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Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was a Scottish politician, writer, journalist and adventurer. He was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP); the first-ever socialist member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom; a founder of the Scottish Labour Party (1888-1893); a founder of the National Party of Scotland; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934.

Cunninghame Graham was the son of Major William Bontine of the Renfrew Militia and formerly a Cornet in the Scots Greys with whom he served in Ireland. His mother was Hon Anne Elizabeth Elphinstone-Fleeming, daughter of Admiral Charles Elphinstone-Fleeming of Cumbernauld and a Spanish noblewoman Dona Catalina Paulina Alessandro de Jimenez, , heavily influenced Cunninghame Graham's upbringing. Thus the first language Cunninghame Graham learnt was his mother's maternal tongue, Spanish. He spent most of his childhood on the family estate of Finlaystone in Renfrewshire and Ardoch in Dunbartonshire, Scotland, with his younger brothers Charles and Malise.

After being educated at Harrow public school in England, Robert finished his education in Brussels, Belgium before moving to Argentina to make his fortune cattle ranching. He became known as a great adventurer and gaucho there, and was affectionately known as Don Roberto. He also travelled in Morocco disguised as a Turkish sheikh, prospected for gold in Spain, befriended Buffalo Bill in Texas, and taught fencing in Mexico City, having travelled there by wagon train from San Antonio de Bexar with his young bride sic "Gabrielle Chidiock de la Balmondiere" a supposed half French half Chilean poet.

Convert to socialism

After the death of his father in 1883 he reverted to the Cunninghame Graham surname. He returned to the UK and became interested in politics. He attended socialist meetings where he heard and met William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, H. M. Hyndman, Keir Hardie and John Burns. Despite his wealthy origins, Graham was converted to socialism and he began to speak at public meetings. He was an impressive orator and was especially good at dealing with hecklers.

Liberal Party MP

Although a socialist, in the 1886 general election he stood as a Liberal Party candididate at North West Lanarkshire. His election programme was extremely radical and called for:

the abolition of the House of Lords

universal suffrage

the nationalisation of land, mines and other industries

free school meals

disestablishment of the Church of England

Scottish Home Rule

the establishment of an eight-hour-day

Supported by liberals and socialists, Graham defeated the Unionist Party candidate by 322 votes. He had stood against the same candidate at the 1885 general election, in which he was defeated by over 1100 votes.

Robert Cunninghame Graham refused to accept the conventions of the British House of Commons. On September 12, 1887 he was suspended from parliament for making what was called a "disrespectful reference" to the House of Lords. He was the first MP ever to be suspended from the House of Commons for swearing; the word was damn.

Graham's main concerns in the House of Commons were the plight of the unemployed and the preservation of civil liberties. He complained about attempts in 1886 and 1887 by the police to prevent public meetings and free speech. He attended the protest demonstration in Trafalgar Square on November 13, 1887 that was broken up by the police and became known as Bloody Sunday. Graham was badly beaten during his arrest and taken to Bow Street Police Station, where his uncle, Col William Hope VC, attempted to post bail. Both Cunninghame Graham, who was defended by H. H. Asquith, and John Burns were found guilty for their involvement in the demonstration and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment.

When Graham was released from Pentonville prison he continued his campaign to improve the rights of working people and to curb their economic exploitation. He was suspended from the House of Commons in December, 1888 for protesting about the working conditions of chain makers. His response to the Speaker of the House, "I never withdraw" was later used by George Bernard Shaw in "Arms and the Man".

Scottish independence and the Scottish Labour Party

Graham was a strong supporter of Scottish independence and in 1886 had helped establish the Scottish Home Rule Association, and while in the House of Commons made several attempts to persuade fellow MPs of the desirability of a Scottish parliament. On one occasion Graham joked that wanted a "national parliament with the pleasure of knowing that the taxes were wasted in Edinburgh instead of London."

While in the House of Commons Graham became increasingly more radical and went on to found the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie. Graham left the Liberal Party in 1892 to contest the general election in a new constituency as a Labour candidate.

He supported workers in their industrial disputes and was actively involved with Annie Besant and the Matchgirls Strike and the 1889 Dockers' Strike. In July 1889 he attended the Marxist Congress of the Second International in Paris with James Keir Hardie, William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. The following year he made a speech in Calais that was considered by the authorities to be so revolutionary that he was arrested and expelled from France.

Graham was a supporter of the eight hour day and made several attempts to introduce a Bill on the subject. He made some progress with this in the summer of 1892 but he was unable to persuade the Conservative and Unionist government, headed by Lord Salisbury, to allocate time for the Bill to be fully debated.

In the 1892 general election 1892 Graham stood as the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party candidate for Glasgow Camlachie. He was defeated and this brought his parliamentary career to an end. He remained active in political circles though, and helped his colleague Keir Hardie establish the Independent Labour Party and to enter parliament as the MP for West Ham.

Graham retained a strong belief in Scottish home rule. He played an active part in the establishment of the National Party of Scotland (NPS) in 1928 and was elected the first ever president of the Scottish National Party in 1934. He was several times the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association candidate for the Lord Rectorship of the University of Glasgow, which he lost by only sixty-six votes in 1928 to Stanley Baldwin the then Prime Minister.


During his life Graham had a large number of books and articles published. Subject matter included history, biography, poetry, essays, politics, travel and seventeen collections of short stories. Titles include Father Archangel of Scotland (1896 in conjunction with his wife Gabriella),Thirteen Stories (1900), Scottish Stories (1914) "Brought Forward" (1916) and Doughty Deeds (1925) a biography of his great-great-grandfather, Robert Graham of Gartmore. His great-niece and biographer, Jean, Lady Polwarth Under her maiden name Jean Cunninghame Graham she published in 2004 a biography entitled Gaucho Laird based on his letters and writings, published a collection of his short stories (or sketches) entitled Beattock for Moffatt and the Best of Cunninghame Graham (1979) and Alexander Maitland added his selection under the title Tales of Horsemen (1981). Professor John Walker published collections of Cunninghame Graham's South American Sketches (1978), Scottish Sketches (1982) and North American Sketches (1986) and in 1988 The Century Travellers reprinted his Mogreb-el-Acksa (1898) and A Vanished Arcadia (1901), the latter being, in part, the inspiration for the award-winning film The Mission. More recently The Long Riders Guild Press have reprinted his equestrian travel works in their Cunninghame Graham Collection and Kessinger Publishing have reprinted 16 titles to date.

He helped Joseph Conrad, whom he had introduced to his publisher Edward Garnett at Duckworth with research for Nostromo. Other literary friends included, Ford Madox Ford, John Galsworthy, W. H. Hudson, George Bernard Shaw (who openly admits his debt to Graham for "Captain Brassbound's Conversion" as well as a key line in "Arms and the Man") and G. K. Chesterton, who proclaimed him "The Prince of Preface Writers" and famously declared in his autobiography that while Cunninghame Graham would never be allowed to be Prime Minister, he instead "achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham", which Shaw described as "an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance."

Cunninghame Graham in Art

Cunninghame Graham was a staunch supporter of the artists of his day and a popular subject. He sat for artists such as Sir William Rothenstein who painted Don Roberto as The Fencer , Sir John Lavery whose famous Don Roberto: Commander for the King of Aragon in the Two Sicilies for many years graced the cover of the Penguin Books edition of Conrad's Nostromo and G. P. Jacomb-Hood who painted his official portrait on entering parliament , who along with Whistler were personal friends. There are also busts by Weiss and Jacob Epstein. The Dumbarton born artist, William Strang, used Cunninghame Graham as the model for his series of etchings of Don Quixote. It is unsurprising that he was at the mercy of caracaturists and cartoonists the most famous of whom was probably Spy.

Final Years

Robert Cunninghame Graham remained sprightly and rode daily even in his 80s. He continued to write, was the President of the Scottish Branch of the P.E.N. Club and involve himself in politics. He died from pneumonia on March 20, 1936 in the Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina following a visit to the birthplace of his friend William Hudson. His body lay in state in the Casa del Teatro and received a countrywide tribute led by the President of the Republic before his body was shipped home to be buried beside his wife in the ruined Augustinian Inchmahome Priory on the island of Inchmahome, Lake of Menteith, Stirling. The following year, June 1937, a monument the Cunninghame Graham Memorial was unveiled at Castlehill, Dumbarton, near the family home at Ardoch. Later it was moved to Gartmore, closer to the principal Graham estate, which he had been forced to sell in 1901 to the shipping magnate and founder of the Clan Line, Sir Charles Cayzer, Bt. His estates at Ardoch passed to his nephew, Captain (later Admiral Sir) Angus Cunninghame Graham, the only son of his brother Cdr. Charles Elphinstone-Fleeming Cunninghame Graham, MVO.


A bibliography of the first editions of the works of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, compiled with a foreword by Leslie Chaundy, London: Dulau, & Co. 1924

Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: an annotated bibliography, John Walker, Dollar: Douglas S. Mack, 1980


The Adventures of Don Roberto A Caledonia TV production for BBC Scotland, broadcast on BBC2 2008-12-15.

''The people's Laird: A Life of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Grahamby Anne Taylor, The Tobias Press, 2005

Gaucho Laird: The Life of R. B. Don Roberto Cunninghame Graham, by Jean Cunninghame Graham, Murray Grigor, 2004 R. B. Cunninghame Graham: Fighter for Justice, by Ian M. Fraser (privately published 2002) Cunninghame Graham: a centenary study, Hugh MacDiarmid, with a foreword by R.E. Muirhead, Glasgow: Caledonian Press, 1952 Cunninghame Graham: a critical biography, Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies, Cambridge [Eng.], New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979 Don Roberto: being the account of the life and works of R. B. Cunninghame Graham, 18521936, A. F. Tschiffely, London, Toronto: William Heinemann, 1937 A Modern Conquistador: Cunninghame Graham His Life and Works, by Herbert Fualkner West, Cranley Day, 1932 Don Roberto: vida y obra de R. B. Cunninghame Graham, 18521936, A. F. Tschiffely; version castellana de Julio E. Payro, Buenos Aires: Guillermo Kraft, 1946 El escoces errante: R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Alicia Jurado, Buenos Aires: Emece Editores, c1978

"Robert and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham", Alexander Maitland, Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons Ltd, 1983

The friendship between W.H. Hudson and Cunninghame Graham; translation of an article ... in the Buenos Aires illustrated weekly Acqui Esta, Jose Luis Lanuza, Argentina: Florencio Varela, n.d. Lecture on R.B. Cunninghame Graham for the Anglo-Argentine Society, 24 January 1979,Jean Polwarth, London: n.p., 1979 Jorge Luis Borges Lecture on R. B. Cunninghame Graham for the Anglo Argentinian Society, 30 September, 1986, Alicia Jurado, Royal Society of Arts, London: n.p., 1986 Personalidad de Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham: extracto de la tesis doctoral ... en la Facultad de Filosofia y Letras de la Universidad de Madrid sobre: Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham : personalidad del autor y estudio critico de sus ensayos, Julio Llorens Ebrat., Madrid: Florencio Varela, 1963 Testimonio a Roberto B. Cunninghame Graham, Buenos Aires: P.E.N. Club Argentino, 1941 The North American Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham, John Walker (ed.), Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 1987 The Scottish Sketches of R.B. Cunninghame Graham, John Walker (ed.), Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1982 The South American Sketches of R. B. Cunninghame Graham, John Walker (ed.), Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1985 Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham'', Cedric Watts (ed.), London, Cambridge University Press, 1969

External links

Rare Reprints - Cunninghame Graham

The Cunninghame Graham Collection

R. B. Cunninghame Graham, Rauner Special Collection, Dartmouth College Library, N.H.

Canning House Special Collection - R. B. Cunninghame Graham

Slainte: Information & Libraries Scotland - Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham

The Cunninghame Graham Collection

Scotsman newspaper: Great Scots - The extraordinary life of the Gaucho Laird

First Foot - Cunninghame-Graham

Los Caballos de la Conquista - Robert Cunninghame Graham

Robert Cunninghame-Graham by Raymond Vettese


Finlaystone House - history

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