Scotland’s Don Roberto

An occasional series on eminent Scots unjustly forgotten or overlooked


Robert Cunninghame Graham, ‘Don Roberto’ – politician, poet and gaucho!

The real Scottish ‘ward’

The great advantage of Scottish nationalism in the twenty-first century is the robust bulwark it provides against unrestrained British neo-colonialism. It offers the last bastion of resistance in the British Isles to the callous withdrawal of a welfare state, free movement, and an open society.

To Anglophile Scots and blind English nationalists who think Scotland an insignificant nation lying at the north of Britain, Britain a single entity, Scottish obduracy is a constant reminder that the UK is a shaky construct.

Let Scots look after themselves, just not by  self-governance

Through decades of Westminster misrule, followed by British anger at the resurgence of independence, Scots kept Scotland Scottish, a tremendous cultural accomplishment for a small nation without the constitutional mechanisms to alter its fate. Moreover, SNP governance laid bare Labour’s exploitation of the people it professed to represent, Scotland’s working class.

It took a political party dedicated to improving Scotland’s internal and external interests to expose the British Labour Party’s Scottish branch as first and foremost champions of England’s needs. But how many adherents of greater democracy know who the SNP’s founding fathers were and why they turned against the British state?


 National Party founders: the Duke of Montrose, Compton MacKenzie, RB Cunninghame Grahame, Hugh MacDiarmid, James Valentine and John MacCormick (1928)

Come the hour, come the man (and a woman supporting him)

One of the most strident, indeed significant founders of organised national identity was Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, 19th Laird of Ardoch. Loyal adherents of the SNP’s cause will know of him but it’s surprising how few beyond have heard of him.

Before I discuss his appearance on the independence stage, it’s important to draw a brief sketch of the times back in the 1920s. Scotland was beginning to question its ties with England and its empire. Scots luminaries working as subaltern’s right up to wealthy tea plantation owners lived a complicated, dual nationality life. It could not have been easy for some to carry out the orders of their English masters and employers when it involved the repression of local natives, or the exploitation of their land.

The first indication of revolt began to appear in newspaper articles and then in radical essays and books written by Scots. The Russian revolution, Karl Marx, Engels, and French philosophers such as Jean Paul Sartre added socialism to that head mix of doubt, conscience and guilt. It is fair to describe the Scottish psyche as a nation in conflict. It was not long before Scottish radicals made their presence felt.

Radicalism wasn’t new in Scots writing; it had a long tradition whether conveyed in English, Scots or Gaelic. Indeed, the flowering of radicalism we enjoy today has been around a long time expressing defiance of British rule. Though we decry Anglophiles who pollute and obfuscate the case for independence, back then the revolt for a better society for Scots attracted aristocrats, landed gentry, writers, poets, and academics.

A man of contradictions

Cunninghame Graham was essentially a writer. Flicking through the titles and subject matter of his books and pamphlets illuminates how much his literary output embodied the tensions and conflicts of the Empire. The Biblical imperative ‘do as I say, not as I do, is affixed easily to his character.

He was a landowner who advocated land held solely in the ownership of the state. He enjoyed wealth and estates yet preached socialism. He believed in the fairness of the English temperament yet condemned English for their overt racialism and colonial conquests. (In the discourse of Scotland’s independence nothing is new!) He opposed the Great War but worked for the War Office. He hated class inequality but lived in a palatial house. Educated at Harrow he preferred free education. And he detested politicians who referred to Scotland as North Britain. Like other men, he managed to split his loyalties but not his scruples.

The contradictions mounted: He advocated Scots should not emigrate in search of a better life instead remain at home to build a new Scotland, yet he was a restless adventurer. He loved horses and had no trouble sending many to drudgery and death in the fields of the First World War.

Gabriela Cunninghame Graham was wife of Graham. Despite being in the shadow of his renown she distinguished herself as one of the literary characters of her age. She was a friend of Wilde, Yeats and Shaw. She wrote historical, biographical and topographical sketches, but is best known for her two-volume biography, Santa Teresa: Her Life and Times (1894). Gabriela died she died of pleurisy, aged 48 at Ardoch in 1906.

She described herself as a Chilean actress and poet yet was firmly English, daughter of a Yorkshire surgeon. Nevertheless, she supported Graham in all he did. She is even less remembered as a pioneer for Scotland’s equality. They had a childless marriage but he fathered lots of children, which is to say, he cherished truth above all else but his marriage was a sham.

If Graham was consistent in anything it was in the matter of empires and revolutions. Graham was all for revolution. He would have loved to see an uprising in Scotland, but we Scots are wedded to the ballot box, not the bullet.


Gabriela, Graham’s wife, as good a writer, but in his shadow

Reading of his life brings to light his influence on other writers of his day, George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad, to name only two. As is the penalty of pioneers, though he was prolific, little of what he wrote became standard reading. His literary works included travel writing, histories and biographies, collections of old Scots stories, and poetry too; no mystery then why Conrad was influenced, Kier Hardie too, and of course Hugh MacDiarmid, all friends and confederates.

When he stood as a Liberal candidate in North West Lanarkshire his platform could almost have been composed today: free school meals, nationalise the mines and land, votes for women, abolition of the House of Lords, and Home Rule for Scotland. In that respect he was about seventy years ahead of the rest of us.

By any standard Graham was a bright chap. Of mixed Scottish and Spanish blood, hence the Don Roberto, Graham could speak Spanish, French, Portuguese, Arabic as well as English and some Gaelic. He spent time in various South American countries which is where he acquired the ‘gaucho’ tag.

Cunninghame Graham

The young Graham, before his moustache was given a rakish twirl

The beginnings of anti-colonialism

His conversion to Home Rule and the nationalist parties has to be seen as an outcome of the political malaise he lived through, a global anti-colonial struggle of the kind we are experiencing now. In the same period the Irish were trying to throw off the yoke of British imperialism, as were nationalist movements in Kenya, and India. To that extent Graham was in the vanguard of British political revolution.

He founded the Scottish Home Rule Association, (SHRA) that became the National Party, later amalgamated with the Scottish Party, thus SNP, and he its first President.

He spent a lot of time lecturing around Scotland, and in Westminster telling the House of Commons where to go. He described the House as the ‘gasworks’. In fact, he was the first MP to be thrown out of the House for swearing. (In his disregard for the suffocating conventions of the House that other professional annoyer Alex Salmond is a follower.) Surprising, therefore, that Graham’s contribution to Scotland’s awakening once so notable is all but neglected today.

Graham’s socialism took him to found the Labour Party with Keir Hardie in 1888. Together they evinced the policy, “Better Scotland’s taxes wasted in Edinburgh than in London”. Like any committed politician he took to street rallies protesting about poverty, and after one street battle in London’s Trafalgar Square – a name given in remembrance of England’s glorious sea battle –  Graham was given six weeks in Pentonville prison for his part in an affray.

By all accounts he was a great orator, and a reading between the lines, something of the showman. In fiery polemics – that often have an eerie echo of my own – he urged Scots to fight for the downtrodden and take their country back into the own hands as a means of joining international friends. I can detect a streak of melancholy running through his efforts as if he knew the worst enemy a Scot has is another Scot. But he had a vision of a confident Scotland, convinced it would happen one day.

For his support of Home Rule Graham was written out of the Labour Party’s history.


No study of Graham is complete without a picture of him on a horse, but here he is on a camel in Morocco pretending to be an Arab, or maybe Lawrence of Arabia

We’re not proud but we value our pride

Unarguably Scotland is as guilty as any nation for taking the British shilling, joining England’s brutal empire building in the nineteenth century. Some eminent Scots were willing employees profiting from slavery and other unsavoury aspects of the empire, but once the Scottish National Party was born Scotland’s trajectory moved swiftly to a vigorous anti-imperialist stance condemning all aspects of colonialism. That change of direction was led by men such as Graham.

As a marginalised nation, rejection of England’s never-ending territorial adventures took rebellious shape in political and literary radicalism of last century that has flowed stronger and stronger until today, which sees the Scottish National Party in power in Scotland’s first parliament in 300 years.

We repeat history

If at the next referendum Scots feel similarly conflicted about their Britishness versus their Scottishness they should heed the appeals of Graham and vote Yes. If they cannot see it as helping their fellow man and woman see it as enlightened self-interest.

Ironically the political panorama has reverted to Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham’s day, endless wars, the greatest wealth in the hands of the fewest people, material and nutritional poverty everywhere, and a xenophobic, corrupt British state. If we vote No again we condemn us all to a society we once thought unthinkable.

Faced with the brutality of neo-liberal Britain, seeing a resurgence of British jingoism, Graham would ask a simple question: “Are we to continue living in a conquered land or a free nation?”

Note: Readers looking for more background information of Graham’s times should purchase Tom Leonard’s excellent anthology of protest poems and songs “Radical Renfrew”, Polygon, 1990. (Aye, ‘Renfrew’ – we shall have no Cringe here!) There’s also ‘Goucho Laird’, by Jean Cunninghame Graham, the great-niece of Graham. A chapter is devoted to him in writer, radio presenter Billy Kay’s anecdotal ‘The Scottish World’, Mainstream Publishing, 2006.


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11 Responses to Scotland’s Don Roberto

  1. diabloandco says:

    Glad to learn of this man .I shall tuck him into my memory with Thomas Muir and others.

  2. Auld Bob says:

    I have indeed mentioned the gentleman several times on Wings Over Scotland in relation to his hand in the formation of both the Labour Party and the SNP. Not forgetting his hand in the political life of Kier Hardie.

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    Someone wrote a postcard biography of him in the Scot national recently; seems interest is reviving. I’m not sure if I’m cheered or chilled by discovering much of what he said and did back in the day is what I am saying and doing now.

  4. junius45 says:

    Himself & Conrad narrowly escaped arrest in George Square one Saturday night, they had a few haufs & were tossing pebbles into the top-hat in hand statue of Oswald, a Glasgow MP, at the NE corner of the square.

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    Good anecdotes are always welcome!

  6. There are a couple of interesting insights into Don Roberto and Gabrielle over on Jamie Jauncey’s blog (he’s Jean Cunninghame Graham’s son), for example:

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    Lovely – good link! Thank you.

  8. Lanark says:

    I had heard of this man, but ashamed to say I knew very little about him.

    Thank you very much indeed for starting to put that right. Had I waited on our MSM printing or broadcasting anything like this, well I would have died in ignorance

    Another fascinating piece

  9. Grouse Beater says:

    By sheer coincidence that friend to our language and culture Billy Kay has begun a series on Don Roberto. Here’s the link on BBC Scotland:

  10. Lanark says:

    I am happy to stand corrected! Thanks for the link.

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