Getting to know him

As the YES campaign gathered momentum, I became aware of a presence, a figure who had been biding his time in the shadows, patiently waiting for me to notice him …

I grew up in a resolutely Tory household at a time when the Union, had anyone given it even a moment’s thought, would have seemed as immutable as the hills around us.

My father, an advocate, later QC and eventually Lord of Appeal, was more concerned with the law than politics, but his instincts were small-c conservative. When not at the bar or on the bench, he was a countryman, at home on the river or grouse moor with his landowning neighbours, whose sons and daughters were my childhood friends and some of whom remain my friends to this day. Both he and my mother were from once-landed Scottish families. Her father was an admiral, one of her grandfathers a courtier to Edward VII, the other a director of the Bank of England. We embodied a particular version of the Establishment.

Politics were seldom discussed. It was a given of our class that the Tories were right and everyone else, except possibly a few Liberals—Jo Grimond, David Steele for example—was not only wrong but also dangerous. Scot Nats were simply bearded loonies.

In the 1963 Kinross and West Perthshire by-election, members of the then Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home’s campaign team, including a young speechwriter by name of Nigel Lawson, were billeted on my parents at our family home. A decade later, my mother’s second husband, my stepfather, a prominent banker and hereditary peer, served briefly as Minister of State for Scotland in the dying days of the Ted Heath government.

Our Perthshire home, a former manse, was a mile from the nearest village and, to all intents and purposes, a million miles from the community, with whom our contact was largely limited to shopkeepers and tradesmen. I was sent to boarding school from the age of eight, at first in East Lothian, later in Berkshire. Socialising during the holidays tended to be in the houses—mostly much larger than ours—of a network of similarly privileged families around the country, from Inverness to the Borders.

The fact that my brother and I had a band, for which a decommissioned Glasgow Corporation double-decker bus served as rehearsal room, lent us a certain air of intrigue perhaps, but essentially we were the products of our class and upbringing. We didn’t sound like ordinary Scottish people and I very much doubt that we thought like them either.

By the end of my secondary education I could count on the fingers of one hand the things I had been taught about Scottish history and culture. Three years at Aberdeen University did little to change that although, in retrospect, the study of Scots Law was at least an introduction to the notion that Scotland and England differ in certain fundamental respects.

But if there was a hotbed of nationalist sentiment in Aberdeen in 1968 I never found it—not that I was looking. The folk club was the only place I brushed with dissent of any kind. The closest I came to activism was when the Springboks rugby tour came to Aberdeen and a small group of friends went along to protest. The police bundled them into vans, drove them five miles up the coast, booted them out and told them to walk home again.

The Scotland I returned to in 1990, after twenty years, was a much-changed place. I experienced this in many ways, one of which was music … 

Equipped with a law degree, I headed for London. Following a brief and disagreeable encounter with the City, six months in a West End bookshop, and a year travelling in South America, I settled down for a couple of decades of journalism, publishing and music. I became one of the Independent-reading, Lib-Dem voting, South London-dwelling, family-raising middle classes. But Scotland, for all my rarefied experience of it, continued to whisper in my ear. By the time I was approaching forty and recently married for the second time, the whisper was becoming too loud to ignore.

The Scotland I returned to in 1990, after twenty years, was a much-changed place. I experienced this in many ways, one of which was music. In my teens I had played in a Scottish Country Dance band. At the time I left Aberdeen for London, it was still the strict tempo fiddle-and-accordion sounds of Jimmy Shand, Ian Powrie and Bobby MacLeod that rang from the radio and around the village halls. I loved that music. As a homesick small boy at boarding school I had consoled myself  by standing as close as I could to the big bakelite set in the main classroom for the Scottish Home Service’s twice-weekly Scottish Dance Music programme. Its signature tune, the jaunty Kate Dalrymple, still makes my heart race.

But now a different kind of player, younger and more adventurous, had taken hold of the music and turned it into something else, something more contemporary, less rigid, more exhilarating. Scottish music was no longer the preserve of middle-aged men in tartan tuxedos. Brilliant young multi-instrumentalists such as Martyn Bennett, boundary-bending bands such as Shooglenifty, and sharply observant songwriters such as Michael Marra, were finding a new sense of identity through their music, bringing a new energy and pride to their cultural heritage as they claimed it for themselves.

I was lucky enough to find myself washed along in that carrying stream, through pub sessions and subsequent collaborations with musicians I had come to know, and to experience a new connection with what it meant to be Scottish through the music we played together and were moved by.

Then there were the distinctively Scottish voices that were being raised in the literary world—James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, to name but two. Again, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride on the cultural wagon as chairman of the Society of Authors in Scotland, a member of the then Scottish Arts Council’s literature committee, and later as a long-serving board member of the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

There is no better way of gauging the morale of a nation than through its literary voices, and throughout the 1990s I turned avidly to the new wave of literary novelists such as Janice Galloway and James Robertson, crime writers such as Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, and poets such as Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay, Robert Crawford and Carol Ann Duffy, who were overturning the old assumptions left, right and centre.

I was interested in these reforms. They made me think about the ownership of the land over which I had so often unthinkingly walked as a boy with a gun.

And in the background, a glimmer in the constitutional murk, was the approaching Devolution Referendum of 1997. Two years after that Scotland had a parliament again for the first time in almost three centuries, albeit one with certain key powers withheld. One area in which power was fully devolved was land reform. Here Donald Dewar, as First Minister, set out to make his mark with a programme that included the right of access to the countryside, abolition of the feudal system of land tenure, and support for communities that wished to buy the land they lived on. 

I was interested in these reforms. They made me think about the ownership of the land over which I had so often unthinkingly walked as a boy with a gun. I interviewed the campaigner Andy Wightman who underlined for me the imbalance in Scottish land ownership, an imbalance unique in the world. Whereas the Napoleonic system of inheritance had long ago caused most of Europe’s large private landholdings to be split up, primogeniture in the UK still permits extensive acreages to be passed intact from one generation to the next. In Scotland those private acreages of often marginal land can be vast.

It seemed that there was something out of kilter here. If landownership is a manifestation of wealth and influence, what did it do for Scotland’s sense of national identity that so much of its land, its most precious resource, was in such a very small number of private hands, many of them foreign at that? I later explored this theme in a novel, The Witness, which had as its backdrop an independent Scotland of the near future in which a One-Acre Act, restricting private landownership to a single acre, had led indirectly to armed insurrection in the Highlands—a kind of reverse Clearances.

I was coming to see Scotland, and my place in it, in a very different light to the country I had grown up in and which had still been, to all intents and purposes, North Britain, an appendage of England and more particularly of Westminster where the deals were done. Post-war austerity, industrial decline, militant trade unionism, sectarianism, poor housing and worse health, along with a cloying shortbread-and-tartan culture and consistent sporting failure, all conspired to leave ordinary Scots with very little sense of national self-esteem.

Now change was in the air. On the one hand I listened to people talking bitterly about the Poll Tax, the nuclear submarines at Faslane, the oil revenues used to fund the building of the M25, the padlocked gates on Highland estates. But on the other I talked to people in the worlds of the arts, business and government who spoke of Scotland’s potential with a new confidence, a sense that it was no longer fanciful to aspire to the dignity and vitality conferred by true, sovereign nationhood.

In 2011 I saw the SNP come to a majority at Holyrood—despite the deliberate weighting of the voting system against such an eventuality—and realised that it felt good to have a government that was pursuing a wholly Scottish agenda, rather than, at best, some vaguely Scotified version of a set of English policies. It served to underline for me the sense that Scotland was much more different from its southern neighbour than I had realised, but that at the same time it was hamstrung in important respects such as tax-raising and welfare.

The moment I began to think about it, it struck me like a blow. This was so obvious. Scotland was another country, different in almost every respect from its southern neighbour.

A year later the election mandate was fulfilled with the announcement that there would be an Independence Referendum. The moment I began to think about it, it struck me like a blow. This was so obvious. Scotland was another country, different in almost every respect from its southern neighbour. We were a nation, and it is normal for nations to run their own affairs. Of course we should have control of our own destiny. Of course we would make better decisions about our future in Edinburgh than Westminster ever could or would. And the idea that one of the most resourceful, inventive and determined small nations on earth couldn’t make a go of it seemed preposterous.

As the YES campaign gathered momentum, I started to become aware of a presence, a figure who had been biding his time in the shadows, patiently waiting for me to notice him. He was my great-great uncle, RB Cunninghame Graham, writer, politician, horseman, adventurer—and co-founder with Keir Hardie of the Scottish Labour Party, later founding president of the Scottish National Party.

I knew about him, of course, quite a lot about him—but my mother, his great-niece, literary executor and biographer, had bagged him for herself early on and I had been happy to leave her to it. Furthermore, perhaps for reasons of her own political conviction, she had always maintained that his nationalism was mere posturing, the affectation of a lifelong contrarian. 

I began to read him, and about him, and quickly realised that nothing could have been further from the truth. He was a passionate nationalist, though not out of any misty-eyed longing for some ideal of pre-Union Scottishness, not out of any feelings of antagonism towards England or the English, not out of a wish for blood-and-soil connection with his forefathers and their land. No. He believed in Scotland running its own affairs in order to be a better country, to be free to cure the prevailing social ills of his day, to be a forward and outward-looking modern nation, for he also believed that nationalism was a necessary step towards internationalism, and that it was the duty of any nation, no matter how small, to participate in the business of the great global family of nations.

He believed in Scotland running its own affairs in order to be a better country, to be free to cure the prevailing social ills of his day, to be a forward- and outward-looking modern nation …

I had waited more than sixty years to ‘discover’ him and the more I came to know about him, the more his ideas resonated with me. For all his many extraordinary accomplishments, what I most admired was his humanity, his concern for the disadvantaged, not only of Scotland but also of the many other countries in which he had travelled throughout his long and adventurous life. During his brief years in Parliament he fought tirelessly for the rights of factory workers; he wrote polemically about the evils of imperialism and the plight of oppressed peoples such as the First Nation Americans; he championed universal suffrage and an eight-hour working day; and he raged at the living conditions of the poor in Scotland. Almost everything he wrote or spoke about seemed to have some contemporary resonance.

It was reassuring to have come spontaneously to a position of support for independence, only to find that he had been there all along with ideas and beliefs that chimed so strongly with my own.

More to follow …

3 thoughts on “Getting to know him

  1. Great article. Can I share this in my digital newspaper, The Dumbarton Democrat? I was once editor of the Lennox Herald. I knew Sir Angus, mainly from his role as one of the fathers and brethern in Dumbarton Presbytery. Mr e mail address is and The Democrat can be found at


  2. Dear Jamie,
    I am the seanchaidh for Clan Graham in North America and have recently written a paper on Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham on SubStack.
    Currently I am doing research on his wife Gabriela. There is clearly a paucity of information on her and I am hoping you will be able to help me. I would greatly appreciate any information you could share and will certainly give you appropriate recognition.

    James Nethery, FSA Scot
    Seanchaidh, Clan Graham in North America


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