One of the most mercurial characters of his day, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham was what Miss Jean Brodie might well have described as “something of a flibbertigibbet”. Blessed with a brilliant mind, he got bored easily and never settled at any one thing for very long. His flightiness though, far from holding him back, made for one hell of an interesting life.
Born in London, his father’s family were the Lairds of Gartmore and could trace their descent from King Robert II (Grandson of Robert the Bruce and the first of the line of Stewart Kings). As family trees go, it’s probably fair to say you don’t get much more Scottish than that. It was, however, his maternal grandmother, a Spanish noblewoman, who most influenced his upbringing, if not his entire life.
Spanish was the first language he learned. Robert spent long periods in South America, most notably Argentina, where he was taught to ride in the Spanish way and befriended the native gauchos with whom he travelled the country extensively. He also worked as a cattle rancher and horse dealer. Such was the esteem in which he was held in Argentina that a city there was named “Don Roberto” in his honour.
It was probably no coincidence that even in appearance, Cunninghame Graham was described by his British contemporaries as looking like a Spanish nobleman. He became known as “the modern Don Quixote” although this appellation almost certainly owed more to his impetuous and adventurous lifestyle than to his looks.
He never lost his love for South America and wrote several travelogues, essays, histories and works of fiction based on that continent. He even married a South American, a Chilean Poet named Gabriela de la Balmondiere, whom he had met in somewhat unusual circumstances when his horse knocked her down in Paris. So much for the Spanish way of riding! In fairness, we suppose, Gauchos aren’t used to pedestrians on the wide open Pampas of Argentina.
His travels also took him to Morocco, where he wandered on camel-back disguised as an Arab Sheik and, somewhat inevitably, to Spain itself, where he prospected for gold.
Cunninghame Graham’s political career was nothing if not wide-ranging. In 1886 he was elected liberal MP for North-West Lanarkshire. The following year he was imprisoned for his participation (or rather, for “assailing” the police) in the “Bloody Sunday” demonstration in Trafalgar Square on behalf of the unemployed.
Assaulting policemen notwithstanding, he was possessed of a compassionate nature and always tended to champion the underdog. It was no surprise therefore when he was soon converted to socialism and, along with Keir Hardie, founded the Scottish Labour Party, becoming its first president in 1888.
During his time as an MP he visited Ireland where he was entranced by the Irish Statesman, Parnell. The Irish were similarly entranced by this dashing Scotsman and when Parnell died in 1891, Cunninghame Graham was the only non-Irish MP to attend his funeral.
He gained everlasting notoriety as the first MP ever to be suspended from the House of Commons for swearing. The offending word he uttered being (shock, horror)“damn”.
He retired as an MP in 1892.
After the First World War his political interests centred squarely on Scotland and he became President of the fledgling Scottish National Party in 1934 at the ripe young age of 82.
Cunninghame Graham was a noted wit and man of great style who numbered among his friends some of the most celebrated writers and artists of his day, such as Morris, Whistler, Beerbohm, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells and, somewhat left of field, Buffalo Bill, whom he met and befriended during his travels in Mexico.
His beloved wife Gabriela died in 1906 and Cunninghame Graham dug her grave with his own hands at the ruined priory on Inchmahome Island on the Lake of Menteith, Perthshire. He himself died in Buenos Aires 30 years later and his body was brought home to be buried next to hers.