How a 19th century Spanish skeleton shaped Scotland’s independence referendum: a reflection on Robert Cunninghame Graham’s Success

A gloom held the air. It was a distinct, permeating gloom, which sunk beneath the already dour Edinburgh day. I was travelling to ‘HQ’ to be ‘debriefed’. My work led me into rooms with various bosses, like the boardroom equivalent of the final levels of a video game. It was somewhat fantastical to be part of a unit which had been tasked with making Scotland into its own, ‘fairer’ state.  And then suddenly, that task ended. Game over.

Outside, different forms of exaggerated life were stalking the Georgian streets, like misplaced animals of another era. The Ayes were quick to dig their heels in and became the less impressive sounding 45. The Naes sunk silently back into the woodwork, typified by a colleague opting to change the topic at lunch to ‘something else’. Something else? My excitement over the past several months sunk in tandem with that remark. Now, in the absence of fanfare, brag or even conversation, it was difficult to see in that moment where the furore or future of the Scottish independence debate lay. I took sanctuary in pages of literature. And there, like embers of a bonfire, the spirit of one lesser referenced historical Scottish political figure was still burning modestly, even as the superficial flames were dying on both sides of this contemporary political coin.

Published in 1902, Robert Cunninghame Graham’s Success contains a range of observational short stories or ‘sketches’, each with its own unique insights and perspectives, contributing to the author’s broad and sober vision. The old dictionary defines success as ‘a good or bad outcome of an undertaking’. The modern age has become defined by an entirely different ghoul – one possessed with achievement at all costs. Success is an antidote to the hollow and conceited illusions of congratulation, fortune and fame – personally and nationally – and the delusions of pride and separation that come with it.

Scottish-born Cunninghame Graham was a prolific writer, authoring over thirty books, revered by the likes of Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad and George Bernard Shaw. During the 1870s, he was a cattle rancher in Texas and gaucho (or horseman) in Latin America, before becoming a Liberal Party Member of Parliament for North West Lanarkshire. He campaigned for radical equality measures in late Victorian Britain (for which he would even spend time in jail). He was later the first president of the Scottish Labour Party (accompanied by Keir Hardie as Secretary-General), and soon after would become founder and first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934, making the initial case for an independent Scotland, 80 years exactly before the people of Scotland voiced their say on the matter. Success, he certainly achieved. The question remains: why have most of us never heard of him? The answer is just as curious: he didn’t need us to.

It is clear from the tone of Success that Cunninghame Graham’s experience of politics by the turn of the last century, with its shades of secrecy and emphasis on empiric wealth, had begun to disenchant to the adventurer politician. His book offers a reconceptualisation of the material notions of success. In the process, it presents the bones of a moral philosophy on the subject.

The title story perhaps illustrates this most literally. It begins with the beautifully evocative description of a skeleton of a Spanish General – his rank clear from insignia on his worn jacket, though otherwise dressed in fake militaria and seated on a deserted beach in Cuba, following the recent war of independence. Cunninghame Graham was at odds with the representations of the scene. On the one hand, he imagined the Spanish fleet on the shoreline burning for no other cause than its politicians sending those less fortunate and of lesser means to secure their colonial economies on their behalf. On the other, the naval officer’s living conquerors donning a similar guise, offering no virtue as they paraded their “cheap air of insincere success” on the sandy shore.

He comments on the personnel, packed into ships like sardines in a box, their bodies washed ashore, left for dead; he contemplates the suffering of these officers erased from the narrative. In Cunninghame Graham’s eyes, the only thing of substance left was the skeleton itself. In the midst of the obsession between winners and losers, there will always be a far more dignified and serene success to be witnessed. As the author put it: ‘…the forgotten General sitting in his chair, whitening bones fast mouldering into dust…Let him sit on and rest, looking out on the sea, where his last vision saw the loss of his doomed country’s fleet.’ Failure, for Graham, was worth a thousand successes.

Refreshing as this smattering of Caribbean sea spray, the father of modern Scottish nationalist politics further extends the riches provided of our enduring General, as he gets to the heart of our less than stellar abilities at respecting and understanding one another, in his second sketch, The Gaulichu Tree.

The story depicts a symbol of sacred significance to the indigenous tribes of Argentina’s southern grasslands. The tree served as cathedral, church, town-hall and centre of a religion for the groups, who had now largely been killed due to genocidal assault. As the author explained, appealing to the imagination of the tribes, it was symbolic of the ‘incarnation of the spirit of [their] race, in all its loneliness and isolation from any other type of man’. Its significance could simply not be grasped by conquerors of the land – who thoughtlessly likened it to a Christmas tree! As with our Spanish skeleton, the memory of a once vibrant people becomes altered to the whims of vulgar victors.

Cunninghame Graham’s sympathy is clear. He cared deeply for the wrongs of oppression and killing in the Argentine. He was even ‘victim’ to one of the last Indian raids whilst a cowboy in Texas (not that this changed his opinion on their treatment – recognising their desperate hunger and frustration). Indeed, this bleak inequality was a primary driver of his later political ambitions back in Scotland, where he amongst other things, was a key change-maker in areas of suffrage, land reform, improved living conditions, workers’ rights, and Scottish self-determination. He ends the piece in characteristic honour and abandon, as per tribute to the proud General: ‘…so let it stand upon its stony ridge, just where the Sierra de la Ventana fades out of sight….a solitary natural landmark if naught else, which once bore fruit ripened in the imaginations of a wild race of men, who at the least had for their virtue constancy of faith, not shaken by unanswered prayer.

The grace of Cunninghame Graham’s sentiment reanimates personal stories never given the light of day, due to the untold effects of ignorance, pride and injustice. It shines a light on trampled-on legacies and brings them back to life. The final story in Success is also one of its most relevant. Castles in the Air brings high-definition resolution to 19th century economic underclasses in the UK. The author offers personality for the dispossessed. Our author’s acute awareness of the injustices faced by the working classes, as well as being his primary political motivator, has incidentally led to conflict with his parliamentary peers (resulting in poet Hugh McDiarmid’s affectionate term of the young politician as an eagle in a hen house’).

The story viscerally depicts the invisibility, the hunger and disappointment that surrounds an impoverished worker – in spite of the skills he had gained as a stone mason and his evident worth to society. Most uniquely, it describes the pervasiveness of hope for a better life, far more realised in the imaginations of the dispossessed than any other class. Here, Success finds its new definition. ‘How few can rear a really substantial castle in the air?’. Our author refers to the imagining of possibility as a driving force for persisting with the harsh disconnection from society. (He is not entirely without his signature cynicism either, so often is an aspiration an improved material existence for those in no need of improved economic security). However, our author is no fantasist, and recognises that a society that does not support the impoverished, is a devastating one. He describes the man’s withering plight: ‘Past villages and towns, along the lanes, by rivers and canals he wandered, always seeking work; worked at odd jobs and lost them, slept under railway arches and in the fields, in barns and at the lea of haystacks, and as he went along, he dreamed (though now more faintly) of his castles in the air’.

Back in the office, a statistician chanced upon a finding. It seemed that there was a positive correlation between the most deprived Scottish areas and the Yes vote. We huddled around the graphic and got excited in our socially conscious shirts and ties – a professional scene which it strikes me would not have existed in the top-hatted Government days of Cunninghame Graham. Later that afternoon, the boss, scraping the bottom of the motivational barrel, caught wind of our (albeit undercooked) piece of evidence, and used it to highlight the inherent success of granting a voice to all. Corporate speak, perhaps – but a sober reflection at long last.

One hundred and twelve years after the publication of Success, 87% per cent of the Scottish electorate made the choice to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum – the largest non-obligatory voter turnout in modern political history. Political framing aside, these were people – women and men of all classes and creeds – who a century earlier, would not have had this opportunity.

In thinking about the various guises of success which the Scottish Referendum brought, we might ask the question: what form has Cunninghame Graham’s forgotten Spanish skeleton taken? The cynical or satirical may banally suggest it as the nationalist activists and politicians. But such a perspective misses the point entirely, because success must be praiseless and personality-less, as with the General in his chair (“rewards of any kind are but vulgarities”, quoth the horseman). If Cunninghame Graham were alive to see the progress made, I’ve no doubt he would smile…modestly. Perhaps he would consider the forgotten 87. Perhaps he would once more lament: let them sit on and rest, looking out on the sea, where their last vision saw the loss of their doomed country’s fleet.

Success by R.B. Cunnunghame Graham. 1902. Duckworth’s Greenback Library.

See also: 

An Eagle in a Hen-Houseselected political speeches and writings of Robert Cunninghame Graham by Lachlan Munro, 2017. Deveron Press 

Gaucho Laird – The Life of R. B. “Don Roberto” Cunninghame Graham by Jean Cunninghame Graham, 2015. The Long Rider’s Guild Press.

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