Why are we paying so little attention on the 70th anniversary of John Buchan's death?

Usually, when an author's works leave copyright – currently 70 years after the writer's death – it precipitates a flurry of new editions and the opportunity for a critical reappraisal.

In the case of John Buchan, the first Baron Tweedsmuir, who was born in Perth in 1875 and died in 1941, the reaction has been muted to the point of being negligible. Buchan's literary achievements are only a facet of his work: he was an MP, propagandist, lawyer, diplomat, biographer, editor of the Spectator, historian of the First World War and governor-general of Canada.

But all these accolades and accomplishments tend to be outweighed by one fact. Buchan was an imperialist and an advocate of the British Empire. He was a success – in London. Scotland, and Scottish literary culture, still appears to be embarrassed by Buchan. You won't find a quotation from Buchan on the Canongate wall of the Scottish Parliament. The John Buchan Centre in Broughton is under threat from a combination of council cuts and apathy. Aye Write!, the Glasgow Book Festival has events to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Alasdair Gray's Lanark, and the 40th anniversary of Asterix, but not for the man who created the Gorbals Irregulars, Dickson McCunn and Richard Hannay.

Whenever academics and historians of Scottish literature write about Buchan, they do so while metaphorically pinching their noses: Robert Crawford, in Scotland's Books, writes that "casual xenophobia, or at least easily assumed imperial superiority, is present in his plotlines. There are anti-Semitic moments and a strain of period racism that will offend some readers".

Roderick Watson maintains that Buchan's books "lack historical or psychological depth" and feature "a good deal of implicit and explicit racism". Colin Milton, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, endorses the position that Buchan's work is "competent, craftsmanlike, entertaining but not much more".

Buchan has become, like Sir Walter Scott, a useful whipping boy for what Dr Gerard Carruthers has called "the bampot version of Scottish literary history", where left-wing nationalism automatically equals good and conservative unionism is heinous. But Buchan is a more significant, subtle and inspiring figure than the lazy caricature can admit.

It would be heartening to think that the anniversary of his death might actually be a genuine chance for a serious reconsideration of his writing. There is a direct line from Sir Walter Scott to Robert Louis Stevenson to John Buchan. Although Buchan's star has been eclipsed by the writers of the "Scottish Renaissance" such as Hugh MacDiarmid, he promoted their early work in anthologies like The Northern Muse.

Buchan is best known for a book with which he was least pleased. In his autobiography, Memory Hold-the-Door, Buchan passed over The Thirty-Nine Steps in less than a page. Yet it has been made into a feature film three times – most notably by Hitchcock in 1935, which Buchan was "amused" by – and a new version was the BBC's post-Christmas treat a few years ago, starring Rupert Penry-Jones. Another adaptation, by the director Robert Towne, is "on the back burner" at the moment. It's easy to see why Hollywood adored the book. It sets the template for countless "man on the run" thrillers from The Fugitive to The Bourne Identity. It could even be argued that Hitchcock's own North By North-West is a more fitting tribute to Buchan than the genuine adaptation of his novel. The Thirty-Nine Steps introduced Richard Hannay, and although it's sometimes claimed that Hannay is the precursor to James Bond, the differences between them are more interesting.

Hannay is not a philanderer (indeed, there's no romantic interest in the book at all, a deficit amply addressed by the movie adaptations), nor is he employed by the state. He is not a professional – although he admits that he "did a bit… as an intelligence officer at Delagoa Bay during the Boer War". He is a ordinary, run-of-the-mill British subject, who finds incredible reserves of resourcefulness, resilience and courage when confronted with the machinations of a powerful and secretive foreign enemy. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that Hannay was the archetype for the idea that the everyday man has the capacity to be a hero.

The Power House, an early dry-run for the later thrillers, has a good claim to be the first "espionage" novel; but The Thirty-Nine Steps is the clearest articulation of the genre.

Buchan claimed that The Thirty-Nine Steps was a "shocker" or "dime novel" which he wrote for his own amusement while recuperating from a duodenal ulcer. It is anything but that, and the false modesty has been taken too earnestly by critics keen to denounce Buchan as the poster-boy for the empire. It is a novel that seems to break all the rules. Most shockingly, the Bad Guys win. Having cracked the code of the 39 steps and witnessed an audacious attempt by the Germans to infiltrate the highest levels of national security, Hannay confronts the conspirators. And one of them, with all the secrets, gets away.

It's hard to imagine a novel nowadays that would allow the villains to triumph. But the book appeared in 1915, when Britain was already at war. It is a diagnosis, not a prophecy. In his little sequel to A Room With A View, the novelist EM Forster described how his hero, George Emerson, was a conscientious objector in 1914 but signed up in 1939, since the former conflict was an imperialist folly and the latter a crusade against real evil. Buchan, on the contrary, insists that the First World War was a just war as well, against a foe that had been plotting for years beforehand. He had been on holiday in Germany just before the outbreak of war, and had more than an inkling that the country was gearing up for conflict. It struck a chord with the average reader: one letter to Buchan from an officer in France said "it is just the kind of fiction for here. One wants something to engross the attention without tiring the mind. The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."

Behind the idea of the novel as a light distraction from mustard-gas is the sense that The Thirty-Nine Steps offered a reason for what the poets of the war would call its futility. It was purposeful.

It is also, and this seems to have escaped the notice of the literary judges keen to have a stereotype, anti-anti-Semitic. The character who gives an infamous speech about "the white-faced Jew… with an eye like a rattlesnake… who has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga" is summarily dismissed as nonsense by the patrician Sir Walter with the words "he wanted a story to be better than God meant it to be. He had a lot of odd biases. Jews, for example". Buchan, lest we forget, was convinced of the need for a Jewish homeland, and supported the Zionist position.

Indeed, many aspects of Buchan's politics have been traduced. He believed in the British Empire, but maintained "I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it." He supported indigenous peoples as governor-general of Canada, and wrote that "the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements", insisting that what we might now call multiculturalism did not make a country weaker. When he stated that "a Canadian's first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations, but to Canada and Canada's King", he was probably remembering his native land as well. In writing his history of the war, Buchan was drawn to the figure of Franz Ferdinand as a man who tried to negotiate the choppy waters of ethnic tribalism within a united political state. He saw his failure to do so as a failure that must not be repeated by other great powers.

Buchan did not think that countries should dissolve into a homogenous "Britishness", but retain their individual characters and choose for a Union, a Commonwealth, an Empire. He may have supported the Empire, but he was acutely aware of how precarious the line was between civilisation and anarchy. In The Powerhouse he wrote "you think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn". His support of the Empire was not an unthinking glorification of an assumed, natural superiority, much less a "get rich quick" scheme for the exploitative and the insincere, but a bulwark against the twin terrors of anarchy and despotism, suppurating behind the veneer of manners. At this point he should be unnecessary to say he was a son of the manse.

Although Buchan left Scotland, he never abandoned his Scottishness. Hannay, on the very first page of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is described as being "brought out of Scotland at the age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of Arabian Nights to me". In one of his more literary novels, Midwinter, he writes such a heart-felt tribute to the Oxfordshire landscape that it could only have come from the pen of a man seeing it afresh and without cynicism.

He did not think of "England" as "Britain" or of Scotland as a junior, defeated and minor adjunct in the Union. For that, it seems, he cannot be forgiven.



The second outing for Richard Hannay takes him away from Scotland and on to Continental Europe, as he tries to discover the identity of Greenmantle, a mysterious Muslim prophet who may be being used by the Germans to foment dispute in Arabic countries. A radio adaptation of the novel was cancelled in 2005 after the 7 July bombings in London, testifying to the ongoing anxiety about Buchan's depiction of fundamentalism


The best of Buchan's Jacobite stories, Midwinter self-consciously turns Walter Scott's Waverley inside out, by having the hero as a Scot, who supports Bonnie Prince Charlie, venturing into England. Buchan playfully introduced the great English dictionary writer, Dr Samuel Johnson, as a character and Amos Midwinter himself is the representative of old pagan England. Much of it was inspired by Buchan's Oxfordshire home.


Widely regarded as Buchan's finest novel, Witch Wood is part of a miniature tradition in Scottish writing: the novel of a Church of Scotland minister's faith being tested, which includes Lockhart's Adam Blair and J M Barrie's Farewell Miss Julie Logan. David Sempill discovers that his parishioner may still practise "the old religion", while the War of the Covenant rages in the background. It is an eerie, gothic tale which stands the test of time.


The Gap In The Curtain is a bit of an anomaly in Buchan's work – a science-fiction novel. Three friends devise a means to see what will happen in a year's time, and two of them see their own obituary notices. Will they be able to avoid their fate, or are they destined to die whatever they try to do? Buchan explored his religious heritage in this tale of predestination and the tension between fate and free will.


Buchan's last novel has an elegiac tone: Sir Edward Leithen, the hero of The Power House is dying, and decides to make one final voyage into the chilly heart of the Arctic regions of Canada. His journey becomes a symbol of redemption and salvation – Buchan is credited with the phrase "it's a good life, if you don't weaken". It is Buchan's most spiritual novel, and the shadow of the new war in Europe colours much of its ominous mood.