Scottish novelist, historian and Unionist politician John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir GCMG GCVO CH PC was born 26 August 1875. Buchan was brought up in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and spent many summer holidays in Broughton, in the Scottish Borders. There he developed a love of walking, as well as for the local scenery and wildlife, which often featured in his novels; the name of a protagonist in several of Buchan’s books—Sir Edward Leithen—is borrowed from the Leithen Water, a tributary of the River Tweed. After attending Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Buchan was awarded a scholarship to the University of Glasgow at age 17, where he studied classics, wrote poetry, and became a published author. With a junior Hulme scholarship, he moved on in 1895 to study Literae Humaniores (the Oxonian term for the Classics) at Brasenose College, Oxford, alongside Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith, and Aubrey Herbert. Buchan won both the Stanhope essay prize, in 1897, and the Newdigate Prize for poetry the following year, as well as being elected as the president of the Oxford Union and having six of his works published. It was at around the time of his graduation from Oxford that Buchan had his first portrait painted, done in 1900 by a young Sholto Johnstone Douglas.
Buchan worked in diplomacy and government after graduating from Oxford, becoming in 1901 the private secretary to Alfred Milner, who was then the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, and colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, He also gained an acquaintance with a country that would feature prominently in his writing, which he resumed upon his return to London, at the same time entering into a partnership in the Thomas Nelson & Son publishing company and becoming editor of The Spectator. Buchan also read for and was called to the bar though he did not practise as a lawyer,and on 15 July 1907 married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor—daughter of Norman Grosvenor and a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. Together, Buchan and his wife had four children, Alice, John, William, and Alastair.
In 1910, Buchan wrote Prester John, the first of his adventure novels set in South Africa, and the following year he suffered from duodenal ulcers, a condition that later afflicted one of his fictional characters. At the same time, Buchan became a Unionist candidate in March 1911 for the Borders seat of Peebles and Selkirk; he supported free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and curtailing the powers of the House of Lords, though he did also oppose the welfare reforms of the Liberal Party, and what he considered to be the “class hatred” fostered by demagogic Liberals such as David Lloyd George.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Buchan went to write for the British War Propaganda Bureau and worked as a correspondent in France for The Times. He continued to write fiction, and in 1915 published his most famous work, The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy-thriller set just prior to World War I. The novel featured Buchan’s oft used hero, Richard Hannay, whose character was based on Edmund Ironside, a friend of Buchan from his days in South Africa. A sequel, Greenmantle, came the following year. Buchan then enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, where he wrote speeches and communiqués for Sir Douglas Haig. Recognised for his abilities, Buchan was appointed as the Director of Information in 1917, under Lord Beaverbrook and also assisted Charles Masterman in publishing a monthly magazine that detailed the history of the war, the first edition appearing in February 1915 (and later published in 24 volumes as Nelson’s History of the War). It was difficult, given his close connections to many of Britain’s military leaders, for Buchan to be critical of the British Army’s conduct during the conflict.
After war ended Buchan wrote about historical subjects, along with his usual thrillers and novels. By the mid-1920s, he was living in Elsfield and had become president of the Scottish Historical Society and a trustee of the National Library of Scotland,and he also maintained ties with various universities. Robert Graves, who lived in nearby Islip, mentioned his being recommended by Buchan for a lecturing position at the newly founded Cairo University and, in a 1927 by-election, Buchan was elected as the Unionist Party Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities. Politically, he was of the Unionist-Nationalist tradition, believing in Scotland’s promotion as a nation within the British Empire. Buchan remarked in a speech to parliament: “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 the Great Depression in Scotland, and the subsequent high emigration from that country, also led Buchan to reflect in the same speech: “We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us,” he found himself profoundly affected by John Morley’s Life of Gladstone, which Buchan read in the early months of the Second World War. He believed that Gladstone had taught people to combat materialism, complacency, and authoritarianism; Buchan later wrote to Herbert Fisher, Stair Gillon, and Gilbert Murray that he was “becoming a Gladstonian Liberal.
After the United Free Church of Scotland joined in 1929 with the Church of Scotland, Buchan remained an active elder of St. Columba’s Church in London, as well as of the Oxford Presbyterian parish. In 1933 and 1934 Buchan was further appointed as the King George V’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Beginning in 1930 Buchan aligned himself with Zionism and the related Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group. Buchan also denounced Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. In recognition of his contributions to literature and education, on 1 January 1932,Buchan was granted the personal gift of the sovereign of induction into the Order of the Companions of Honour.
In 1935 Buchan’s literary work was adapted to the cinematic theatre with the completion of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, though with Buchan’s story much altered. This came in the same year that Buchan was honoured with appointment to the Order of St. Michael and St. George on 23 May, as well as being elevated to the peerage, when he was entitled by King George V as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford on 1 June in preparation for Buchan’s appointment as Canada’s governor general; when consulted by Canadian prime minister R. B. Bennett about the appointment, the Leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, William Lyon Mackenzie King, had recommended that the King allow Buchan to serve as viceroy as a commoner, but George V insisted that he be represented by a peer.
Canadian parliament Acting Prime Minister Sir George Perley made the announcement in the place of ailing Prime Minister R.B. Bennett who recommended Buchan’s name to King George V who approved the appointment, made by commission under the royal sign-manual and signet. Buchan then departed for Canada and was sworn in as the country’s governor general in a ceremony on 2 November 1935 in Quebec. Buchan was the first viceroy of Canada appointed since the enactment of the Statute of Westminster on 11 December 1931
He brought to the post a longstanding knowledge of Canada. He had written many appreciative words about the country as a journalist on The Spectator and had followed the actions of the Canadian forces in World War I when writing his Nelson History of the War. His knowledge and interest in increasing public awareness and accessibility to Canada’s past resulted in Buchan being made the Champlain Society’s second honorary president between 1938 and 1939.Buchan continued writing during his time as governor general, but he also took his position as viceroy seriously and travelled the length and breadth of Canada, as one way to promote Canadian unity. Buchan also encouraged a distinct Canadian identity and national unity.
In 1938 George V died, and his eldest son, the popular Prince Edward, succeeded to the throne as Edward VIII, while Rideau Hall—the royal and viceroyal residence in Ottawa—was decked in black crepe and all formal entertaining was cancelled during the official period of mourning. As the year unfolded, it became evident that the new king planned to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, which caused much discontent throughout the Dominions. Buchan conveyed to Buckingham Palace and British prime minister Stanley Baldwin Canadians’ deep affection for the King, but also the outrage to Canadian religious feelings, both Catholic and Protestant, that would occur if Edward married Simpson. By 11 December, King Edward had abdicated in favour of his younger brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York, who was thereafter known as George VI. In order for the line of succession for Canada to remain parallel to those of the other Dominions, Buchan, as Governor-in-Council, gave the government’s consent to the British legislation formalising the abdication, and ratified this with finality when he granted Royal Assent to the Canadian Succession to the Throne Act in 1937 . Upon receiving news from Mackenzie King of Edward’s decision to abdicate, Tweedsmuir commented that, in his year in Canada as governor general, he had represented three kings.
In May and June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the country from coast to coast and paid a state visit to the United States. The royal tour had been conceived by Buchan before the coronation in 1937; according to the official event historian, Gustave Lanctot, the idea “probably grew out of the knowledge that at his coming Coronation, George VI was to assume the additional title of King of Canada,” and Buchan desired to demonstrate with living example—through Canadians seeing “their King performing royal functions, supported by his Canadian ministers”—the fact of Canada’s status as an independent kingdom. Buchan put great effort into securing a positive response to the invitation sent to King George in May 1937; after more than a year without a reply, in June 1938 Buchan headed to the United Kingdom for a personal holiday, but also to procure a decision on the possible royal tour. From his home near Oxford.
After recovering at Ruthin Castle, Buchan, sailed back to Canada with a secured commitment that the royal couple would tour the country. Buchan retired to Rideau Hall for the duration of the royal tour. The presence of the royal couple in Canada and the United States, was calculated to gain sympathy for Britain in anticipation of hostilities with Nazi Germany. Buchan’s experiences during the First World War made him averse to conflict, he tried to help prevent another war in coordination with United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mackenzie King. Still, Buchan authorised Canada’s declaration of war against Germany in September, with the consent of King George; and, issued orders of deployment for Canadian soldiers, airmen, and seamen as the titular commander-in-chief of the Canadian armed forces.
Sadly On 6 February 1940, he suffered a severe head injury when he fell after suffering a stroke at Rideau Hall. Two surgeries by Doctor Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute were insufficient to save him, and he died on 11 February 1940. After lying in state in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill, Buchan was given a state funeral at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa. His ashes were returned to the UK aboard the cruiser HMS Orion for final burial at Elsfield, his estate in Oxfordshire.In his last years, Buchan, amongst other works, wrote an autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, as well as works on the history and his views of Canada. He and Baroness Tweedsmuir together established the first proper library at Rideau Hall, and, Buchan founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which remain Canada’s premier award for literature.