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Issue 50 - John Buchan

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010

 

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John Buchan

A life in letters.

John Buchan was born in Perth on August 26 1875, and was raised in Fife.

He is perhaps most remembered now as the author of The Thirty Nine Steps (1915), but this was only one achievement in a long and varied career.

It seems that many of Scotland’s sons and daughters who went on to do great things were the children of ministers. No exception, John Buchan’s father was a source of inspiration for the young John. A jovial and generous person, Buchan’s father worked with the poor and taught his children the Scottish legends and ballads.

Buchan’s summer holidays were spent at his grandparents’ farm in the Scottish Borders, and it was there that he fell in love with the countryside. Long walks in the woods were to inspire his creative spirit for many years to come.

He was not born into poverty, but equally John Buchan was not born to aristocracy or great wealth. He won a scholarship to study Classics at the University of Glasgow at age 17, and during this time wrote essays and poetry for publication, to help pay his way.

Again by means of a scholarship, he enrolled at Oxford to study law in 1895.

Even up against such academic competition Buchan was brilliant, winning prizes for essays and poetry and being elected President of the Student Union.

After graduation he entered into the service of Alfred Milner, colonial administrator in South Africa. As private secretary Buchan travelled extensively in South Africa, which was to be the setting for his first adventure novel, Prester John (1910).

Returning to London, he became editor of The Spectator and became a partner in the publishing firm, Thomas Nelson & Son.

In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. This must have been quite a social climb, but then John Buchan was no ordinary man.

He now entered the political arena as a Unionist candidate in the Scottish Borders, and soon afterwards the First World War broke out. Buchan grieved for family and friends killed in battle, but continued to work for the war effort as part of the British War Propaganda Bureau and war correspondent in France for The Times.

In 1915 he wrote his famous spy thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps, which was set just before the war. This novel was to be made into the iconic Alfred Hithcock film in 1935.

Buchan did not fight in the war, he was an officer for the Intelligence Corps in France until 1917, writing speeches and communiqués for Sir Douglas Haig.

Back in England, Buchan and his family moved to the manor house ‘Elsfield’ in 1919. This was to prove a place of escape for Buchan, who was heartily sick of war. He wrote prolifically during this period, including Mr Standfast (1919), The Path of the King (1921) and Huntingtower (1922).

In 1927 he was elected to Parliament, and in 1933 became the King’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Soon afterwards, in 1935, John Buchan embarked on the next (and final) stage of his career when he was created the 1st Baron Tweedsmuir by King George V and appointed Governor General of Canada. As in South Africa, he travelled widely in an attempt to know the people he governed. He was the first of his kind to go all the way to the Arctic.

John Buchan died on February 11 1940, having had a brain embolism. He was given a State funeral and his many achievements were listed and commemorated around the world. His ashes were later returned to his family home at Elsfield in Oxfordshire.

Buchan’s legacy can now be found in his writing, not only novels but also seven collections of short stories, an autobiography Memory Hold-the-Door and biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus and Oliver Cromwell.

He was awarded numerous prizes and titles in his lifetime, and the Provincial Parks in British Columbia were named after him.

The positions he held and the quantity of his published works are a testament to the exceptional intelligence and creativity of this minister’s boy from Fife.