Robert Graham


Biography of Robert Graham

Robert Graham (1735 – 11 December 1797), who took the name Bontine in 1770 and Cunninghame Graham in 1796, was a Scottish politician and poet. He is now remembered for a poem If doughty deeds my lady please, which was later set to music by his great-great-grandson, Rev. Malise Cunninghame Graham and also by Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Robert, who was the second son of Nicol Graham of Gartmore by his wife, Lady Margaret Cunningham, was born at Gartmore, Perthshire, and educated, along with his elder brother William, at the University of Glasgow (matriculating under Professor Andrew Rosse). He spent much of his early life in Jamaica, where he was a planter and merchant, and became Receiver-General for Taxes in 1753. He also represented the district of St Davids (1765–67). He married Anne, sister of Sir John Taylor Bt of Lyssons Hall, in 1764 (as recorded in the Cunninghame Graham Family Bible) and he built the current Ardoch House (near Dumbarton) in colonial style for her. She died in December, 1780, leaving two daughters and two sons. He secondly married Elizabeth Buchanan circa 1783, by whom he had a further son and daughter; they separated in 1787 and divorced in 1789.

He changed name twice; firstly, under the terms of an entail by which he inherited the Ardoch estate from William Bontine, he took the surname Bontine until his father died. Secondly, in line with the 1709 entail of William 12th Earl of Glencairn, he assumed the name and arms of Cunninghame, in addition to those of Graham, on the death in 1796 of Maj. Gen. John Cunninghame, 15th Earl of Glencairn and last in line. From him Robert inherited the Finlaystone estate, so that he is often known as Robert Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore and Finlaystone. At his death, his estates stretched from Perthshire (Gartmore & Kippen), through Dunbartonshire (Galingad & Ardoch) and across the Clyde to Renfrewshire (Finlaystone); in addition he held the lands of Lochwood in Lanarkshire and his Jamaican plantation at Roaring River.

He was elected a Member of Parliament, representing Stirlingshire, in 1794. He was a pro-Jacobin of that time, and identified as a Radical. During his time in the House he attempted to introduce a Bill of Rights which foreshadowed the Reform Bill of 1832.

He was a close friend of Thomas Sheridan, Charles James Fox, Sir Thomas Dundas (later 1st Baron Dundas) and the poet Hector McNeil.

Graham was appointed Rector of the University of Glasgow, holding the position from 1785 to 1787, in which year he instituted the Gartmore Gold Medal (awarded biennially) for the best discourse by a student on political liberty.

In later life he suffered from frequent bouts of gout in the organs. He died at Gartmore on 4 December 1797 and was interred in the Gartmore family burial ground.

Robert Burns – whose patron James, 14th Earl of Glencairn, was Graham's first cousin – writing to the Edinburgh bookseller, Mr Hill, describes Graham as: "...the noblest instance of great talents, great fortune and great worth that ever I saw in conjunction."

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