Last time I posted here was back in April 2020, on the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath. Since then Covid and other pre-occupations have intervened. But yesterday was New Year’s Day 2021 and the night before, at 11.00pm, we in Scotland were finally removed from the European Union against our will.
I posted a short video with some thoughts on what Don Roberto might have felt about it (below). He was a fervent internationalist who believed that independence for Scotland was necessary as a first step on the way to a place in the global family of nations. But what was it in his background that predisposed him to that way of thinking? Born in 1852, he grew up at the very height of Empire, at a time when the prevailing attitude in Britain towards foreign countries was one of superiority rather than equality, dominion rather than co-operation. How did he come to see things so very differently from his peers?
The answer is principally travel. Robert travelled widely throughout his life, starting with his three extended spells in South America, the first when he was just 18 years old. But his travel was not typical of the age. He had none of his compatriots’ condescension towards foreign peoples and places. Rather, he recognised that it was he who was the curiosity, not the people in whose countries he found himself. So he did his best to assimilate, to learn their languages and adopt their customs, and thereby to experience that common bond of humanity that transcends borders.
He recognised that it was he who was the curiosity, not the people in whose countries he found himself.
It was partly because of this total immersion that he was able to summon such detailed and vivid recall when he came to write about his experiences more than twenty years after the event. I’ve been reading the South American sketches throughout this year and have been transported by them, not least because I made my own journey though Latin America in the early 1970s, and his descriptions, particularly of Paraguay and parts of Argentina, are extraordinarily evocative for me.
But there is an aspect to Robert’s immersion in those places that it took me a little longer to appreciate, and it’s this: with the exception of certain journeys that could only be made by river, he went everywhere on horseback. There were no other means of transport; the railway was a novelty and the internal combustion engine still a decade or more in the future. So over the course of the nearly five years in total that he spent in South America, he must have ridden literally thousands of miles—through the great grasslands and Andean foothills of Argentina, the stifling swamps and badlands of Paraguay, the jaguar-infested forests of southern Brazil; everywhere still unenclosed, everywhere more or less passable by a man on a horse.
Generally he would have ridden at a slow pace so as not to tire his horses, especially on the longer journeys he undertook—and he thought nothing of setting out on treks of several hundred miles. As he ambled along on horseback his experience of the landscape through which he passed would have been intense and immediate, but also dreamily reflective, especially when following existing trails requiring little navigation or horsemanship. And as a lone traveller in these places he became accustomed to throwing himself on the mercy of strangers for food, shelter and directions. He experienced these foreign countries in a way that was at once humbling and liberating, and it profoundly shaped his attitude towards otherness and ‘the other’ for the rest of his life.
Over the holidays I’ve found a contemporary echo of this in Chris Dolan’s wonderfully life-affirming account of his recent cycle journey through Spain, Everything Passes, Everything Remains. Chris is an admirer of Don Roberto. He made the 2008 BBC Scotland TV documentary, Don Roberto, and invokes him at several points throughout his book. With two companions, all three in their sixties, he loosely follows Laurie Lee’s eve-of-civil-war itinerary. At the same time, cycling with a fiddle on his back, he bravely relives his own youthful experiences of busking his way through Spain.
“Spain showed me how to love Scotland”—Chris Dolan
Although it’s the tale of a very different era and mode of transport, Everything Passes, Everything Remains contains something of the spirit of Don Roberto. Like the South American sketches, Chris Dolan’s book features close observation of landscape, encounters with strangers, travel incidents and accidents, reflections on friendship and memory, history, politics and the messy, painful, joyful business of being human. He and Robert share a relish for the cross-currents of difference and similarity to be found in other lands and cultures, affirmations of the power of human connections to cross all borders.
‘Spain showed me how to love Scotland,’ Chris says at the end of his journey. I’m certain South America did the same for Robert. But Chris’s book is also, conversely, a potent expression of what it means for a Scot to feel European. In Robert’s day the collective sense of Europe to which Chris refers didn’t yet exist, but his writing was most certainly about what it meant for a Scot to feel himself a citizen of the world.
Both are stories yet to be concluded.