A QUESTION that is often asked is who was the greatest orator in Scottish history?

Well if he really did make that “Scots wha hae” speech before the Battle of Bannockburn then it was probably Robert the Bruce. But that’s a big if …

How about Calgacus facing the Romans before the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83 or 84 – often misquoted as “they make a desert and call it peace” – or Lord Belhaven’s magnificent words to the old Scottish Parliament: “I think I see a free and independent kingdom delivering up that which all the world hath been fighting for since the days of Nimrod.”

In the 19th and early 20th century, we had William Gladstone, Keir Hardie, and John MacLean, to name but three.

In our own time we have had John Smith, Donald Dewar and Alex Salmond, while Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address at Glasgow University should be compulsory reading for his race, the human race.

Yet for sheer consistency over five decades, it is unlikely that any Scottish orator has matched the peerless brilliance of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, the “uncrowned king of Scotland” as he was once called.

The sheer facts of his life are staggering: a descendant of the earls of Monteith, educated at Harrow, lived as a gaucho in Argentina while still a teenager, expert horseman and swordsman, proto-Socialist member of parliament, joint founder of the Labour Party and then the National Party of Scotland, first president of the SNP, short story writer of genius, and retired to South America where his funeral in Argentina saw the president of that country in attendance.

Now thanks to a superb new book out this month we can look back at what he actually said in speeches that moved and stirred countless thousands down the years.

Lachie Munro has compiled the book An Eagle In A Hen-House and it’s a wonderful collection of the speeches of Don Roberto, as he became known. We have to imagine his amazing speaking voice, but the words themselves have real power.

As Lachie says in his introductions: “It is an extraordinary voice, a heroic voice, a sometimes shocking voice of coruscating scorn and wit, a revolutionary, angry voice, but above all, it is a modern voice.

“My hope is that ‘the respectable public’ will find Graham’s dramatic words to be as surprising in their continuing relevance to our own world, as I have found them to be during my fascinating editorial task, and will enjoy meeting the cast of extraordinary characters who filled his extraordinary life.”

In his very first recorded political speech, Cunninghame Graham defied his own landed class and called for wholesale reform of land ownership and land law. He was standing as the Liberal candidate for Camlachie in Glasgow and spoke to the North West Lanarkshire Liberal Association in 1885 when, though just 33, he had already lived enough lives to satisfy a dozen adventurers.

He set the tone for the rest of his career: “Here, and here almost alone, has the existence of enormous territorial possessions continued, and whilst in other civilised countries we find the land almost exclusively cultivated by the peasants or agricultural labourers themselves, in Great Britain is still to be found a class of feudal magnates who, though they do not still possess the pleasing power of ‘pit and gallows’, as well as other privileges considerably ‘more honoured in the breach than in the observance’, still enjoy privileges such as no class should enjoy to the exclusion of the rest in a civilised country.

“It is through the survival of these feudal customs that we have seen on every side the extinction of our ancient class of sturdy yeomen, the enclosure of commons, the debarring of the popular rights of way over mountains and waste lands, the devotion of enormous tracts of country to deer forests, and the unrighteous spectacle of much of our Highland population constrained to live on the salvage of the country, and so to speak, situated between the devil and the deep sea.”

He was off, and later in the campaign he made the case for the abolition of the hereditary House of Lords in withering terms: “To an advocate of abolition of primogeniture in succession, it must be pretty clear that an hereditary legislation is an anomaly.

“Do we confide our teeth to an hereditary dentist’s care? Why therefore, our laws to an hereditary legislator, merely because he has taken the trouble to be born, and is the presumed son of his father? There are two sides from which reform of the House of Lords might come, the inside and the outside. Should we leave the reform to the inside, or to the Lords themselves, they will reform themselves as effectually as Satan would reprove sin.”

He lost that election but won the following year and swept into Parliament where his handsome looks complete with “Hidalgo beard” marked him out for attention. A proponent of Home Rule and free education, the English press went out of their way to praise his speeches in the house, and after the original Bloody Sunday riots in Trafalgar Square in 1887 he was hugely admired for his courage in standing up to the police who battered him savagely.

His real work of social reform followed and one of his most memorable speeches was following a visit to Cradley chain works, a veritable hell hole of destitution and forced labour.

“Work, work, always; ever increasing; badly paid; from early dawn till after dark; from childhood to old age, and this is the chain they forge. Stunted forms, flattened figures, sallow complexion, twisted legs from working the treadle hammer, are the outward and visible signs of which the chain and nailmakers’ dull, dogged, despairing resignation, born of apathy and hunger, is the inward and spiritual grace.

“To sum up the position briefly. Failure of civilisation to humanise; failure of commercialism to procure a subsistence; failure of religion to console; failure of parliament to intervene; failure of individual effort to help; failure of our whole social system.”

That really hit home at the Establishment, and his protest got him banned from the Commons. Cunninghame Graham responded by going further leftwards. With Keir Hardie he founded the Scottish Labour Party and left the Liberals in 1892. He was defeated in the election that year and from then on, while never leaving political circles, he was never again an elected politician.

He never stopped campaigning for reform, though, and his writing became more important to him, but it was still his speeches which drew most attention, especially when he joined the cause of votes for women: “It is said that the brain of woman was inferior on the whole to that of man. If the brain of the average woman was inferior to the brain to be observed upon the benches of the House of Commons then the brain of the average woman could not be remarkable for much specific density.

“If parliament was composed entirely of women, it could not possibly be more foolish than the present parliament composed entirely of men.”

The latter part of his political life was spent in founding the National Party of Scotland, which was the forerunner of the SNP, and of which he became the first president.

HOW about this for foresight, written in the 1900s: “Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Norway, have all seceded from greater powers within the memory of man. Finland and Hungary, Poland and Ireland, with Bohemia and Macedonia, all mortally detest their union with great oppressive states.

“Nothing but force keeps any one of them a portion of the great empires to which respectively they all belong. The whole trend of modern thought and economics is towards the evolution of small states, and every great unwieldy power, our own included, is on the verge of a break-up and a return to its component parts.”

At the foundation of the National Party of Scotland in Glasgow in 1928, he gave one of his most brilliant speeches that moved the audience to laughter and tears and set the new party on its way as only he could, by appealing to all parties and sides to unite in the cause of Scotland.

“Why should unemployment in Scotland be larger far in ratio to population than it is in England; why should the housing in Scotland be a disgrace and scandal to the whole Empire; why should the mid-Scotland canal be hung up; lastly, why should four million acres of our Highland territory be delivered over to American millionaires to exhibit their fat white knees and debauch the population with their dollars?

“I know that all these acres are not cultivatable, but most of them could carry sheep. Formerly they carried men, men who carved their name with the claymore in the rock of fame. Today these acres are deserted, the population negligible, the whole territory a stamping ground for rich men to take their pleasure in. A Scottish party alone can take these matters into consideration and solve them, if it is in the power of man to do so.

“We have become too tame in Scottish politics. When the whip cracks in London we are far too ready to come to heel. The Predominant Partner has always looked upon Scotland as a Cinderella not worthy of consideration. In appealing to Scots men and women to join the National Party, I can assure them that they will be joining no mean or inconsiderable cause; you have with you youth and the flowing tide.”

At Bannockburn in 1930, he espoused his credo: “We want a renaissance, a rebirth of Scottish literature, art and sentiment. We can induce these things only by agitating for national self-government.”

The final speech in the book was given in 1932 when Cunninghame Graham was 79. He would die four years later, and his body was finally brought home to lie in Inchmahome Priory at Lake of Menteith.

Those last words echo down the years to us: “What lies in front of Scottish Nationalism, compared to what those heroes of the past achieved? Nothing but the will to conquer. As it has been well said, the world goes out to meet the conqueror; but he must conquer first.”

“All see the state of Scotland. No one can mark the unemployed in every street, our factories closed, our iron works damped down, our industries all drifting southwards, banks, railways and commercial companies managed in London, without being, as Hamlet puts it, tempted ‘to fall a-cursing like a whore’.

“We know that Scottish Nationalists cannot bring in the millennium, but as Conservatism, Socialism, and Liberalism all have failed, let us as Scotsmen try a national cure. Our platform is broad enough for all to join. Protestant, Catholic, Socialist, Conservative, Liberal, and Communist can find no fault that I can see in our idea. It gives them all a chance to push their schemes in a smaller theatre nearer home.

“For us, all that we have to do is to unite and signify our will.”

An Eagle In A Hen-House will be launched in Stirling on St Andrew’s Day. Reserve your copy now.

Reading the book will not tell you everything that Cunninghame Graham thought or did, but there could be no better way of finding out about him. And he really is worth checking out, so thank you Lachie Munro for the service you have done Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham and your country.