John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir(26 August 1875 – 11 February 1940) was a Scottish novelist, historian and Unionist politician who served as Governor General of Canada, the 15th since Canadian Confederation.
After a brief legal career Buchan simultaneously began both his writing career and his political and diplomatic career, serving as a private secretary to the colonial administrator of various colonies in Southern Africa. He eventually wrote propaganda for the British war effort in the First World War. Once he was back in civilian life Buchan was elected Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, but he spent most of his time on his writing career, notably writing The Thirty-Nine Steps and other adventure fiction. In 1935 he was appointed Governor General of Canada by King George V, on the recommendation of Prime Minister of Canada Richard Bennett, to replace the Earl of Bessborough. He occupied the post until his death in 1940. Buchan proved to be enthusiastic about literacy, as well as the evolution of Canadian culture, and he received a state funeral in Canada before his ashes were returned to the United Kingdom.
Early life and education
Buchan was the first child of John Buchan—a Free Church of Scotland minister—and Helen Jane Buchan. Born in Perth, Buchan was brought up in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and spent many summer holidays with his grandparents in Broughton, in the Scottish Borders. There he developed a love of walking, as well as for the local scenery and wildlife, which often featured in his novels; the name of a protagonist in several of Buchan’s books—Sir Edward Leithen—is borrowed from the Leithen Water, a tributary of the River Tweed.
After attending Hutchesons’ Grammar School, Buchan was awarded a scholarship to the University of Glasgow at age 17, where he studied classics, wrote poetry, and became a published author. With a junior Hulme scholarship, he moved on in 1895 to study Literae Humaniores (the Oxonian term for the Classics) at Brasenose College, Oxford, where his friends included Hilaire Belloc, Raymond Asquith, and Aubrey Herbert. Buchan won both the Stanhope essay prize, in 1897, and the Newdigate Prize for poetry the following year, as well as being elected as the president of the Oxford Union and having six of his works published. It was at around the time of his graduation from Oxford that Buchan had his first portrait painted, done in 1900 by a young Sholto Johnstone Douglas.
Life as an author and politician
Buchan entered into a career in diplomacy and government after graduating from Oxford, becoming the private secretary to Alfred Milner, who was then the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Governor of Cape Colony, and colonial administrator of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, putting Buchan in what came to be known as Milner’s Kindergarten. He also gained an acquaintance with a country that would feature prominently in his writing, which he resumed upon his return to London, at the same time entering into a partnership in the Thomas Nelson & Son publishing company and becoming editor of The Spectator. Buchan also read for and was called to the bar in 1901, though he did not practise as a lawyer, and on 15 July 1907 married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor—daughter of Norman Grosvenor and a cousin of the Duke of Westminster. Together, Buchan and his wife had four children, Alice, John, William, and Alastair, two of whom would spend most of their lives in Canada.
Buchan wrote Prester John in 1910, the first of his adventure novels set in South Africa, and the following year he suffered from duodenal ulcers, which also inspired one of his characters in later books. At the same time, Buchan ventured into the political arena, and ran as a Unionist candidate in a Scottish Borders constituency; he supported free trade, women’s suffrage, national insurance, and curtailing the powers of the House of Lords, though he did also oppose the welfare reforms of the Liberal Party, and what he considered to be the “class hatred” fostered by demagogic Liberals such as David Lloyd George.
With the outbreak of the First World War, Buchan went to write for the British War Propaganda Bureau and worked as a correspondent in France for The Times. He continued to write fiction, and in 1915 published his most famous work, The Thirty-Nine Steps, a spy-thriller set just prior to World War I. The novel featured Buchan’s oft used hero, Richard Hannay, whose character was based on Edmund Ironside, a friend of Buchan from his days in South Africa. A sequel, Greenmantle, came the following year. Buchan then enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, where he wrote speeches and communiqués for Sir Douglas Haig. Recognised for his abilities, Buchan was appointed as the Director of Information in 1917, under the Lord Beaverbrook—a job that Buchan said was “the toughest job I ever took on”—and also assisted Charles Masterman in publishing a monthly magazine that detailed the history of the war, the first edition appearing in February 1915 (and later published in 24 volumes as Nelson’s History of the War). It was difficult, given his close connections to many of Britain’s military leaders, for Buchan to be critical of the British Army’s conduct during the conflict.
Following the close of the war, Buchan turned his attention to writing on historical subjects, along with his usual thrillers and novels. By the mid-1920s, he was living in Elsfield and had become president of the Scottish Historical Society and a trustee of the National Library of Scotland, and he also maintained ties with various universities. Robert Graves, who lived in nearby Islip, mentioned his being recommended by Buchan for a lecturing position at the newly founded Cairo University and, in a 1927 by-election, Buchan was elected as the Unionist Party Member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities. Politically, he was of the Unionist-Nationalist tradition, believing in Scotland’s promotion as a nation within the British Empire. Buchan remarked in a speech to parliament: “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 the Great Depression in Scotland, and the subsequent high emigration from that country, also led Buchan to reflect in the same speech: “We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us,” and he found himself profoundly affected by John Morley’s Life of Gladstone, which Buchan read in the early months of the Second World War. He believed that Gladstone had taught people to combat materialism, complacency, and authoritarianism; Buchan later wrote to Herbert Fisher, Stair Gillon, and Gilbert Murray that he was “becoming a Gladstonian Liberal.”
After the United Free Church of Scotland joined in 1929 with the Church of Scotland, Buchan remained an active elder of St. Columba’s Church in London, as well as of the Oxford Presbyterian parish. In 1933 and 1934, Buchan was further appointed as the King George V’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Beginning in 1930, Buchan aligned himself with Zionism and the related Palestine All Party Parliamentary Group. In recognition of his contributions to literature and education, on 1 January 1932, Buchan was granted the personal gift of the sovereign of induction into the Order of the Companions of Honour.
In 1935, Buchan’s literary work was adapted to the cinematic theatre with the completion of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, though with Buchan’s story much altered. This came in the same year that Buchan was honoured with appointment to the Order of St. Michael and St. George on 23 May, as well as being elevated to the peerage, when he was entitled by King George V as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the County of Oxford on 1 June. This had been done in preparation for Buchan’s appointment as Canada’s governor general; when consulted by Canadian prime minister Richard Bennett about the appointment, the Leader of His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, William Lyon Mackenzie King, had recommended that the King allow Buchan to serve as viceroy as a commoner, but George V insisted that he be represented by a peer.
Buchan’s name had been earlier put forward by Mackenzie King to George V as a candidate for the governor generalcy: Buchan and his wife had been guests of Mackenzie King’s at his estate, Kingsmere, in 1924, and Mackenzie King, who at that time was prime minister, was impressed with Buchan, stating, “I know no man I would rather have as a friend, a beautiful, noble soul, kindly & generous in thought & word & act, informed as few men in this world have ever been, modest, humble, true, man after God’s own heart.” One evening in the following year, the Prime Minister mentioned to Governor General the Lord Byng of Vimy that Buchan would be a suitable successor to Byng, with which the Governor General agreed, the two being friends. Word of this reached the British Cabinet, and Buchan was approached, but he was reluctant to take the posting; Byng had been writing to Buchan about the constitutional dispute that took place in June 1926 and spoke disparagingly of Mackenzie King.
Governor General of Canada
It was announced from the Canadian prime minister’s office on 10 August 1935 that the King had approved Bennett’s recommendation of Buchan as the viceregal representative by commission under the royal sign-manual and signet. Buchan then departed for Canada and was sworn in as the country’s governor general in a ceremony on 2 November 1935 in the salon rouge of the parliament buildings of Quebec. Buchan was the first viceroy of Canada appointed since the enactment of the Statute of Westminster on 11 December 1931 and was thus the first to have been decided on solely by the monarch of Canada in his Canadian council.
Buchan continued writing during his time as governor general, but he also thereafter took his position as viceroy seriously and from the outset made it his goal to travel the length and breadth of Canada, including, for the first time for a governor general, the Arctic regions; he said of his job: “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.” Buchan also encouraged a distinct Canadian identity and national unity, despite the ongoing Great Depression and the difficulty which it caused for the population. Not all Canadians shared Buchan’s views; he raised the ire of imperialists when he said in Montreal in 1937: “a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations, but to Canada and Canada’s King,” a statement that the Montreal Gazette dubbed as “disloyal.” Buchan maintained and recited his idea that ethnic groups “should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character,” and “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.”
The following year proved to be a tumultuous one for the monarchy that Buchan represented. In late January, George V died, and his eldest son, the popular Prince Edward, succeeded to the throne as Edward VIII, while Rideau Hall—the royal and viceroyal residence in Ottawa—was decked in black crepe and all formal entertaining was cancelled during the official period of mourning. As the year unfolded, it became evident that the new king planned to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, which caused much discontent throughout the Dominions. Buchan conveyed to Buckingham Palace and British prime minister Stanley Baldwin Canadians’ deep affection for the King, but also the outrage to Canadian religious feelings, both Catholic and Protestant, that would occur if Edward married Simpson. By 11 December, King Edward had abdicated in favour of his younger brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York, who was thereafter known as George VI. In order for the line of succession for Canada to remain parallel to those of the other Dominions, Buchan, as Governor-in-Council, gave the government’s consent to the British legislation formalising the abdication, and ratified this with finality when he granted Royal Assent to the Canadian Succession to the Throne Act in 1937 . Upon receiving news from Mackenzie King of Edward’s decision to abdicate, Tweedsmuir commented that, in his year in Canada as governor general, he had represented three kings.
In May and June 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured the country from coast to coast and paid a state visit to the United States. The royal tour had been conceived by Buchan before the coronation in 1937; according to the official event historian, Gustave Lanctot, the idea “probably grew out of the knowledge that as his coming Coronation, George VI was to assume the additional title of King of Canada,” and Buchan desired to demonstrate with living example—through Canadians seeing “their King performing royal functions, supported by his Canadian ministers”—the fact of Canada’s status as an independent kingdom. Buchan put great effort into securing a positive response to the invitation sent to King George in May 1937; after more than a year without a reply, in June 1938 Buchan headed to the United Kingdom for a personal holiday, but also to procure a decision on the possible royal tour. From his home near Oxford, Buchan wrote to Mackenzie King: “The important question for me is, of course, the King’s visit to Canada.” After a period of convalescence at Ruthin Castle, Buchan, in October, sailed back to Canada with a secured commitment that the royal couple would tour the country. Though he had been a significant contributor to the organisation of the trip, Buchan retired to Rideau Hall for the duration of the royal tour; Buchan expressed the view that while the king of Canada was present, “I cease to exist as Viceroy, and retain only a shadowy legal existence as Governor-General in Council.” In Canada itself, the royal couple took part in public events such as the opening of the Lions Gate Bridge in May 1939.
Another factor behind the tour was public relations: the presence of the royal couple in Canada and the United States, was calculated to shore up sympathy for Britain in anticipation of hostilities with Nazi Germany. Buchan’s experiences during the First World War made him averse to conflict, he tried to help prevent another war in coordination with United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mackenzie King. Still, Buchan authorised Canada’s declaration of war against Germany in September, shortly after the British declaration of war and with the consent of King George; and, thereafter, issued orders of deployment for Canadian soldiers, airmen, and seamen as the titular commander-in-chief of the Canadian armed forces.
These duties would not burden Buchan for long, as, on 6 February 1940, he suffered a severe head injury when he fell during a stroke at Rideau Hall. Two surgeries by Doctor Wilder Penfield of the Montreal Neurological Institute were insufficient to save him, and his death on 11 February was eulogised on the radio by Mackenzie King: “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.” The Governor General had formed a strong bond with his prime minister, even if it may have been built more on political admiration than personal friendship; while Mackenzie King appreciated his “sterling rectitude and disinterested purpose,” despite being wary of Buchan’s vices (such as his penchant for titles),
After lying in state in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill, the state funeral for Buchan was held at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa. Buchan’s ashes were returned to the UK aboard the cruiser HMS Orion for final burial at Elsfield, his family estate in Oxfordshire.
In his last years, Buchan, amongst other works, wrote an autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, as well as works on the history and his views of Canada. He and Baroness Tweedsmuir together established the first proper library at Rideau Hall, and, with his wife’s encouragement, Buchan founded the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which remain Canada’s premier award for literature.
Buchan’s 100 works include nearly thirty novels, seven collections of short stories, and biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Caesar Augustus, and Oliver Cromwell. Buchan was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his biography of the Marquess of Montrose, but the most famous of his books were the spy thrillers, and it is for these that he is now best remembered. The “last Buchan” (as Graham Greene entitled his appreciative review) was the 1941 novel Sick Heart River (American title: Mountain Meadow), in which a dying protagonist confronts the questions of the meaning of life in the Canadian wilderness. The insightful quotation, “It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken,” is famously attributed to Buchan, as is, “No great cause is ever lost or won, The battle must always be renewed, And the creed must always be restated.”
Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in British Columbia, now divided into Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park and Tweedsmuir North Provincial Park and Protected Area, was created in 1938 to commemorate Buchan’s 1937 visit to the Rainbow Range and other nearby areas by horseback and floatplane. In the foreword to a booklet published to commemorate his visit, he wrote, “I have now travelled over most of Canada and have seen many wonderful things, but I have seen nothing more beautiful and more wonderful than the great park which British Columbia has done me the honour to call by my name”.