Strathard Heritage Digital Archive

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Cunninghame Graham’s Confidence Trick By Louis Stott.

    We are not sure as to when and where this was published but our thanks to John Lewis for bringing it to our attention.

      On Tuesday 18th September, 1906 a beautifully polished oak coffin bearing the initials “G.C.G” was brought to the Graham Mausoleum on the shores of the Lake of Menteith. It was the prelude to positively the final appearance of the mistress of Gartmore who, for almost thirty years, had taken in almost everyone who was to be present at her funeral the following day. Her husband, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham of Ardoch and Inchtalla, was to bury her in the heart of his ancestral lands, but he was also guilty of a protracted confidence trickabout the very identity of his beloved wife.

    The Graham of Gartmore Mausoleum at Port of Menteith.

      Gabrielle, who was a religious historian, a poet, admired by W. H. Hudson, and a translator, had married Don Roberto after meeting him in Paris in 1878. If Cunninghame Graham, laird, traveller, politician and author, was one of the most red-blooded and flamboyant characters in Britain, his wife, said to be a Chilean orphan living in Paris, was quite as spectacular a personality. In a foreword to Alexander Maitland’s biography of the pair, Lady Polwarth, Graham’s great-niece, and the author of a recent biography, Gaucho Laird (2004), states, “she was conjured out of thin air to be the only possible wife who could have sustained so unusual a man as Cunninghame Graham”. It has emerged that the family knew of her true identity because Gabrielle was plain Caroline Horsfall, the daughter of a Yorkshire doctor. Cunninghame Graham called her “Carrie” at first, and later by a pet name, “Chid”.  The story of her Chilean origin was a pretence.

      Rather curiously the couple were married at a registry office in the Strand, London where Cunninghame Graham called himself by his then name Roberto Bontine, and the bride called herself Gabrielle de la Balmondière.  There has been some speculation about the origin of her surname, one of the few British holders of one version of it being an Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. She later adopted the Spanish form of her first name for the purposes of authorship. Alexander Maitland, writing in 1983, clearly knew or guessed that Gabriela was not a Chilean orphan. He speculated that the story of the meeting in Paris, told by Tschiffely, Don Roberto’s second biographer, was a cock and bull narrative devised by Graham to be incapable of detailed investigation. Maitland hints that she may have been a courtesan. Graham sources have shown that she was a struggling actress when Don Roberto met her in Paris, and that Gabrielle de la Balmondiere was a stage name.

      What appears to be known is that, at first, Gabrielle was overwhelmed by Robert’s mother, and his mother, after a show of affection, seemed to dislike Gabrielle. Afterwards the two Mrs Bontines were reconciled. Later, her daughter in law’s administration of Gartmore House impressed Robert’s mother. Nonetheless it is odd to marry into a Scottish landed family in a London registry office, but it suggests a love match. One supposes that, if you pretend to be a Chilean, you may have to pretend to be a Catholic, and this may have played its part in the decision. Exactly why Caroline Horsfall left home, or felt obliged to leave home is not entirely clear. She was the second child in a large family, and was inclined to rebel. Brought up in the quiet North Yorkshire town of Masham, she appears to have disgraced herself in some way, and the offence must have been grave.

    Park Street in Masham

    In a further recent biography, The People’s Laird (2005), Anne Taylor, using as a source a novel written many years later by Caroline’s younger sister, Grace, speculates, without further evidence, that Caroline was pregnant and that her ‘younger sister’ could have been her daughter.  Gabrielle appears to have had little further to do with the Horsfalls, but she may have continued to see her mother and two of her sisters. Her younger brother, William Horsfall, who became a Church of England minister, but served abroad, also seems to have stayed in touch. Gabrielle fell in love with Cunninghame Graham and attached herself to him, but remained a strikingly independent personality.

      It was Gabrielle who was the first of the two to have a book published, and Saint Teresa of Avila (1894) was a serious and substantial book. Cunninghame Graham’s splendidly insubstantial Notes on the District of Menteith, was published in the following year. Gabrielle contributed various essays to one of Cunninghame Graham’s early collections and, after she died, Robert published some of her essays and poems, which were admired at the time. As a translator, a play of hers was a dismal failure. She also wrote a racy novel, perhaps partly about her marriage, which remained unpublished.  Joseph Conrad remarked to Graham “I’ve been struck and excited by your mere hint of its subject.” Maitland notes “the couple made fairly auspicious inroads upon the literary world of the nineties”.  As far as her reputation is concerned, Gabrielle contributed to the Saturday Review, alongside Thomas Hardy and Max Beerbohm, to a series of articles about ‘The Best Scenery I Know’. Gabriela chose neither Chile nor Menteith, but wrote an appealing piece about Castile. “Nothing on earth is lovely to me – certainly no scenery – which wants light…” Both Roberto and Gabriela loved Spain and Spanish culture

    Gabriela Cunninghame Graham-copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.

      While her husband was in Parliament Gabrielle spent a good deal of time in Spain researching her book. There were also long periods when she was by herself at Gartmore. She was an accomplished amateur painter and a practised recreational botanist who collected the wild flowers and mosses of Menteith for Glasgow University’s botanical department. Her command of the language occasionally led people to suspect Gabriela’s origins, but both she and Robert maintained the charade about her identity.

      The couple found a reference, in a book by Pliny at Gartmore, to a Roman goldmine in Spain and tried to exploit it.  At various times, Gabrielle accompanied her husband to Texas, to Spain, and to North Africa, but, often enough, they were apart from one another, but they appeared to remain a devoted couple. Gabrielle was consumptive and an inveterate smoker. She died at forty-five, travelling homewards, in a French hotel at Hendaye. The ardour which Roberto then displayed was characteristic of him. He went to France as soon as he learned that she was ill and, after she died, accompanied her body back to Scotland. There, assisted by a faithful servant, he dug her grave with his own hands. Meanwhile, the body was brought to the Port of Menteith.

      At funerals it is often true to say that few pay much attention to the identity of minister, but, on this occasion, it was the Reverend William Horsfall, Carrie’s brother from Colgate near Horsham in Sussex who read the service at the mausoleum. The Stirling Journal reported that it was “for the most part from the English Church Service Book and was most impressive”. On the island Rev Malcolm Maclean of the United Free Church, Gartmore, who was included in the list of mourners by the local paper, performed the committal.  William Horsfall was omitted from that list. Thus, Caroline severed her connection with her family, although Robert kept in touch with the Horsfalls, but he never publicly revealed the true identity of his bride.

      The burial place is in an aisle of the ruined Priory of Inchmahome, one of the most splendidly situated of all the historic monuments in Scotland. The following inscription marks the grave:

    “In memory of Gabriela Cunninghame

    Graham of Gartmore

    Died at Hendaye, France

    8 September A.D.1906. Aged 45

    Los muertos abren los ojos a los que viven”

    This haunting dedication means: “The dead open the eyes of the living”. It clearly reflects Roberto’s enormous sense of loss. Thirty years later his remains were laid to rest beside her.