit that I missed a recent STV documentary about Cunninghame Graham, but it seems to have sparked quite a lot of debate on the internet and elsewhere. Some of that debate was on the Greenock Morton fans website. One does not normally expect to find such debates on football supporters’ websites—I have certainly never seen one on the Dons website, it has to be said.

Something that has always amazed me about Cunninghame Graham is the number of artists, including Epstein, who either painted or sculpted him. There is a famous bust by Epstein in Aberdeen art gallery, which is a quite fantastic piece of work.

Other members have already said quite enough about all the things that Cunninghame Graham stood for and what he did in Parliament. However, I found one piece of writing—which uses a word that we no longer use to describe black people, so I will not mention that word when I quote from it—that is a complete and utter attack on poverty, religious fundamentalism, racism, imperialism and the grab for land and resources. He wrote:

“The Malays, the Malagasy, Japanese, Chinese, Red Indians as Sioux, Comanches, Navajos, Apaches with Zapatecas, Esquimaux, and in the south are”— the n-word that I am not going to say”—

“though their hair is straight, Turks, Persians, Levantines, Egyptians, Moors, and generally all those of almost any race whose skins are darker than our own, and whose ideas of faith, of matrimony, banking, and therapeutics differ from those held by the dwellers of Primrose Hill, cannot escape. Men of the Latin races, though not born free, can purchase freedom with a price, that is, if they conform to our ideas, are rich and wash, ride bicycles, and gamble on the Stock Exchange. If they are poor then woe betide them, let them paint their faces white with all the ceruse which ever Venice furnished, to the black favour shall they come … At times a thinking man knows scarcely what to think, and sometimes doubts whether God is the God we took him for and if he is a fitting Deity for us to worship, and if we had not better once for all, get us a God of our own race and fitted for our own ways.”

As I said, that piece of writing is an attack on poverty, religious fundamentalism, imperialism, racism and the grab for land and resources. To me, it shows that he believed that we are a Jock Tamson’s bairns. He was a believer in an independent Scotland and an immense internationalist. We should all celebrate Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I thank Rob Gibson for giving us the opportunity to celebrate the life and works of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, and to recognise the recent publication of his writings in a new collection for modern readers. Rob Gibson provided a fitting and eloquent tribute. I also thank other members who have contributed to the debate.

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham has been described by experts in Scottish literature as Scotland’s forgotten personality, politician and writer. However, that is no longer the case, and Joan McAlpine gave an interesting analysis of the need to tell his stories in a modern context.

Cunninghame Graham was in every sense a remarkable individual. As we have heard, he was born in London of Spanish heritage and was educated at Harrow. He was an adventurer in Morocco, and a cowboy and long rider in the Americas, and he passed away in Argentina. However, throughout all of that, he was a Scot. The sheer scope of his life experience and the energy that he devoted to everything he did are inspirational. Joseph Conrad once said:

“When I think of Cunninghame Graham, I feel as though I have lived all my life in a dark hole without seeing or knowing anything.”

Cunninghame Graham was noted as an inspiration and influence for Conrad’s famous books “Heart of Darkness” and “Nostromo”. As we have heard, his notable friends extended well beyond Conrad to include the likes of Charles Stewart Parnell, George Bernard Shaw and Buffalo Bill.

Don Roberto, as he became known in the Americas, inspired by both deeds and word. In Argentina, he was a champion of the miners, the gauchos, the native Americans and many others whom he considered were being exploited by the wealthy and privileged.

His influence on modern Scottish political life cannot be underestimated. He entered the House of Commons in 1886 as a Liberal MP for Lanarkshire and left in 1892 as that Parliament’s first sitting socialist member. We have heard much today about his electoral platform, which was considered radical at the time. It included universal suffrage, free school meals, free education, an eight-hour working day, home rule for Scotland and the abolition of the House of Lords. Well, five out of six ain’t bad, Presiding Officer.

On leaving Parliament, Cunninghame Graham’s spirit of adventure continued. He moved to Spain to prospect for gold, which is perhaps a unique undertaking for a former MP.

Not content with being a founder of the Scottish Labour Party along with Keir Hardie, about which we heard from Patricia Ferguson, Cunninghame Graham went on to found the Scottish National Party. His view was that nationalism and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament with full control over all Scottish affairs was needed in order to further internationalism. Members will not be surprised to hear that I and many of my colleagues most certainly agree with that.

As Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, I am also pleased to remember R B Cunninghame’s literary work. In nearly 30 books, which include 200 short stories and sketches, and history and travel books, he draws on his many travels and adventures in Scotland and his beloved South America for inspiration. Alan MacGillivray, who is one of the editors of the recent publication that brings together R B Cunninghame Graham’s writings, notes:

“Graham's image has followed a perhaps sadly familiar trajectory: from being a very high-profile politician, esteemed writer and traveller, a flamboyant anti-Establishment public figure, known by his exotic nickname of ‘Don Roberto’ in tribute to his passionate Hispanic attachments, to being a dimly-recognised name from the past, one of the great neglected band to be found within any literary tradition.”

A year after his death in 1936, a memorial cairn for Cunninghame Graham was erected in Dumbarton to symbolise his adventurer’s life and Scottish heart. The cairn contains stones from Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, where he lived and worked as a gaucho and writer, and the inscription on it briefly covers this life:

“ROBERT BONTINE

CUNNINGHAME GRAHAM

1852-1936

FAMOUS AUTHOR,

TRAVELLER AND HORSEMAN

PATRIOTIC SCOT

AND CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

AS BETOKENED BY THE STONES ABOVE

DIED IN ARGENTINA

INTERRED IN INCHMAHOME

HE WAS A MASTER OF LIFE

A KING AMONG MEN”.

I know that Rob Gibson has already read that out, but I think that it is worth repeating what is a remarkable tribute to any man. The monument was moved to the village of Gartmore after a spate of vandalism and has been restored to its former glory by custodians from the National Trust for Scotland.

In the light of all that, this debate is welcome and timely. It will help to set the record straight and gives the rightful place to a committed champion of the people of Scotland and their home rule. Both culturally and politically, he can rightly be considered one of modern Scotland’s founding fathers.

I, too, warmly congratulate Alan MacGillivray and John C McIntyre on the fruits of their work over a number of years. A publication such as that by Kennedy & Boyd of a five-volume collected stories and sketches of R B Cunninghame Graham would represent a most fitting testimony to the literary contribution of any writer. The new collection brings together for the first time for modern readers Cunninghame Graham’s short stories, sketches and essays, and the availability of easily accessible editions will give modern readers the opportunity to assess and enjoy the remarkable range of this significant Scottish writer’s work. In time, scholars might reveal why R B Cunninghame Graham’s work has received so little serious attention in the 75 years since his death, but our responsibility is to ensure that such neglect becomes history. He was unquestionably “a master of life”. The suggestion that we put his words on the Parliament building is very fitting, so if we can secure cross-party support for the proposal it will be well worth taking forward.

Patricia Ferguson listed what inspired and motivated Cunninghame Graham: the miners, home rule, and injustice. Those are the same issues that motivated me to get involved with politics and might also have inspired many members in the chamber to become politically involved. That political thread and the man’s truly inspiring memory bind us together, so it is very important that we pay tribute to this inspiration of a man both in this debate and in years to come.

Meeting closed at 17:32.