Lieutenant Colonel John Buchan

Biography of Lieutenant Colonel John Buchan

One of Scotland's greatest novelists, John Buchan was born at Perth on 26th August 1875, the eldest child of John, a Free Church of Scotland minister and his wife Helen. He had three brothers and a sister, Anna, who also became a novelist, writing under the name O Douglas.

Buchan's early years were spent in Fife, where he attended local Kirkcaldy schools. The family moved to Glasgow in 1888 when his father was called to the John Knox Church in the Gorbals and John was sent to Hutcheson's Boys Grammar School.

He was an able pupil and went up to the University of Glasgow in 1892 as the holder of a John Clarke (Mile-end) bursary, valued at 30 GBP per annum and tenable for four years. The bursaries were open for competition to all Protestant students of good moral character.

Buchan matriculated in the Arts Faculty to read Classics. He stayed for three years but, although he did well, he seldom sat a degree examination. In his first year he took Humanity, Greek and Mathematics, continuing with the classics to senior level the following year and ending his Glasgow academic record in the session 1894-1895 with classes in Greek, Moral Philosophy and Logic. His name appears each year on the prize-list, 2nd place in Latin in first year, 3rd prize in Senior Greek the next year, equal 2nd prize in Philosophy and equal 5th in Logic and Metaphysics in his final year.

All this was a prelude, however, to an Oxford degree and he did not graduate from Glasgow. These were nonetheless important, formative years. He benefited from the erudition of Gilbert Murray in classics and used the freedom of student life to develop as a writer and poet, making occasional contributions to Glasgow University Magazine.

In 1895 Buchan won a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he thrived both inside and outside the classroom. He won the Stanhope prize for History, gained a first class degree in Literae Humaniores and seemed to be heading for an academic life until success eluded him in the All Souls prize fellowship examination. He had such a breadth of interests, however, and there were so many doors open to him, that he was spoiled for choice. He had been President of the Oxford Union, made a wide circle of friends in public and political circles and established himself as a serious writer, publishing his first novel, Sir Quixote of the Moors before he left Oxford.

He chose the Law, however, and was called to the bar in 1901. Always able to ride more than one horse at a time, he continued to write and to advance in public service, spending almost two years in South Africa as an assistant to Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner, in the wake of the Boer War. Buchan became deeply interested in the romance and adventure of Empire.

By the time the First World War broke out, he was a married man. He wed Susan Charlotte Grosvenor in 1907 and two of their four children, Alice (1908) and John (1911) were born. A t that time his career continued to be pulled in two directions, the political and the literary. He worked for Nelsons, the Edinburgh publishers, and had broken into the popular market with his own novels, notably Prester John(1910) and The Thirty-Nine Steps, serialised in Blackwood's in 1914.

At the same time he was building up a political base from which he hoped to launch a campaign to win a parliamentary seat as a Unionist in Peebleshire and Selkirk in his beloved Borders, where he had family connections and happy memories of childhood holidays. His health was not good, however, and although he made a great contribution to the war effort, it was not, to his regret, as a regular soldier. He was pronounced medically unfit for combat service. John Buchan's medical card and many other documents can be seen at the National Archives.

John Buchan grasped the importance of propaganda to the war effort. He worked as war correspondent for the Times and the Daily News, sending back optimistic reports from the Front. In 1916 he worked for Haig at General HQ, drafting communiqués for the War and Foreign offices and became 2nd Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. Later he was promoted to temporary Lieutenant-Colonel. He worked tirelessly to place selective information in the public domain, writing books on individual battles and the lengthy History of the War in 24 volumes, published by Nelsons in serial form while the war was still ongoing, and designed to raise the British people's confidence that they were winning.

He became Director of Information (1917-1918) and for a brief time Director of Intelligence. These were stressful times for him and he was caught up in some bitter in-fighting. It was small wonder that his health suffered. While busy in public office he continued to write novels and poetry. Greenmantle and The Thirty-Nine Steps belong to this time. Though more famous as a novelist than a poet, the war inspired him to write Poems, Scots and English in 1917, a volume that included verse in Scots vernacular. No less a talent than Hugh MacDiarmid admired his work.

After the Great War Buchan continued to move on a public stage. He was elected Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities (1927-1935), and appointed Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1933-1934). Created the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in 1935, he became Governor of Canada, a position he held until his death in 1940. It is for his writing, however, that he is best remembered. To say that he was 'prolific' hardly captures his superhuman output.

In addition to histories, essays and memoirs he penned a novel a year and wrote a wide range of biographies, including those on Montrose and Sir Walter Scott. Not all of his work will be of lasting literary value but much of it will, and some will be re-discovered in time. In Richard Hannay he created a character who will continue to fire imaginations and say something important about his times, while in Witch Wood he contributed something of enduring quality to the canon of Scottish literature. The John Buchan Society website intends to be a platform for the John Buchan Society to promote its work. The Society is dedicated to providing a resource for those who want to know more about John Buchan, to provide information to scholars and to those who have recently discovered his works alike.

John Buchan defies categorisation. He was lawyer, propagandist, scholar, politician, historian, publisher, novelist, poet, biographer, church elder and country squire. Student at the University of Glasgow was another small but significant identity in the early 1890's. He returned to his alma mater in 1919 to receive a degree at last. An honorary LLD was conferred on him in recognition of his contribution to the war. Buchan died on 12th February, 1940. He was survived by his wife, Susan and their four children. His brother, Alastair Ebenezer Buchan, an Arts student at the University of Glasgow, and also on the Roll of Honour, was killed in action in April 1917.

 

Summary

Lieutenant Colonel John Buchan
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Regiment: Director Of Information
Degree: Alumnus
Awards: N/A
Comments: N/A
Note/Press Clipping: N/A
Photo ID: Courtesy of the Rt Hon. The Lord Tweedsmuir. All rights reserved.

Sources

University of Glasgow Registry and Faculty Records

H C G Matthew, Buchan, John, first Baron Tweedsmuir (1875-1940), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press online, May 2006 edition

Photographs courtesy of the Right Honourable The Lord Tweedsmuir. All rights reserved

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