ROBERT Bontine Cunninghame Graham is one of the greatest figures in Scottish literary and political history. Why has his life, work and legacy been so much neglected by the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party? What is there about him that demands reclamation? Alan Riach presents a new look at the importance of this man of under-rated but major significance.

An old dead white man? Why bother? Because there’s so much to learn from him. And because the bias against him, the neglect and obfuscation he has suffered, is an important fact that reveals more about the failures and inadequacies of our contemporary politics than any party-political, parliamentary shouting and screeching or sneering and scowling will ever do, whether that’s the London or Edinburgh parliament.

A recent publication prompts the retrieval, but first the works themselves. Cunninghame Graham’s short stories and sketches were collected and republished by Kennedy & Boyd, with introductions by Alan MacGillivray, John C MacIntyre and James N Alison in five volumes in 2011-12: Photographed on the Brain; Living with Ghosts; Ice House of the Mind; Fire from a Black Opal; and A Ring Upon the Sand (

But a new book takes an overview of Graham’s life and career, paying close attention to both his writing and his politics, insisting that we make a deeper and more searching study of his lasting value. This is RB Cunninghame Graham and Scotland: Party, Prose, and Political Aesthetic (Edinburgh University Press, 2022), by Lachlan Munro.

We owe Munro a particular debt for editing an invaluable collection of Graham’s most acutely unfamiliar work, An Eagle in a Henhouse: Selected Political Speeches and Writings of RB Cunninghame Graham (Turriff: Ayton Publishing, 2017), which, along with the stories and sketches, and then his biographies and longer works, is essential reading for anyone who cares about Scotland.

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Forget the current bestsellers, prizewinners of the day or the season or year. Go back to this man and find out things that will stay with you forever. And go to his writing itself. His biography – and there are a number of biographies of him now, some more fictionalised than others – is a lure of fascination but it can also be a trap. His own writings are paramount. Understanding his politics in relation to them is the focus of Munro’s book.

Munro begins by pointing out that in 1927, The Sunday Post reported: “There are few men nowadays so well known as Mr RB Cunninghame Graham” and on his death in 1936, his early biographer, AF Tschiffely, said, “his name will surely grow” but only 16 years later, on his centenary in 1952, Hamish Henderson was asking: “Who Remembers Cunninghame Graham?”

Munro’s answer to the question of Graham’s neglect is that the reasons are complex, his apparent contradictions making him difficult not only to categorise but to be usefully claimed by any partisan side or political party. He was a “radical political campaigner and ardent polemicist, and a nostalgic essayist; a nationalist and an internationalist; a Justice of the Peace and a disturber of the peace”.

His character itself seemed to be one of “great charm and charisma” with “powerful and deep-rooted morality”, a philanthropist who often worked against his own best interests, with both personal vanity and surprising humility, an elitist with “the instincts of an adventurous and incautious showman”.

But Munro promises his book will show Graham demonstrating “remarkable consistency of thought” and proposing solutions to perceived political and social problems which may have seemed sometimes “wildly idealistic for their time” but were in fact, “for the most part, practical”.

In politics, this is his great challenge to us today. In literary history, his writing needs a recalibration of our systems of value. Both politics and literature go together. Graham is a standing challenge to convention. His work is the gauntlet thrown down on the marble floor. Fools walk around it. Cowards pretend it isn’t there. Idiots ignore it. But it doesn’t go away.

Munro’s book takes us through three distinct periods of Graham’s adult life. He lived from 1852 to 1936, so we begin with the adult, 1885-92, looking at his life in and out of Parliament and his political views; then 1893-1913, when he maintained his political career but started publishing essays, stories and sketches, writing about Scotland, but also drawing from his earlier years in South America and North Africa; and then third, 1914-36, taking him through the First World War and into the era of Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Literary Renaissance, to his death.

These periods cover the foundations and formations of the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. Munro examines Graham’s role in both parties but, more importantly, his commitment to the principles of a society that invested in wellbeing and opposed exploitation and the private profit motive.

He was committed to national self-determination, Scottish independence, Irish home rule and the need for an equality of women’s rights with those of men – of all classes and social strata. He knew these priorities were not unconnected and if you disconnect them, each one is fatally diminished.

Within these periods, Munro concentrates on themes that characterise Graham’s history of concern, including those of the land, land ownership, land use; of labour, working men and women, the directives of exploitation inherent to capitalism and the practice of actual capitalists, politics at work; the British Empire, its scale, and thereby its undeniable spectacle, a kind of horrifying grandeur, and its cost, as it began to rot, waste and decay, and the stench from its dying body, rotting piece by piece, unavoidable; colonialism, Empire’s international accompaniment, and in the practice of both, the subjection of women and the dominance of men; and so, for nations, women, working class people, there is the principle of independence.

For Graham, independence from empire was an evolving historical fact as well as a desirable political ideal. For him, the break-up of empire was inherently a moral force for good.

He knew all these themes as ideas but he also knew them in a daily, humanly particular reality, a lived experience for millions of people, women and men, old folks and children, and his writing is intimate in detail, while global in context and consequence.

This is one of his great distinctions as a writer. He is as close, subtle, compassionate and hard-headed as Joseph Conrad in his grasp of the realities but he is a compassionate optimist with absolute commitment to practical action. Conrad wrote to him: “There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves”.

But Graham refuted the determination of the weary pessimist with his own determination, born of a disposition privileged enough to take risks but courageous enough, and strong enough to make such privilege and the risks he took work for the betterment of others.

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Munro excels in detailed, sensitive appreciation of Cunninghame Graham’s political career and the implications this has for the nuance and care of his writing – and in the deep understanding that these are intrinsically connected.

He tells us that Graham’s first recorded political speech was on August 11, 1885, as a guest speaker at Coatbridge, Lanarkshire, “an industrial black spot with significant Irish and Highland populations”.

He began diffidently but then let fly: “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 still enjoy privileges such as no class should enjoy to the exclusion of the rest in a civilised country.”

The distinction he draws between the peculiarity of British industrialisation, class prejudice and social alienation on the one hand and the peasant and labouring workers in “other civilised countries” is crucial. He has seen that the world in Britain is not as it is elsewhere, and we can learn to do so much better if we think in comparisons and contrasts. It doesn’t have to be this way. Land reform was and is fundamental.

Graham’s allegiances in this regard were made explicit when he took his seat in the House of Commons after the General Election of July 9, 1886: “Graham declined to sit amongst his fellow Liberals, who were now in opposition, but, in what was an obvious statement, he sat between the Irish members and the newly elected MPs of Scotland’s Crofters’ Party.

“Considering his avowed support for Gladstone, which had helped him win, this was an act of open rebellion and an indication that he had already decided to act independently.”

Munro comments: “Although he was an MP for one political party, and would be a key figure in helping found two others, Graham freely admitted that he was not a party politician, and in the following year, at a meeting of miners in Kilwinning, ‘he reminded his hearers that he belonged to no political party’.

“Convinced, moreover, that none of the political parties was in earnest, having no intention to fulfil any of the pledges they had given to the electors at the election times, his increasing frustrations led to frenetic interruptions and incendiary language in the House.” He was expelled from the Chamber three times for “unparliamentary behaviour”.

Munro goes on: “A remarkable feature of Graham’s speeches, before and after entering Parliament, was his willingness to express increasingly contentious and uncompromising opinions. He seemed oblivious to criticism, and even ridicule, which would be interpreted as a dismissive elitism.”

He quotes a report in The Observer of June 29, 1889: “He is unquestionably the most unpopular man in the House of Commons.”

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And yet, after reviewing Graham’s early printed works, Munro notes: “from the outset of his journalistic career, we find a wry or ironic humour. It had already been reported that his jokes from the platform helped attract large crowds, but the page offered more scope to develop a mocking style, particularly when he wrote about the House of Commons and fellow politicians.”

This combination of infectious humour, sharp conviction and commitment, political bite and clear seeing is characteristic of Graham the man, and Graham the writer.

Munro observes that his strongest literary influences included William Morris (1834-96), central in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies, in Cunninghame Graham: A Critical Biography (1979), also emphasise Morris’s significance for Graham.

The “study of history and the love and practice of art” forced a hatred of “civilisation” as currently defined, and Graham’s “Morris-like instinct to relate the political to the aesthetic and the cultural” was crucial.

Munro is right to emphasise this: “it is a highly significant factor in understanding Graham’s uniqueness and legacy”.

This remains at the heart of everything, from then till now: the utter inadequacy of all party politics to face up to the reality of the arts, their human value, far beyond commercial exploitation and indeed intrinsically hostile to it.

In the last sentences of the introduction to his book, Our Nations & Nationalisms (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2022), Owen Dudley Edwards writes this: “The choice in Scotland is now between UK nationalism clutching destruction, and Scottish nationalism working to save people and planet at home and across the world.”

It is as stark as that. Cunninghame Graham is one of the best guides to the present moment. We’ll be coming back to him.