When William "Buffalo Bill" Cody took his Wild West show overseas, he left a little-known but lasting impression on Scotland.
You know about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s legendary exploits as an Army scout and Indian fighter. And you know about the Wild West show he put together with Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull (and a host of others) that was a hit around the country. But did you know that when he took his act on the road to Europe, he toured Scotland, where the Wild West show caused an uproar in Edinburgh’s Court of Session, set a Dundee yard on fire, almost caused an Arbroath hotelier to lose his license, and wreaked havoc at the Aberdeenshire fishing market? Author Tom F. Cunningham tells these stories and more in Your Fathers the Ghosts: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West in Scotland (2008), which details the Western icon’s tours in 1891 – 92 and 1904 in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and other Scottish towns and cities. Scottish filmmaker Alan Knight sat down with Cunningham for some fascinating and all-but-forgotten tales about Buffalo Bill’s successful stint in Scotland.
Cowboys & Indians: What was it that brought Buffalo Bill to Scotland?
Tom F. Cunningham: I don’t know exactly why Buffalo Bill decided to climax his 1891 tour of Germany, Belgium, England, and Wales with a winter season in Glasgow. Certainly, Glasgow must have been chosen late on, as earlier in the tour it had been intended that the show would spend the winter in London. Most probably it was because the Wild West hadn’t been to Scotland before — a whole new audience to cash in on. It was certainly an inspired decision as the winter season ran and ran, for 15 weeks. The show opened at the exhibition buildings in Dennistoun, a residential district in the East End, on November 16, 1891, and ran until February 27, 1892. It got more and more popular as time went on. An expanded version of the show, which by then went under the name Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, returned in the summer of 1904. Buffalo Bill played every city as well as the larger towns of Great Britain in 1903 – 04, mostly for one day only. There were 29 Scottish venues in 1904.
C&I: What were the highlights?
Cunningham: I would have to define the highlights in terms of the photographs that have come to light. Kicking Bear had his photo taken at a studio on Bellgrove Street [in Glasgow]. There is also a photo of Annie Oakley, from a studio on Jamaica Street, wearing a tartan ensemble, which she is documented as having worn for her performances in Glasgow. In 1904, various people from the show visited Robert Burns’ mausoleum in Dumfries and an Indian laid a wreath. There is a set of three photographs from that occasion.
C&I: Any low points?
Cunningham: I don’t think there were any at all, unless of course you count the 30 days Charging Thunder spent in Barlinnie Prison after he was arrested for a drunken assault on George C. Crager, the Lakota interpreter. Both visits were immensely successful. The week spent in Glasgow in 1904 was second only to the stand in Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893, a fact acknowledged by Buffalo Bill himself.
C&I: The historical detail in some of the book’s passages is remarkable. How difficult was your research, given that the events have been largely forgotten and are well over 100 years old?
Cunningham: The newspaper archives were indispensable. They enabled me to trace the broad outlines. There would have been no book without them. It’s amazing what has survived, in council minutes and so forth, if you only look hard enough. Passenger lists from the transatlantic crossings give a great insight into who was here. I even found some Masonic records relating to some of Buffalo Bill’s men who joined Scottish lodges. And the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, [was] incredibly helpful.
C&I: Did you unearth anything that was especially surprising or new?
Cunningham: The biggest surprise is that a lot of the older books on the subject, written by U.S. authors, don’t mention Scotland at all. A prime example is Helen Cody Wetmore’s Last of the Great Scouts. Mrs. Wetmore, who was Buffalo Bill’s sister, quotes a speech that her brother made in 1898 about his travels “from the Platte to the Danube, from the Tiber to the Clyde.” This fleeting reference to the River Clyde is the only indication given in the entire book that Buffalo Bill was ever in Scotland. ... Writers on the subject are oddly vague about when exactly Buffalo Bill’s Wild West became Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. The show, when it came to Glasgow in 1891, was a Wild West show pure and simple — just Indians, cowboys, and Mexicans. The Congress of Rough Riders was an idea Buffalo Bill worked on while he was in Glasgow, and I recently found some sources that prove that conclusively.
C&I: What was the thinking behind the title Your Fathers the Ghosts?
Cunningham: “Your fathers the ghosts” is a phrase that appears in a sermon which has been attributed to Ghost Dance proselytizer Kicking Bear, who of course was prominent among the Indians who came to Glasgow in 1891. Whether he ever actually said it, I don’t know — I certainly have my doubts. In its immediate context it refers to the Indians, the dead ancestors who the ghost dancers thought were returning with the messiah. For me, it also connotes a deliberate attempt on my part to reconstruct the Scotland that would have been very familiar to my grandparents but which of course no one remembers now.
C&I: Any interesting feedback?
Cunningham: I’ve had some great feedback, some real surprises. I heard from a lady who was married to a grandnephew of George C. Crager, a Lakota interpreter in 1891 – 92. I have a copy of a photograph from her that was taken in Manchester in the summer of 1891. It depicts Crager and his family posing with his collection of Indian artifacts, including a beaded waistcoat that is now in the collection of Glasgow Museums. A gentleman from Idaho sent me a copy of a letter he had acquired — undoubtedly genuine — that Buffalo Bill wrote on headed notepaper belonging to the Grand Hotel, which was in Glasgow’s Charing Cross.
C&I: There’s a long history of a strong cultural connection between Scotland and the United States. Could this be the reason why the Scottish Wild West tours were some of the most successful?
Cunningham: There is an unmistakable affinity, with Glasgow in particular. There has been an American feel to the place ever since the time of the Tobacco Lords. Glasgow, when Buffalo Bill came, was the “Second City of Empire,” so I think a lot of people in Victorian and Edwardian Scotland identified with Buffalo Bill’s The Drama of Civilization, as the 1891 – 92 version of the show was called. At the same time, a lot of the people who made their homes in Glasgow’s teeming tenements were migrant Irish and displaced Highlanders, the very people whose ancestors had been the victims of the earliest phases of Anglo-Saxon imperial expansion and knew the negative aspects only too well, so they were ideally placed to see the Indian side of it, too.
C&I: What is it in the Scottish character, history, or landscape that resonates with the American West and the American cowboy?
Cunningham: The cowboy wasn’t an American invention. People in the Highlands of Scotland made their living as cattle drovers. Rob Roy MacGregor was one of them, and of course he ended up as a cateran, or rustler. The cattle drovers held a firm place in Celtic tradition, and as people moved to America, the practice moved with them.
C&I: How much archival photographic/film material exists to be drawn on as a resource for a documentary?
Cunningham: I would say the potential is endless. I believe that the Armouries Museum in Leeds holds footage of the 1903 and/or 1904 tour. DVDs of film clips are also commercially available from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
C&I: Buffalo Bill had an enormous influence on the future of the film and entertainment industry. How did he affect Hollywood? Any lasting influence in Scotland?
Cunningham: Buffalo Bill virtually invented the western genre. Hollywood just kind of continued seamlessly where the Wild West show ended. As for a lasting influence on Scotland, I don’t think you need to look further than the statue and commemorative plaque that Regency Homes put up in 2006 on ground adjacent to the site of his 1891 – 92 stand. The whole story tends to flare up every few years, a prime example being the media circus that attended the repatriation of the “Glasgow ghost shirt” in 1999.
C&I: In Edinburgh, decades after the tours concluded, newspaper ads were announcing Buffalo Bill’s imminent appearance at venues. ...
Cunningham: It was absolutely about exploiting the myth that had grown up around the Wild West tours. Buffalo Bill set the standards around the turn of the 20th century, so it’s far from surprising that a lot of people — most of them complete nonentities — wanted to cash in on his success. I was able to compile a whole chapter on odd references to Buffalo Bill in Scotland, at times when he was someplace else entirely and even decades after his death. I think Annie Oakley got it spot on when she said, “He had hundreds of imitators but was quite inimitable.”
Filmmaker Alan Knight is currently working on a documentary about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West in Scotland. “I’m a big fan of Ken Burns,” he says. “I love his work, so you may see a bit of influence here and there. But generally, I aspire to make a unique film, with a cinematic style echoing Cody’s influence on Hollywood western movies, blending animation with more traditional documentary techniques, and telling a great story.”
The film project, which is in the fundraising stages, will utilize the expertise of author Tom F. Cunningham and Chris Dixon, who works at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and who also has a prodigious knowledge about the Wild West shows in Scotland.
For visuals, the filmmaker hopes to tap Scottish artist Joe O’Brien, who has long been fascinated by Buffalo Bill, and archival photos and footage from the Scottish Screen Archive, Mitchell Library in Glasgow, and National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Other images are being obtained from individuals with small collections. “One lady actually has a series of photos taken by her great uncle, who chose to do his degree at Glasgow School of Art on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West way back when,” Knight says. His documentary team has also received “some gems from the Garst Museum in [Greenville] Ohio — photos of Annie Oakley in Scotland, dressed in her tartan outfit!”
From the October 2015 issue.