‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)
It’s August 1939 and war in Europe is less than a month away; but you’re in Ottowa’s stately Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence, in the midst of a cocktail party. A hubbub of polite conversation and chamber music wafts through the Long Gallery, and the late summer heat drifts through the open doors from the elegant gardens beyond. The circling guests chatter about the King and Queen’s triumphal visit just two months earlier; the machinations of Herr Hitler; that strange man Mussolini; and as the sun sets, everyone drifts through the doors to watch the fireworks on the lawn.
For once, eschewing the formal garb of his post in favour of demure black tie, the relaxed viceroy Lord Tweedsmuir stands to your right, a cigarette at his lips: but you, newly arrived in Canada and two gins to the better, have not yet been introduced. “And who are you?” you ask him politely.
Amid the din of the first fireworks exploding in the sky he smiles and introduces himself; and within moments you are in the comfort of his affable company. Yet in truth, echoing through the decades after his sudden death in February 1940 aged 64, the question is a good one: for who was this son of the manse John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, fifteenth Governor General of Canada, sometime schoolboy at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and President of the Oxford Union, barrister, First World War spymaster, member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, Chancellor of Edinburgh University, and writer?
Well, as I hope is obvious from that introduction, John Buchan is someone who defies the pigeon hole. He simply will not be put in a category, except to say that like Andrew Carnegie, James Clerk Maxwell, Elsie Inglis, James Watt, Mary Slessor or David Livingston, he is one of those Scots who belong not just to Scotland, but to the whole World. Like them, Buchan still shows us today that Scots who believe in themselves can cry out along with Archimedes: “give me a place to stand and I will truly move the Earth.”
Despite a life which would stretch the bounds of credulity if featured in one of his own novels, John Buchan is a relatively unrecognised figure in modern Scottish life; indeed, if it were not for the enormous fame of The Thirty Nine Steps, even his name would perhaps have faded entirely. For instance you will search in vain for a statue of Buchan anywhere in Britain (although there is admittedly a fine bust in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery), while the rest of his literary output, not to mention his political life, is surprisingly overlooked – something that the good people at the John Buchan Society hope to put right when an exciting new museum – The John Buchan Story – is unveiled in Peebles’ Chambers Institute next month. Here’s their website: www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk
All of a sudden there is something very modern about Buchan: perhaps it’s a product of our austere times, that heroic characters once again seem appealing? And there was certainly much that was heroic about Buchan, both in real life and in the characters he created.
A recent review of Buchan in the Independent stated:
“[he] knew that you can’t buck the consequences of your actions, and that your life is what you make of it. Perhaps his peculiarly Scottish combination of Romanticism and Calvinism – daring living and high thinking – is due to return to fashion.”
An anthem for the credit crunch perhaps?
As regards politics, Buchan was a Tory; but a rather unusual one. Politically he believed in the Union, but had strong nationalist sentiments, stating in Parliament, in the midst of the depression of the 1920s:
“I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish Parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it.”
In the same speech, Buchan reflected on the high emigration from Scotland of the time:
“We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us.”
The issues Buchan wrestled with resonate today; but his were very different times, and it would be simplifying his position to conclude that he was a nationalist in the modern political sense: for Buchan was someone who believed in a strong Scotland within the British Empire of his times; something which he viewed as a great community of nations with shared ideals and principals. For example, after he was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935 he quickly established himself as a stout promoter of the country’s national identity. In 1937 he stated that “a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” a pronouncement that saw him denounced as ‘disloyal’ in some quarters, when he was in truth anything but that.
Whether Scots, British or Canadian, Buchan believed in the power and identity of the individual, and respected it – something which sometimes caused fear in the hearts of the controlling political class of his day. He liked people and nations to be true to themselves and reflect their singular characteristics, stating that the diverse ethnic groups within Canada “should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character,” because “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.” Old fashioned language perhaps, but a clear and modern message in the world of the 1930s.
He was a tireless worker in the ethic of his upbringing, and overcame the natural shyness of the Scot to show the world his mettle. Between 1896 and 1940 he wrote more than fifty historical works on subjects as diverse as Julius Caesar, the Somme, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott, while his fictional output was hardly less prodigious. Aside from The Thirty Nine Steps and his hero Richard Hannay’s continued adventures in Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep, many of Buchan’s novels are Scots historical masterpieces like Witchwood (Buchan’s favourite of all his works), an eerie thriller set in a seventeenth century village, focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by the newly appointed minister David Sempill, when he encounters dark forces in the primordial forest which looms above his parish.
Reading Witchwood recently, it struck me that the book demonstrated just how much Buchan followed in the style and pace of Stevenson, whose short story Thrawn Janet must surely have been a key influence. Buchan is credited with the creation of the modern thriller, but was he not in turn borrowing from Stevenson’s Kidnapped? Is Buchan’s work not in fact a natural progression from his eminent Scots forebears in the nineteenth century?
One thing that is undoubtedly true of Buchan is the fluency of his prose: he writes as he was – a wise and natural storyteller at ease in himself and his subject; and I heartily recommend revisiting his novels, many of which have now been attractively reprinted by Edinburgh’s own Polygon Press. www.birlinn.co.uk
Buchan, today, remains fascinating and enigmatic: you never quite get the feeling that you know him entirely; and like the chase sequences in his thrillers he is always two steps ahead and vanishing around a corner. A collection of political and personal contradictions to rival Whitman, he is nonetheless in the end very human: an honest and good humoured friend, and an optimistic tonic for the cares of modern living. He deserves to be read much, much more.
This article was published on 9 July 2012 on the ThinkScotland website: www.thinkscotland.org