Buchan, John, first Baron Tweedsmuir 1875-1940, author, and governor-general of Canada, born at Perth 26 August 1875, came of mainly Border lowland stock, being the eldest child in the family of four sons and one surviving daughter (the novelist O. Douglas) of John Buchan, minister of the Free Church of Scotland, by his wife, Helen, daughter of John Masterton, farmer, at Broughton Green, Peebles-shire. Buchan's father, who had been brought up in the atmosphere of the Disruption, served congregations at Kirkcaldy and at John Knox's church, in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, and the impression made by these rather different places can be easily traced in his son's writings. Perhaps an even greater influence on Buchan was wielded by his mother, a woman sentimental yet shrewd, contemplative but alert, able to hold her own in any company, who lived to see her son surrounded by the pomp of Holyrood and the splendour of Ottawa. In 1895, after attendance at Hutcheson's Boys' Grammar School at Glasgow and at lectures at Glasgow University, he was awarded a scholarship at Brasenose College, Oxford, and thenceforth his life was bound up with England, South Africa, and Canada. Nevertheless, Scotland always haunted him like a passion, and he never lost the impress of his home and native land; he remained throughout his life a Christian who said his prayers, read his Bible, and knew the Pilgrim's Progress almost by heart.
At Oxford, Buchan won in 1897 the Stanhope historical essay prize on the subject of Sir Walter Raleigh and in 1898 the Newdigate prize for English verse with the Pilgrim Fathers as its theme. He was president of the Union in 1899 and was awarded a first class in literae humaniores that same year. Having one or two books already to his credit, he was commissioned by his college to write its history for the Robinson series of College Histories. It appeared in 1898 while he was yet an undergraduate, and called forth severe criticism from antiquarian reviewers unaccustomed to so unconventional a style of historical writing. Disappointed of a prize fellowship, Buchan went to London, where he widened the large circle of his friends and was called to the bar by the Middle Temple in 1901, earning his living by journalism, and reading with J. A. Hamilton (later Lord Sumner) [qv.] and (Sir) Sidney Rowlatt. But his legal career was cut short when, after his call to the bar, Lord Milner [qv.] summoned him to South Africa as one of his assistant private secretaries.
Although Buchan spent only two years (1901-1903) in South Africa, the appointment was the most important step in his career. He gained enormously from daily association with Milner and from his modest tasks in the resettlement of the country, where his warm human desire to make friends with the Boers and bury the hatchet gave him horizon and a sense of size, and his imperialism, cleansed of vulgar jingoism, became elevated above the patronizing trust conception into an association of free peoples in loyalty to a common throne. So Pieter Pienaar, resourceful and true, becomes one of the heroes of his adventure novels. Indeed he was eager for a career in Egypt under Lord Cromer [qv.] when his work in South Africa was over. For the second time and again for the good he was disappointed. Yet it may be affirmed with confidence that, without apprenticeship in Africa, there would have been no governor-generalship of Canada, for Buchan had there learned to think as statesmen think.
In 1903 Buchan returned to the bar in London, devilling for Rowlatt and noting for Sir R. B. (later Viscount) Finlay [qv.] who, while assessing his mind as not exact enough for supremacy at the bar, admired his abilities and character. He wrote opinions, one, for instance, on the legality of Chinese labour (after the liberal victory of 1906) in which his seniors were Arthur Cohen, Finlay, and Rufus Isaacs (later Marquess of Reading) [qqv.]. But this episode was a backwater. In 1907 T. A. Nelson the publisher, a friend from Oxford days, invited him to join the firm as literary adviser and as a limited partner. He was to reside in London and superintend the issue of, inter alia, the sevenpenny edition of The Best Literature. He accepted and was in his element. He could never have mortified the flesh as he describes Milner doing, nor could he have given himself body and soul to the bar. His admirable, but ephemeral, Law relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income (1905), written at the instance of R. B. (later Viscount) Haldane [qv.], remains as his testament to the Middle Temple, which elected him a bencher in 1935. He was also engaged to be married to one of that world which had fascinated him since his Oxford days by its ease and grace. With her he enjoyed unclouded happiness for thirty-three years. Being free from drudgery he could, as a man of letters, give scope to the dominating activity of his life. Hitherto his books, some written before he ever came to Oxford (Sir Quixote of the Moors, 1895, Scholar Gipsies, 1896, Grey Weather, 1899, The Half-Hearted, 1900, and The Watcher by the Threshold, 1902), had contained the freshness of youth and were charming harbingers of even better to come. These had been followed by the African books, The African Colony (1903) and A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906), more interesting perhaps as autobiography than as literature, while Prester John (1910) begins the long series of his books of adventure. Except for the Stanhope essay, Sir Walter Raleigh in dramatic form (1911) is the first sign of his turn towards history, and then, after two more adventure stories, came The Marquis of Montrose (1913), now out of print and not included in his collected works. This was Buchan's first serious attempt at writing history and a good deal of it was history, and very good history, the most impressive feature being the power which he exhibited of describing marches and battles and their wild natural settings. But zeal for his idolized discovery (although the tragedy of the great Marquess had pointed many a moral and adorned many a tale) led him to commit so many elementary blunders, all of which invariably told in favour of Montrose and against Argyle and the Estates, tinged with a certain acerbity and an air of omniscience, that he was severely taken to task by D. H. Fleming [qv.] in a review printed in The British Weekly of 12 February 1914. No reply was or could be made. Montrose (1928) is the sequel: the blemishes complained of are gone, but whether we have the final Marquess in his faults and failings, in his virtues and valour (Hay Fleming) is open to question among those for whom historic truth is all in all, and brilliant writing no more than decoration.
The outbreak of war in 1914 found Buchan, on the eve of his thirty-ninth birthday, seriously ill for the first time since his childhood, when at the age of five he had fallen out of a carriage and a wheel passing over the side of his skull had left its mark for life. He had then lain for a year in bed and had to learn once more how to walk. He grew to be about 5 feet 8 inches in height, lean, sinewy, well knit, and active as a chamois. A daring and expert cragsman, he had sampled many rock climbs in Skye and Austria, and he had literally climbed into the Alpine Club. He was a keen fisherman but an indifferent shot, and his riding was purely utilitarian, preferring as he did Shanks's mare, a nimble, sure steed which never tired. Games, accomplishments, and parlour tricks were outside his activities.
Compelled to keep his bed, Buchan wrote. He made a start with his well-known History of the Great War, which occupied twenty-four volumes of the Nelson Library series; but he also wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) which fairly stormed the reading world with its combination of excitement and sensation, written as only a master of English can write. He was well enough by 1915 to be on the staff of The Times on the western front, and by 1916 he had joined the army as a major in the Intelligence Corps and enjoyed confidential innominate duties at general headquarters at Montreuil-sur-Mer, which brought him into personal touch with another Borderer by extraction, Sir Douglas Haig, whom he admired as a great man and soldier. Summoned to London in 1917, he made such a personal success of the new Department of Information that it became a ministry with Buchan as subordinate director until the armistice. With renewed successes his pen consoled him for irritating drudgery and unreasonable people: Greenmantle (1916) and Mr. Standfast (1919) completed the trilogy on the war opened by The Thirty-Nine Steps. In Poems, Scots and English (1917) some of the poems are topical of the front, but the book is at once a monument of detachment from ugly actuality and a source of regret that he did not write more verse. Buchan loved poetry and had it in his bones.
Private life resulted in settlement at Elsfield Manor, near Oxford, purchased in 1919 after deliberation of several years. That ivory tower was so unlike Buchan's native land that nostalgia was not aroused, and in this phase of his life there was a copious output of books. The History of the South African Forces in France and the memoir of Francis and Riversdale Grenfell (1920) were the aftermath of the war, together with the History of the Great War which was revised, compressed, and republished in 1921-1922 and the complete regimental History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers (1925), a valuable tribute to the memory of his youngest brother, Alastair, killed in 1917.
The excellence of the tribute to the Grenfells may have led to his life of Lord Minto (1924) which proved to be the forerunner of the historical biographies, on which he undoubtedly intended that his future fame should rest. By an interesting chance it familiarized him with a stage on which, as a successor to Minto, he was destined to play his part. Meantime novel after novel poured from his pen. Huntingtower (1922) opened a new series based on Glasgow memories and the scout movement, with a coy candidature of Peeblesshire. Midwinter (1923) was an historical novel linking Elsfield with Samuel Johnson just as Elsfield and Henry VIII were drawn together in The Blanket of the Dark (1931). Witch Wood (1927) links Tweeddale with Montrose and Philiphaugh and is a by-product of the preparation for Montrose. But the majority were the yarns (as he called them) spun easily for his own and an eager public's enjoyment.
It is remarkable that he went on writing in the last phase of his life, when he was a public man. The almost inspired literary criticism of his Sir Walter Scott (1932) and the sympathetic understanding of the spiritual side of the Protector in Oliver Cromwell (1934) show Buchan at his best. At a by-election in 1927 he was elected conservative member of parliament for the Scottish Universities, and held the seat until his elevation to the peerage in 1935. He fitted the constituency like a glove. He loved the House of Commons and the House listened to him. Moreover he had achieved fame in America chiefly as an historian and a novelist. He was a member of the Pilgrim Trust and in that capacity he did good service to Oxford City and Oxford University. And then, in 1933 and 1934 the elder of St. Columba's church at Oxford was appointed lord high commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In that illustrious office, eloquent of the history of the struggles between church and state since the Reformation, Buchan was supremely happy both in his manner and in his utterances, as befitted the joint author (with Sir George Adam Smith) of the masterly little treatise The Kirk in Scotland, 1560-1929 (1930). And it was again Ramsay MacDonald who in 1935 advised the appointment of Buchan to the governor-generalship of Canada, the supreme opportunity of Buchan's life, to show of what mettle he was made.-Ù0Ú$¥!ô¨A'AÓz¨Ùý,`zÝõÿThat Lord Tweedsmuir (the appropriate title conferred upon Buchan) had qualities which fitted him in no common degree for the office was shown by The King's Grace: 1910-1935 (1935). The auspices, save in the matter of his health, were good. He was a Scot, a Presbyterian, and his wife was descended from the two noble houses of Grosvenor and Stuart-Wortley, and in her ancestry she could count more statesmen than most people. His vigour was undiminished and in 1937 Augustus brought to a close his studies in ancient history and the humanities.
As governor-general Tweedsmuir had to face the change in the position of the representative of the crown made by the Statute of Westminster (1931). He therefore requited a warm welcome with unwearied devotion to duty on ceremonial occasions, courts, reviews, the delivery of addresses and lectures, not only in English but in French, for he took a special interest in Lower Canada and the French-Canadian culture. Moreover, he was discreet and tactful, and he possessed charm in both its forms, sympathy with the interlocutor or audience, and sympathy of bearing. He was made a Red Indian chief. The author of The Last Secrets (1923) never neglected a chance of exploration and he travelled to visit all sorts and conditions of men throughout the Dominion.
But Tweedsmuir overtaxed his strength, and the anxiety inseparable from the visit of the King and Queen in 1939 strained it in spite of the excellence of the arrangements. Any chance of a needed rest was lost by the outbreak of war in September. His death, which took place at Montreal 11 February 1940, was followed by a spontaneous outburst of sorrow from all quarters of the free world. It was felt in Canada that his public services in voicing the spirit of Canadian loyalty, in promoting recruiting, and showing a gallant front had, as Cardinal Villeneuve said, been a factor in cementing national unity in Canada. Nor was his influence confined to Canada. Since 1937 at least he had been on terms of real friendship with Pres[ident Roosevelt, and, with Lord Lothian [qv.] at Washington, another member of Milner's South African kindergarten, he played his part in maintaining relations with the United States on the right plane.
Tweedsmuir married in 1907 Susan Charlotte, elder daughter of Captain Norman de l'Aigle Grosvenor, third son of the first Lord Ebury [qv.], and had three sons and one daughter. He was succeeded as second baron by his eldest son, John Norman Stuart (born 1911). His honours, public and academic, came freely. He was sworn of the Privy Council in 1937, and was appointed C.H. in 1932, G.C.M.G. in 1935, and G.C.V.O. in 1939. He was elected chancellor of Edinburgh University in 1937 and an honorary fellow of Brasenose College in 1934, and he received honorary degrees from three of the four Scottish universities, and from Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and most of the Canadian universities.
A portrait of Lord Tweedsmuir, by Sholto Johnstone-Douglas (1900), is in the possession of Mr. J. W. Buchan, Bank House, Peebles, who also owns a bust by T. J. Clapperton. A posthumous portrait, by Alphonse Jongers, was presented to Lady Tweedsmuir by the women of Canada.
Manchester Guardian, 12 February 1940
The Times, 12 and 15 February 1940
John Buchan, A Lost Lady of Old Years, 1899, and Memory Hold-the-Door, 1940
Hon. A. C. Murray, Master and Brother, 1945
Anna Buchan (O. Douglas), Ann and her Mother, 1922
Unforgettable: Unforgotten (1945)
John Buchan, by his wife and friends, 1947
Contributor: S. A. Gillon.