JAMIE JAUNCEY : R B CUNNINGHAME-GRAHAM
A long life gave much to assess about Robert Bontine Cunninghame-Graham, and there is no doubt that he would have much to say about today. Thus having spent most of the last sixty years avoiding this famous relative, Jamie Jauncey now feels a resonance that makes him want to know more.
Picture the scene as the young Robert aged not yet eighteen sets off from Liverpool in 1870 on the SS Patagonia to begin his biggest adventure of all, to learn cattle-ranching on the Great Plains of Argentina and thus restore the family fortunes. James Ogilvie from Angus is going to be his host, but unfortunately it emerges en route that all is not well as Ogilvie locks himself in his cabin with a supply of rum. Then at La Coruna Galician emigrants are taken on board but many die in the subsequent storms. Finally on arrival in the Argentinian Mesopotamia his worst fears are confirmed when he finds the ranch going to ruin as a result of the Ogilvies' alcoholism but the country engulfed in civil war with rival fangs stealing cattle and slaughtering each other, which mean that he has to learn Spanish and riding horseback, caring for cattle and for himself very quickly, rapidly adopting local dress including ponchos, baggy trousers, a stetson and a knife in the establishment of a tradition that he would always be concerned about his appearance.
Drought had made the pampas in a very bad state, with animals that came to watering-holes including a wild horse which could not be captured since it lay on its back before suddenly getting up. Captured by revolutionary gauchos, he learned to fight alongside his captors, sending alarming accounts of his life home to his mother. Then as quickly as it had blown up the war was suddenly over, and with the Ogilvies' vision of the future having proved to be just the rum talking he set out on his own in journeys escorting cattle and horses across wild country where if you fell off your horse you would die either from starvation or by having your throat cut. Pictured drinking matte tea from a gourd he spends five years in Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil becoming a superb horseman and fluent Spanish speaker.
Known by now to his fellow gauchos as Don Roberto, he was one of three brothers : another died of TB while a third was the grandfather of Jamie's mother, making him her great-uncle. She had been only 8 when he died in 1936, and remembered him from their solo meeting as "rather brisk and bouncy" which was a reflection that he knew more about horses than about children, but he became a huge figure in her life from the traces of him that abounded in the house inherited by her grandparents at Ardoch near Cardross.
Another house at Gartmore overlooking the Lake of Menteith where he had spent his childhood had come to his family from Robert Graham, poet and politician nicknamed Doughty Deeds, 1735-1797.
Jamie's mother's lifelong obsession with Don Roberto grew from his aristocratic adventurous bearing, his espousal of lost causes and concern for the underdog, but he was at ease in influential circles which included Lavery, Shaw, Wild, Wells and Joseph Conrad whose literary mentor he became. She produced a book entitled "Gaucho Laird" in 2001 which seemed to get him out of her system, but as his books came out of copyright it seemed to Jamie that in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum he was being drawn into Don Roberto's orbit, with the lessons of his life becoming more relevant to our times, so is himself now writing a book.
Joseph Conrad became a lifelong friend, declaring that until meeting Don Roberto he had lived his life in a dark hole. Despite being able to claim descent from King Robert II of Scotland, Don Roberto preferred the prospect of being first President of a British Republic, in which role he foresaw himself lasting an interesting three weeks.
His father had had to change his surname from Bontine to Cunningham-Graham on inheriting Ardoch. and was a troubled soul, temperamentally difficult and obsessed with Irish politics but perhaps the underlying signs of mental illness had always been there. After attacking Don Roberto's mother with a sword, he was taken away to live under supervision in Dumfriesshire and never returned to abide in the family home. Maternal grandfather Charles had been an admiral serving in the Caribbean during the wars of liberation against the Spanish who got to know the revolutionary leaders, meeting in Cadiz the Spanish noblewoman Doña Catalina Paulina Alessandro de Jiménez whom he drove in a hearse to Ascot. From her came Don Roberto's Velásquez looks, but his education at Harrow where he proved sporty but struggled academically and ended with his removal as his father's mental condition declined, leaving him resentful at becoming the oldest mentally fit male. Returning from South America in 1883, he acquired a wife Gabriella whose life was shrouded in mystery for despite claiming to be a French-Chilean actress she was actually a doctor's daughter from Masham in Yorkshire!
Having had to sell Gartmore so as to put his affairs on an even footing, he turned to ranching in Texas, where again he seemed to connect with indigenous people in a way that most Europeans could not. With the marriage certificate the only evidence of their connection, he and Gabriella went their separate ways, and after a lifestyle of excessive smoking she died at Hendaye in 1906 aged only 44 but was buried in his family plot on the island of Inchmahome opposite Gartmore.
From his ancestor Robert Graham's bill of rights and his father's campaigning against post-Crimean military adventurousness, politics were in his blood, and aged 34 he became Liberal MP for North Lanarkshire. His constituents loved him for his oratory and for his way of dealing with hecklers, and he stood on a radical platform of Home Rule, Lords abolition, universal suffrage, nationalisation, an eight-hour day and free school meals, declaring that he would rather see his taxes wasted in Edinburgh than in London and asking would one prefer to visit a hereditary dentist while declaring Parliament to be the National Gasworks. He rode his Argentinian horse in Rotten Row dressed as a gaucho, and three times was suspended from the Commons, once was swearing (he said "damn"!), then for insulting the House and finally for rioting on Bloody Sunday in London on 13 November 1887, when marchers led by him and John Burns protesting about unemployment and coercion in Ireland clashed with the Metropolitan Police and the British Army. Sentenced at Bow Street Magistrates, he spent six weeks in Pentonville, placing a prison photo of himself on his business card. His response to the Speaker of the House, "I never withdraw", was later used by George Bernard Shaw in "Arms and the Man".
Finding himself out of sympathy with the Liberal Party, he and Keir Hardie then founded the Scottish Labour Party, but whereas Hardie won a seat in 1892 Don Roberto did not and that was the end of his Parliamentary career. However in 1928 aged 76 he would cofound that National Party of Scotland with the Duke of Montrose, Hugh MacDiarmid, Eric Linklater, Neil Gunn and John MacCormick. His was a civic nationalism that would leave Scotland free to run its own affairs since he felt that Labour had abandoned the Scottish cause, but a Scottish legislature should be a step towards internationalism and he deplored the enemies among us that preferred kailyardism. His adventurousness continued when he attempted while disguised as a Turkish doctor to reach the forbidden Moroccan city of Taroudant being held to ransom for three weeks and thus bearing out the RLS maxim that to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.
Turning to writing when in his forties, Don Roberto produced over forty books, one of which about Jesuits in Paraguay provided the basis of the film "The Mission". There were several collections of short stories or vignettes, some quite slight in character, but "Beattock for Moffatt" tells movingly the story of a Scot coming home to die. MacDiarmid wrote of his time in Parliament that Don Roberto had been an "eagle in a henhouse" and his energetic multifacetedness might have been difficult to get a hold of in the years after the Second World War, but his compassion was remembered when in 1997 a British woman on reading his essay about native chief Long Wolf who had travelled with Buffalo Bill Cody's circus being buried without recognition in London's Brompton Cemetery arranged for his family to come and collect the remains.
When Don Roberto died of pneumonia at Buenos Aires in 1936, his passing received full honours, and on his interment at Inchmahome a plaque placed there declared that "the dead shall open the eyes of the living".