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The Forth Rail Bridge from Queensferry: the Bridge Featured in Films of the Book "The Thirty-Nine Steps"
The Forth Rail Bridge from Queensferry: the Bridge
Featured in Films of the Book "The Thirty-Nine Steps"

John Buchan lived from 26 August 1875 to 11 February 1940. A lawyer and politician who became Governor General of Canada, he is probably most widely remembered as a prolific author of a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books, and most notably for bringing Richard Hannay to life in The Thirty-Nine Steps and the books that followed it in the series. His full and formal title at the end of his life was The Right Honourable John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, GCMG, GCVO, CH, PC. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

John Buchan Centre, Tweeddale
John Buchan Centre, Tweeddale
John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir
John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir
Note About Image Copyright

Buchan was born in Perth, the son of a Free Church minister. The family moved first to Fife and then to Glasgow, where he studied at Hutcheson's Grammar School. He went on to Glasgow University, and then to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he won a prize for poetry in 1898 en route to a First Class degree in 1899, a year in which he was also President of the Oxford Union.

He was already a prolific writer and by the time of his graduation from Oxford, had already published three novels and a collection of essays. After graduating Buchan studied law for his bar exams while continuing to write books and work as a journalist.

In 1901 he moved to South Africa as the private secretary to Lord Milner, the High Commissioner to South Africa, and spent two years there as the country recovered from the Boer War. In 1903 he returned to the UK, working as a barrister and continuing to write prolifically. In 1906 he was appointed a Director of the publishers, Thomas Nelson & Sons, and on 15 July the following year he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor, a cousin of the Duke of Westminster.

Buchan's most famous work (not least because it has been filmed three times and may be filmed again) is The Thirty-Nine Steps, which appeared in 1915. In that same year he was appointed as a war correspondent for The Times newspaper before becoming the Government's Director of Information under Lord Beaverbrook in 1917. He was also involved in the work of British Intelligence during WWI and quite possibly in the years that followed.

After the war Buchan became a Director of Reuters. He also began to write historical works, becoming president of the Scottish Historical Society. In 1927 Buchan was elected as the Member of Parliament representing Scottish Universities, and in 1933 he was appointed Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He relinquished both roles when, in 1935, he was made 1st Baron Tweedsmuir and appointed Governor General of Canada.

Although continuing his remarkable literary output throughout, Buchan proved a highly effective Governor General of Canada. He still held the post when he died on 11 February 1940, a week after a stroke. His passing was marked by the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, on Canadian national 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."

During his lifetime, Buchan received honourary degrees from the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Oxford, McGill, Toronto and Montreal. He was also voted in as Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh in 1937. In all he published more than 30 novels, half a dozen collections of short stories, and 100 other works including histories and biographies. Just occasionally you come across someone whose life story maintains a pace and a degree of output that leaves you wondering if they had more hours in their days than normal mortals: John Buchan was certainly one of them. His memory is kept alive today at the John Buchan Story, in Peebles.

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