Tag Archives: Scottish Politics

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 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 converted to Roman Catholicism.  She was to later research and write a widely acclaimed two volume biography of St Teresa of Avila.

gabriela.png

Caroline Stansfield Horsfall (alias Gabriela 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 Gabriela, 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 Robert Morley 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 Tchiffely, 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.

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

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A Discussion with Nick Clegg

26 Sep

Today, I went to Event 52 of the Hay Festival en Segovia, which was held in the beautiful, old church of the monastery of Santa Cruz Real (which now forms the Aula Magna of IE University), to hear Nick Clegg in discussion with one of Spain’s pre-eminant journalists, Pedro J. Ramírez.

Clegg told the packed hall that he took full responsibility for the current state of the party and that he had learnt a lot. He regretted that what he saw as “compromise” so quickly was taken as “betrayal” by both left and right – but apparently without any inkling of the betrayal his own LibDem voters felt (and still feel) at his propping up a Tory government.

In his view, much of the problem stemmed from there not being any understanding or history of coalition politics in the UK.  This view is obviously fallacious in the case of Scotland, where he apparently had forgotten that his own party had been in coalition, first with Labour (1999 – 2007) and then with the SNP (2007-2011) – the proportional vote system being designed to exclude outright majority government – or, perhaps, he was doing as so many English politicians do, merely using “UK” as a synonym for England.

Furthermore, he claimed that as he goes round the country (has he been in Scotland since the election?) people are saying to him that they now see how the LibDems were protecting them from the full force of Tory government. Maybe, because I no longer live in the UK, I’m missing something as I cannot see any significant difference between the ConDem coalition and the current Tory government.

While he spoke engagingly, it is clear that he does not understand what has happened in Scotland (claiming it is nothing more than identity politics, which are the politics of grievance without responsibility as everything is someone else’s fault) and claimed (as did Ramírez) that the UK electoral system was unfair (which, of course it is) as the LibDems only got 8 seats when the SNP got 56 on a far smaller share of the vote (the exact same argument as used by another fringe party, UKIP!).

I challenged him afterwards (they ran out of time just before my question) for a) referring to the SNP as the “Scottish Nationalist Party” –  his lame excuse was, “Well, they are all nationalists”; and b) being disingenuous as the Lib Dems only had 7% of the vote to the SNP’s 50% in Scotland, given that the the latter only contest seats in Scotland. His response was that his using the UK vote share was justified as the SNP “disingenuously claimed to represent the whole of the UK” in the TV debates (which they did not). He had to concede, however, that the SNP had, thus far formed a strong opposition that has fought for all parts of the UK as promised.

I handed him an envelope, which he accepted, containing a printed copy of my open letter to him from 8th May.  I doubt he’ll like the content or pay the slightest heed to my views, but at least I know he is now aware of them.

I found him urbane, charming, engaging and likeable despite our not finding any common ground and I wish him well (which I could not on 8th May).