ROBERT Bontine Cunninghame Graham, friend and ally of Keir Hardie and Hugh MacDiarmid, co-founder of the Scottish Labour Party and founding president of the SNP, claimed direct descent from Robert the Bruce.

When told by an admirer that he should be the first president of the Independent Republic of Scotland, he is said to have replied: “Madam, by rights, I should be the king of this country – and what a glorious three weeks that would be!”

Graham had been a gaucho and revolutionary conscript in Argentina; a rancher and buffalo hunter in Texas; was held to ransom by a Moroccan sheikh; and was the first ever socialist Member of Parliament.

He was arrested and jailed for rioting on Bloody Sunday. He was a champion of underdogs; a crusader for social justice and freedom of speech; a friend of HG Wells, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw; and one of the finest writers in Scottish literature.

A major new biography by James Jauncey and a critical reassessment of Graham’s political career by Lachlan Munro are to be launched at the Boswell Book Festival at Dumfries House in Ayrshire this coming Sunday, May 14, at 1.30pm.

I’ll be chairing and introducing the authors in discussion. It’s bound to be a lively occasion and could hardly be more topical.

Here’s a pioneer in the story of modern Scotland, a man who intended radical reform of land ownership; who called for an end to the British Empire, dumping all its vanity, spectacle and grandeur, and its cost; who opposed the exploitation of working women and men inherent to capitalism; and called for an end to colonialism and the liberation of nations.

For Graham, independence was a political ideal and the “Break-up of Britain” a moral force for good.

And in the immediate aftermath of the coronation of King Charles III, what better example could we have than Cunninghame Graham, a man of truly independent mind? Who stands by him these days?

As a direct descendant of the great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror (albeit on “the wrong side of the bed”), my friend Vivienne Rollo has suggested that she herself might as well have been crowned on Saturday.

If the only justification for the monarchy is its attraction for tourists, one person is probably as good as any other.

And Viv’s father, she tells me, was in fact quite close to the 1950 retrieval of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey.

At the time, he was an engineering student at Glasgow University and sharing accommodation with Gavin Vernon, one of the Stone’s 1950 “liberators”.

I asked her about what her father had told her of the event.

Alan: What was the general atmosphere like at the time?

Viv: It wasn’t long after the Second World War. I suppose there was a great feeling of hope. There were grants available to encourage people to go to university and get qualified. But there was still rationing and things felt pretty grey and dull, so the liberation of the Stone was seen as a bit of a prank, a bit of light-hearted humour!

Alan: And public action! It was civil disobedience, in fact.

Viv: Yes. People were emboldened by their experiences of the war. Scotland was still referred to as “North Britain”. The National Covenant for Home Rule had gathered two million signatures and was being completely ignored in London.

Alan: So how did the adventure begin?

Viv: Ian Hamilton hatched the plan. He was a law student. I also believe he sold his story to the press and returned the Stone to Arbroath, which did not go down well in some quarters. Kay Matheson was a domestic science teacher from Wester Ross. My dad always said she was the only true nationalist. Gavin and Alan Stuart were both engineering students. It was Alan’s father’s car they borrowed for the journey south.

Alan: What was the reaction?

Viv: The British establishment were horrified. I think it was very much a response along the lines of, “How dare they!” Scotland Yard came up as they didn’t think the “local” police could handle it. However, Detective Superintendent Kerr from Glasgow CID was already on the case and had been to the Mitchell Library to see who had been reading up about Westminster Abbey. After it was all over, he bumped into Gavin and my dad and they all went back to his house for a dram!

Alan: So they were friendly enough by then?

Viv: Yes. But my dad was hauled out of bed early one morning by Scotland Yard along with Gavin and taken in for hours of questioning. And seeing this coronation, in 2023, makes me feel like getting into a small boat, sailing across to Ireland (Eire) and trying to claim asylum!

I think, in 1951, the Scottish public in general didn’t take things too seriously but when the establishment started talking about “treason” the public mood changed.

The crime of “treason” still carried the death penalty. And since, as I say, it wasn’t so long after the war. Some folk took that charge very seriously. It was decided in the end not to press charges and make martyrs of the fab four. Seemingly people were lining the street cheering!

Alan: What happened afterwards?

Viv: Gavin and my dad remained good friends. He was my dad’s best man in 1956. Gavin married and went to Canada and worked abroad. Dad also worked overseas, first in Libya, then in the Far East. They were re-united when the Stone was officially returned to Scotland.

Alan Stuart, I believe, took over his father’s engineering business. Ian Hamilton became a QC and wrote a book about the Stone. Kay Matheson continued teaching at Duncraig Castle College and latterly taught Gaelic in schools in Wester Ross. I went to see her with my dad when I moved to Wester Ross.

Alan: And she was the central character in a wonderful Gaelic film made by Douglas Eadie, who died very recently. We should remember Douglas’s contribution to Scottish culture in the great films he made – surely he was an infinitely more worthwhile individual than any member of the “royal family”!

His legacy really is worth commemorating. His film, An Ceasnachadh / Interrogation of a Highland Lass (2000) was broadcast on BBC Alba more than a year ago. I think it’s the best Scottish film of the 21st century but you probably won’t have heard much about it.

It centres on the police interrogation of Kay Matheson. The performance of Kathleen MacInnes in the film is stunning.

Produced by Douglas Eadie from his own scripts with Gaelic translation by Dolina MacLennan and directed by Mike Alexander, it’s one of those rare films throughout which, for the duration of every one of its 55 minutes, you cannot take your eyes off the screen.

But nearly 20 years before those events, Hugh MacDiarmid had already planned to lift the Stone himself.

In the indispensable volume Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid, edited by John Manson (2011), a certain Graham McGibbon, described in the “Biographical List of Correspondents” simply as a “Scottish nationalist” wrote to MacDiarmid on January 15, 1934:

“I am delighted to hear that things are moving, and can almost visualise the symbol being borne along Princes Street in the glare of thousands of torches.

“What a scene! Remember, we are with you to the bitter end, and absolutely at your command as far as our present state of economic slavery persists.”

He offers to have “a suitable container made, with rope handles” and “a rubber-tyred trolley to facilitate handling” as well as “a convoy of at least three cars” since “we cannot risk a breakdown or mishap holding us back. Transport by train is, I think, impracticable and undesirable.”

Another correspondent, Aonghas Cleirach or Angus Clark, a Labour Party man who joined the SNP, cased out the joint and describes the chair in which the Stone was placed, the possible ways in and out of the Abbey, and where to position a car for a quick getaway.

When Graham MacGibbon writes again on February 12, the scheme seems to be in some doubt: “If your visit proves impracticable just now, we may still be able to make the attack in the summer.”

I asked MacDiarmid’s daughter-in-law, the writer Deirdre Grieve, about this.

Deirdre: We knew nothing of Chris’s projected attempt on the Stone until after his death. My son, Dorian, who was editing the letters in the MacDiarmid archive in the National Library of Scotland, came upon letters referring to it. It was a revelation to the whole family and certainly nothing MacDiarmid himself ever mentioned.

Alan: He appears to have been in London, looking for a couple of strong rugby players and a fast car for the getaway but it seems an unlikely venture for him to undertake!

Deirdre: He was not notably agile and he couldn’t drive, besides having the sort of features that defy anonymity. However, it seems to have been a serious proposition. There’s a drawing of the layout of Westminster Abbey among the letters and I’m sure that the cloak-and-dagger element would have appealed to him.

Alan: But then in 1951, when the Stone was removed, you recollect that being in the news?

Deirdre: I was a schoolgirl at the time. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact the stealing of the

Stone had on a Scottish Christmas holiday audience seated around a cumbersome 1950s radio waiting for the news. The audacity and the justification – that it had been stolen from us in the first place – united the country and cast the forces of law and order as the baddies if they pursued the still unknown local heroes without regard for historic sensibilities.

Alan: Maybe that’s part of the long process of rediscovering the complexities and morality of our national history. And then you remember when it was given back to the authorities?

Deirdre: I was at Arbroath High School when the Stone was secretly deposited in the ruins of Arbroath Abbey. Our geography teacher, whose daughter was in my class, was among the welcoming committee. The school had broken up for Easter but another classmate recalled how, passing the offices of the Arbroath Herald, he saw a notice in the window suggesting that anyone who chose to visit the Abbey that day might have a surprise. He visited and was surprised.

Alan: And there was an unforeseen consequence later on, when MacDiarmid and his wife Valda were in the same company as Ian Hamilton …

Deirdre: Sometime in the 1970s, I was with my husband, Mike, and his parents, Valda and Chris, at a reception in Edinburgh where Ian Hamilton, then a QC, was among the guests. I was talking to Valda, my mother-in-law, when she made a sudden swerve and threw a full glass of wine in his face.

Without interrupting his conversation or looking in her direction he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face, from which I concluded that this had happened before. He had seen her coming. When I asked her why she’d done this, she said: “He gave back the Stone.”

Alan: Valda’s judgement could sometimes be rather severe.

The poet Peter McCarey introduces his book Pogo (Red Squirrel Press, 2022) like this: “In the UK, as Pound and Auden might have put it, poetry makes nothing keep on happening.

Nuclear disarmament? Carbon neutrality? Decent conditions for essential workers? Politically, British poets have supported nothing in public life more staunchly than they support the monarchy.

“Even Edwin Morgan, a Scottish republican, accepted an OBE, and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, which sounds like something out of Crufts. Or those fine British actresses who just can’t turn down an offer to play Her Majesty. Is there really, really nothing like a Dame?

“When a poet such as Ted Hughes takes the queen’s shilling and becomes poet laureate, that sinister façade gets a fresh lick of paint and a dishonourable clan gets its reputation laundered. Stop it! Scrap the franchise.”

McCarey’s poems in this collection are all in this anti-monarchical vein. For example:

Their majesty’s high as a kite,

as a crotch,

As a hippy, a barrister’s fee

As a cricket score. High

As a four-day-dead grouse

On a hook at Balmoral.

It seems an uphill battle, opposing the monarchy and its role in the class structure of the United Kingdom. Seen from an international perspective, the royal family and the social structure predicated on class are surely the two most characteristic features of British society, both looking pretty absurd in most other parts of the world.

So, as the long wake of the coronation begins, it’s worth recollecting Scotland’s finest 20th-century poet’s commemoration of the retrieval of the Stone of Destiny from London in 1950-51.

Here’s MacDiarmid’s poem, “On the Asportation of the Scone Stone”:

Since David with a pebble in his sling

Goliath slew, now with this heavier stone

A little nation marks the opening

Of a like unequal battle for its own

And splits the atom of Earth’s greatest throne.

This though perchance it prove like David’s fling

But “juvenile delinquency” yet may bring

A like result – the giant overthrown!

Scotland knew better than to ask for bread

Merely to get (but took!) a stone instead,

England’s stony response full well foreknown.

Far more, O England, than the Scone Stone’s gone,

And all the King’s horses and the King’s men

Cannot set up your Humpty Dumpty again!