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About John Buchan

John Buchan (1875-1940) was one of Scotland’s most critically and commercially successful novelists, while playing a major role in public life both as a publisher and a politician.


Buchan was born in Perth, but moved in early infancy to Pathhead, Fife, where his father had been appointed Free Church minister. In 1888, his father was called to the John Knox Church in Glasgow, where Buchan attended Hutcheson’s Grammar School and went on to read Classics at Glasgow University. He won a scholarship to Oxford University, publishing his first novel Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895) just before his matriculation. His second, John Burnet of Barn, would follow in 1898. It was at Oxford that Buchan first met Thomas Nelson, his future employer and publishing partner. After graduating, Buchan read for the English Bar at the Middle Temple, financing himself through journalism for The Spectator and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. He joined the Northern circuit in 1901.

Professional and Political Life

In 1901, Buchan was invited by South African High Commissioner Alfred Milner to assist in the reconstruction of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State after the Second Boer War. He returned to Britain in 1903, resumed his legal career, and in 1907 married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor (1882-1977). In the same year he took up work as literary adviser to, and subsequently co-director, of the Edinburgh-based publisher Thomas Nelson and Sons. Buchan was unfit for active service in the First World War but embarked upon Nelson's History of the War, published in 24 instalments from February 1915 to July 1919 in instalments of 50,000 words. This led to propagandist work for the Foreign and War Offices, a commission in the intelligence corps (1916), and subsequently an appointment as director of a new department of information (1917). The decade following the First World War was devoted to writing and publishing, then in 1927 Buchan successfully stood as the Unionist candidate for one of the three Scottish university seats. He served as a notably non-partisan M.P. until 1935, when the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald appointed him Governor-General of Canada. In preparation for this post, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. As Governor-General, Buchan encouraged Canadian-US links, arranging in 1936 the first official visit to Canada by a US President. In 1937 he visited the USA, meeting with Roosevelt in Washington, and becoming the first Briton to address Congress. In the same year, despite his Canadian commitments, Buchan was also elected Chancellor of Edinburgh University. In 1939 Buchan superintended the first tour of Canada by a reigning British monarch. Although a great success, the tour left Buchan physically exhausted, and on 11 February 1940, he died following a cerebral thrombosis.

The Novelist

Buchan’s first commercially successful novel was Prester John (1910), inspired by his Boer War experiences. This was followed by The Power House in 1913, then in 1915, Buchan published his first ‘shocker, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which introduced his most celebrated hero Richard Hannay. His intelligence work informed Greenmantle (1916), and Mr Standfast (1919) also had a First World War setting. Starting with The Three Hostages (1924), Buchan published at least one novel annually until 1937. His inter-war fiction fell into three categories: historical (Midwinter, The Path of the King, Witch Wood, The Blanket of the Dark, The Free Fishers), contemporary Scottish (Huntingtower, Castle Gay, and The House of the Four Winds, all featuring the Glaswegian trader Dickson McCunn), and imperial ‘shockers’ (The Three Hostages, The Dancing Floor, The Gap in the Curtain, A Prince of the Captivity, The Island of Sheep). His last and perhaps most powerful novel, the posthumously published Sick Heart River (1941), drew on a tour of Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Other Writings

Although best-known as novelist, Buchan was a prolific writer in a number of genres. He was a notable biographer, penning lives of Sir Walter Raleigh (1911), Montrose (1913 and 1928), Lord Minto (1924), Julius Caesar (1932), Cromwell (1934), and Augustus (1937). Perhaps his finest biographical study is of his literary hero Sir Walter Scott (1932). Besides his Nelson’s History of the War, he published books on the battles of Jutland, the Somme, and Picardy in 1915-16, The Battle-Honours of Scotland, 1914-1918 (1918), and histories of the South African Forces in France (1920), and the Royal Scots Fusiliers (1925). The latter was partly a tribute to his youngest brother Alistair, killed in action in 1917. Buchan’s These for Remembrance (1919) and Francis and Riversdale Grenfell (1920) were also written in memory of friends killed during the war. Buchan published several volumes of essays, including A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys (1922) and The Last Secrets, on exploration and mountaineering (1923). Perhaps his finest non-fictional work is the candidly autobiographical Memory Hold-the-Door, posthumously published in 1940.

Buchan and the Scottish Literary Renaissance

Buchan’s Poems, Scots and English (1917) showed him to be a fine writer in Scots. His poems were included in two of Hugh MacDiarmid’s Northern Numbers (1920-21). MacDiarmid dedicated his Annals of the Five Senses (1923) to Buchan, and, in return, Buchan wrote an introduction to MacDiarmid's Sangshaw (1925). In 1924 Buchan edited The Northern Muse: An Anthology of Scots Vernacular Poetry, a major contribution to the Scottish Literary Renaissance, which was praised by MacDiarmid as by far the best available anthology of Scottish verse. Although the Unionist Buchan and the Marxist MacDiarmid appear strange bedfellows, Buchan believed in a strong Scotland within a British Empire which he viewed as a community of nations.


Buchan’s literary achievement was recognized in 1932 through the award of the Companionship of Honour. He had earlier received an LLD from Glasgow University in recognition of his war work. Buchan’s popularity as a novelist has never flagged, and he has reached an even wider public through screen and radio versions of his work. The first of Buchan novels to be filmed was Huntingtower (1925), but the most-celebrated adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), perhaps the most influential thriller in cinematic history. Critical acclaim was slow to match commercial success, but Janet Adam Smith’s 1965 biography of Buchan led to a revival of interest in his work.

Further Reading

Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (London: R. Hart-Davis, 1965)

Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan and his World (London: Thames and Hudson, 1979)

John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1940)

Susan Charlotte Buchan (ed.), John Buchan: By his Wife and Friends (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1947)

William Buchan, John Buchan: A Memoir (London: Buchan & Enright, 1982)

David Daniell, The Interpreter's House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan (London: Nelson, 1975)

Martin Green, A Biography of John Buchan and his Sister Anna: The Personal Background of their Literary Work (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1990)

Juanita Kruse, John Buchan (1875-1940) and the Idea of Empire: Popular Literature and Political Ideology (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1989)

Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (London: Constable, 1995)

Hugh MacDiarmid, The Company I've Kept (London: Hutchinson, 1966)

Kate Macdonald, John Buchan: A Companion to the Mystery Fiction (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2009)

Kate Macdonald, 'The diversification of Thomas Nelson & Sons: John Buchan and the Nelson Archive, 1909-1911', Publishing History, 65 (2009), 71-96.

Kate Macdonald and Nathan Waddell (eds), John Buchan and the Idea of Modernity (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013)

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