John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir

Infobox Governor General
honorific-prefix = The Right Honourable
name = John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir
honorific-suffix = GCMG GCVO CH PC LLD (Harv, "hc") LLD (Yale, "hc") DD (UoT, "hc") BA ("Oxon")

order = 15th
office = Governor General of Canada
term_start = November 2, 1935
term_end = February 11, 1940
monarch = George V, Edward VIII, George VI
primeminister = R. B. Bennett, William Lyon Mackenzie King
predecessor = Verve Ponsonby, Earl of Bessborough
successor = Alexander Cambridge, Earl of Athlone
birth_date = birth date|1875|8|26|mf=y
birth_place = Perth, Scotland
death_date = death date and age|1940|02|11|1875|08|26
death_place = Montreal, Quebec
spouse = Susan Buchan
profession = Author
religion = Presbyterian|

John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir GCMG GCVO CH PC (August 26, 1875 – February 11, 1940), was a Scottish novelist, best known for his novel "The Thirty-nine Steps", and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada. He is also noted for his horror fiction, including the novel "Witch Wood", and the stories "Skule Skerry", "The Wind in the Portico" and "The Green Wildebeest".

Early life

Buchan was the eldest child in a family of four sons and a daughter (the novelist Anna Buchan) born to a Free Church of Scotland minister, also named John Buchan (1847–1911), and his wife Helen Jane (1857–1937), daughter of John Masterton, a farmer, of Broughton Green, near Peebles. Although born in Perth, he grew up in Fife and spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in Broughton in the Borders, developing a love of walking and the Borders scenery and wildlife that is often featured in his novels. One example is Sir Edward Leithen, the hero of a number of Buchan's books, whose name is borrowed from the Leithen Water, a tributary of the River Tweed. Broughton village is also home to the [| John Buchan Centre] and makes up one end of the [| John Buchan Way] .

After attending Hutchesons' Grammar School, Buchan won a scholarship to the University of Glasgow where he studied Classics and wrote poetry and first became a published author. He then studied Literae Humaniores 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 (1882-1977), 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 this time Buchan supported Free Trade, woman's suffrage, national insurance and curtailing the power of the House of Lords. [J. P. Parry, 'From the Thirty-Nine Articles to the Thirty-Nine Steps: reflections on the thought of John Buchan' in Michael Bentley (ed.), "Public and Private Doctrine: Essays in British History presented to Maurice Cowling" (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 226.] However he opposed the Liberal reforms of 1905-1915 and what he considered the "class hatred" fostered by demagogic Liberals like David Lloyd George. [Ibid, p. 227.]

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. 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, and Oliver Cromwell, and was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his biography of 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 by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935 as "The 39 Steps", starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, but the story was much altered. Later films included a 1959 version (also called "The 39 Steps") starring Kenneth More, which took even greater liberties with the story; and a 1978 version ("The Thirty Nine Steps"), starring Robert Powell, which was the closest to the original novel.

In the mid-1920s Buchan was living in Elsfield near Oxford - Robert Graves, who was living in nearby Islip, mentions Colonel Buchan recommending him for a lecturing position at the newly founded Cairo University in Egypt. 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). During the early months of the Second World War Buchan read John Morley's "Life of Gladstone", which had a profound impact on him. He believed Gladstone had taught people to combat materialism, complacency and authoritarianism; he wrote to H. A. L. Fisher, Stair Gillon and Gilbert Murray that he was "becoming a Gladstonian Liberal". [Ibid, p. 234.] The insightful quotation "It's a great life, if you don't weaken" is also famously attributed to him. Another memorable quote is "No great cause is ever lost or won, The battle must always be renewed, And the creed must always be restated."

Buchan's branch of the Free Church of Scotland joined the Church of Scotland in 1929. He was an active elder of St Columba's Church, London and of the Oxford Presbyterian parish. In 1933–4 he was lord high commissioner to the church's general assembly.

Life in Canada

In 1935 he became Governor General of Canada and was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford. 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. In less than a year the new king, King Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson – creating a crisis for the monarchy. However, when the new king, George VI and his consort 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 – the famous Dr. Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, operated twice – but the injury proved fatal. On February 11, 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 cruiser HMS "Orion" for final burial at Elsfield, where he had bought the Manor in 1920.

His first son John ("Johnny") succeeded him as 2nd Baron Tweedsmuir. On the 2nd Baron's death without issue in 1996, John Buchan's second son William (1916-2008) became 3rd Baron Tweedsmuir. William was a minor writer, but his works included a biography of his father, "John Buchan: A Memoir". [ [ Obituary of the 3rd Baron Tweesmuir] ]



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 by Canadian-born British spymaster William Stephenson as having some involvement during the years leading to the Second World War.

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 his work. Buchan's autobiography "Memory Hold-the-Door" (published in the United States as "Pilgrim's Way") 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.

John Buchan is commemorated in Makars' Court, outside The Writers' Museum in Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, after selection by the Museum itself, the Saltire Society and the Scottish Poetry Library.


In honour of Lord Tweedsmuir, the University of British Columbia has a residence hall named after him in the Place Vanier Residence.

Bibliography of principal works


*"John Burnet of Barns" (1898).
*"Grey Weather" (stories and poems) (1899).
*"A Lost Lady of Old Years" (1899).
*"The Half-Hearted" (1900).
*"The Watcher by the Threshold" (stories) (1902).
*"A Lodge in the Wilderness" (1906).
*"Prester John" (1910).
*"The Moon Endureth" (stories and poems) (1912).
*"Salute to Adventurers" (1915).
*"The Thirty-Nine Steps" (1915).
*"The Power House" (1916).
*"Greenmantle" (Nelson, 1916).
*"Mr Standfast" (1919).
*"The Path of the King" (1921).
*"Huntingtower" (1922).
*"Midwinter" (1923).
*"The Three Hostages" (1924).
*"John Macnab" (Hodder & Stoughton, 1925).
*"The Dancing Floor" (1926).
*"Witch Wood" (1927).
*"The Runagates Club" (stories 1913-28) (1928).
*"The Courts of the Morning" (1929).
*"Castle Gay" (1930).
*"The Blanket of the Dark" (1931).
*"The Gap in the Curtain" (1932).
*"The Magic Walking Stick" (for children) (1932).
*"A Prince of the Captivity" (1933).
*"The Free Fishers" (Hodder & Stoughton, 1934).
*"The House of the Four Winds" (1935).
*"The Island of Sheep" (Hodder & Stoughton, 1936).
*"Sick Heart River" (also published as "Mountain Meadow") (1941).
*"The Long Traverse" (also published as "Lake of Gold") (1941).
*"The Far Islands and Other Tales of Fantasy" (stories, 1984)


*"Scholar-Gipsies" (essays) (1896).
*"The African Colony" (1903).
*"The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income" (1905).
*"Some Eighteenth Century Byways" (essays and articles) (1908).
*"Sir Walter Raleigh" (1911).
*"What the Home Rule Bill Means" (1912).
*"The Marquis of Montrose" (1913).
*"Andrew Jameson, Lord Ardwall" (1913).
*"Britain's War by Land" (1915).
*"The Achievement of France" (1915).
*"Ordeal by Marriage" (1915).
*"The Future of the War" (1916).
*"The Battle of the Somme, First Phase" (1916).
*"The Purpose of War" (1916).
*"The Battle of Jutland" (1916).
*"Poems, Scots and English" (1917).
*"The Battle of the Somme, Second Phase" (1917).
*"These for Remembrance" (1919).
*"The Battle Honours of Scotland 1914-1918" (1919).
*"The History of the South African Forces in France" (1920).
*"Francis and Riversdale Grenfell" (1920).
*"The Long Road to Victory" (1920).
*"A History of the Great War" (1921-22).
*"A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys" (1922).
*"The Last Secrets" (essays and articles) (1923).
*"A History of English Literature" (1923).
*"Days to Remember" (1923).
*"Some Notes on Sir Walter Scott" (1924).
*"The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers 1678-1918" (1925).
*"The Man and the Book: Sir Walter Scott" (1925).
*"Two Ordeals of Democracy" (1925).
*"Homilies and Recreations" (essays and addresses) (1926).
*"The Kirk in Scotland" (with George Adam Smith) (1930).
*"Montrose and Leadership" (1930).
*"Lord Rosebery, 1847-1929" (1930).
*"The Novel and the Fairy Tale" (1931).
*"Julius Caesar" (1932).
*"Andrew Lang and the Borders" (1932).
*"The Massacre of Glencoe" (1933).
*"The Margins of Life" (1933).
*"Gordon at Khartoum" (1934).
*"Oliver Cromwell" (1934).
*"The King's Grace" (1935).
*"Augustus" (1937).
*"The Interpreter's House" (1938).
*"Presbyterianism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (1938).
*"Memory Hold-the-Door" (published as "Pilgrim's Way" in the United States) (1940).
*"Comments and Characters" (1940).
*"Canadian Occasions" (1940).

Honorary degrees

*University of Toronto in 1936 (DD) [] Yale University, Doctor of Laws in 1937Harvard University, Doctor of Laws in 1937


Further reading

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

External links

* [ Buchanalia] "For All Things Buchan"
* [ Biography from Governor General website]
*gutenberg author | id=John_Buchan | name=John Buchan
* [ Works by John Buchan] at [ Project Gutenberg Australia]
* [ The John Buchan Society]
* [ Exhibit on John Buchan] by [ Queen's University Archives]
* [ John Buchan fonds] at [ Queen’s University Archives]
* [ full text downloads in HTML, PDF, text formats] at
* [ The Last Victorian: John Buchan and the Hannay Quartet] California Literary Review
* Free MP3 audio recording of [ The Thirty-Nine Steps] from

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