Born in Perth in 1875, John Buchan, 1st Baron of Tweedsmuir,
is one of the fathers of the modern detective thriller. These days, the term 'Buchanesque'
is used to describe well-written, fast-paced and subtly plotted spy novels. As well as a
prolific writer of fiction, John Buchan was a statesman, a director of Nelsons the
publishers, President of the Scottish History Society, Governor General of Canada and
Chancellor of Edinburgh University - the list of his appointments is too lengthy to give
in full detail.
He wrote over fifty books and
is most famous for his character Richard Hannay, a master of disguise and a man of
remarkable prescience and complexity, who features in several of Buchan's thrillers,
including The Thirty-nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916) and The Three
Hostages (1924). Buchan did not confine himself to a single writing genre any more
than he confined himself to a single career. Huntingtower (1922) is set in the
Glasgow Gorbals (then a notorious slum) and features a gang called the Diehards. John
Macnab (1925), on the other hand, is about poaching, hunting and fishing in Scotland.
John Buchan is also a highly regarded biographer of Cromwell (1934) and Montrose (1928).
Buchan's autobiography, Memory-Hold-the-Door, was
published in 1940, the year of his death. It includes a section on fishing, one of his
favourite recreational pursuits. The size of his readership is reflected in the fact that
all of his major novels are in print today.
Past the war memorial to the
Parliament building is borne the remains of Lord Tweedsmuir. Inside, he lies
in state and the guard is changed while outside queues qait many of the men
being in uniform. At St. Andrew's church the funeral service is held and
afterwards the coffin is placed on a gun-carriage and borne through the
streets followed Lieut. Alistair Buchan. At the station, the coffin is
placed in a train before leaving for Scotland.
JOHN BUCHAN (1875-1940)
John Buchan was born on 26 August 1875 in Perth,
Scotland. The eldest son of a Free Church of Scotland minister (also named
John) and his wife, Helen Jane Masterton, Buchan gained considerable fame as
a creative writer and historian. He also devoted major portions of his
career to the law, publishing, and government.
For 12 years beginning in 1876, Buchan lived at Pathhead, on the east coast
of Scotland, where his father served as minister at the West Church. In
1888, the family moved to Glasgow, where Buchan’s father began leading the
congregation of the John Knox Free Church in the Gorbals - a working-class
neighbourhood south of the Clyde. Buchan studied at Hutchesons’ Grammar
School until 1892, at which time he won a John Clark £30 bursary to enter
“I suppose I was a natural story-teller” (Memory, 193), Buchan reflected
towards the end of his life. His first concerted literary efforts began
during his years at Glasgow. Balancing academic pursuits with personal
writing projects, Buchan made time to contribute numerous articles and
stories to periodicals, including Blackwood’s, Macmillan’s, and the
Gentleman’s Magazine (which printed his first article, “Angling in Still
Waters,” in August 1893). During this period, Buchan also edited Francis
Essays and Apothegms (1894) and wrote his first novel, Sir Quixote of the
Moors (1895). Buchan dedicated the latter to Gilbert Murray, a Glasgow
professor who had a profound influence on his knowledge of Classical
literature and philosophy.
In January 1895, Buchan gained a Junior Hulme scholarship to Brasenose
College, University of Oxford. He therefore left Glasgow without taking a
degree, and began his Oxford studies in fall 1895. Buchan’s desire to study
at Brasenose arose to a large degree from his interest in Walter Pater, a
fellow of that college who had passed away in 1894. Buchan had written a
review of his Greek Studies for the Glasgow University Magazine, and later
recalled of Pater, “I was glad to go to a college where he had lectured on
Plato, and which was full of his friends” (Memory, 46).
At Oxford, Buchan excelled in his studies. In 1897, he was awarded the
Stanhope Prize for his essay on Sir Walter Raleigh, in 1898 he won the
Newdigate Prize for a poem on the Pilgrim Fathers (the English settlers who
travelled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower in 1620), and in 1899 he was
elected president of the Oxford Union. His studies culminated in 1899 with a
first in Greats. Buchan’s years at Oxford were also highly social, and he
forged close friendships with a circle of similarly energetic, talented men,
including Raymond Asquith, Harold Baker, Aubrey Herbert, and Thomas (Tommy)
Nelson. Buchan later wove threads of this masculine demi-monde into his
tales of gentleman-adventurers.
Buchan’s time at Oxford also coincided with his connection to John Lane. The
Scottish visual artist D.Y. Cameron had given Buchan an introduction to the
publisher, on whom he called in London in 1895 while on his way to take up
residence at Brasenose (Cameron was a family friend of the Buchans and the
illustrator of several books for Lane). A few weeks later, Lane visited
Buchan at Oxford and offered him, over breakfast with John Davidson, the
position of literary adviser (i.e., manuscript reviewer) at his firm
(replacing Richard Le Gallienne). Among Buchan’s contributions was the
recommendation to publish Arnold Bennett’s first novel, The Man from the
North (1898; originally titled In the Shadow).
Volume 8 (January 1896) of The Yellow Book marked Buchan’s first appearance
in Lane’s periodical, which Paul Webb characterizes as “one of the last
places one would expect to find John Buchan” (43). The short story “A
Captain of Salvation” is an intense psychological portrait of a formerly
dissolute man turned evangelical soul-saver among prostitutes and drunkards.
It is set amidst gritty urban tenements and alleyways, a location likely
informed by Buchan’s first-hand experience of the Gorbals. Buchan followed
this piece with two more Yellow Book publications, both of which are set in
Scotland. The fantastical tale “A Journey of Little Profit” in volume 9
(April 1896) features a drunken shepherd’s midnight feast with the Devil
(named Mr. Stuart). “At the Article of Death” in volume 12 (January 1897) is
a grim realist account of a humble shepherd’s agonizing last days. In 1899,
Lane published these last two stories, along with other of Buchan’s fictions
and poems, in Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People. Buchan
dedicated the collection to his sister Anna, who in 1912 reinvented herself
as the novelist O. Douglas.
“A Journey of Little Profit” and “At the Article of Death” are important
markers of Buchan’s growing interest in depicting Scottish landscapes,
characters, and voices. The inspiration for this derived in equal measure
from his own youthful explorations, particularly of the Upper Tweed region,
and earlier Scottish writers, especially Walter Scott and Robert Louis
Stevenson. As the author of a biographical sketch in The Bookman noted in
1912, Buchan was a “literary disciple” of the latter, “essentially
Stevensonian both in the matter of literary style and in his outlook on
Indeed, one of Buchan’s more thoughtful contributions to the Glasgow
University Magazine was his obituary essay on Stevenson. In spring 1898, he
and his Oxford friend John Edgar included as part of their Scottish walking
tour a route inspired by Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped.
In 1896, Lane published Buchan’s Scholar-Gipsies as part of the Arcady
Library series. This collection of essays and short stories documents
various facets of the author’s beloved Tweeddale and its inhabitants.
Scholar-Gipsies includes etchings by Cameron, who also designed the
neo-pagan cover image depicting Pan piping to three nymphs. Of Tweeddale,
Buchan later observed, referencing Robert Burns, “‘Pan playing on his aiten
reed’ has never ceased to be a denizen of its green valleys” (Memory, 34).
The same year as Scholar-Gipsies appeared, Buchan edited a poetry anthology
for Lane called Musa Piscatrix (Buchan was an avid angler most of his life).
In 1898, Lane published Buchan’s second novel, John Burnet of Barns,
followed in 1899 by A Lady of Lost Years. This latter novel was Lane’s final
publication of an original Buchan text; however, his company continued to
issue new editions of Scholar-Gipsies and John Burnet well into the
Buchan was called to the bar in London in June 1901, and in August of that
year Lord Milner hired him to assist in the post-Boer War reconstruction of
South Africa. Buchan’s work involved extensive travel throughout that
country, and the South African landscape fired his literary imagination,
most notably realized in the popular boys’ adventure novel Prester John
(1910). He returned to London in October 1903, whereupon he resumed his
legal career and continued to augment his income by penning articles and
reviews for the Spectator.
On 15 July 1907, Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor. The couple had
four children between 1908 and 1918. During this period, Buchan served as
chief literary adviser for Thomas Nelson and Sons, the publishing firm
managed by his Oxford friend Tommy Nelson; Buchan became a director in 1915
and continued working for Nelson’s until 1929.
The First World War saw the publication of Buchan’s arguably most famous
works -The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and Greenmantle (1916) - “shockers” that
feature the heroic exploits of Richard Hannay engaged in fighting German
espionage activities. During these years, Buchan also regularly wrote and
published instalments of Nelson’s History of the War, which ultimately ran
to 24 volumes. Buchan’s wartime writings were deeply informed by, first, his
experiences as The Times war correspondent and, from 9 February 1917, as
director of the Department of Information (eventually a ministry), the
government body responsible for propaganda. The war also affected Buchan on
a deep personal level, as he lost his brother Alastair and several close
friends (including Raymond Asquith, Auberon Herbert, and Tommy Nelson).
In 1919, Buchan purchased Elsfield Manor, located four miles from Oxford. In
Elsfield’s book-lined library, Buchan continued to pen successful shockers,
including Huntingtower (1922), The Three Hostages (1924), Castle Gay (1930),
and The House of the Four Winds (1935). He also devoted considerable energy
to writing popular biographies, among them Montrose (1928), Julius Caesar
(1932), and Oliver Cromwell (1934). Literary guests at Elsfield included T.E.
Lawrence, Henry Newbolt, Hillaire Belloc, George Trevelyan, Virginia Woolf,
and Robert Graves (who dedicated The Meaning of Dreams to Buchan and his
While today Buchan’s adventure novels are likely his best-known
achievements, the final fifth of his life was also devoted to considerable
public service. In 1927, he was elected to Parliament as a member for the
Scottish Universities. In 1935, Buchan accepted the appointment as
governor-general of Canada, at which point he was invested as the first
Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield (the same year Alfred Hitchcock directed a film
version of The Thirty-Nine Steps). In this vice-regal role, Buchan travelled
over vast stretches of Canada, including the Arctic in 1937 (the first
governor-general to do so). In 1936, he also organized the first official
visit to Canada by a United States president (Franklin D. Roosevelt), and he
helped plan the 1939 royal tour by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In
1937, Buchan founded the country’s Governor General’s Literary Awards and,
in 1939, signed Canada’s declaration of war with Germany. Buchan died in
Montreal of a cerebral thrombosis in 1940, and his memoirs were published
posthumously as Memory Hold-the-Door later that year.
Morgan Holmes holds a PhD in English from McGill University. The director of
WordMeridian Communications in Toronto, his research and publication focus
on early modern literature and culture, Victorian/Edwardian history, and
current developments in post-secondary education and health-care policies
and service delivery.
Selected Publications by Buchan
“A Captain of Salvation.” The Yellow Book 8 (Jan. 1896): 143-58. The Yellow
Nineties Online . Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson
University. Web. January 10, 2013.
“A Journey of Little Profit.” The Yellow Book 9 (April 1896): 189-201. The
Nineties Online . Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson
University. Web. January 10, 2013.
“At the Article of Death.” The Yellow Book 12 (Jan. 1897): 273-80. The
Yellow Nineties Online . Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra.
Ryerson University. Web. January10, 2013.
Greenmantle. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1916.
Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People. London: John Lane, The Bodley
John Burnet of Barns. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1898.
A Lost Lady of Old Years. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1899.
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