John Buchan

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John Buchan 1st Baron Tweedsmuir

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir GCMG GCVO CH PC (August 26, 1875February 11, 1940), was a Scottish novelist, best known for his novel The Thirty Nine Steps, and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada. He was a prolific writer whose output include The Courts of the Morning. He also wrote historical books. Two were about the Somme.

Early life

John Buchan was the eldest child in a family of four sons and a daughter (the novelist Anna Buchan) born to a Free Church of Scotland minister, also named John Buchan (1847–1911), and his wife Helen Jane (1857–1937), daughter of John Masterton, a farmer, of Broughton Green, near Peebles. Although born in Perth, he grew up in Fife and spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in Broughton in the Borders, developing a love of walking and the Borders scenery and wildlife that is often featured in his novels.

After attending Hutchesons' Grammar School, Buchan won a scholarship to the University of Glasgow where he studied Classics and wrote poetry and first became a published author. He then studied Literae Humaniores at Brasenose College, Oxford, winning the Newdigate prize for poetry. He had a genius for friendship which he retained all his life. His friends at Oxford included Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith and Aubrey Herbert.

Life as an author and politician

Buchan at first entered into a career in law in 1901, but almost immediately moved into politics, becoming private secretary to British colonial administrator Alfred Milner, who was High Commissioner for South Africa, the Governor of Cape Colony and colonial administrator of the Transvaal and of the Orange Free State. Buchan gained an acquaintance with the country that was to feature prominently in his writing. On his return to London, he became a partner in a publishing company while he continued to write books. Buchan married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor (1882- 1977), cousin of the Duke of Westminster, on July 15, 1907. Together they had four children, two of whom would spend most of their lives in Canada.

In 1910, he wrote Prester John, the first of his adventure novels, set in South Africa. In 1911, he first suffered from duodenal ulcers, an illness he would give to one of his characters in later books. He also entered politics running as a Tory candidate for a Border constituency. During this time Buchan supported Free Trade, woman's suffrage, national insurance and curtailing the power of the House of Lords. However he opposed the Liberal reforms of 1905-1915 and what he considered the class hatred fostered by demagogic Liberals like David Lloyd George.

During World War I, he wrote for the War Propaganda Bureau and was a correspondent for The Times in France. In 1915, he published his most famous book The Thirty Nine Steps, a spy thriller set just before the outbreak of World War I, featuring his hero Richard Hannay, who was based on a friend from South African days, Edmund Ironside.

The novel The Thirty-Nine Steps includes in the beginning one person stating a Jewish involvement in the start of WWI. However, this later turns out to be a false accusation. Opinions have differed regarding if Buchan despite this was claiming Jewish real-world involvement.[1][2]

The following year he published a sequel Greenmantle. In 1916, he joined the British Army Intelligence Corps where as a 2nd Lieutenant he wrote speeches and communiques for Sir Douglas Haig.

In 1917, he returned to Britain where he became Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook. After the war he began to write on historical subjects as well as continuing to write thrillers and historical novels. Buchan's 100 works include nearly 30 novels and seven collections of short stories. He also wrote biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus, and Oliver Cromwell. The most famous of his books were the spy thrillers and it is probably for these that he is now best remembered. The "last Buchan" (as Graham Greene entitled his appreciative review) is Sick Heart River (American title: Mountain Meadow), 1941, in which a dying protagonist confronts in the Canadian wilderness the questions of the meaning of life.

The insightful quotation "It's a great life, if you don't weaken" is also famously attributed to him. Another memorable quote is "No great cause is ever lost or won, The battle must always be renewed, And the creed must always be restated."

Life in Canada

In 1935 he became the Governor General of Canada and was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had wanted him to go to Canada as a commoner, but King George V insisted on being represented by a peer.

In 1936, encouraged by Lady Tweedsmuir, he founded the Governor General's Awards, still some of Canada's premier literary awards. Lady Tweedsmuir was active in promoting literacy in Canada. She used Rideau Hall as a distribution centre for 40,000 books, which were sent out to readers in remote areas of the west. Her programme was known as the "Lady Tweedsmuir Prairie Library Scheme". Together, Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir established the first proper library at Rideau Hall.

Tweedsmuir took his responsibilities in Canada seriously and tried to make the office of Governor General relevant to the lives of ordinary Canadians. In his own words, "a Governor General is in a unique position for it is his duty to know the whole of Canada and all the various types of her people".

Tweedsmuir travelled throughout Canada, including the Arctic regions. He took every opportunity to speak to Canadians and to encourage them to develop their own distinct identity. He wanted to build national unity by diminishing the religious and linguistic barriers that divided the country. Tweedsmuir was aware of the suffering experienced by many Canadians due to the Depression and often wrote with compassion about their difficulties.

Like many people of his time, the experience of the First World War convinced Tweedsmuir of the horrors of armed conflict and he worked with both United States President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King in trying to avert the ever-growing threat of another world war. He also had a view of the communist drive for world domination.

While shaving on February 6, 1940, Tweedsmuir had a stroke and injured his head badly in the fall. The injury proved fatal. On February 11, Tweedsmuir died. Prime Minister Mackenzie King reflected the loss that all Canadians felt when he read the following words over the radio, "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."

After the lying-in-state in the Senate Chamber, a state funeral for Lord Tweedsmuir was held at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Ottawa. His ashes were returned to England on the cruiser HMS Orion for final burial at Elsfield, where he had bought the Manor in 1920.

External links


  1. The Thirty-Nine Steps” — Was author John Buchan trying to tell us something about the secret causes of WWI?
  2. Was John Buchan an anti-semite?
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