John Buchan

John Buchan books and biography


John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir

15th Governor General of Canada
In office
November 2, 1935 – 11 February 1940
Preceded by The Earl of Bessborough
Succeeded by The Earl of Athlone

Born August 26, 1875
Perth, Scotland
Died February 11, 1940
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Spouse Susan Charlotte Grosvenor
Profession Author
Religion Presbyterian

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC (26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940), was a Scottish novelist and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada.


Early life

Born in Perth and growing up in Fife, he spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in the Borders, developing a love of walking and the Border scenery and its wildlife that is often featured in his novels. He won a scholarship to the University of Glasgow where he studied Classics and wrote poetry and first became a published author. He then studied law 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, Governor of Cape Colony and colonial administrator of Transvaal and 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, 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 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 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 in 1917. 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, Oliver Cromwell and James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, but 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 Thirty-Nine Steps was filmed (much altered) by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935; later versions followed in 1959 and 1978.

Buchan became president of the Scottish Historical Society. He was twice Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and in a 1927 by-election was elected a Scottish Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities. Politically he was of the Unionist-Nationalist Tradition that believed in Scotland's promotion as a nation within the British Empire and once remarked "I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish parliament were desirable...Scotsmen should support it". The effects of depression in Scotland and the subsequent high emigration also led him to say "We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us" (Hansard, November 24, 1932). The insightful quotation "It's a great life, if you don't weaken" is also famously attributed to him.

Life in Canada

In 1935 he became Governor General of Canada and was created Baron Tweedsmuir. 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.

Buchan's writing continued even after he was appointed Governor General. His later books included novels and histories and his views of Canada. He also wrote an autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, while Governor-General. His wife was a writer, producing many books and plays as Susan Buchan. While pursuing his own writing career, he also promoted the development of a distinctly Canadian culture. 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.

Tweedsmuir was recognized by Glasgow, St. Andrews, McGill, Toronto and Montréal Universities, all of which conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, and he was made an Honorary Fellow and an Honorary D.C.L. of Oxford.

When King George V died in 1936, the front of Rideau Hall was covered in black crepe and Lord Tweedsmuir cancelled all entertaining during the period of mourning. The new heir to the throne, King Edward VIII, soon abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson – creating a crisis for the monarchy. However, when the new King, George VI and Queen Elizabeth travelled throughout Canada in 1939; the regal visit – the first visit to Canada by a reigning Sovereign – was extremely popular.

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.

While shaving on February 6, 1940, Tweedsmuir had a stroke and injured his head badly in the fall. He received the best possible care – Canada's famous Dr. Wilder Penfield operated twice – but the injury proved fatal. On February 11, just 10 months before his term of office was to expire, 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."

This was the first time a Governor General had died during his term of office since Confederation. 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 warship H.M.S. Orion for final burial at Elsfield, where he had bought the Manor in 1920.


Lord Tweedsmuir.
Lord Tweedsmuir.

In recent years in common with many of his contemporaries, Buchan's reputation has been tarnished by the lack of political correctness perceived, with hindsight, in his novels. However, in many other ways, his work stands the test of time, and he is currently undergoing a resurgence in popularity.

Buchan had a reputation for discretion. He was involved with the Intelligence Corps as a propagandist during World War I and may have had an involvement with British intelligence later; he is cited as having some involvement during the years leading to the Second World War by Canadian-born British spymaster William Stephenson but the books about him are not always reliable.

In the 1930s Buchan gave financial and moral support to the poor, young academic Roberto Weiss, as Buchan was fascinated by the classical antiquity period Weiss studied, and wished to support this.

His autobiography "Memory Hold the Door" (Published as Pilgrims Way in the USA) was said to be John F. Kennedy's favourite book although a list given to Life magazine in 1961 quoted "Montrose" at the head of the list.

Bibliography of principal works

  • 1896 Scholar-Gipsies (essays)
  • 1899 Grey Weather (stories and poems)
  • 1899 A Lost Lady of Old Years
  • 1900 The Half-Hearted
  • 1902 The Watcher by the Threshold (stories)
  • 1903 The African Colony
  • 1905 The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income
  • 1906 A Lodge in the Wilderness
  • 1908 Some Eighteenth Century Byways (essays and articles)
  • 1910 Prester John
  • 1911 Sir Walter Raleigh
  • 1912 The Moon Endureth (stories and poems)
  • 1912 What the Home Rule Bill Means
  • 1913 The Marquis of Montrose
  • 1913 Andrew Jameson, Lord Ardwall
  • 1915 Salute to Adventurers
  • 1915 The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • 1915 Britain's War by Land
  • 1915 The Achievement of France
  • 1915 Ordeal by Marriage
  • 1916 The Future of the War
  • 1916 The Power House
  • 1916 The Battle of Jutland
  • 1916 Greenmantle
  • 1916 The Battle of the Somme, First Phase
  • 1916 The Purpose of War
  • 1917 Poems, Scots and English
  • 1917 The Battle of the Somme, Second Phase
  • 1919 Mr Standfast
  • 1919 These for Remembrance
  • 1919 The Battle Honours of Scotland 1914-1918
  • 1920 The History of the South African Forces in France
  • 1920 Francis and Riversdale Grenfell
  • 1920 The Long Road to Victory
  • 1921 The Path of the King
  • 1921-2 A History of the Great War
  • 1922 Huntingtower
  • 1922 A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys
  • 1923 The Last Secrets (essays and articles)
  • 1923 A History of English Literature
  • 1923 Midwinter
  • 1923 Days to Remember
  • 1924 Some Notes on Sir Walter Scott
  • 1924 The Three Hostages
  • 1925 The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers 1678-1918
  • 1925 John Macnab
  • 1925 The Man and the Book
  • 1925 Sir Walter Scott
  • 1925 Two Ordeals of Democracy
  • 1926 The Dancing Floor
  • 1926 Homilies and Recreations (essays and addresses)
  • 1927 Witch Wood
  • 1928 The Runagates Club (stories 1913-28)
  • 1929 The Courts of the Morning
  • 1930 The Kirk in Scotland (with George Adam Smith)
  • 1930 Montrose and Leadership
  • 1930 Castle Gay
  • 1930 Lord Rosebery, 1847-1929
  • 1931 The Blanket of the Dark
  • 1931 The Novel and the Fairy Tale
  • 1932 The Gap in the Curtain
  • 1932 Julius Caesar
  • 1932 The Magic Walking Stick (for children)
  • 1932 Andrew Lang and the Borders
  • 1933 The Massacre of Glencoe
  • 1933 A Prince of the Captivity
  • 1933 The Margins of Life
  • 1934 The Free Fishers
  • 1934 Gordon at Khartoum
  • 1934 Oliver Cromwell
  • 1935 The King's Grace
  • 1935 The House of the Four Winds
  • 1936 The Island of Sheep
  • 1937 Augustus
  • 1938 The Interpreter's House
  • 1938 Presbyterianism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
  • 1940 Memory Hold-the-Door (published as Pilgrim's Way in the United States)
  • 1940 Comments and Characters
  • 1940 Canadian Occasions
  • 1941 Sick Heart River
  • 1941 The Long Traverse

Honorary degrees

  • University of Toronto in 1936 (DD) [1]


Governors General of Canada
Monck | Lisgar | Dufferin | Lorne | Lansdowne | Stanley | Aberdeen | Minto | Grey | Connaught | Devonshire | Byng | Willingdon | Bessborough | Tweedsmuir | Athlone | Alexander | Massey | Vanier | Michener | Léger | Schreyer | Sauvé | Hnatyshyn | LeBlanc | Clarkson | Jean

Further reading

  • Andrew Lownie: John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (David R. Godine Publisher, 2003) ISBN 1-56792-236-8

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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Prester John

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