John Buchan, author, politician, soldier and First World War spy was born at the then Manse of the Knox Free Church (South Street), 20 York Place, Perth on 26 August 1875 to Helen Masterton and the Reverend John Buchan of the Clan Buchan. There is a small commemorative plaque on the front of the villa at 20 York Place. His father was a Free Church of Scotland minister who took the family from Perth to Pathhead, Kirkcaldy (1876), then to the Gorbals in Glasgow (1888), where Buchan was educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School, and on to Peebles.
After studying at Glasgow University (to which Buchan had won a bursary in 1892), he went on, in 1895, with a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, achieving a Master of Arts. It was whilst at Oxford that Buchan’s literary career took off with the production of five books. Leaving with a first in Greats (1899), experience of being President of the Oxford Union, the Stanhope essay prize and the Newdigate prize for poetry, Buchan set off for a career in the legal profession becoming a barrister of the Middle Temple in 1901. His 1910 novel Prester John is based on this experience.
In 1901, as a result of his commitment to British imperialism he worked in a post-Boer War South Africa as Assistant Private Secretary to Lord Milner, (1), the High Commissioner, before returning to London to write for and edit the Spectator and practise tax law (2). He also became a director of Nelson, the publishing house.
Buchan’s modal literary style and works are best described by his own words:
‘I have long cherished that elementary type of tale which Americans call the dime novel, and which we know as the shocker – the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible’.
In many of Buchan’s texts there is a set formula in which the hero (be they Richard Hannay, Dickson McCunn or Sir Edward Leithen) save the world from some evil plot – the backdrop to which varies from the Highlands of Scotland to the Plains of Africa – all beautifully described by Buchan’s prose. His 1933 A Prince of the Captivity was an anti-fascist novel that enjoyed popularity at the start of the Nazi era in Germany.
The Thirty Nine Steps (published in 1915) is Buchan’s most famous work and was written during an illness at the start of World War I. This novel freely amended, with Buchan’s applause by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film version staring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll and Peggy Ashcroft has stood the test of popularity through time. In 1990, Penguin sold some 10,000 copies of the paperback whilst Public Lending Right figures for 1994 alone indicate loans of over 100,000.
Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster, became Buchan’s wife in 1907 and they had one daughter and three sons. Under her married name, Susan Buchan, she wrote a number of books and plays. Buchan’s sister, Annie, under the pseudonym O Douglas, was also a popular and respected author. [Born in Perth, the daughter of a minister, Anna Buchan was sister of author and politician John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir (1875 – 1940). She was educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow, but lived most of her life in Peebles, where her home became the Priorsford in several of her novels. Her first novel was Olivia in India. Others included The Setons (1917), Penny Plain (1920), Ann and her Mother (1922), The Proper Place (1926), Jane’s Parlour (1937) and People Like Ourselves (1938). Unforgettable, Unforgotten (1945) was a biography of the Buchan family and Farewell to Priorsford was her own autobiography, which appeared posthumously in 1950. Anna Buchan died in Peebles.]
Politics and journalism occupied a great deal of John Buchan’s time. From the post of journalist on the London Times covering the Western Front, Buchan graduated to the Intelligence Corps rising to a temporary Lieutenant-Colonel, subordinate director at Ministry of Information under Lord Beaverbrook (3), then Director of Intelligence and finally in the post-war period, he became a director of the Reuters news agency.
In 1927, representing the Scottish Universities for the Conservative Party, Buchan entered Parliament. He was twice created His Majesty’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In 1933, on 29 September along with Francis Norrie-Miller (4), Buchan was made a Freeman of the City of Perth – one of only a few to have been both born in Perth and given this award. At the ceremony in the City Hall Buchan spoke of his attachment to Perth:
‘I am one of yourselves…My notion of Perth was drawn wholly from Sir Walter Scott, and it seemed to me a magical place which must confer a unique distinction upon its natives’.
He was appointed the 35th Governor General of Canada on 10 August 1935 (being made Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, Oxford, at the same time) staying in post until his death from a brain haemorrhage and fall in Montreal on 11 February 1940. His death coming only a short time after having signed Canada’s entry into the war. Throughout his tenure in Canada and during his various career posts Buchan continued to write prolifically producing altogether more than 30 novels, seven short story collections and many non-fictional works. The latter encompasses several biographies including Sir Walter Scott (1932) and Oliver Cromwell (1934).
Buchan employed part of his time in Canada to promote literature, especially Canadian writing and travelled extensively within the country. In tribute to the Scots, who as a result of the clearances settled in Canada from the Cottar houses of Glenquaich, Perthshire, and other parts of Scotland, a memorial cairn was commissioned. Buchan unveiled this monument on May 28 1936.
Amongst the awards and titles John Buchan achieved in his lifetime are the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the universities of Glasgow, St Andrews, McGill, Toronto and Montreal, an Honorary DCL from Oxford University and Chancellorship of Edinburgh University.
After a state funeral at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, Buchan’s body was brought to England on a warship the HMS Orion and buried at Elsfield. John Buchan’s final resting place being in England rather than his native Scotland was symbolic of the contradiction and divided loyalty that he felt during his life. From Scotland he drew inspiration and source for his novels, but it was England that gave him status and success.
‘Thirty nine steps – I counted them – High tide 10:17 pm.’
Public life is regarded as the crown of a career, and to young men it is the worthiest ambition. Politics is still the greatest and the most honourable adventure.’
‘In the passing of His Excellency, the people of Canada have lost one of the greatest and most revered of their Governors General, and a friend who, from the day of his arrival in this country, dedicated his life to their service.’
William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada
‘Victor Maskell, the protagonist modelled on Sir Anthony Blunt in John Banville’s The Untouchable (1997), may regard Buchan as ridiculously old-fashioned. But the kind of material which his thrillers were first to bring into focus – the conspiratorial shadow cast by contemporary history, the challenge to integrity and cohesion, the bleak vicissitudes of international power play – continue their complex existence in the genre.’
George O’Brien in Mystery & Suspense Writers, volume 1, edited by Robin W Winks (1998)
1 High Commissioner for South Africa from 1897-1905.
2 Although he did not ever operate fully as a barrister.
3 Newspaper magnate and politician. Minister of Information under Lloyd George, owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard and Minister of Supply in Churchill’s wartime cabinet.
4 Created General Manager of the General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corporation in 1887. Involved with its expansion and growth worldwide.