John Buchan

John Buchan (1875 - 1940)
John Buchan (Library of Congress)

Biography

Summary

John Buchan combined a literary life with his career in public service. In the latter he rose to become Governor-General of Canada, and as an author he is best remembered for his popular adventure stories and for his poetry in Scots. 

Full Biography

John Buchan, who became first Baron Tweedsmuir, combined a literary life with his career in public service. In the latter he rose to become Governor-General of Canada; as an author he is best remembered for his popular adventure stories, like The Thirty-nine Steps.  He compiled the exemplary The Northern Muse, an anthology of poetry in Scots, in 1924. His own poetry in Scots outranks that which he wrote in English; his Poems Scots and English came out in 1917, and the poems about the First World War have been much anthologised. 

By time war came Buchan had been working as a partner in the Edinburgh publishing firm Thomas Nelson & Son, and had commenced publication of his own novels. He was also trying to establish a political career by becoming an MP for the Borders and had been adopted as Unionist candidate for Peebles and Selkirk in 1911. To his great regret, Buchan did not pass the medical examination for active service; instead, he worked as war correspondent for The Times at the Western Front in 1915. By 1916 he was attached to General HQ in France, then was commissioned as an officer in the Intelligence Corps, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In all these positions his facility with words and an understanding of the importance of the right information at the right time served him well, and in 1917 he was appointed Director of the newly-formed Department of Information. Ill-health (in 1917 he underwent an operation for a duodenal ulcer) and the demands of his appointments did not diminish his literary output: as well as writing his war poetry and several novels he was a joint author of the 24-volume History of the War, published by Nelson’s in serial form as the war progressed.

Hugh MacDiarmid, in the first of his Contemporary Scottish Studies, commends Buchan’s vernacular verse, especially ‘Fisher Jamie’, and agrees with another critic that Buchan’s ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ was one of the most truthful of war poems. ‘The Great Ones’ could also be considered to hold another truth of war: that the patriotism and the pride are just a passing phase on the earth’s surface, and that the peasant ploughing, who ignores the top brass proceeding down the road and continues to drive his furrow, is 'the biggest man'. 

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

Poems Scots and English (Nelson, 1917) 
John Buchan's Collected Poems, eds Andrew Lownie and William Milne (Scottish Cultural Press, 1996) 

Other Useful Info

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