Tag Archives: Don Roberto

A Grave Myth

21 Apr

My aunt Jean, of whom I was extremely fond, was probably her granduncle Don Roberto’s most ardent devotee; quite a feat given the many who admired him.   She would hear no ill of him; he was her hero.  When she died aged 90, she was indeed one of the last people who had actually known him, though, as Munro points out in his doctoral thesis, she was only 7 when he died, and as she did not live in Scotland, actual contact with him would have been sporadic; much like my contact with my great-aunt Olave (known as Grannie Purr) who died when I was a similar age.

Aunt Jean devoted much of her adult life to promoting him, succeeding her father as his literary executor, and dedicating years to writing an idiosyncratic hagiography, Gaucho Laird, based on family papers and letters.  Due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, her book was finally published when she was 79.  It is a beautifully written blend of fact and imagination, though the latter has a tendency to transcend the former.

That her imagination could get the better of her is perhaps illustrated by her assertion that her great-grandmother, Anne Elizabeth, had lived in the Queen’s House in Greenwich when she was child.  This error was included in Gaucho Laird (p 27), despite there being clear evidence that the house had been converted into a nautical training school in 1807, more than three decades before Anne Elizabeth’s father’s appointment as Governor of the Royal Naval Hospital in 1839 (an institution of which her own Cunninghame Graham grandfather (Don Roberto’s younger brother) was briefly to become Commodore some 80 years later).

If Aunt Jean had a flaw (and which of us doesn’t), it was her absolute certainty that her version of events was correct, come what may, as in her insistence that her great-great-grandmother, Doña Catalina, was buried in Winchester.  So it was in 1986, armed with this information, that I went on a day trip to Winchester, in search of the church where my great-granduncle Malise (who was the youngest of the famous Don Roberto’s  brothers) had been curate in the 1880s, and to look for the graves of Malise, his mother and especially of his grandmother, Doña Catalina.  I knew the church was called St John’s but nothing more.

Having enquired at the Tourist Information, I discovered that there was only one church named for St John in the city of Winchester.  So, following the map, I set off and, after walking up the hilly St John’s Street, reached a beautiful 12th century church which, not unnaturally, used to be known as St John’s on the Hill.  Of course, the church wasn’t open so I traipsed round the graveyard looking for family tombstones, but to no avail.

Fortunately, the Rectory was next door to the church and so I rang the bell.  The then Rector, Robert Teare, who was speaking on a cordless phone, opened the door and greeted me with “Ah, Mr Cunninghame Graham”, which very much surprised me as we had never met.

Once he had finished his phone call, he explained that he instantly recognised me as he gazed on my great-granduncle every time he entered the church.  Malise’s mother (my great-great-grandmother) had commissioned a stained-glass window in his memory, which was installed in the east window behind the main altar.  The scene, which she chose, depicts the raising of the widow’s son at Nain, with the lad’s face being that of the late Malise.

I had long contended that we Cunninghame Graham men have very similar faces, change a wig or hairstyle, add or remove a beard, and the portraits could be of anyone of us.  As I was bearded and Malise clean shaven, the Rector’s unexpected greeting seemed to confirm my theory.

The Revd Teare apologised that he didn’t have time to show me the church but gave me a set of keys so that I could let myself in to have a look around.  He also very kindly gave me newspaper clippings of Malise’s funeral and obituaries that he had garnered for a centenary celebration of Malise’s life and work in the parish, which had been held the previous year.  Reading these on the train home, I learned much about why he had been so admired and later discovered that the two charities founded from his bequest of £2,000 had run until 2018.

The Revd Teare also explained that the churchyard was already full by the time Malise came to the Parish, which is why I hadn’t been able to find his grave.  There was a newer cemetery further up the hill, to which he gave me directions, where I could find Malise’s grave, along with that of his mother, Anne Elizabeth, and the Vicar under whom Malise had served as curate, a Revd Dickins, who had insisted, from the time of Malise’s funeral, that he should be buried next to his “best friend”.  He was uncertain, however, as to whether Catalina had been buried there.

Once I’d finished looking round the church, whose most famous rector was the 17th century hymn writer Thomas Ken, I dropped the keys back through the Rectory letter box as instructed, and set off up the hill in search of the other graveyard.  Following Mr Teare’s directions, I easily found Malise’s grave, with his mother, Anne Elizabeth, buried to his right and the Revd Dickins to his left.  However, there was no sign of Catalina’s grave, which I duly reported to Aunt Jean.

Nonetheless, Aunt Jean was insistent that it had to be there and sent me a photocopy of a picture of the grave, though she conceded that it was perhaps, not as she had thought, near the graves of Malise and Anne Elizabeth.  I duly sent a copy of the photo to the Reverend Teare asking If he could locate the grave.  He replied in September 1987 that he had personally looked for it without success and further informed me that a recent cataloguing of the 900 graves in the parish had proven that Catalina was not buried in any of the three burial grounds pertaining to St John’s.

Accordingly, I sent a photocopy of the letter to Aunt Jean arguing that I could see no grounds for Catalina to have been buried in Winchester as, when she died, Malise, though a Wykehamist, had already gone up to Oxford two years earlier, and it wasn’t until three years later that he was appointed to the “cure of souls” in the parish.  I further argued there was no evidence, unless she knew otherwise, that Catalina, or either of her husbands, had any link to Winchester, let alone to the parish of St John the Baptist.  As I heard no more from her, I assumed she had been convinced.

Yet, on page 361 of Gaucho Laird, we read of Anne Elizabeth, “…her second wish was to be buried beside her beloved youngest son, Malise, at Winchester…in the Churchyard at St John’s, where her mother was also buried.” (emphasis mine).  While it is true, according to both Faulkner West and Tschiffely, that Anne Elizabeth wanted to be buried next to Malise – as indeed she was – neither mentions Catalina’s being buried there.  Moreover, she would have known that the Churchyard had been closed for burials for some time before Malise’s arrival in the Parish, as she had seen him laid rest in the new burial ground.

Further evidence against Catalina’s being buried in Winchester can be found in Anne Taylor’s scholarly biography, The People’s Laird, which was published a few months after Aunt Jean’s Gaucho Laird. Taylor cites correspondence between Admiral Sir Angus Cunninghame Graham (Jean’s father) who, as Don Roberto’s literary executor, was taking issue with some of the assertions made by Herbert Faulkner West (Don Roberto’s first biographer).  In response to West’s claim that Don Roberto had learnt Spanish from his grandmother, Catalina and her family in Spain (a myth which still persists today), he somewhat testily stated that, as far as he knew, she had lived on the Isle of Wight, died there and was buried in the Anglican churchyard in Ryde (p 327).  Thus, Aunt Jean’s unshakeable belief that Catalina was buried in Winchester was contradicted by her own father, though, in fairness, she may have been unaware of the correspondence as it is held in the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and not in the Scottish National Library or National Archives where most of the family papers are stored.

Moreover, in Gaucho Laird, Aunt Jean herself has Catalina and her second husband James Katon (known in the family as the two Khats) living in Ryde, Isle of Wight (c.f. Don Roberto’s sketch A Sailor (Old Style) which is a pen portrait of his step-grandfather, Vice-Admiral J E Katon).  Indeed, she goes on to record Doña Catalina’s death at Ryde (p 238), and, astonishingly, just a few pages further on she quotes from a letter Anne Elizabeth wrote to Don Roberto about her staying at Ryde to help Khat sort everything out: “As long as I remained in Ryde I kept the grave covered with flowers” (p 241).   This surely must be a reference to Catalina’s grave.

There is one possible, though highly improbable, solution to the contradiction, which would be that Catalina was first buried in Ryde and then exhumed and reburied in Winchester.  But for the life of me, I cannot imagine any logical reason for such a costly and pointless exercise.  Therefore, I blame the contradiction on poor editing, as a good editor would surely have spotted it and asked for clarification from the author as they did elsewhere (one of their questions being accidentally printed with the book).

Finally, though I am convinced that Catalina is buried in Ryde and not Winchester, I have to admit that when, I visited Ryde on another day trip some years later (2005), I was unable to find the graves of Catalina or Khat.  However, I believe my failure owes more to the size of the cemetery, which must hold 2 to 3 times as many graves as the three burial grounds of St John’s combined, and the briefness of the time I had available to search for them.   The journey was not entirely wasted, though, as it yielded a doggerel verse, with which I’ll leave you:

Elegiac Reflections

Walk soft, sir, amongst the sleepers;

let your tread be light over where they lie,

in slumber awaiting the angelic alarum,

God’s last trump, their call to arise.

Tarry a while, sir, amongst these stones,

sun-warmed and weather-worn monuments,

standing silent sentinel over worthies,

forgotten for an age, in their deep repose.

Stop, sir, and peruse these headlines,

scant remnants of stories long mislaid;

reflect upon their faded glories and pause,

just pause a moment, in silent prayer.                               ©  WRBCG    2005

Don Roberto Myths

23 Nov

Celebrities are always going to attract myths and Don Roberto was no exception.

I was still at Prep School when I heard the first anecdote, and had recently started secondary school when I heard the second, and the third is from a book published in 1940.  Thus, in less than 30 years after his death, there were mythical anecdotes and stories being told about him.  Here is a very brief selection of the myths I have heard.

An Anecdote

I remember being gleefully told by a family acquaintance, who was old enough to have known Don Roberto in his old age, that the great man had often said, “In every house there should be three taps: one for hot water, one for cold water and one for whisky!”  Unfortunately, my informant was seemingly unaware that Don Roberto had taken the Temperance Pledge and so did not imbibe, making the quote highly improbable.

An Equestrian Tale

A tale, which I heard from an elderly neighbour who was in his 90s, concerns Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  The story he loved to relate to us young Cunninghame Grahams was as follows.

One day, when Don Roberto was visiting the Wild West Show with his friend Col Alexander Maitland Gordon, they were shown a horse that was unrideable.  Maitland Gordon, a cavalry officer, bet Don Roberto he could ride the beast without being thrown and duly arranged to return the next day to make the attempt.

The following evening, Maitland Gordon, dressed in riding attire and accompanied by Don Roberto, returned to try and win his wager.  However, whenever Maitland Gordon approached the horse it would buck and kick and he found he could not get close enough to even mount it.  In frustration, he turned to Don Roberto saying, “Well I wager not even you could ride that brute!”  Don Roberto, who was wearing evening dress, calmly lit a cheroot and eyed the horse.  Then he casually approached the horse quietly talked to it and gently stroked its nose before leaping on its back without touching the stirrups.  So poor Maitland Gordon lost two wagers in one evening.

The first problem with the tale is, if the horse had never been ridden, why did it not do as all unbroken horses do when mounted, buck and jump to try to dislodge the rider.  The tale is designed to embellish Don Roberto’s skills as a horseman, and though he undoubtedly was an excellent horseman, even he got thrown badly on occasion and suffered injuries from it.

Second, it is highly unlikely that the Wild West Show would keep a horse that was completely unrideable as it would be of little value to the show (unless for comic value as hapless cowboys chased it around the ring).  Furthermore, given the skills of the Native American Indians and Cowboys at breaking horses, it would not have stayed unmountable for long.  The whole point of the show was to demonstrate the skills of the participants.

Third, I have never been able to find any Alexander Maitland Gordon, let alone one who was a cavalry officer.  Nor can I find any Maitland Gordon (Alexander or otherwise) among Don Roberto’s friends and acquaintances – there is certainly no correspondence between them which is highly peculiar given Don Roberto’s proclivity for letter writing.  Thus, if one of the main protagonists of the tale is fictitious, the whole must be suspect.

A Tall Tale of a Trouncing

The Glaswegian engineer, Samuel Mavor, in a longer reminiscence of Don Roberto, relates the following tale:

An incident narrated to me by the late Professor George Forbes illustrates the fiery energy of Cunninghame Graham.  Don Roberto and his wife spent the summer at Pitlochry and while there he was called to London where he had to remain for two weeks.  During his absence, an acquaintance, son of a well-known Church dignitary, was persistent in unwelcome advances to Mrs Cunninghame Graham, and on Don Roberto’s return she told him of the annoyance she had experienced.  Don Roberto went immediately to the residence of the lothario, and inquired for him, but was told he had gone to Perth in the morning, and would return in afternoon.   Don Roberto strode straightway to the station where he ascertained the time of arrival of the afternoon train from the south; he also found that by taking the train to Dunkeld he could arrive there before the northbound train was due, so off he went to Dunkeld, where on the platform he paced impatiently awaiting the train from Perth.  On its arrival he found his man, opened the carriage door, dragged him out and to the amusement of the other passengers administered a severe beating, then leaving his enemy prostrate on the platform he leapt onto the moving train for Pitlochry.

Indignant at the public thrashing of his son, the irate father insisted on action for assault being raised against Don Roberto.  It fell to George Forbes, who was a friend of the offended family as well as of Don Roberto, to take the part of the mediator, and try to placate ruffled tempers.  Not without considerable difficulty was he able to have the matter smoothed over and further publicity avoided.” (Mavor, Samuel (1940), Don Roberto, “Memories of Men and Places”, London: William Hodge and Company Ltd, pp79-80.)

While Mavor is a masterful storyteller, his reminiscence is riddled with errors and there are numerous problems with the supposedly “secondhand” tale.

First, there is no evidence that Don Roberto and George Forbes were friends, though it is likely they had mutual acquaintances; nor is any reason given as to why Don Roberto & Gabrielle were summering in Pitlochry.  Furthermore, Forbes did not build his Pitlochry house (The Shed) until 1906, the year Gabrielle died.

Second, from the cameo rôle Mavor assigns Gabrielle, it is clear he did not know her.  He has her a meek, docile wife, lacking the nous to ask assistance from Forbes, or even to send a telegram to her husband, but having to await his return to defend her honour.  This does not accord with the historical record of a woman who had run away, not once but twice, to go on the stage; who as a newlywed ranched in Texas and travelled by wagontrain to Mexico City; who roamed Spain with just her Galician maid as her companion; and who was an experienced political orator.  Moreover, if as Taylor speculates in her scholarly biography of Don Roberto, Gabrielle had had to support herself through prostitution when her stage career foundered, she would have been more than able to spurn the unwanted attentions of a spoilt, lovelorn swain.

Third, Forbes does not come out of it as well as Mavor might imagine.  While Forbes brokered peace, he failed to protect his guest from the persistent pest (was he blind and/or mute?) and was obviously so unapproachable that Gabrielle could not ask for is assistance but had to wait for Don Roberto’s return.

Fourth, though one could easily imagine Don Roberto catching a train to intercept his wife’s erstwhile suitor, the fisticuffs does not so readily come to mind.  While Don Roberto undoubtedly had fiery energy and was a man of action, there are no other recorded incident of physical violence (notwithstanding Trafalgar Square, where he was more victim than perpetrator). Don Roberto did not need to “administer a severe beating”, the weapon of choice of the inarticulate, as with the devastating wit for which he was widely renown, he could have so humiliated the poor youth with a haranguing that he would have wished he had had a thrashing instead.

In short, Mavor appears to have uncritically taken his friend’s anecdote and used it to add vividness to his pen-portrait of one of the most colourful characters of his age.

A Family Fable

Much later, when I was an adult, I was told about a Clydebank family which believes that their grandfather, Andrew, son of one Janet Munro, was the illegitimate child of Don Roberto.  They surmise that she had been seduced by Don Roberto while working as a maid at Ardoch.  And this tale has been passed down through the generations as family history.

The family’s genealogist, however, is more sceptical.  He readily admits that Janet was of dubious reputation and the “black sheep” of the family and that the family cannot provide a single shred of evidence she ever met Don Roberto, let alone had any kind of sexual relationship with him.

The facts prejudicial to the Munro claim are insurmountable.  First, at the time the baby would have been conceived, the family were not using Ardoch, which was leased to a tenant; second, Don Roberto, who was newly married, was incontrovertibly abroad (first at Bremerhaven and then at Vigo) at the critical juncture.

Of course, all those who claimed to have personal knowledge of the affair are all safely dead and beyond interrogation, but the myth persists despite the slew of facts which make it utterly impossible.  But when did facts ever deal a deathblow to a rollicking good tale?

These examples make me wonder whether there are any other myths about Don Roberto out there waiting to be collected and debunked.

A Forgotten Scot called Don Roberto

24 May

It strikes me that, for her size, Scotland has produced more than her share of remarkable people and, thus, it is only to be expected that some of them are occasionally overlooked.

One such person is the man who was variously been described as “Scotland’s last and finest Renaissance man”, “The People’s Laird”, “The uncrowned King of Scotland”, “ a prince and paladin of our people”, “a writer’s writer”, the “Prince of Preface Writers” and “Godfather of the SNP”; a man celebrated in art and literature, whose friends from the worlds of politics, art and literature reads like a Who’s Who of his day. I am of course speaking of the author and politician Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.

Don Roberto thinking

Robert was born in London on 24th May, 1852.  He was a quarter Spanish (his maternal grandmother was from a Grandee family) and three quarters Scots, with descent from the Earls of Glencairn and the Earls of Monteith (the latter being descendants of Robert II), while through his paternal grandmother, he could claim Plantagenet ancestry.  His father was heir to three estates stretching from the Trossachs through Dunbartonshire and across the Clyde to Renfrewshire – estates that Robert was to see lost during his lifetime.

Educated at Harrow, where he excelled at sports, and then in Brussels, where he acquired good French in addition to his English and Spanish, Robert travelled to Argentina to try and make his fortune cattle ranching.  It did not work out and Robert was captured by rebel gauchos and forced to ride with them until he managed to escape.  It was during this time that he earned the nickname, Don Roberto, which his friends were to use for the rest of his life.

Following a brief visit home, Robert returned to South America and travelled over land through Entre Rios to Paraguay where he hoped to make a fortune from yerba mate. When this too failed, he tried selling Argentinean horses to the Brazilian army only to find that the price had dropped.  These times, however, were to prove a rich source of inspiration for his future writings.

The story of how he met his wife is probably as apocryphal as her supposed origin (half-French, half-Chilean) and the pseudonym (Gabrielle de La Balmondière) which she was to use for the rest of her life, the truth only finally emerging 80 years after her death.  She was, in fact, plain Caroline Horsfall – the daughter of a Yorkshire country Doctor – who ran away to go on the stage.  In rebellion against her father and grandfather’s strict evangelicalism, Carrie, who was drawn to Catholic mysticism, became a High Church Anglican (as did her brother William).  She was to later research and write a widely acclaimed two volume biography of St Teresa of Avila.


Caroline Stansfield Horsfall (alias Gabrielle de La Balmondeiére)

The romanticised version, as they told it, was that they met in Paris, when Robert was having trouble controlling a lively horse and came close to knocking her over.  On dismounting to apologise, he inadvertently spoke to her in Spanish.  To his surprise and delight she responded in the same language and they chatted and soon, having fallen in love, they decided to elope to London.  The only sure fact is that they married quietly in the Strand Registry Office on 24th October, 1878, the bride giving a false age as well as the assumed name.

Immediately afterwards, the couple left to travel through France and Germany before travelling to the USA and settling in Texas, where – apart from a spell in Mexico City (to which they travelled by wagon train), where Robert taught fencing and Gabrielle French and guitar – they remained until his father’s death in 1883, but still without making that ever elusive fortune.

Upon his return Robert became interested in politics – both his mother and grandmother were from leading Whig families, as had been his own Graham ancestors – and he stood for North-West Lanarkshire as a Liberal, though with a socialist programme which included:

Though a charismatic speaker known for his acerbic wit and ability to deal with hecklers, he was soundly trounced by his Conservative opponent in 1885.  Undaunted, Robert contested the seat again the following year and was elected by just 35 votes.  Frequently suspended for refusing to conform to the conventions of the House, he was the first ever MP to be suspended for swearing: the word was “damn”.

He championed the working class throughout and fought for the right for free speech and public meeting, getting himself knocked on the head and arrested, along with John Burns, while attempting to speak at the 1887 Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square.  Despite being defended by Herbert Asquith, he was sentenced to six weeks in HMP Pentonville.  He was a co-founder with Keir Hardy of the Scottish Labour Party, serving as its first President, a move which was to bring his parliamentary career to an end when he failed to win the seat as a Labour candidate for Glasgow Camlachie in the 1892 election.

Now that he was free from both the financial burden and time consuming demands of being an MP, he set his hand to writing.  At first it was a series of articles for the Saturday Review, but this was soon followed by a travel book Notes on the District of Menteith (1895) and, with Gabrielle, a volume of short sketches entitled Father Archangel of Scotland (1898)He went on to write, over the next 40 years, 15 books of sketches, 2 travel books (one of which related his adventures in 1898 when trying to reach the forbidden Moroccan city of Tarudant while disguised as a Turkish doctor), 3 histories of the Spanish conquest, 7 biographies, innumerable prefaces for the books of others, as well as numerous articles for a variety of publications.

The new century was to bring double tragedy.  First, in 1901, Robert was forced by his insurmountable debts to sell the principal family estate at Gartmore, to Sir Charles Cayzer, Bt.  The estate had come to the family in the 17th century and Robert keenly felt its loss and saw it as a betrayal of his forebears. Then in 1906, his beloved wife Gabrielle, who had been a chain-smoker since their days in Texas, died in Hendaye, France, at the age of just 48.  She was buried on the Island of Inchmahome in the Lake of Menteith. Robert, with the help of a family retainer, dug her grave himself.  Her funeral was conducted by her brother, William Horsfall, a high-church Anglican priest.  Robert never remarried, though he was often accompanied in his later years by a Mrs Elizabeth Dummet.

Though a pacifist, Robert lost no time in trying to join up as a rough rider at the outbreak of the First World War.  He was 62 years old and was naturally turned down.  Undaunted he went to talk to his friends in the War Office, and was first put in charge of a section of the Remount, and later with the rank of brevet Colonel was made president of a commission to purchase horses in the Argentine for the British Army and so spent the next eleven months riding with the gauchos as he had done in his youth.  On his return voyage to England, his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in the English Channel, but both he and the horses all managed to get ashore safely.  However, he was not home long as he was promptly sent back to South America in January 1917 to buy beef cattle in Colombia.

In later, life he became more deeply involved in Scottish Home Rule, and chaired the meeting that led to the formation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928.  With the merger of the Scottish Party with the NPS to form the SNP in 1934, Cunninghame Graham was chosen to be its first President.  He continued to speak at rallies and summer picnics up until the year before his death.

In defiance of his doctor’s warnings that he was too ill to travel, Robert insisted on visiting Argentina in early 1936.  On his arrival he was fêted and had hardly a moment to himself.  Some of the last images of him are at Radio Splendid in Buenos Aires and a photo of him writing to Morley Roberts in the home of his friend W H Hudson at Quilmes, following which he contracted bronchitis.

Don Roberto & Fernando Pozzo 1

Don Roberto with Fernando Pozzo at Radio Splendid, Buenos Aires, March 1936

Despite early signs that he was recovering, the bronchitis turned into pneumonia and he died in the Plaza Hotel, Buenos Aires, on March 20th 1936, aged 83.  His body lay in state in the Casa del Teatro where crowds came to pay their respects as did the President of the Argentine Republic.  The funeral procession to the docks was long and included the two horses Tschiffely, his friend and biographer, had ridden from Buenos Aires to Washington DC.  He had planned to return home on the Almeda Star on March 26th, and so he did.

He was buried alongside his wife in the ruined chancel of the Priory of Inchmahome with a rough cut stone that bears his Argentine cattle brand.  A year later a memorial to him was unveiled at Castlehill in Dumbarton (later moved to Gartmore).  It contained stones from Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – the countries of his youthful adventures, a medallion by Alexander Proudfoot RSA and the inscription:

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 Inchamahome – He Was a Master of Life – A King Among Men.

Cunninghame Graham Memorial at Gartmore in 1980s

[Originally written and posted on the Cunninghame Graham Society Facebook page       on 24th May, 2012 – WRBCG.]