John Buchan (1875-1940) : bears the distinction of having led one of the fullest and most accomplished lives of any Scottish writer. From his childhood as son of a Free Church minister to his appointment as Governor-General of Canada, his career encompassed publishing, journalism, the legal profession, the Houses of Parliament, the intelligence service, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and more than 100 published books, including over 30 novels.
He was born in Perth, but moved around Scotland according to the requirements of his father’s profession, from the industrial townscapes of Glasgow to the idyllic rural landscapes of Broughton Green. Buchan showed early promise of his considerable intellectual gifts and was awarded a scholarship to read Classics at Oxford where his writing career began. He had published six novels by the time he left.
Leaving Oxford, he became a barrister and later took a position as a government administrator with the High Commissioner for South Africa. His experiences there would inform his later novel Prester John (1910).
When he came back to London, he continued to write his novels and work as a journalist. In 1906 he took a position with publishers Oliver Nelson where he was responsible for their Sixpenny Classics range of titles and the Nelson Sevenpenny Range of copyright novels. He even contributed a few books of his own, including the 24 volume Nelson’s History of the War, the royalties from which he donated to war charities. He would later become director of the company.
It was during this period that Buchan became closely involved with the Scottish literary scene. He was a regular contributor to Blackwood’s in Edinburgh – the magazine later serialised The Thirty-Nine Steps – and he became editor of the recently launched magazine, The Scottish Review. He used his influence to try to bring about a revival in Scottish writing, which had been in the doldrums since the death of Walter Scott. Hugh MacDiarmid was also attempting a Scottish literary revival, but from a different angle, and the two writers, who were from completely different ends of the literary spectrum (one a writer of thrillers, the other a diamond-minded poet), worked together for some time. Buchan would eventually write the preface for MacDiarmid’s first book of poems Sangschaw.
In 1912 Buchan became ill and during his recuperation in hospital wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) which became a huge international best-seller, and later a celebrated Hitchcock movie. It was the first of his novels to feature the heroic Richard Hannay, a character who would appear in four more of Buchan’s novels, including Greenmantle (1916).
When the First World War started Buchan was war correspondent for The Times. Between 1916-17 he served on the Headquarters Staff of the British Army in France as temporary Lieutenant Colonel.
His career did not stop there. From 1917-18 Buchan was Director of Information for the Ministry of Information, and then for a short while after he was Director of Intelligence. In 1919 he was made a Director of Reuters, the international news agency.
In 1927 Buchan stood for Parliament and was elected MP for the Scottish Universities. While in government he held a number of influential posts including his appointment, from 1933-34, as His Majesty’s High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In 1935 he was made the first Baron Tweedsmuir and appointed Governor-General of Canada. He moved there, and died five years later.
Buchan was an astoundingly prolific writer. He wrote poetry, historical romances, criticism, journalism, and a textbook for accountants: The Law according to the Taxation of Foreign Income. He wrote bestselling adventure novels like the Richard Hannay series. Another series of adventure novels, which included The Powerhouse (1913), The Gap in the Curtain (1932) and the posthumous Sick Heart River (1941) featured Sir Edward Leithan, a gentleman lawyer and a decent chap who finds himself in difficult situations. Yet another series of adventure novels had a retired Glasgow grocer as its daring protagonist.
In spite of his broad, polymathic brilliance, his enduring fame and world-wide appeal, Buchan has been increasingly neglected in Scottish literature (find out why), though there are signs that this trend is beginning to be reversed.
Buchan also wrote biographies of such diverse historical figures as Oliver Cromwell (1934) and Sir Walter Scott (1932). Scott served as a kind of role model to Buchan, who saw himself as someone who could have twin careers as a bestselling author and establishment figure. He died in 1940.