“Wherever I look, north, south, east or west, there is something that appeals to me as a Scotsman, there is something to stir one’s heart, something to make one feel that we are representatives of a distinct nationality—a nationality severed from all other nationalities and as different from our friends in England as we are from the Germans, the French, the Russians or any other nationality.”
Don Roberto wrote this in June 1930 in the newly-launched monthly magazine Scots Independent. He was by then 78 years old and had recently helped to form the National Party of Scotland. Yet his relationship with Scotland was complex, often to the point of contradiction. A laird of noble descent (his lineage could be traced more directly than that of anyone else living, it was said, to Robert II), he was a self-declared socialist who advocated land reform and was beloved of his North West Lanarkshire constituents who were mostly coal-miners.
He wrote lyrically about the Scottish landscape and with an almost mystical longing for a Scotland of the past, unsullied by 19th and 20th century progress; yet he deplored the contemporary writers of Scottish ‘kailyard’ romances, whom he saw as embodying a narrow parochialism entirely at odds with his own internationalist view. A passionate advocate of independence as the means to a brighter and more socially just future for all Scots, he argued for a Scottish parliament ‘for the pleasure of seeing my taxes wasted in Edinburgh rather than London’.
He was born in London, died in Buenos Aires, and lived away from Scotland for large parts of his life. When he did live there he struggled constantly (and ultimately failed) to surmount the enormous debts with which his Gartmore estate, a place he nevertheless adored, was encumbered. He experienced much sadness in Scotland: the end of his brief political career in election defeat in Glasgow in 1892; the eventual sale of Gartmore in 1900; the burial of his wife Gabriela, still only in her forties, on the island of Inchmahome in 1906.
These contradictions and tensions were part of what attached him so deeply to his country of origin. Love-hate* relationships with the countries we belong to are not unusual: we love what we love about them and hate what, or whom, we believe holds them back or lets them down. Yet there was one thing above all others that afforded him the clear view of what he describes as Scotland’s ‘distinct nationality’. This was travel.
I was about to set off into the same vast landscape through which he had ridden a century before…
In my late teens and early twenties I travelled widely. In 1972 I followed Don Roberto’s footsteps to South America. I remember standing in front of the Lavery equestrian portrait of him in the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, in Buenos Aires. In those days I knew relatively little about him, except that I was about to set off into the same vast landscape through which he had ridden a century before, with doubtless the same feelings of anticipation and impending adventure he had first experienced as a young man of 18.
A year later I was back in London and it was another 16 years before I finally returned to live in Scotland, a very different place, it seemed to me, from the one I had left two decades previously. This was so, I realised, not only in the sense that time had moved on and things had changed, but also in the many fundamental respects—social, cultural, political, economic—in which it differed from the England where I had spent my twenties and thirties. This was the moment I first truly appreciated Scotland’s ‘distinct nationality’, and the moment in which, although I didn’t realise it then, the seed of a longing for independence was first planted.
My absence, and experience of other places in the meanwhile, had been necessary for me to be able to re-appraise the country in which I had been raised. And what was true for me was true in spades for Don Roberto, adventurer and inveterate traveller until the end of his days. There were, I am certain, many other factors at play in his desire for an independent Scotland, as I know there are in mine, but seeing his own country reflected in the mirror of others—others in particular for whom self-determination was simply the natural order of things—must have played a major part.
Towards the end of the Scots Independent article he entered this plea: “I ask you as Scottish men and women whether it is not an injustice that cries to heaven and a sin against political science that the one nationality—the oldest of those that I have mentioned, and older perhaps than England itself, as a separate state—should be subservient to them, a mere appendage to the predominant partner, a mere county of England such as Yorkshire, Lancashire, Nottingham or Middlesex.”
It would please him to know that since devolution, Scotlandshire has been a thing of the past. It would please him even more to know that that ‘sin against political science’ may soon be brought before judge and jury in the form of the Scottish electorate.
* In 2012 I wrote a poem about Scotland entitled Love–Hate, inspired by a poem by Roger McGough called In Two Minds. You can read it here.
I am giving my talk Tales of Don Roberto at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, 2.00pm, Sunday 18th August. Further information here.