Siol nan Gaidheal


Robert Bontine
Cunninghame Graham


Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham
1852-1936

RB Cunninghame Graham

Born in London on May 24, 1852, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was the eldest son of William Cunninghame Graham Bontine of Ardoch and Gartmore, and the Hon. Anne Elphinstone Fleming. On his father's side he was a direct descendant of the Earls of Menteith. He was brought up mainly by his Spanish grandmother, whose influence stayed with him throughout his life. He was sent to school at Harrow, but in 1868 he left and went to South America, working as a cattle rancher. He became so well-known and liked there, due to his many later books and articles about life on the Pampas, that the government of the day eventually named a town after him.

In 1879 he married a Chilean lady, Mlle. Gabriella, who was herself an author, and remained devoted to her until her death in 1906. She is buried on the Island of Inchmahome, on the Lake of Menteith, where Cunninghame Graham himself dug her grave in the grounds of the old Augustinian Priory there.

He inherited the ttle of Laird of Gartmore in 1883, when his father died as a result of a fall from his horse. Gartmore was an extensive Perthshire estate, in the family from 1680, but at that time deep in debt. Cunninghame Grahame worked hard to relieve the burden of debt, and was known locally as the best farmer in the district, but in 1898 the property was sold. He moved to the cottage of Ardoch, on the shores of the Clyde between Dumbarton and Cardross. During this time he had become interested in politics, and stood as a Liberal candidate for the North West Division of Lanarkshire in 1885. Defeated, he stood again the following year, and he was elected as MP for the District. His politics were still developing however, and he became very Socialist in outlook, in fact becoming one of the founders of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party, and was elected its first chairman. Political activism translated into the physical, and he served a 6 week sentence in Pentonville for his part in a mass meeting in Trafalgar Square in November 1887, during which the Riot Act was read and a police charge resulted in 2 deaths and 100 injured. He was also the first MP suspended from the House of Commons for saying "damn!". He continued to exert himself on behalf of the working man, and was expelled from France at one point for an inflammatory speech at Calais. On Parliament's dissolving in 1892, Cunninghame Graham contested the Camlachie Division in Glasgow, where he stood as a Socialist having left the Liberal Party. He was unsuccessful despite the active support of Keir Hardie, and it was around this time that he started to write.

His other main recreation was travel, and an escapade in Morocco in 1897 left him again in jail for a couple of weeks. This produced an excellent book about his adventures, and in all he wrote a total of thirty books, several of them about his time in South America, which he continued to visit periodically. Most of these books are now long out of print, but are worth hunting for as he had a lyrical way with words. The Scottish Academic Press reprinted a few of his writings, mainly sketches and short articles, in the early 1980's.

During the First World War Cunninghame Graham spent many months in the Argentine, buying horses for the War Office, and also almost a year in Colombia buying cattle. At the first General Election following the Armistice, he stood for the last time for Parliament, in the Western Division of Stirling and Clackmannan. He was unsuccessful, and on the eve of the poll he had written to his friend, fellow author Neil Munro, that he was "sick of this infernal folly of elections." He later compared the Liberal Party to a bullock bogged in the mud, and of the party of his dreams, the Socialists, commented that they now were "merely a third party struggling for place, for office, and for the fruit of government, all their high ideals lost, and all their aspirations locked away in some dark corner of their souls." A far cry from the time when, as a Socialist MP, he quelled a disturbance at a meeting by telling the audience that he had had the doors locked, and, displaying a dummy revolver found in the belongings of a theatrical group in a side room, announced; "I am going to speak for half an hour, and then I shall introduce my friend Keir Hardie, and until he has finished his address not a man will interrupt him or try to move unless he wishes to be carried out of the hall a corpse."

RB Cunninghame Graham aged 80

He had always been a strong advocate of Home Rule for Scotland, and felt that the time had come to bury party differences and work for a Scottish Parliament. He became president of the Scottish Home Rule Association shortly after its inception, and when this led to the formation of its successor, the National Party of Scotland, in 1928, he was again elected president. Cunninghame Graham was one of the prime movers in the fusion of the National Party with the Scottish Party in 1934, and held the post of honorary president of the united organisation - the Scottish National Party - up until his death two years later.

In 1925, speaking at the Wallace Day Commemoration at Elderslie, he commenced by saying, "Friends, fellow Scotsmen, we are assembled here today to celebrate the 620th anniversary of the martyrdom of William Wallace. Six hundred and twenty years ago Wallace laid down his life for the cause of Scottish Home Rule. Six hundred and twenty years is a considerable interval to wait for the crowning of his work. Until we have Scottish Home Rule in a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh we may say in a measure that the work has been left unfulfilled and that it wants a coping stone." Again, in 1932 at Elderslie he stated; "I would repeal the Union, then I would make a solemn declaration of Scottish sovereignty, and in the third place I would enter into a Treaty with England, the terms arranged by High Commissioners, by two contracting parties. Scotland should have her own territorial force and her ships to protect her fisheries on the sea. She should also have her own coinage, and her own postage stamps and be able to send ambassadors in the same way as Southern Ireland does to foreign Courts."

The last Wallace Day he attended was in 1935, at the close of which he stated; "I here and now rededicate myself to the cause of Scotland's freedom. So long as my strength lasts I shall continue to advocate an independent Scotland."

Early in 1936 he was in Argentina at the behest of the Argentinian government, who had invited him to be present at the naming of a new town, called "Don Roberto" in his honour. Whilst on this visit he caught a chill and died in Buenos Aires on March 20, 1936. His remains were brought home to Scotland and now rest on the Isle of Inchmahome beside his wife. A memorial was erected on a site at Castlehill, between Dumbarton and Cardross, on a piece of land he had previously given to the National Trust for Scotland. Including stones from Argentina and Uruguay, it was unveiled in June 1937 by the Duke of Montrose, who paid a moving tribute to the great man.

Hugh MacDiarmid said of him: "He was indeed a prince and paladin of our people and will, at all events, never lack his share among readers of rare discernment. There is no finer figure in all the millenary pageant of Scotland's writers. Nor any who, in all he did and was and wrote (and most conspicuously in his Scottish Nationalism), was more scrupulously faithful to the family motto - For Right and Reason."


Return to Roll of Honour Return to Index

On-Line Copyright © Siol nan Gaidheal 1995 - 2014, All Rights Reserved