EVERY so often in a journalistic life, you get a happy coincidence that inspires you to write something. I have been fascinated for some years by the life and career of the Honourable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr (1869-1960), an important but very neglected figure in the early days of the nationalist and Gaelic language movement in the first third of the 20th century.

I had been meaning to write about him for some time, when onto my desk came a new book by Gerard Cairns, the Glasgow socialist historian and former secretary of The John Maclean Society. Published by Rymour Books, No Language! No Nation! is the first biography of Erskine, and it is a comprehensive and very fair account of a long, controversial and fruitful life.

With my own researches combined with Cairns’ book, I will attempt to do justice to Erskine of Marr.

First of all, however, I have to thank Scottish Conservative and Unionist MSP Donald Cameron for his kind words on Twitter the other day. He wrote: “It’s not often I commend @ScotNational but they have been running a magnificent series on Scotland’s clans.” He then provided a link to my column on Clan Cameron which I think was one of my better efforts.

Former Conservative minister Rory Stewart then chimed in with his tweet about this “lovely piece”, and Cameron joked to his colleague Murdo Fraser about Clan Fraser not being in the series. So let me just explain – I was concentrating purely on Highland clans and later in the year I will return to the Lowland clans like Clan Douglas and those clans who are a hybrid of Highland and Lowland, such as the Stewarts and the Frasers. I will also do a separate short series on the Borders Reivers which will feature their numerous clans.

And so to Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, a man for whom that guid Scots word “kenspeckle” might have been coined.

Having first learned of him as a founder of the Scots National League, forerunner of the National Party of Scotland and thus the SNP, it came as something of a shock to find out that Erskine was born in England, at 1 Portland Place, Brighton, to be exact. His birth took place on January 15, 1869. His birth name was The Honourable Stuart Richard Joseph Erskine, the Honourable coming from the fact that his father was William Macnaghten Erskine (1841-1913), 5th Baron Erskine, descended from the Earls of Buchan. William Erskine was then an army officer but would soon become a barrister. As the younger of two sons, Stuart would not inherit the baronetcy. Instead that went to his older brother Montagu. His mother Caroline, nee Grimble, appears not to have had any links to nobility.

The National:

A great feature of Erskine’s life was his nomadic existence, with many moves and changes of address over the decades. The first such move was to Edinburgh. As Cairns observes, Erskine maddeningly left only a few writings about his own life, but we can infer much from other people’s observations and his own often cryptic clues.

It was in Edinburgh that Erskine said he first learned Gaelic from his nanny, who was a native of Harris. This claim has to be taken with a large pinch of salt, and I agree with Cairns that this claim was a later re-invention of Erskine, for most of his education took place in England at Uppingham School in Rutland. Gaelic was certainly not on the curriculum there, and there’s no evidence of Erskine conversing or writing in Gaelic until well into his 20s. There is, however, plenty of evidence about his early espousal of the Home Rule cause in both Scotland and Ireland, particularly the latter.

Instead of a normal career path for someone from his background – the military or civil service – we have Erskine becoming the enfant terrible of English journalism. He declined to go to university but instead went to a journalism school in Northampton. A fellow pupil was the Old Harrovian and Cambridge University-educated Herbert Vivian, four years older than Erskine and already known for his friendships with important cultural and political figures such as Oscar Wilde, Lord Randolph Churchill – Vivian would obtain the first ever interview with Churchill’s son Winston – and leading figures in the Irish Home Rule movement.

Erskine and Vivian founded the Whirlwind, a weekly newspaper which caused a sensation in its brief life. It lasted for less than a year, but made Erskine’s name. The subheading on the front page said it all: A Lively and Eccentric Newspaper. That might well have been a description of Erskine, who wrote serious editorials against women’s suffrage alongside whimsical pieces by Vivian. The Whirlwind was critically well-received but rarely sold well.

WITH Vivian, Erskine had been a member of the Order of the White Rose, a Jacobite group that campaigned for the restoration of the house of Stuart, and in 1891 the two split from the order to found the Legitimist Jacobite League of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1889, the New Gallery in London hosted an exhibition of artworks related to the Stuarts, and Queen Victoria, no less, authorised the use of items from the Royal Collection. It was an outstanding success and contributed greatly to the neo-Jacobite revival of the 1890s in which Erskine was an enthusiastic leading figure.

In 1891, Erskine – still known by his original first name – was going to stand for election as an MP in the old constituency of Buteshire, but pulled out after the Liberal candidate pledged himself to the cause of Home Rule. To prove his commitment to the cause, Erskine became vice-president of the Scottish Home Rule Association.

I was not aware of the great double tragedy that afflicted Erskine in his 20s and which blighted his life thereafter. Thanks to Cairns, we

now know that at the age of 22, Erskine married Muriel Lilias Colquhoun Graham, the India-born daughter of a British Army

major general, George Irving Graham.

They had a baby son, the quaintly named Alison Colquhoun Graham, born on August 20, 1893, but he survived only 14 months, dying in October 1894. Only seven months later Muriel herself passed away at the age of just 24. One can only imagine the overwhelming nature of these events and the sadness Erskine must have felt, but typically he bounced back with not only a new career but a new name.

He kept his journalism going, but wrote several books in short order, and studied Gaelic, moving to Aberdeenshire and then Inverness. Around 1900, he changed his name to Ruadri Erskine, later the more Scottish form Ruaraidh, and let himself become known as the Honourable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr. As Cairns says in his book: “Self-invention was taking place. A personal invention that would have a huge impact on language activism and political nationalism in Scotland.” In 1902 he married again, this time to Dona Maria Guadalupe Zaara Cecilia Heaven y Ramirez de Arellano, daughter of a wealthy landowner and a marquesa. They were to have a long and happy marriage.

ERSKINE was undoubtedly a romantic with a passion for Scotland and Gaelic, but he was no dewy-eyed optimist. Instead he set to work with a dual purpose – to assist and indeed lead the revival of Gaelic simultaneously with the advancement of Scottish nationalism.

He had already edited Am Bard, a bilingual newspaper, before arguably his greatest achievement began in 1904. Guth na Bliadhna was very much his publication and he used it to give a place to Gaelic writing and argue for a pan-Celtic nationalism – he was very much inspired by Irish politicians such as Charles Stewart Parnell and Patrick Pearse. Its rallying cry was “No Language! No Nation!”.

Most historians writing about Gaelic in the 20th century give Guth na Bliadhna (Voice of the Year) its appropriate place as the first newspaper which promoted the much-needed revival of the Gaelic language. Even as he set about making it a robust publication – it would run for 21 years – Erskine was also building up political capital. He had been a proud monarchist and imperialist as a lad, but now as the First World War engulfed Europe, his views began to change.

That was reflected in a piece he wrote for The Scottish Review, which he re-started in 1914. How resonant is this statement about the Tory, Liberal and Labour parties: “Is it not notorious that the orders and instructions of the English bosses

of these organisations run as freely in many parts of industrial Scotland as does the King’s writ throughout the length and breadth of the Kingdom.”

The National:

Erskine started a long friendship with Hugh MacDiarmid and gave space to people like the trade unionist William Diack, the Independent Labour Party’s Jimmy Maxton and land reform and Gaelic language campaigner William Gillies to espouse their philosophies. His already wide circle of friends expanded as he came more into contact and agreement with the growing Labour movement, and Cairns tells the intriguing story of a meeting between Erskine and John Maclean, Red Clydeside’s greatest figure.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting in July 1920, ostensibly an interview by Erskine of the republican socialist who went to jail for his anti-war stance. Cairns observes: “Within a month Maclean had written, published and was distributing a leaflet, ‘All hail the Scottish Workers Republic!’. This was an immensely important leaflet as it committed Maclean to the cause of national independence and it would send shock waves throughout the Left. Erskine’s influence is clearly there ... this was a major turning point for the Glasgow Marxist in his political journey.” The two men from such different backgrounds remained firm friends until Maclean’s untimely death on St Andrew’s Day, 1923.

Unswerving in his support for Irish independence, Erskine and his friend William Gillies, who was a veteran of the second incarnation of the Highland Land League as a political party, worked out how they could get similar political clout for the cause of independence. The Scots National League was co-founded by both

men, and though Tom Gibson became its leading figure, it was Erskine and Gillies who decided the original policy of all out independence.

It is important to note that while the Scots National League gave rise to the National Party of Scotland in 1928, Erskine was not one of that party’s founders. He was, however, heavily involved from the start and lent his considerable weight as a public speaker to many of its meetings and rallies. As our illustration shows, he was ranked alongside R.B. Cunninghame Graham and Compton Mackenzie as a platform speaker for the new party.

Yet by the 1930s, with men like Roland Muirhead and “King” John MacCormick now in charge, Erskine of Marr had taken a very considerable step away from the new SNP and nationalist politics in general. Instead, in his 60s he became an author of history books, and then moved to France and possibly Spain where he sat out the war. There were still flashes of the old firebrand, but the loss of Dona Maria in 1956 seems to have sapped his life energy and he died on January 5, 1960, aged 90 at a hospital in Kent.

No Language! No Nation! The Life and Times of The Honourable Ruaraidh Erskine of Marr, by Gerard Cairns, is published by Rymour Books, priced £13.99