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Don Roberto – the adventure begins: new five-part series on Radio Scotland


In a new five-part Radio Scotland series, Billy Kay introduces us to the fascinating life of RB Cunninghame Graham, one of the most influential Scots of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The series, written and presented by Billy Kay, includes four archive programmes from 1999 and a new introductory programme for 2018  - The Adventure Begins.

The programme presents a portrait of R.B. Cunninghame Graham -  A true Scottish romantic hero and founding father of both the Scottish Labour Party and the National Party – forerunner of the SNP. The model for  leading characters in George Bernard Shaw’s plays "Arms and the Man" and  "Captain Brassbound’s Conversion", his friends included Oscar Wilde, Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

The latter contrasted his own enclosed life compared to the flamboyant exoticism of R.B. Cunninghame Graham  - "When I think of him, I feel as though I had lived all my life in a dark hole, without seeing or knowing anything".  If ever a major Scottish figure deserved re-discovery it is surely the life and legend of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.

Don Roberto   

R B Cunninghame Graham, (1852 - 1936) was one of the most influential men in Scottish literary and political life in the 20th century - by far the most glamorous and romantic.  With Scottish and Spanish aristocratic blood in his veins - he was often called the uncrowned King of Scots due to his family’s claim to the throne through their ancestor Robert II. His life spanned several continents and cultures, all of which he touched and in all of which he is revered.

A schoolboy at Harrow, his childhood was divided between London and his family estate at Gartmore in Stirlingshire. As a young man, he followed the Spanish side of his heritage to Paraguay and Argentina. In Argentina he is regarded as a national hero and the father of the gaucho - the man who rode on the Pampas then brought the glories of the South American cowboy to the outside world through his short stories. 

Legendary status

His legendary status is such that many in the Lake of Menteith area swear that gauchos have come to the Isle of Inchmahome to sing melancholic Spanish eulogies at his graveside. Married to a Chilean poetess Gabriela de la  Belmondiere (actually an English actress Caroline Horsfall) his life as a cattle drover and rancher took him all over South America and up into Texas.  Everywhere he went, he had sympathy for traditional ways of life under threat, and used his writing to highlight the plight of marginalised cultures.

This aspect of his legacy was in the news in the late 1990s when the body of an Ogala Sioux Indian chief was repatriated from London to the Dakotas. The English woman who organised the event, had read of Long Wolf through the account of his life and death in the writing of Cunninghame Graham , who had befriended him. 

'The damned aristo'

On the death of his father, Cunninghame Graham succeeded to the Gartmore estates and he returned to live in Scotland. He became involved with the turbulent politics of the late 19th and early 20th century, and despite his background, always identified with the masses: “the damned aristo who embraced the cause of the people” as Hugh McDiarmid described him. 

He was Liberal MP for North Lanarkshire from 1886 till 1892, radically espousing the miners demands for shorter working hours and going to Pentonville jail for six weeks following his participation in a banned demonstration against unemployment which resulted in a riot.  A close friend of Keir Hardie, he became the first president of the Scottish Labour party when it was formed in 1888.

After the first World War, he became increasingly interested in the Scottish question. He became president of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, and on its amalgamatiion with the Scottish Party in 1934, he became the first president of the Scottish National Party.  He died in Argentina in 1936, but his body came home to Scotland to rest in his ancestral lands in Stirlingshire.   

Because of his extensive writings on different cultures, his influence outwith Scotland was extensive - the Indian story just one of many with resonances in Spain, Morocco, Argentina, Paraguay, Mexico and the U.S. His short stories like the much anthologised "Beattock for Moffat" on a Scottish exile returning home to die, are also used to illustrate the programme.   His polemical writing on Scotland too is increasingly relevant, as the tension between nationalism and unionism in Scottish politics is still unresolved.

Series contributors

Contributors in the original series from 1999  included Elspeth King of the Smith Art Gallery and Museum, Rennie McOwan, his great-niece Lady Polwarth, her son,  the writer Jamie Jauncey,  Gustavo San Roman of St Andrews University, the poet George Bruce, his biographers Cedric Watts of Sussex University and Laurence Davies of Dartmouth College, USA, film maker Murray Grigor and Muriel Gibson who recalled seeing him on horseback leading the Bannockburn rallies of the Scottish National Party in the 1930s.

Contributors to the new programme include: The weans of Gartmore Primary School and their teacher Miss Falconer, Dr Carla Sassi of the University of Verona; Professor Joe Farrell of the Cunninghame Graham Society, John C McIntyre, editor of The Cunninghame Graham Collection, Collected Stories and Sketches. Writer Chris Dolan who presented the television documentary  Don Roberto in 2008, Chris Dixon, Head of Languages at  Dublin Institute of Technology. Lachlan Munro,  editor of An Eagle in a Henhouse – Selected Political Speeches and Writings of RB Cunninghame Graham, former SNP MSP Rob Gibson and Cunninghame Graham Society Convener & Labour Party activist Gerry McGarvey.

If you would like to follow up your interest in R.B. Cunninghame Graham, you can contact the Convener of the Cunninghame Graham Society, Gerry McGarvey. There is also a collection of Don Roberto memorabilia available to see at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling. 

The Readers in the Archive programmes were John Buick and Paul Samson. The theme tune used throughout the series is “Pamela Rose Grant” by Alasdair Fraser from his album Dawn Dance.

DON ROBERTO.  Begins Tuesday  February 20, 2018 at 1.30 pm on  Radio Scotland and available on the BBC iPlayer worldwide for 30 days thereafter.



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