Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Seòmar agus comataidhean

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 24, 2022


R B Cunninghame Graham

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-04154, in the name of Clare Adamson, on “R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: Party, Prose and Political Aesthetic”. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put. I invite any member who wishes to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the launch of a new book examining the life and legacy of R.B. Cunninghame Graham; notes that the book, R.B. Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: Party, Prose, and Political Aesthetic, authored by the political scholar and history PhD, Dr Lachlan Munro, and published by Edinburgh University Press, will be launched at The Black Bull Inn, Gartmore, on 6 May 2022; acknowledges that R.B. Cunninghame Graham was one of the most influential Scottish politicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, described by Dr Munro as “the most contentious, controversial, and contradictory Scot of his generation”; understands that Cunninghame Grahame, born in 1852, was a radical political campaigner, who founded the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie in 1888, and was later instrumental in founding The National Party of Scotland in 1928, a predecessor of the Scottish National Party (SNP), becoming honorary president of the SNP; further understands that Cunninghame Graham, also a writer, journalist and adventurer, was elected as the Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire but, after witnessing the poverty and destitution among the mining community, rebelled against his own party; notes that he was known as “The Miners’ MP” and was an outspoken anti-racist and anti-imperialist who, at the age of 62, volunteered for service in the First World War, and was awarded the title of Colonel; recognises that, following his death in Buenos Aires in 1936, his body lay in state, and his coffin, followed by thousands of people, was put aboard the ship he planned to sail home on, and that he was buried in the ancient priory on Inchmahome where his grave can still be seen; commends Dr Munro’s efforts in highlighting Cunninghame Graham’s extraordinary and controversial life, and wishes him every success with the book launch.


Clare Adamson (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)

I thank all my colleagues who supported the debate, those who are speaking and those who have stayed to listen this evening.

I welcome, along with the man himself, friends and colleagues of Dr Lachlan Munro, members of the Cunninghame Graham family and members of the Cunninghame Graham Society, of which I am a founding member, as well as our dear former colleague Rob Gibson, who led the last members’ debate in tribute to Cunninghame Graham in 2012. This week marks 170 years since Cunninghame Graham’s birth.

Dr Munro’s fabulous book, with its iconic new painting of Cunninghame Graham on the front, with the mines of Lanarkshire in the background, is entitled “R.B. Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: Party, Prose and Political Aesthetic”. It is a labour of love and I was honoured to attend its launch in the village of Gartmore a few short weeks ago.

Now a duly elected Labour councillor, Gerry McGarvey, is also with us this evening in the gallery. He hosted and launched the event in a packed village hall, livestreaming to viewers in Argentina and Peru. In his review of the book in the Scottish Left Review, Gerry McGarvey captures the questions that this book seeks to answer. R B Cunninghame Graham is, after all, an enigma and trying to define his life is like to pin down jelly as many aspects of it were contradictions.

Cunninghame Graham’s own memorial at Castlehill in Dumbarton reads:

“Famous Author—Traveller and Horseman—Patriotic Scot and Citizen of the World ... He Was a Master of Life—A King Among Men”.

He died in Argentina. Dr Munro describes him as

“the most contentious, controversial and contradictory Scot of his generation.”

Of his contemporaries, G K Chesterton proclaimed Cunninghame Graham to be the “Prince of Preface Writers” and fearlessly declared in his autobiography that although Cunninghame Graham would never be allowed to be Prime Minister, he instead

“achieved the adventure of being Cunninghame Graham”,

which George Bernard Shaw in turn described as

“an achievement so fantastic that it would never be believed in a romance.”

Why is he is so little remembered today? Hugh MacDiarmid described Graham as

“potentially the greatest Scotsman of his generation”

and in 1927, the Sunday Post remarked:

“There are few men nowadays so well known as Mr R. B. Cunninghame Graham.”

I would argue that his influence has a reach that will have touched many Scots even without them realising. Film buffs might have seen the Oscar-winning period drama “The Mission”, which tells the true tale of 18th century Jesuit missionaries who died defending Guarani Indians from Portuguese slavery in the South American jungle.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

The member has outlined many of Cunninghame Graham’s fine qualities. I am sure that she is coming to this, but will she also acknowledge that he is remembered, rightly, as a great writer in his own right and that he, in his short stories, has captured many people’s imaginations around the world?

Clare Adamson

I thank Dr Allan for that intervention and, yes, indeed I will reflect on his writing in my speech this evening.

The film was inspired by Cunninghame Graham’s work and travels in South America. Also, visitors to Kelvingrove art gallery may have seen John Lavery’s exceptional portrait of Cunninghame Graham in a typically flamboyant pose or seen the bust of him in Aberdeen art gallery, such was his image, influence and notoriety among the greatest artists and writers of his time. Image was very important to this tall, striking, red-haired figure who I believe it is safe to say had quite a conceit of himself.

Visitors to Buenos Aires may stroll down a street named after him. Indeed, when Cunninghame Graham died, he lay in state in Casa del Teatro and received a country-wide tribute led by the president of the republic before his body was shipped home to be buried beside his beloved wife in the ruined Augustine priory on the island of Inchmahome in the Lake of Menteith. Thousands lined the streets of Buenos Aires to accompany his body on its way to set sail home.

At school, some people might have studied “The Gold Fish” and I am so glad that Dr Allan intervened because I have with me one of my favourite books “The Devil and the Giro”, a former school text, which was collated by Carl MacDougall. It was after my time at school but nonetheless, it might have influenced teachers such as my husband John, who is in the gallery, to have taught “The Gold Fish”. When examining his bravado, adventure and romance, it is very easy to forget the sheer beauty of his writing. If you will indulge me, Presiding Officer, I am going to read the introductory paragraph of “The Gold Fish”:

“Outside the little straw-thatched café in a small courtyard trellised with vines, before a miniature table painted in red and blue, and upon which stood a domeshaped pewter teapot and a painted glass half filled with mint, sat Amarabat, resting and smoking hemp. He was of those whom Allah in his mercy (or because man in the Blad-Allah has made no railways) has ordained to run. Set upon the road, his shoes pulled up, his waistband tightened, in his hand a staff, a palm-leaf wallet at his back, and in it bread, some hemp, a match or two (known to him as el spiritus), and a letter to take anywhere, crossing the plains, fording the streams, struggling along the mountain-paths, sleeping but fitfully, a burning rope steeped in saltpetre fastened to his foot, he trotted day and night—untiring as a camel, faithful as a dog.”

It is a fascinating story and I hope people will turn to it and read it after this debate.

Cunninghame Graham was elected as the Liberal member of Parliament for North West Lanarkshire, the old Monklands area of the modern council, and he was the first self-declared socialist MP. As a key friend and colleague of Keir Hardie over many years, they became the co-founders of the independent Labour Party, which became the modern-day Labour Party. When their founding principle of home rule did not progress quickly enough for him, in 1928 Cunninghame Graham founded the National Party of Scotland and, as it evolved, he became the first Scottish National Party president in 1934.

With all his political and literary fame and influence, why do we not acknowledge him as we do Byron or Shaw or Conrad? That is the enigma, the contradiction. An aristocrat from wealth and privilege, he became “The Miners’ MP”, championing the eight-hour day and banning child labour. A justice of the peace, he was arrested and jailed for causing a riot in Trafalgar Square protesting against unemployment. An estate and land owner, he championed the cause of crofters and land reform. An adventurer, traveller and rebel, he enrolled in the army in the first world war when he was in his 60s.

Dr Munro’s labour of love tells a story of love: the story of Don Roberto’s love of horses, which is a thread that ran through his childhood, his many travels and adventures, to his task of securing horses for the war effort; the story of love for his bride Gabriela; and the story of Don Roberto’s love for the dignity of the working man and the poor in any society or culture. It is also, of course, about his love for the gauchos who he worked with in Argentina, earning him the moniker Don Roberto. It is about his love of the anti-slavery, anti-imperialist, anti-racist causes he championed vehemently. I have mentioned Guarani Indians, but also championed the causes of the Sioux, the Turks, the Persians and the Moors. He loved humanity and he recognised and embraced the values of cultures that different from western norms. At home, he argued for the abolition of the House of Lords, for universal suffrage, for nationalisation of land, mines and other industries and for free school meals.

Those concepts were perceived to be radical at the time but there is no doubt that he would rage at us because of the lack of progress in some of those areas to this day. His last piece of writing was in praise of a Jewish lady who had campaigned for a war memorial for the horses that were injured and killed in the war.

I often think of his friendship, admiration and curiosity about the culture of others as being much like Hamish Henderson’s interest in the travelling communities of Scotland. They both had a humanity that extended across cultural difference, and they both reached out a hand of friendship. He was undoubtedly an enigma and a frequent contradiction, but perhaps he was one of the greatest humanitarians of our recent history. Hamish Henderson posed a question a few years after his death—“Who remembers Cunninghame Graham?” I urge everyone in the chamber who has followed the debate to remember him by reading about the man in books like the one that Dr Munro has launched recently, by reading Don Roberto’s incredible volumes of collected stories, and listening to the BBC series about him from Billy Kay. Be part of the adventure that is Cunninghame Graham.

Thank you, Ms Adamson, and congratulations on the legitimate use of a prop during a speech there.


Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

I congratulate Clare Adamson on securing this debate on one the most colourful and patriotic of Scots.

I also have my husband to thank for my knowledge about Don Roberto, and I am going to unashamedly plug the programme that he made for BBC Scotland called the “The Adventures of Don Roberto”. If you visited my office here in Parliament, alongside paintings and artwork depicting the beauty of my Argyll and Bute constituency, you would find a Stewart Bremner indy print of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.

Born on the eve of the Crimean war, he died as Europe lurched towards fascism. His 83 years were crammed with enough adventure and endeavour for several lifetimes. For a start he was a traveller. The wild gaucho horsemen of Argentine pampas where he lived when young named him Don Roberto, a name that stuck with him all his life. In Texas, he witnessed the last of the old wild west, surviving encounters with gunslingers and hostile Apaches. Even though he was Harrow educated, Cunninghame Graham was a lifelong radical and outspoken champion of the underdog, whether they were Native American Indians, Scottish miners, women, Zulus or English ironworkers. He was a true Scottish internationalist.

As Clare Adamson has said, he was elected to Westminster as a home rule Liberal—home rule for Ireland that is—but he constantly espoused more radical policies in the House. He was the first MP to declare himself a socialist, and he was the first MP to swear in Parliament. As Clare Adamson said, while an MP he was badly beaten up and then arrested during an unemployment demonstration in Trafalgar Square, spending six weeks in Pentonville Prison. In 1888, he and Keir Hardie formed the Scottish Labour Party, while he continued to argue for Scottish independence.

Cunninghame Graham was handsome and debonair. Walking in Hyde Park one day he met George Bernard Shaw and Shaw’s mother. He and Shaw greeted each other and as they went their separate ways Shaw’s mother asked her son who it was, they had just met. “That was Cunninghame Graham”, Shaw told his mother. “Nonsense”, she replied. “Cunninghame Graham is a socialist. That man was a gentleman”.

After six years as an MP, Cunninghame Graham became disillusioned with Westminster, believing that nothing could be done for Scotland or for the English poor there. He described it as an “asylum for incapables”. In 1894, he refused to stand for the Labour Party in Aberdeen. He criticised the party in these words:

“The same vices, foibles and failings which it has taken the Whigs and Tories many generations to become perfect in, the Labourists and Socialists have brought to perfection, and with apparent ease, in six years.”

Yet his own reforming zeal was undiminished. He wrote more than 30 books and a torrent of passionate and radical journalism, and he had not given up on party politics, as he went on to become the joint president of the SNP when it was created in 1934. He remained a radical and progressive all his life, and wrote:

“Without Nationalism we cannot have any true Inter-nationalism.”

Cunninghame Graham, as we have heard, travelled widely, and thought deeply. He was friends with many of the great figures of his time: the aforementioned Keir Hardie, Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Oscar Wilde and, my favourite, Buffalo Bill who he met in the Glasgow Art Club.

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham lies buried on the island of Inchmahome on the Lake of Menteith. A year after his death, a memorial stone to him was unveiled on land that he had given to the National Trust for Scotland near Dumbarton. It reads:

“Famous Author—Traveller and Horseman—Patriotic Scot and Citizen of the World ... He Was a Master of Life—A King Among Men”.

I want to end by returning to the print of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham in my office. It is emblazoned with Cunninghame Graham’s own observation, and one that I live and breathe:

“So long as my strength lasts, I shall continue to advocate for an independent Scotland.”


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I congratulate Clare Adamson on bringing the motion to the chamber.

The fact that I—a Scottish Conservative and unionist—have risen today to pay tribute to a man such as Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham is perhaps a tad ironic to some. He was a radical Liberal and a founder of the Scottish Labour Party, and he went on to help to found the Scottish National Party. He spoke about

“The wiles of invertebrate tory democracy”

at his selection meeting in Airdrie, and he spoke regularly about his republicanism and his socialism. He spoke about, and gave support to, causes that, frankly, I find quite disagreeable—as many in the chamber do. However, in looking at his writings, we can see that he did so with an eloquence that perhaps all members could learn from and which we would probably be hard pushed to emulate.

Graham is really not a natural fit for someone of my political persuasion or belief. [Interruption.] I thank the cabinet secretary for his endorsement of my sentiment. For once, I am understating. However, Graham was also a man very much of his time. His writings—especially laterally—were peppered with words, phrases and views that are very much out of keeping with how we would expect public figures to behave today.

In my view, Graham is to be commended and held up for his role as a defender of freedom of speech. He spoke vigorously of the need for men and women to be able to express their viewpoint without fear of oppression from the state or the excoriation of others. He certainly did that and, at one point—up to the outbreak of the first world war—he was thought of as a man who had delivered more speeches than any other man living. Many members are striving for that accolade.

It is a mark of the character of the man that he spoke vociferously on the issue of peace, how we should avoid war and, indeed, how those who were seeking war were guilty of acting solely with their self-interest and profiteering in mind. However, in December 1914, which was a few months after the outbreak of the first world war, he was despatched enthusiastically to Montevideo to purchase horses for the War Office and the war effort. His relationship with the horse breeders of South America was to be of great use to this country during the great war.

Which of us is willing to put aside our beliefs and convictions when asked to help to defend our country? The difference is that Graham was able to separate the men who ran the country from the country itself and the people of the country. The concept that the personality of a country’s leader is different from the country itself might often be too alien to many of us. As in Britannia or Caledonia, we have personified our nations too much in leaders. The idea that one person can be representative of an entire country eliminates the dissenting view or the nuanced opinion. National leaders have grown up like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to become bogeymen or national heroes to too many people.

For men such as Cunninghame Graham, it was the debate about the substance of the issue that was important. The people were wrong, venal and invertebrate, but the need for reform was far more important to him than the beating of the other man. He knew that reform could be achieved only by engaging with the substance of issues in an intelligent and capable way.

The new book is to be welcomed. It highlights R B Cunninghame Graham not least for his championing of freedom of speech. The book is worth while, so I unstintingly support the motion.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I think that our former colleague Stewart Stevenson would have had something to say about Cunninghame Graham’s claim to have given the greatest number of speeches.

I call Kenneth Grahame.


Am I going to talk about “The Wind in the Willows”?

It is the chair’s right to rename.

Kenneth Gibson has up to four minutes.

Kenneth Gibson

I do not think that R B Cunninghame Graham will have counted his speeches in quite the way that Stewart Stevenson did.

It gives me great pleasure to speak in this debate on the life of the Scottish politician, orator, writer, patriot and adventurer Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. I congratulate my colleague Clare Adamson on securing the debate and on her excellent speech. The two speeches that followed that were also excellent.

Cunninghame Graham’s very full life began in London in 1852 and ended in Buenos Aires 84 years later. He was educated at Harrow and in Brussels, and he grew up privileged on his family’s estate. Gaucho, gold prospector, friend of Buffalo Bill and fencing instructor in Mexico, he helped to found the Labour Party and, 46 years later, he became the first president of the newly formed SNP in 1934. As we have heard, he was elected as a Liberal in 1886 for North West Lanarkshire. He was the first socialist at Westminster, and he was also the first MP to be suspended from the House of Commons for swearing—albeit mildly, by today’s standards. However, the Presiding Officer may be somewhat shocked by the word that he used, which I shall not repeat.

Cunninghame Graham believed in universal suffrage and that Governments should help to deliver equality of opportunity by providing services such as free school meals. Even in his early years, he argued that Scotland should be able to run its own affairs. He famously quipped in the 1880s that he would prefer Scotland to have its own

“national parliament with the pleasure of knowing that the taxes were wasted in Edinburgh instead of London.”

It is encouraging to see that some Labour colleagues are willing to recognise a man who has effectively been removed from the Labour pantheon for the crime of changing his mind about what is best for Scotland and our place in the world. However, one wonders what would have transpired if Robert Cunninghame Graham had not recruited and encouraged Keir Hardie to help to found and then lead the Labour Party.

Cunninghame Graham was buried at Inchmahome priory. The monument to him, which was built in 1937, includes the epitaph:

“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”.

However, when he was alive, he was convinced that capital should be distributed among classes as evenly as possible, that miners should be able to become MPs, and that that wholly anachronistic and unelected body, the House of Lords, should be abolished. In 1892, Cunninghame Graham stood in Camlachie as an Independent Labour candidate and lost, thus ending his time at Westminster.

I find it fascinating how ubiquitous he was in the political spectrum and on the planet. He seems to have been in so many places, met so many people, and done so much in just one lifetime, Thinking about him begs the question: how much can one person do in one lifespan of 84 years? The political parties that were set in motion by Cunninghame Graham mean that it is impossible to overstate the impact that he has had on Scottish and United Kingdom politics. He was an early vice-president of the Scottish Home Rule Association in 1886, and he was also president of the new Scottish Home Rule Association in 1927.

On his monument, there is portrait of his famous horse Pampa, which was an Argentine mustang that he rescued from pulling trams in Glasgow and rode for some 20 years. It has the inscription:

“To Pampa my black Argentine who I rode for twenty years without a fall. May the earth lie light upon him as lightly as he trod upon its face ... Don Roberto.”

One of Pampa’s hooves is buried beneath the monument, which was subsequently moved to the village of Gartmore, where, until 1900, Gartmore house had been the home of the Cunninghame Graham family. The monument is currently in the care of the National Trust for Scotland. It was restored a decade ago in time for the 160th anniversary of Cunninghame Graham’s birth.

Not everything that Cunninghame Graham wished for Scotland has played out just yet. However, I will conclude by highlighting something that has.

Cunninghame Graham understood early that the so-called class that a person was born into should not impede their ability to participate in public decision making as an elector or an elected representative. Although that is still a factor—particularly at Westminster—if Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham were in the gallery today, he would see a Scottish Parliament filled with representatives of every socioeconomic background, a great diversity of skills and character, and the lived experience that enriches our representation. He would also see in our Parliament many women and ethnic minority parliamentarians—there were none in his day. The work is not finished, but I believe that he would be proud to see how far we have come.


Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I congratulate my colleague on bringing this motion to the Scottish Parliament and the passion with which she delivered her speech, and I welcome members of the Cunninghame Graham Society and of the family.

Unashamedly—and not just because of the fundamental contribution that he made to the cause of Scottish independence, his colourful and, indeed flamboyant, life, and his brave and reforming zeal—I claim Cunninghame Graham as a distant relative through our shared surname. I forgive the missing E, as I am sure that we all came from the same stock.

What a life—well worthy of the Hollywood touch or, at the very least, a documentary on television. With his exotic family background, his exploits in Argentina, his meeting with Buffalo Bill—I do not know whether there is a picture somewhere, but if there is, I want to see it—his fencing, his horse riding and so on, you would not have anticipated that he was a man who would convert from Scottish Labour, which he founded with Keir Hardie, to the cause of Scottish independence, which has been close to my own heart these past 50 years.

As far back as 1886, Cunninghame Graham helped to establish the Scottish Home Rule Association. On one occasion in the House of Commons, he joked that he wanted a

“national parliament with the pleasure of knowing that the taxes were wasted in Edinburgh instead of London.”

Yes, let us make our own mistakes. I am with him on that. We cannot do worse than the current UK Government—sorry about that, Mr Kerr. Cunninghame Graham’s support for independence for Scotland led to him being the first honorary president of the Scottish National Party in 1934. He was decades ahead of his time, not just in the independence cause but in his determination and commitment to social justice.

His main concerns in the House of Commons were the plight of the unemployed and the preservation of civil liberties. He did more than just talk—he walked the walk. He attended the protest demonstration in Trafalgar Square on 13 November 1887 that was broken up by the police and became known as bloody Sunday. He was badly beaten during his arrest and taken to Bow Street police station. He was found guilty for his involvement in the demonstration, sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment and sent to Pentonville prison. What a man.

After his release, 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—I am beginning to like this man more and more—in December 1880 for protesting about the working conditions of chain makers. His response to the Speaker of the House was rebuked for his use of the word “damn” and his saying, “I never withdraw”, and it was later used by George Bernard Shaw in “Arms and the Man”. This man was too radical even for the French, and that is saying something. After making a speech at Calais, he was actually shut out of going back to France ever again.

He was anti-imperialist and he despised British jingoism. I share so many values with him: the abolition of the House of the Lords—every box ticked—universal suffrage; the nationalisation of land, mines and other industries; free school meals; and republicanism. There we go. I think that he is great. What a man. I am so glad that he lived well into his active 80s. If one were to ask me who I would like to meet from the past, well, he is right at the top.

As others have done, we must ask ourselves: where does he feature in standard Scottish history books? How many of our schoolchildren, or, indeed, Scottish people, know of this extraordinary, difficult and extremely exciting man? If they do not, why not? I commend Dr Munro for his biography. Let us hope that it is on some people’s reading lists.

Again, I congratulate the member and Dr Munro. It has been a pleasure to take part in the debate and I have enjoyed every minute.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Clare Adamson for securing this debate to coincide with the 170th anniversary of the birth of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham. As we mark the life of R B Cunninghame Graham, we do so not to look wistfully backwards but to find hope and inspiration for today and for the future. Here was a campaigner who championed the gauchos of South America, the Native Indians of North America, the crofters of the Highlands and Islands and the miners of the central lowlands in their battles for justice.

I am pleased that we are joined in the public gallery by my very old comrade and very new Labour councillor, Gerry McGarvey; Lachie Munro; family descendants; and others appreciative of Cunninghame Graham’s political, literary and historical contribution. As Lachie Munro writes in his important new book, “R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: Party, Prose and Political Aesthetic”,

“Although a renowned speechmaker and literary polemicist, he was fundamentally a man of action.”

As an MP, Cunninghame Graham eschewed Parliament as being, in his words, “the national gasworks”. He travelled around the country addressing miners in struggle, agitating for the cause of socialism at factory gates and railing against injustice at public meetings in town and village halls. On 13 November 1887, by which point he was the member of Parliament for North West Lanarkshire, he was beaten up by the police before being arrested at an unemployment demonstration in Trafalgar Square. In what became known as “bloody Sunday”, along with the radical trade unionist John Burns, he was charged with unlawful assembly and sentenced to six weeks hard labour in Pentonville.

By then, Cunninghame Graham had joined forces with William Morris—who E P Thompson later declared to be “England’s greatest Communist intellectual”—along with his fellow Socialist Leaguers Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Peter Kropotkin, as Morris preached his gospel that it was the business of socialists to make socialists.

With James Keir Hardie as secretary, Cunninghame Graham became the honorary president of the Scottish Labour Party in 1888. As the Labour candidate for Camlachie at the 1892 general election, he abandoned his own campaign in the final week to help secure Keir Hardie’s historic election as the first ever Labour MP. He observed poignantly of the impoverished working-class constituency of West Ham South, which Hardie won, that there was

“On one side, lines of endless docks and on the other, lines of endless misery”.

Many years later, Hardie’s son-in-law, Emrys Hughes, told of an unruly public meeting in Camlachie at which Cunninghame Graham produced a dummy six-shooter pistol that he had found lying backstage, which he brandished to quieten a riotous audience baying for Irish home rule. It worked.

Exactly 40 years on from establishing the Scottish Labour Party, and with a huge body of literature and essays behind him, Cunninghame Graham helped found the National Party of Scotland and, two years before his death, he became the president of the new Scottish National Party, but he was no narrow nationalist. As the monument in the village of Gartmore spells out, he truly was a citizen of the world; a real cosmopolitan—born in London, died in Buenos Aires. Like many of those pioneers, he made the case and fought for transformational change, knowing full well that he would almost certainly not live to see it but believing that it was right. Lachie Munro describes this rare spirit as

“an eloquent, disquieted, principled, fervid moralist and contrarian”.

Here was an aristocrat who wanted a social revolution. Here was a man who took part in anti-war meetings with Keir Hardie but then joined up. Here was a member of the landed classes who stood on a platform of land nationalisation. It is right that this Scottish Parliament honours him and that we remember him, his place in our history, his place in our culture, and the enduring relevance of his life, ideas, and causes to this Parliament and to all of us who are privileged to be elected to it.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Leonard. I am sorry to hear that Councillor McGarvey’s dreams of achieving elected office in Orkney appear to have been extinguished, but I congratulate him nonetheless.


Paul McLennan (East Lothian) (SNP)

I, too, thank Clare Adamson for bringing forward the motion. It is a privilege to speak in the debate.

As we have heard, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was born 170 years ago today, on 24 May 1852, and he died in March 1936. We have also heard that he was a Liberal Party member of Parliament, the first ever socialist member of the Parliament of the UK, a founder and the first president of the Scottish Labour Party, a founder of the National Party of Scotland and, of course, the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934.

Cunninghame Graham’s background is incredible. He came from a family with a strong military background. His father, Major William Bontine, was of the Renfrew militia and his mother was the daughter of an admiral and a Spanish noblewoman. He was well educated at Harrow public school in England and finished his education in Brussels in Belgium. He moved to Argentina, as we have heard, to make his fortune cattle ranching and he loved adventure, travelling to Morocco, Spain, Texas and Mexico City, among other places.

In 1883, he returned to the UK and became interested in politics and converted to socialism. As we have heard, he attended socialist meetings, which is where he heard and met Keir Hardie. He began to speak at public meetings. Although a socialist, in the 1886 general election he stood as a Liberal Party candidate for North West Lanarkshire. His election programme was extremely radical and called for policies such as the abolition of the House of Lords, free school meals, Scottish home rule and the establishment of an eight-hour working day.

He was the first MP ever to be suspended from the House of Commons for swearing, and I am not going to mention the word. His 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. As we have heard, he was found guilty of involvement in a demonstration and sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment.

As we heard, he was a strong supporter of Scottish independence. In 1886, he helped establish the Scottish Home Rule Association. In 1888, he attended the SHRA conference at Anderton’s hotel in Fleet Street, which passed a motion saying:

“That in the opinion of this Conference the interests of Scotland demand the establishment of a Scotch national Parliament and an Executive Government having control over exclusively Scotch affairs.”

What a visionary the man was even in 1888.

While in the House of Commons, he became increasingly radical and went on to found the Scottish Labour Party with Keir Hardie. He left the Liberal Party in 1892 to contest the general election in a new constituency as a Labour candidate. As we have heard, he played an active part in the establishment of the National Party of Scotland and was elected the honorary president of the new Scottish National Party in 1934.

Between 1888 and 1892, Graham was a prolific contributor to small-circulation socialist journals. There is a seat dedicated to Cunninghame Graham in the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh with the inscription:

“R B ‘Don Roberto’ Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore and Ardoch, 1852–1936, A great storyteller.”

It is great to see Gerry McGarvey here today. I have read his review of the book that is mentioned in the motion. The review begins:

“R B Cunninghame Graham ... was, and remains, the great enigma of Scottish politics.”

Gerry McGarvey goes on to say—and it is an incredible story when you listen to it—that

“Graham was a quarter-Spanish cowboy in South America; a large Scottish landowner who was the first declared socialist MP in Westminster; and a Justice of the Peace who was badly beaten by the police and jailed while leading a riot in Trafalgar Square on behalf of the unemployed. Graham was also an aristocratic élitist and ‘The Miners’ MP’, who was expelled from parliament on three occasions; an anti-racist and anti-imperialist, who at the age of 62 volunteered for military service and was appointed a ‘colonel’ during WWI; and a friend of the rich and famous, who supported Irish and Scottish Home Rule.

The greatest enigma, however, was how quickly he disappeared from the public consciousness. In 1926, Hugh MacDiarmid described Graham as ‘potentially the greatest Scotsman of his generation’.”

He says that Cunninghame Graham was

“‘the most contentious, controversial, and contradictory Scot of his generation ... this thoroughly researched book is the first attempt to untangle the Graham legend, both as a rabble-rousing politician and as a prolific author.”

I will close with Cunninghame Graham’s most famous quote, which I know will divide opinion:

“The enemies of Scottish nationalism are not the English for they were ever a great and generous folk, quick to respond when justice calls. Our real enemies are among us, born without imagination.”


The Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture (Angus Robertson)

I am extremely grateful to Clare Adamson for bringing forward this motion and securing the debate today. It is right that we celebrate the life and legacy of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham and mark the recent publication of research by Dr Lachlan Munro that confirms this extraordinary man’s place in Scotland’s history for modern readers.

I would like to thank the various speakers for their passionate and interesting contributions right across the chamber: Jenni Minto, Stephen Kerr, Kenneth Gibson, Christine Grahame, Richard Leonard and Paul McLennan. It is a rare thing indeed that there is such unanimity in any Parliament and particularly about a man with so many facets to see that there has been such unanimity in respect of the mark of his lifetime.

It is important that the Parliament remembers how the significant achievements of R B Cunninghame Graham in campaigning for social and political change in the late 19th and early 20th centuries have influenced and shaped Scotland and still do today. This is the second time that R B Cunninghame Graham has been the focus of debate in this Parliament. We recorded our appreciation of his devotion to justice and Scotland on 20 June 2012 on the occasion of the publication of a then new collection of his writings by Alan MacGillivray and John C McIntyre.

Dr Munro’s thorough analysis of R B Cunninghame Graham’s contribution to Scotland’s political and cultural history is a hugely welcome addition to research available on this most interesting man. Describing R B Cunninghame Graham as

“the most contentious, controversial, and contradictory Scot of his generation”,

Dr Munro seeks to understand him as both an outstanding politician and a keen writer. For the first time, this research examines his political influences, which included William Morris, Engels and Marx. It examines contemporary newspaper reports, Cunninghame Graham’s speeches, his socialist journalism, as well as the memoirs of those who knew him, including his early socialist, and later nationalist, colleagues.

The book reveals Cunninghame Graham’s close relationship with Keir Hardie and argues that it was Cunninghame Graham, inspired by William Morris, who first saw the need for a party for working people. Cunninghame Graham and Hardie’s support for Scottish home rule is explored, as are Cunninghame Graham’s evocative Scottish writings, which Dr Munro contends were also deeply political.

The book also explores the early labour movement in Scotland, which turned into the National Party and then the Scottish National Party. Cunninghame Graham felt that the establishment of a Scottish Parliament with full control over all Scottish affairs was essential—a firm belief, the chamber will not be surprised to hear, that I whole-heartedly share.

I am delighted that Dr Munro’s analysis includes Cunninghame Graham’s nearly 30 books, including 200 short stories and sketches, history and travel books, which draw on his many travels and adventures in Scotland and in his beloved South America as inspiration.

Cunninghame Graham has long been Scotland’s forgotten personality, politician and writer. Dr Munro explores the complex reasons for his eclipse from public attention despite Cunninghame Graham being one of the most famous and controversial Scots of his generation, whose career in the public eye spanned over 50 years and saw him move from aristocratic beginnings to being a radical part of the British political establishment and a figure loved by people from every class in society.

In this fresh appraisal, Dr Munro challenges previous accounts of Cunninghame Graham as a romantic idealist, an aesthete and an adventurer. Acknowledging the apparent contradictions in his life, Dr Munro shows that Cunninghame Graham’s political activities, as well as his writing, were fuelled by his deeply felt moral outrage. As Dr Munro says, Cunninghame Graham was seen

“not solely as a politician, nor an author, but as an eloquent, disquieted, principled, fervid moralist and contrarian.”

As we have heard in the debate, R B Cunninghame Graham lived a fascinating life. Born in London with Spanish heritage, educated at Harrow, an adventurer in Morocco, a cowboy and long rider in the Americas. Throughout all of that, he was a Scot and his influence on modern Scottish political life should not be underestimated. As we heard, he entered the House of Commons in 1886 as a Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire and left in 1892 as that Parliament’s first sitting socialist member. Radical at the time, but familiar now, his electoral platform included universal suffrage, free school meals, free education, an eight-hour working day, home rule for Scotland and the abolition of the House of Lords.

As the motion states, R B Cunninghame Graham was also known as “The Miners’ MP”, fighting to end the poverty and hardship faced by mining communities in Lanarkshire. He would be pleased, I am sure, by the action that is being taken right now by the Scottish Government to ease the wounds of division and bitterness inflicted on Scotland’s mining communities during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. I am speaking, of course, about the Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill that is currently making its way through Parliament.

The bill seeks to secure a pardon for miners and their households for certain offences that were committed during that strike, which was the most bitter and divisive industrial dispute in living memory. The pardon will help to restore dignity to miners and mining communities by removing the stigma of a criminal conviction. By offering a pardon, the Scottish Government is doing what it can within its powers to bring some comfort to miners and others convicted for the strike. I am confident that R B Cunninghame Graham would have approved.

Today’s debate will help to set the record straight. It celebrates the achievements of this reformer who fought so hard for the people of Scotland and their home rule. It is important that he is remembered as one of modern Scotland’s founding fathers.

I want to add my warm congratulations to Dr Munro on the fruits of his work over a number of years, which has led to the publication by Edinburgh University Press of this assessment of R B Cunninghame Graham in one volume. This fitting testimony to Cunninghame Graham’s literary and political achievements will give modern readers the opportunity to assess and enjoy the remarkable range of his work. It also goes some way to explain why Cunninghame Graham has received so little serious attention in the 86 years since his death. Cunninghame Graham’s commitment to social justice for all, to Scotland and to literature has left a remarkable legacy for us today.

I congratulate everyone who took part in the debate this afternoon and commend this new book to everyone with an interest in our political history that continues to shape us to this day.

That concludes the debate and I close this meeting of Parliament.

Meeting closed at 18:12.