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Issue 4 - John Buchan's classic steps

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Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002


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John Buchan's classic steps

Gerald Warner gives an overview of the life and works of scottish novelist John Buchan, who rose from obscurity on the merit of his talent

If ever there was a classic example of a Scots “lad o’ pairts”, promoted from obscurity to fame by his own talents, it was surely John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir. As a writer of thrillers and serious literature, poet, politician and Governor-General of Canada, he epitomised the achievements of the generation of late Victorian Scots from which he sprang.

Born in 1875, the son of a Free Church minister, his boyhood alternated between Fife and the Borders, where he spent his summers. The three great influences on his childhood were a benevolent strain of Calvinism, books and the Borders landscape.

After attending Hutcheson’s Grammar School and Glasgow University, he toyed with the possibility of making a living by sheep-farming, like his maternal uncles, but decided instead to try for a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford. He was admitted to read classics and the men with whom he mixed provided some of the inspiration for the future heroes of his novels – notably Auberon (“Bron”) Herbert (later Lord Lucas), the real-life model for Sandy Arbuthnot, the intrepid British intelligence agent in Greenmantle and similar Buchan thrillers.

In 1901, Buchan was called to the Bar, but instead of embarking upon a legal career, he became private secretary to Lord Milner, the High Commissioner for South Africa. The Boer War had just ended and Buchan was involved in the work of reconstruction for the next two years. From this experience derived the African interest in some of his novels, notably Prester John, and the South African origins of his most famous fictional hero, Richard Hannay, of The Thirty-Nine Steps and its
sequel novels.

When he returned to Britain in 1903, he went into publishing. In 1907 he married Susan Grosvenor, a distant cousin of the Duke of Westminster, thereby acquiring aristocratic connections and four children. Thereafter, his life was divided between the twin interests of writing and politics.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, Buchan was aged 39 and ill. No recruiting office would accept him and, in any case, he was over the age for enlistment. So he went to bed for three months, effecting a partial cure, and managed to reach the Western Front the following year as correspondent for The Times.

By 1916 he had obtained a commission in the Intelligence Corps and he served in France until early the following year, on HQ staff. He was then recalled to a post under the War Cabinet. It was a perfectly honourable, but not very adventurous, war record, through no fault of his own. Yet Buchan’s enforced idleness during the early months of the war had consequences for which schoolboys of all ages have cause to be grateful. While confined to bed, he channelled his energy into writing an action novel which launched him on a new career.

The Thirty-Nine Steps saw the début of Richard Hannay, the South African Mining Engineer who, in the course of a sequence of novels, was transformed into a British Agent, a General, a country gentleman and a Knight of the Realm. Greenmantle and Mr Standfast followed soon after. The American character, John S. Blenkiron, who featured in these books testified to Buchan’s admiration for the United States.

Hannay was surrounded by a group of like-minded, well-born gentlemen who craved adventure: Sandy Arbuthnot, Sir Archie Roylance, Sir Edward Leithen, Lord Lamancha and others. Buchan found his work congenial. “I always felt a little ashamed that profit should accrue from what had given me so much amusement,” he wrote in his memoirs.

Not all of his characters were leisured clubmen. In Huntingtower, published in 1922, the unlikely hero was a retired Glasgow grocer called Dickson McCunn who, at the age of 55, embarked on a career of high adventure. The same book featured the Gorbals Die-Hards, an irregular troop of ragged boy scouts from the slums of Glasgow who proved their worth, fighting a gang of communists. Buchan was trying to express the post-War idealism that hoped for a fusion of the social classes in a united patriotism and sense of communal decency. In that, he was ahead of his time.

One of his most original, appealing novels was John Macnab, in which three jaded sportsmen challenge an estate owner by vowing to poach on his land, by taking a salmon, a deer and a brace of grouse in one day, from under the noses of his keepers. Today, a ‘Macnab’ is a recognised sporting challenge, with a society dedicated to its pursuit.

The appeal of Buchan’s books speaks for itself. All of his thrillers and short stories – around 20 books – are still in print. His success as a writer enabled him to enjoy the existence of a country gentleman, in the style of his own imaginary heroes. At the same time, he continued to play a part in public affairs. From 1927 to 1935 he was Member of Parliament for the Scottish Universities. In 1935 he was appointed Governor-General of Canada and raised to the peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir.

Buchan was a successful Governor-General, notably in forging a good relationship with President Roosevelt. He visited the most remote parts of his far-flung Dominion, an experience reflected in his last novel, Sick Heart River, written in 1940, in which he killed off Sir Edward Leithen, the one among his characters who most closely resembled himself. A few days after completing it, Buchan died. Not long before, he had signed Canada’s declaration of war on Germany.

This was a son of the manse who never relaxed his Christian principles, but had the heart of a musketeer. His tales will be re-read for generations to inspire those that relish adventure and the eternal conflict of good against evil and honour against villainy.