The extraordinary life of the Gaucho Laird

AT THE turn of the 19th century one man stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. He counted writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad, and Labour Party founder Keir Hardie amongst his friends. He was an adventurer, a politician, explorer, writer and champion of the underclasses. He helped found the Independent Labour Party and later the Scottish National Party. As late as 1930 he was voted top Scot in a newspaper poll.

Yet since his death in 1936, Robert Cunninghame Graham has been all but forgotten.

His great niece Jean Cunninghame Graham, or Lady Polwarth as she is known, has recently completed a new biography of her great-uncle and hopes that the life of this colourful, talented man will inspire a new generation.

"He is absolutely immortal, the most fantastic man, with such magnetism," says Lady Polwarth. "And now it is time for him to come back."Robert Cunninghame Graham was born in 1852 into an aristocratic Scottish family distantly related to Robert the Bruce. He grew up in the family estate of Gartmore, in Perthshire, and was sent to Harrow boarding school at the age of 14. He loathed public school with its bullying and snobbery and was extremely glad when family finances forced his withdrawal. After a quick burst of finishing school in Brussels, he decided at the age of 17 to seek adventure and fortune in South America.

"He was always incredibly happy on the back of a horse," recalls Lady Polwarth. "So South America was right up his street – it gave him purpose, even when that purpose failed."He arrived in Argentina where any idea to make money was dashed when he was kidnapped by gauchos, or cowboys, who lived an itinerant life on the wide pampas plains. Typically, far from being terrified by his experience, the young adventurer loved the gaucho way of life. They parted as friends when he was freed.

Over the next couple of years Cunninghame Graham attempted a number of other ventures in South America – none of which brought needed income. He returned to Britain in his twenties where he was known as "the modern Don Quixote".

By now his mother – known as Missy– had established a successful literary salon in London. There Robert met and befriended all the intellectual giants of the day. He travelled with his artistic friends to Paris where his circle included Stevenson and fellow writer Guy de Maupassant and the artist John Lavery.

Cunninghame Graham also fell in love when he met the woman who was to become his wife, Gabrielle de la Balmondire. Most accounts have him colliding with this Chilean beauty whilst he was on horseback, but Lady Polwarth is quick to put the record straight.

"Gabrielle was actually a Yorkshire girl called Carrie Horsfall," she explains. "He never knocked her over, they just met in the park!"

Robert and Gabrielle's marriage was a perfect meeting of minds. They both spoke a number of langauges and enjoyed travelling. They travelled together in Texas before returning to Scotland in 1884 when Robert inherited Gartmore.

Cunninghame Graham's family had always been political, but a meeting with the young Hardie persuaded him to enter civil affairs. He became a doughty fighter for the causes of universal suffrage and workers' rights, spending six weeks in jail for fighting with a policeman at a political rally that became known as the "Battle of Trafalgar Square" in 1887.

Yet politics frustrated him and he gave up on the "National Gasworks" – as he called the Houses of Parliament – having enjoyed the dubious pleasure of being the first politician to be suspended for swearing during a debate. He returned home, but mounting costs and a huge inherited debt led in 1901 - much to his distress - to the estate being sold.

"He always felt he failed as a laird," says Lady Polwarth. "He longed to improve things for people, but the land was not fertile enough. Even so, the tenants all loved him."

At this time he began writing and amongst his literary friends he was regarded as the most talented of them all. Joseph Conrad based his novel Nostromo on Cunninghame Graham's life and one of his novels was used as the basis of a play by George Bernard Shaw.

Cunningham Graham had never given up on politics and along with Hardie helped to found the Independent Labour Party. He was passionately Scottish and fought tirelessly for the cause of Scottish Home Rule asking that he be allowed:

"…The particular pleasure of knowing that the taxes were wasted in Edinburgh instead of London."

At the age of 84 he died on a visit to Buenos Aires.Few of his contemporaries would have foreseen the slow slide into obscurity of the man they considered the most brilliant of their generation. Andrew Newby, lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh, thinks that he may have been a victim of his own ubiquity.

"He espoused different causes, like socialism and nationalism. So the socialists remember him as a nationalist, and vice versa."

His niece thinks the reason is simpler.

"The Scots are very good at forgetting their ancestors," says Lady Polwarth, "and they are especially bad at remembering people who found things."

Whatever the reason, the name of Robert Cunninghame Graham is slowly being rediscovered. In 1986 his book A Vanished Arcadia was made into a film - The Mission - with Jeremy Irons. His recently republished books are being bought up "like hot cakes", according to his great-niece. And if that wasn't enough, Sean Connery is on record as considering him "a true socialist, unlike Tony Blair".

With such powerful backers, perhaps it won't be long before the name Robert Cunninghame Graham becomes renowned once more.