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John Buchan - Biography & Selected Products


The Scottish novelist John Buchan’s full list of titles bespeaks a remarkable career as a Unionist politician, a historian and a Governor General. He was born John Buchan on the 26th August 1875 and would go on to add 1st Baron Tweedsmuir PC GCMG GCVO CH to his name. His father, also John, was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland who lived in Perth with his wife Helen Jane.

Though Buchan was born in Perth he was raised in Kirkcaldy, Fife, spending summers in Broughton in the Scottish Borders with his grandparents. He was enchanted by the geographical and natural beauty of the area and quickly became a keen walker, finding it the most effective way of exploring and immersing himself in the scenery. The value of this youthful education in nature becomes apparent in his writing; some novels are set there, all are written with a keen eye for natural detail and even some significant characters’ names derive from local place names, notably Sir Edward Leithen whose surname is taken from Leithen Water, a River Tweed tributary.

Buchan studied at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow until he was seventeen, when he won a scholarship to the University of Glasgow to study classics. While there he began to write poetry and enjoyed success as a published author. In 1895 he took a junior Hulme scholarship and transferred to Brasenose College in Oxford to study Literae Humaniores, or ‘the Classics’. His first work was published in 1896; the novel Sir Quixote of the Moors and the non-fiction Scholar-Gipsies. From now on he published work at a relatively steady rate, consistently producing both novels and non-fiction work including biographies, historical papers and political analysis and propaganda. At Brasenose he became friends with the Anglo-French writer and historian Hilaire Belloc, the barrister Raymond Asquith, and the diplomat and traveller Aubrey Herbert. In 1897 Buchan won the Stanhope Essay Prize, an undergraduate history prize, and in 1898 the Newdigate Prize for poetry. Also in 1898 he was elected president of the Oxford Union and John Burnet of Barns, his second novel, was published. In 1900, at the time of his graduation from Oxford, he sat for his first portrait by the young Sholto Johnstone Douglas.

After his graduation from Oxford Buchan moved towards diplomacy, becoming Alfred Milner’s private secretary. At that time Milner was the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, and the colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Buchan became one of several Britons working in the South African Civil Service under Lord Milner who would attain their own public prominence built on their experience working under Milner, and this group and the South African Civil Service itself became known as ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’ thanks to its incubatory nature. He found equal inspiration in the South African landscape as he had in the Scottish Borders, and the area would become another setting for much of his future work. He resumed this writing on his return to London, establishing a partnership with Thomas Nelson and Son publishing house and taking on an editorial role with The Spectator. During this time he had read law and was called to the bar in 1901, though he never actually practiced. For the next few years he published fewer books, much of his time being taken up by his responsibilities at The Spectator and as a partner.

On the 15th of July 1907 Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor. Her father was Norman Grosvenor and she was the cousin of the Duke of Westminster. In 1910 Buchan wrote Prester John which was the first of a series of adventure novels which he set in South Africa having taken inspiration from his time in the Civil Service there. The novel deals with the social and political ramifications of a fictional Zulu uprising through an account of the adventures of its protagonist David Crawfurd. Buchan’s Imperial and Commonwealth support is clear throughout the novel, as is his intimate knowledge of South African landscape and customs. The novel remains in print thanks to its delicate treatment of the issue of cultural clash and ideas of imperialism. The couple’s first child Alice was born the same year.

In 1911 Buchan entered the political arena running as a Unionist candidate in a constituency in the Scottish Borders. Principle among his concerns were the support of free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and a reduction in the power of the House of Lords. He opposed the “class hatred” of Liberals such as future Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and disagreed with the Liberal party’s welfare reforms. The couple’s second child and first son, John Norman Stuart Buchan, was born on the 25th November 1911. He would succeed Buchan as Lord Tweedsmuir, and was once described as a “brilliant fisherman and naturalist, a gallant soldier and fine writer of English, an explorer, colonial administrator and man of business.” The outbreak of the First World War saw Buchan writing for the War Propaganda Bureau and as a Times correspondent in France. He was able to continue his writing and, in 1915, published The Thirty-Nine Steps, his most famous book. It is the first appearance of Richard Hannay, a character he based on his friend Edmund Ironside whom he had known in South Africa. It was first serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine and published the following year by William Blackwood and Sons in Edinburgh. The second novel, Greemantle, was published in 1916. William Buchan was born on the 10th January 1916. He succeeded his brother as Lord Tweedsmuir following John Buchan 2nd Baron’s death. He was himself an accomplished writer.

In 1916 Buchan enlisted in the British Army, taking a commission in the Intelligence Corps as second lieutenant. His responsibilities included writing speeches for Sir Douglas Haig. His talent was quickly recognised and in 1917 he was appointed Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook. Buchan once called it “the toughest job [he] ever took on”. Despite the difficulty of this role, alongside it he assisted in the publication of a magazine detailing the history of the war. It was overseen by Charles Masterman and later published in a 24 volume edition, entitled Nelson’s History of the War. One of the main challenges was the need to be unbiased and critical where appropriate of the conduct of the British Army and its leaders, owing to his close relationships with several of its key figures. His fourth child, Alistair Francis, was born on the 9th September 1918, and would go on to become a respected writer of defence studies.

After the war was over Buchan continued his novel writing and began to focus attention on his historical studies. He lived in Elsfield and by 1925 had become a trustee of the National Library of Scotland and President of the Scottish Historical Society. In 1927 Buchan became the Unionist Party Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities. In a speech to Parliament he said “I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it.” His speeches and writing on the issue of Scottish independence and their place within the Empire has found a new relevance in the twenty-first century thanks to its pertinence to the issue of Scottish Independence and the question of its European interests. Moreover, in that same speech (and in reference to the high emigration from Scotland after the Scottish Great Depression), Buchan remarked that “we do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us”. Again, his political considerations are reflected in the contemporary political climate of the twenty-first century, with a Greece crippled by financial crisis.

Over the course of the next few years Buchan continued to accomplish himself politically and as a cultural commentator and figurehead. He was an elder of St. Columba’s Church in London, of the Oxford Presbyterian Parish, he became King George V’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, an ally of the Zionist Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group and on the 1st January 1932 was inducted into the Order of the Companions of Honour. Throughout this time he continued to write, both fiction and non-, continuing his successful Hannay novels. In 1935 Alfred Hitchcock released his adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps, though the story was heavily altered. Buchan had little involvement in the making of the film, though his reaction to it was positive. He was appointed to the Order of St. Michael and St. George on the 23rd of May that year, and on the 1st of June became 1st Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford. This peerage came from Buchan’s destination as Governor General in Canada; the Canadian Prime Minister, Richard Bennett, consulted William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, who recommended Buchan to serve as viceroy; though George V agreed with Buchan as a candidate, he insisted that he be represented by a peer. Mackenzie King had entertained Buchan and his wife at his estate, Kingsmere, ten years previously, and at that time Mackenzie King had put Buchan forward to George V for consideration for the governor generalcy, stating at the time that “I know now man I would rather have as a friend, a beautiful, noble soul, kindly and generous in though and word and act, informed as few men in this world have ever been, modest, humble, true, man after God’s own heart”. Buchan had been reluctant to take the post following correspondence with the Lord Byng of Vimy in which Byng wrote disparagingly of Mackenzie King.

On the 10th of August 1935 the Canadian Prime Minister’s office announced the King’s approval of Buchan as the vice regal representative by commission under the royal sign-manual and signet. Buchan left for Canada shortly thereafter and was sworn in on the 2nd of November 1935 in the Quebec parliament buildings. In an unprecedented move he resolved to travel all over Canada, including the Arctic regions, in order that he might gain a better picture of the country. He said “a Governor General is in a unique position for it is his duty to know the whole of Canada ad all the various types of her people”. Having already enjoyed his explorations of the Scottish Borders as a boy, and South Africa as a young man, he was well suited to this new exploratory undertaking. Having crossed the length and breadth of the country, he saw the cultural shift between areas and their common ground, and was able to bring about a clear national Canadian identity which helped rally the people during the Great Depression. In response to challenges for imperialists angry at his statement that “a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations, but to Canada and Canada’s King”, he said “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements” and that individual ethnic groups within a population should “retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character”. The death of George V the following year led to a period of monarchical turmoil, as the succession of Prince Edward and his unfolding relationship with American divorcée Wallis Simpson threatened Imperial support of the royal family and jeopardised their authority and governance in Canada. Finally Edward abdicated and was succeeded by his younger brother Albert, the Duke of York, who became George VI.

A royal tour by George VI and Queen Elizabeth in May and June 1939 was conceived and executed by Buchan, though for its duration he returned on personal holiday to his home near Oxford since he believed that, while the King he represented was himself visiting the country in which he represented that King, his own viceregal position was suspended. He said “I cease to exist as Viceroy, and retain only a shadowy legal existence as Governor-General in Council”. The royal couple took part in various official public engagements such as the opening of the Lions Gate Bridge. The tour was conceived both to maintain support of the royal family following the scandalous conditions of George VI’s ascension to the throne, and in the face of the Second World War as a popularity campaign to garner American political and military support ahead of mounting hostility with Nazi Germany. He, Mackenzie King and Franklin D. Roosevelt were all three in favour of avoiding another war. Though his own military experience and Liberal attitude meant he was entirely against conflict, it was he who officially authorised Canada’s declaration of war against Germany which came shortly after the British declaration. He then became Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces.

On the 6th of February 1940 he had a stroke and collapsed, sustaining a very serious head injury as he fell. He was at his Canadian Home, Rideau Hall, and so was treated by Doctor Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute who conducted two rounds of surgery in an attempt to stabilise Buchan’s condition. These surgeries were unsuccessful and Buchan died on the 11th February as a result of complications after his head injury. He was eulogised on the radio by Mackenzie King, who said “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 aerial in this country, dedicated his life to their service”. Buchan had forged a strong relationship with Mackenzie King, who spoke of his “sterling rectitude” and “disinterested purpose” though he noted as a vice Buchan’s pursuit of titles. Buchan’s state funeral was held at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, and his ashes were returned to his estate in Oxfordshire.