Sir John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, author and Governor General of Canada, died on the 11th of February, 1940.
John Buchan is famous for two things. He's known in literary circles as the author of over 30 novels, seven short story collections, and almost 100 assorted works of non-fiction. In such context, Buchan is revered for his 'ripping yarns' style of novels, featuring Richard Hannay and, in particular, for ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’. That title is undoubtedly his most well known and it's been the template for countless man-on-the-run spy thrillers and derivative motion pictures, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 production. Buchan is also known in public life as the distinguished, thirty-fifth Governor General of Canada.
Buchan's honourable style and full pompous title as Governor General was a long one: 'His Excellency the Right Honourable Sir John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, Companion of the Order of Companions of Honour, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of the Militia and Naval and Air Forces of Canada'. Small wonder then that Canada's Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, mentioned Buchan's only weaknesses as being his self-importance and love of titles.
In between his major career accomplishments, Buchan also found enough time to be successful as a colonial administrator, tax lawyer, publisher, editor, journalist, historian, Army Officer, and Member of Parliament. Between 1901 and 1903, during and after the Boer War, Buchan was in South Africa, employed as Political Private Secretary to the High Commissioner, Lord Milner. Perhaps it was in that country of the high Veldt where he honed his sense of adventure. It was certainly his experiences in South Africa that gave him the material for 'Prester John', which was published in 1910. His historical works included biographies of James Graham and Sir Walter Scott, and he also produced studies of General Gordon and Oliver Cromwell.
In 1906, Buchan became Chief Literary Adviser and later, a Partner, in the publishing firm of Thomas Nelson and Son, for whom he worked until 1929. In parallel with his early work with those publishers, Buchan was also acting as editor of 'The Spectator' magazine. He seems to have been quite adept at multi-tasking and his prodigious literary output, he wrote a novel a year between 1922 and 1936, undoubtedly backs up that opinion. However, it was during the first months of the First World War, whilst confined to a bed and recovering from illness, that Buchan wrote 'The Thirty-Nine Steps'. His most famous novel was published in 1915, but by then he was a bona fide author, having contributied to Blackwood's Magazine, published six books of fiction, poetry and history, and all while still an Oxford undergraduate at Brasenose College. Buchan's first novel was called 'Sir Quixote of the Moors' and it was published in 1896.
At the beginning of the First World War, in September, 1914, Buchan was hired by the Head of the War Propaganda Bureau, Charles Masterman, to write a monthly publication entitled 'The History of the War'. It was to be published by Thomas Nelson and Son, and its job, understandably, was to promote the British cause. It first appeared in 1915, with the profits being donated to war charities. The magazine was heavily biased in favour of the British Government and as an example, in early 1915, its readers were reliably informed that the Germans were “on the verge of defeat.”
At the same time, Buchan was also a War Correspondent for 'The Times' and the 'Daily News'. One of Buchan's 1916 articles was called 'The Battle of the Somme', in which he optimistically described the first day of the offensive that had cost the lives of as many as 57,000 British Tommies as being so successful that it marked “the end of trench fighting.” Someone else described the first day of the Somme as “the blackest day in the history of the British Army.” Buchan was a Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps and you'd think his job as 'Propaganda Officer' would've been right up his street, despite his having said that it was “the toughest job” he ever took on.
After World War One, Buchan became Assistant Director of the British news agency Reuters, before getting seriously involved with politics. Buchan's first foray into politics was in 1911, when he became the Unionist candidate for Peebles and Selkirk, but it wasn't until 1927 that he was elected. That year, he won the Scottish Universities seat with a decent majority and then held a goodly number of posts, including Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland, before Canada ever beckoned. Buchan is on record as saying of his Liberal opponents that they mixed the “art of the prophet with that of the fishwife”. You can guess what Buchan the Tory thought of the emergent Labour Party. He was an MP until 1935, but never held a Cabinet post.
John Buchan was born in Perth on the 26th of August, 1875. He was the son of a Free Church of Scotland Minister, and although his story isn't quite one of rags to riches, he was still a commoner when he was chosen to become the Viceroy of Canada. So the Scotsman of whom Canada's then Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, said “[he had an] aristocracy of mind” was dutifully made up to the lowest rung of the British hereditary peerage as 1st Baron, Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield in the county of Oxford, on the 1st of June, 1935, before he went to Canada.
As Lord Tweedsmuir, John Buchan made a great impression in Canada. He tried to make his Office relevant to the lives of ordinary Canadians and build a national unity by diminishing Canada's religious and linguistic barriers. As he said himself, “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.” In pursuit of that purpose, Buchan travelled throughout Canada, including becoming the first Governor General to tour the Arctic Circle. Between the Wars, Buchan worked with President Roosevelt and his own Prime Minister to avert the ever growing threat of another world war, but as we know, he wasn't successful at that.
John Buchan died in Montreal, of a brain haemorrhage sustained in a fall after suffering a stroke, while shaving, on the 11th of February, 1940. His death occurred soon after he had signed Canada's entry into the Second World War. The Prime Minister, McKenzie King, paid tribute in stating that “the people of Canada have lost one of the greatest and most revered of their Governors General ...who, from the day of his arrival ...dedicated his life to their service.” Lord Tweedsmuir was given a State Funeral at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Ottawa and his ashes were returned to England and burial at Elsfield.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.