John Buchan, known to many as a writer, to others as Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada 1935-1940, and of whom we have learned much in previous Ponderings, was born on August 26, 1875, in Perth, Scotland, the first of five children of the namesake John Buchan, Minister Church of Scotland I, Helen Jane (Masterton) Buchan. As a young man, he spent summer vacation with his mother’s parents in Broughton in the Scottish Borders. “There, he grew a love for walks, local scenery, and wildlife, both of which appear frequently in his novels.”
Diplomacy and government emerged after graduating from several high-ranking schools, most recently Oxford, and he received many awards along the way, including writings and poetry, some of which were published during his student years.
Although John was educated in law and “called to the bar in 1901,” he did not pursue a career in law for long – instead opting for politics, diplomacy, and writing. Although, in 1901, while living in London, he trained with several law firms. Prior to 1903 he served as private secretary to Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa, and director of concentration camps in the Second Anglo-Boer War. John “traveled across the country, assisting in refugee camps, and running the colonies advising on legal matters.” As one source says: John had the task of “clearing the chaos left by the military administration in [Lord] Kitchener [ Milner’s Chief of Staff]”.
As was his custom, he often referred his experiences to memories, which often see the light in his writing. His experiences in South Africa were no exception – in fact, they were prominent in them as evidenced in 1903, when he wrote The African Colony.
On his return to London from his duties in South Africa, he became a partner in the Thomas Nelson and Son publishing company with publisher Thomas (Tommie) Arthur Nelson. Become editor in chief of The Spectator.
He married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor on July 15, 1907, although extensive research did not reveal where and when John and Susan met. However, the following writing is found by Susan about their engagement: “John thought I was arrogant, while I thought he was cocky and hard to talk to.” Apparently, the impression they had of each other did not deter them from entering into a sacred marriage. The couple lived in Hyde Park Square, the desired area to live in.
Alice, Buchan’s first child, was born on June 5, 1908. The Literature Network notes: “There is a picture of Buchan with her at about a year old noted as one of the rare pictures of him smiling.” Their first son, John Norman Stewart, was born on November 25 1911. Coincidentally, “This was the first year that Buchan had painful duodenal problems.” That was the year he first entered politics as a conservative candidate for Peebles and Selkirk counties; He wrote a number of biographies, including that of Sir Walter Scott.
Also in 1911, his father, John, passed away, “after years of devotion to the sick and poor in Glasgow’s residential Gorballes. He was something of a messenger, and if it was virtuous to spread the blessing of healing to lighten the burden of all who stood in your way, he was the best man I have ever known launch”.
1912 came with the death of John’s brother Willie. Also, a number of friends died in the Great War. A brother, Alistair, chief of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, was killed in one of the battles in 1917. “They were now part of that immortal England, which knows neither age nor weariness of defeat.” When war broke out in 1914, Buchan was unable to enlist due to severe illness, and was bedridden. In 1915, he became a war correspondent for The Times. This was the year he wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, the adventure novel many of us were tasked with reading in high school. It first appeared as a series in Backwoods magazine before being published as a book. It is the first of five novels with Richard Hannay as the “all-action” hero. Movies and plays followed. One notable film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in 1935, starring Robert Donat, which some have said “broadly deviates from the book.” Although, according to one source, “many critics consider it the best movie version.”
The Buchan family increased two sons, one William D. Laigle Buchan, January 10, 1916, and Alastair Francis Buchan, September 9, 1918, to complete the number of Buchan’s children at four.
John spent time as an intelligence corps officer in France until he returned home in 1917 to undergo surgery and a two-year convalescence. He says his experience in World War II was upsetting. “The war left me with an intense passion for rural life… calm after upheaval.”
He found this living in Ellsfield, a country manor, near Oxford, bought in 1919, with a chance to walk in the country – one of his favorite pastimes. He would “put on his infamous hat and tweeds and head out into the hills and valleys”. It rejuvenated and gave him the energy to continue writing and publishing. He used his travels in the country to gather ideas and verbal images for his books. “Our ridge was an ancient forest land and it provided one of two landscapes that have always had a special charm to me… mountain meadows and clearing woods… Elsfeld was rich in those secret facades, sometimes no more than an acre wide, but all Old spaces that have been mowed grass for centuries. Summer never faded their greens, for there was water in most of them, and in autumn their tips were a riot of berries. One can find the flower there every month of the year.”
In Blanket of Darkness, “set in the days of Henry VIII and the disintegration of the monasteries,” he wrote: “The place was quiet. It smelled of all the forest areas in summer – moss, lush foliage, damp earth, whose scents drew from the strong sun. There was also the faint sweetness of straw harvested from the distant fields of Woodeaton, and something aromatic and dry, the taste of stone, tiles, and old mortar. “
In another book – The Three Hostages, he wrote: “It was still mid-March, a spring day when noon is like May, and only a cold pearl mist at sunset warns the man that he is not done with winter. The season was surprisingly early, Because the blackthorn was in flower and the hedge roots were full of spring flowers. The partridges were paired up, the crows were doing well with their nests and the meadows were filled with flocks of gray, sparkling fields on their way north… It was fun to see the world come alive again, and remember this spot of England was my country, and all these wild things, so to speak, members of my little family.”
As wonderful as his experience was, “After about six years in my ivory tower, I got anxious,” he says. Susan was unimpressed by his reference to the ivory tower. She is said to have replied, somewhat foolishly, “I have always understood that the ivory tower was the abode of perfect peace and solitude from the world, but I can never remember so much solitude in those days. People were constantly coming and going.”
With constant comings and goings, Susan has had to be a hostess for the always present visitors. Regardless, John described his life in Elsfeld in a chapter titled The Ivory Tower and Its Prospects.
His concern led him, in 1933, to become His Majesty’s High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a position which held until 1934. Earlier, in 1927, he was elected Member of Parliament.
As we know, in 1935, he approved the appointment of George V as Canadian Governor-General. In preparation for the role, George V also reinforced him with Baron Tweedsmuer of Elsfeld. Prior to the appointment, then Canadian Prime Minister R. P. Bennett, leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition, consulted William Lyon Mackenzie King, who recommended to the King that Bhuchan be allowed to serve as Viceroy as commoner, but George V insisted that he be represented by peers.”
We will continue with John and Susan Buchan’s following reflections.
sources: Peace River Remembers, Jack Coulter and Frank Richardson; Turn the pages of time – the history of Namba and its surroundings; Peace River Museum and Archive Files and McKenzie Center; Peace River Record-Gazette; Peace River Standard Coots, Codgers, and Curmudgeons – Hal C. Sisson and Dwayne W. Rowe; Edmonton Magazine; Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Canadian history; Northern Gazette Record Peace River Review Northern Canadian Encyclopedia
Beth Wilkins is a researcher at the Peace River Museum and Archives and the McKenzie Center.