John Buchan

1875 - 1940

Biography

As well as a writer John Buchan was a published historian, lawyer, editor, war correspondent, government administrator, MP and director of a successful publishing house. He was born, the first son to a Free-Church minister and his wife, Helen Jane Masterson, in 1875. Raised in the village of Pathhead on the Fife coast, he attended school in nearby Kirkcaldy until 1888, when the family left Fife for Glasgow where his father took up a new ministry.

Aged seventeen, Buchan obtained a scholarship to study classics and mathematics at Glasgow University but he was a solitary youth and financial constraints prevented him from socialising widely. A second scholarship enabled Buchan to continue his studies at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he eventually graduated with a Doctor of Laws. During this time he wrote prodigiously and several of his stories and essays were published.

During his writing career he is thought to have published some one hundred books, only forty or so of which are fiction. Buchan was a huge admirer of the writing of Sir Walter Scott, whose Romantic influence marks the adventure stories, ‘where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible,’ for which he was best known. However, he regarded writing as an inferior career and sought to make his name in the wider arena of British, imperial politics.

Upon graduating, Buchan pursued a successful career as a barrister and later as private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner, between 1901 and 1903. He married Susan Grosvenor in 1907 and was to become father to four children. In 1909 Buchan began work for the publisher Thomas Nelson and Sons during which he spent a great deal of time writing for and editing the The Spectator newspaper.

During the war Buchan worked as a war correspondent for The Times newspaper before joining the army, and his most famous thriller, The Thirty Nine Steps (1915), which introduced the spy-catching character Richard Hannay, was based on a real-life character from Buchan’s own time serving with the British army. He served on the Headquarters Staff of the British Army in France as temporary Lieutenant Colonel (1916-17). Buchan was made Director of Information (1917-18) and, briefly, Director of Intelligence, under the Lloyd George administration. After the war Buchan became a director of the news agency Reuters.

From 1927-35 Buchan was Conservative MP for the Scottish universities. He had then a number of important government posts, serving among others as Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1933-34). In 1935 Buchan moved to Canada where he became Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and the thirty fifth Governor General of Canada - a position he held until his death in 1940.

Works

Buchan’s most famous novel is the spy-thriller The Thirty-nine Steps, written during the first years of the First World War and published in 1915. A short, fast-paced adventure story, it introduces Buchan’s best-loved hero, Richard Hannay, a South-African mining engineer who quickly becomes involved in protecting British interests against incursions from German spies in the months preceding the outbreak of war. The book begins with the murder of the American secret agent, Franklin P. Scudder, who has uncovered an espionage plot. His cryptic notes then fall into the hands of the unsuspecting Hannay, who must clear his name of the suspected murder of Scudder whilst disarming the German spies before they leave Britain, armed with secret government information, from their hideaway at the mysterious ‘thirty-nine steps’.

The Thirty-nine Steps was to become one of the most popular novels of its time, and the inspiration behind a whole new genre of spy-thrillers. Buchan’s creation of the hero, Richard Hannay, departed from conventional literary precedent. Hannay is an exotic outsider, a colonial entrepreneur, and one who, crucially, does not operate within the socially defined perimeters of the public-school network, aristocracy or the political intelligence. Buchan’s creation of the resourceful, independent agent was the ultimate model for countless spy heroes after him, including the famous James Bond.

The topicality of the novel also contributed to its success. Published in 1915, Buchan plays upon the British patriotism of the time and, to a certain extent, with the anti-German feeling, which ran high in the first years of the war. The fact that the action of the novel is premised on ‘real-life’ events that Buchan’s readership would recognise from the reporting of the war gives the often improbably fortuitous turn of events that contribute to Hannay’s ultimate success some plausibility. Finally, Buchan’s choice to locate the scene of the action in Scotland, with Hannay adventuring across the Galloway hills and meeting with various colourful Border’s characters, lent an air of exoticism and romance to the novel. In this, Buchan was probably drawing on his Scottish literary predecessors, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott.

Buchan’s name is traditionally associated with popular adventure stories in the manner of The Thirty-nine Steps, a fact which has meant that some of his more serious work has been obscured. One of the best of these more neglected novels, and Buchan’s own favourite among his many works, is Witchwood (1927), set in the Scottish Borders during the religious struggles of the seventeenth-century. The novel tells the story of the young minister David Sempill, caught between an allegiance to king and country and his sympathies for a Covenanting cause, which he fears is becoming increasingly beset by fanaticism and brutality. The novel is a plea for tolerance and compassion embodied in the ethereal, pagan figure of Katrine Yester with whom Sempill is in love. Undoubtedly influenced by James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner (1824) and Stevenson’s ‘Thrawn Janet’, Sempil’s eventual departure to Europe with Mark Kerr for the life of a mercenary is also framed by the traditional folk narrative, which suggests that Sempill was murdered, carried away by the devil or passed into another world.

The novel seeks to convey a Scottish religion increasingly receded from nature and at odds with the spirit of community symbolised by the secret pre-Christian rites of the Malanudrigill Wood, the last remnant of the Caledonian Forest. Sempill’s increasingly fascination with the world of a secret pagan Scotland and of an older, communal humanity sheds a critical light on religious fanaticism and the internecine wars of Scottish history.

As well as the Richard Hannay thrillers, with six titles running from The Thiry-nine Steps in 1915, to The Island of Sheep in 1936, Buchan also published several historical novels including John Burnet of Barns (1898); Prester John (1910) and Hungtingtower (1922). Among Buchan's other works are the contemporary adventure story John MacNab (1925) the mythical thriller Sick Heart River (1941), a 24-volume Nelson’s History of the War (1915-19) and biographies of Montrose (1913, 1928), Walter Scott (1932), Oliver Cromwell (1934) and Augustus (1937). Buchan's autobiography, Memory Hold-The-Door was published in 1940.

Reading Lists

Primary

Richard Hannay series:

The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

Greenmantle (1916)

Mr Standfast (1918)

Adventures of Richard Hannay (omnibus) (1919)

The Three Hostages (1924)

John MacNab (1925)

The Courts of the Morning (1929)

The Island of Sheep (1936) aka The Man From the Norlands

The Complete Richard Hannay (omnibus) (1993)

Other:

The Half-Hearted (1900)

A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906)

Prester John (1910)

Salute to Adventurers (1915)

The Power House (1916)

Francis And Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir (1920)

The Path of the King (1921)

Huntingtower (1922)

The Last Secrets: The Final Mysteries of Exploration (1923)

Midwinter (1923)

Lord Minto: A Memoir (1924)

The Dancing Floor (1926)

Montrose (1928)

Castle Gay (1930)

The Blanket of the Dark (1931)

The Gap in the Curtain (1932)

A Prince of the Captivity (1933)

The Free Fishers (1934)

The Lost Lady of Old Years (1936)

Augustus (1937)

House of the Four Winds (1937)

Pilgrim's Way (1940)

Lake of Gold (1941)

The Long Traverse (1941)

Mountain Meadow (1941)

Sick Heart River (1941)

John Burnet of Barns: a Romance (1951)

Non fiction

The Scholar Gipsies (1896)

Sir Walter Raleigh (1897)

Sir Walter Scott (1911)

The Battle Of The Somme First Phase (1917)

Julius Caesar (1932)

The Massacre of Glencoe (1933)

Oliver Cromwell (1934)

The King's Grace: 1910 - 1935 (1935)

Episodes Of The Great War (1936)

Naval Episodes of the Great War (1938)

Memory Hold-the-Door (1940)

Secondary

Lady Susan Tweedsmuir, John Buchan by His Wife and Friends (1947)

Arthur C. Turner, Mr. Buchan, Writer (1949)

Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (1965)

Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan and His World (1979)

William Buchan, John Buchan: A Memoir  (1982)

Juanita Kruse, John Buchan (1875-1940) and the Idea of Empire (1989)

Paul Webb, A Buchan Companion (1994)

Related Links

Writing Scotland themes