Writer John Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland on 26 August 1875, later moving to Fife then to the Gorbals district in Glasgow. But summer holidays were spent in Broughton in the Scottish Borders with his mother’s family and with his father’s family in Peebles also in Border country.
During his lifetime, John Buchan wrote over one hundred books many of them based in the Borders. John Burnet of ‘Barns’ was a novel set in the 17th century, with the hero a member of a family who owned an estate near Peebles. Witch Wood again set in the 17th century Broughton was judged by the Glasgow Herald newspaper to be, “The greatest of Mr Buchan’s works.”
Educated at Glasgow Grammar School
John’s formal education began in Glasgow Grammar School then Glasgow University where he met a man who had an enormous influence on his life. He was Gilbert Murray, the young professor of Greek. Murray had recognised Buchan’s aptitude for the classics and had given him extra tuition and in due course encouraged him to apply for a place at Oxford University.
In 1901, the young Scot went to South Africa to help in the country’s reconstruction after the Boer War. He was given the daunting task of running two departments, land settlements and running Boer refugee camps for women and children. Buchan described the camps as, “Concentration camps no better than lazar houses.”
He returned to England in 1903 to what he called his “unsettled years.” His time in South Africa had profoundly changed him and he hoped for a similar post. However, it was not to be.
Duke of Wellington
In 1905, he met his future wife Susan Grosvenor a member of the English aristocracy, a distant relative on her father’s side of the first Duke of Wellington. They became engaged and married the following year.
In 1911, he was again linked with the Borders after being adopted as the Conservative candidate for Selkirk and Peebles.
Buchan’s popularity with the electorate was never put to the test as the First World War was almost upon him. Because of ill health Buchan was not called to active duty he became instead a special correspondent for the Times newspaper and visited the ‘front’ on several occasions.
After the war he returned to politics and was elected as a Conservative member representing the Scottish Universities.
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He described his political career as eight years of undistinguished service punctuated by one “curious interlude.” During the years1933-34, he was Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. It was a post to which he was eminently suited. His tenure however lasted a mere ten days, the length of the Assembly.
John Buchan’s appointment as Governor General of Canada was announced in 1935 and although the Canadian Prime Minister wanted him to come to Canada as a commoner, King George V insisted on a peerage and he was given the title Baron Tweedsmuir.
The Teller of Tales
During his time in Canada his duties took him to all parts of the country from the far north to Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatchewan. During one memorable visit to one of the Indian tribes he was made a chief and given the epithet, “The Teller of Tales.”
Buchan felt strongly that Canada was the key to future relations between Britain and the USA and consequently had realised the importance of stronger ties between Canada and its northern neighbour.
He continued to work tirelessly until his death on 11 February 1940. His remains were returned to Britain by the Royal Navy to be buried in Elsfield churchyard near his Oxfordshire home.
John Buchan was a polymath and indeed one of Scotland’s greatest writers. He was also a diplomat, politician, confidant, adviser and friend to the early 20th century’s most distinguished men and women.
Churchill, Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, TE Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) and many others all played their part in the life of this remarkable man who always remembered his happy childhood in the Scottish Borders that “Were to us (children) a holy land.”