Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, adventurer, author, politician, and first president of the Scottish National Party, died on the 20th of March, 1936.
With a name like Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, this man sounds like he could've been a character from the Old West to rival Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp. In fact, he was born Robert Bontine and, although he was no William Bonney, he was a friend of William Cody, whom he'd met in Texas, near the San Antonio de Bexar of Alamo fame. He changed his name after the death of his father, in 1883, and to say that his life was an adventure would be a gross understatement. Cunninghame Graham was known as a great adventurer and if there are no 'Boys Own' books based on his life, there should be. He led the kind of life that would've inspired the likes of Robert Michael Ballantyne or H. Rider Haggard to write stories.
In fact, Graham wrote books himself and was a friend of Joseph Conrad, who once said
of his contemporary, “When I think of Cunninghame Graham, I feel as though I have lived all my life in a dark hole without seeing or knowing anything.” Graham was also a prolific writer, producing a wide range of titles including fourteen volumes of short stories; eleven histories of Latin America; several biographies; a few volumes of poetry; and some travel books.
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was indeed a man of “extraordinary talents, tireless energy and considerable courage,” who roamed the world, living through an adventure on every page. Graham was a Long Rider and a gaucho in South America, where he was affectionately known as 'Roberto'. Graham also travelled in Morocco disguised as a Turkish sheikh (for why, I don’t know), prospected for gold in Spain, befriended the aforementioned Buffalo Bill, and taught fencing in Mexico City, where he pitched up with his wife after travelling by wagon train from the Texas border. No blushing bride for such a man, Gabrielle Chidiock de la Balmondiere, the daughter of Don Francisco José de la Balmondieri and a half French, half Chilean poet, was, undoubtedly a suitable companion for a Scottish adventurer with a long name.
In one notable adventure, in 1872, Cunninghame Graham rode 600 miles on horseback up the river Parana to the Iguacu Falls. On that journey, he was engaged in researching the relationship of the early Jesuits to the local Indians (the ‘indigindians’). Cunninghame Graham, a lifelong champion of the down trodden, applied his literary genius to telling the long forgotten story of the Guarani natives, a people converted to Christianity and then betrayed into slavery by the bickering Portuguese and the Spanish. His subsequent book, ‘A Vanished Arcadia’, is a profound story, written by a master story teller. It inspired the movie, ‘The Mission’, starring Jeremy Irons and, appropriately, another Robert – de Niro.
In a sense, Graham had two careers; the one as an adventurer and the other as a politician. In that latter career, he often displayed the kind of characteristics that had kept him alive on his travels – audaciousness and balls. Graham became a somewhat notorious MP, which is a bit of an understatement, being that he was suspended from ‘the House’ several times, once for swearing during a speech. Then, on the 13th of November, 1887, he was arrested and sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment for his part in the demonstration in Trafalgar Square that became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ (one of many such Sundays).
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was born plain Robert Bontine, in London, on the 24th of May, 1852, before being brought up on the family estate in Renfrewshire. He was the eldest son of Major William Cunninghame Graham Bontine, of the Scots Greys, and Anne Elizabeth Elphinstone Fleeming. Young Robert was educated at Harrow School in England and also in Brussels. Robert then went to Argentina to make his fortune, where he became a successful cattle rancher and horse trainer. He married Gabrielle in 1877 and they spent their honeymoon in a wagon trail, travelling to Mexico City.
Graham's political career began when he returned to the United Kingdom, in 1883, when he inherited the family estate and changed his name. Despite his privileged background, Graham ultimately became a convert to socialism, inspired by the likes of William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and Keir Hardie. Despite that and primarily because the Labour Party did not then exist, Graham stood as the Liberal Party candidate for North Lanarkshire, in the 1886 General Election, where he defeated the Unionist (Conservative) Party candidate.
Cunninghame Graham's policies were extremely radical and throughout his career, he variously called for the abolition of the House of Lords; universal suffrage; the widespread nationalisation of land, mines and other industries; free school meals; the disestablishment of the Church of England; home rule for Scotland; and the establishment of an eight-hour-day. How could you not like such a man.
In 1886, Cunninghame Graham helped establish the Scottish Home Rule Association and attempted to persuade his peers of the desirability of a Scottish Parliament. Graham once said, tongue in cheek, that he wanted a “national parliament with the pleasure of knowing that the taxes were wasted in Edinburgh instead of London.” Later, with Keir Hardie, Graham helped establish the Scottish Labour Party and stood for the Glasgow Camlachie constituency as a Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party candidate in the 1892 General Election. He lost, but nevertheless, Graham continued to work behind the scenes in the Labour movement. Then, in 1928, he helped establish the National Party of Scotland and later, in 1934, he was elected the first President of the Scottish National Party.
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham died on the 20th of March, 1936, in the Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires. He was widely mourned in Argentina before his body was returned to be buried beside his wife, who had died in 1906, amid the ruins of Inchmahome Priory, on the island of Inchmahome, in the Lake of Menteith.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.