The John Buchan Story

Peebles, Scottish Borders

Category: News

Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan by Ursula Buchan review — the steps to bestselling fame

 Politician, critic, war reporter — there’s more to John Buchan than a classic thriller, Laura Freeman learns 

Laura Freeman 

April 5 2019, 12:00pm, The Times 


John Buchan said the Hitchcock film was better than his book 

Back from South Africa in the autumn of 1903, John Buchan was in a pretty blue funk. Clubs, dancing, parties were as flat as day-old soda water. The Bar was not worth a tinker’s curse. The weather was liverish, the food seedy, the politicians the most bogus blackguards on Earth. 

When he thought of writing book reviews, he grumbled like a sick jackal. It made JB bite his lip to think of his manse childhood, of the fervour and poetic fancy of the Rev John Buchan’s sermons, of his mother, Helen, who let JB — “unkempt, unwatched, far-wandering, shy”; his mother would have added “unwashed” — scramble the hills and swim the waters of upper Tweeddale. He remembered the year he spent in bed aged five after a fall from a carriage that broke his skull and the rapture with which, allowed to read again, he discovered the Border Ballads, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and The Pilgrim’s Progress

As he slunk in and out of clubs in creased clothes, brown from the backveld, he remembered first coming to Oxford in the autumn of 1894. He felt he had “slipped through some chink in the veil of the past and become a medieval student”. Among his swashbuckling set, “Booms” were the fashion. It was a boom to ride horses through flooded rivers, or clamber at midnight over Oxford roofs. He read Homer, Theocritus and Demosthenes in the morning, and Walter Raleigh after lunch. In the evenings he applied himself to the greatest of games: journalism. 

From Brasenose Old Quad he sent stories, reviews and essays to Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. He read manuscripts for publishers. “It is very full of ‘sex’,” JB reported of Edgar Jepson’s The Passion for Romance, “and sugary paroxysms. In a word, it is thoroughly vulgar.” He was president of the Oxford Union (“Isis Idol”) and gave his profession in Who’s Who as “undergraduate”. 

In term, there was tennis, yachting, rowing, canoeing and punting. In the holidays, mountaineering. Once, in the Highlands, he thought he was done for. Crossing a crevasse of snow and ice, he fell into a chasm and crawled his way out inch by freezing, pitch-black inch. 

He was called to the Bar — a bore — in 1901. For every brief he wrote he sent something to The Spectator or Blackwood’s Magazine and earned enough from hackwork to buy his sister Anna her first fur coat. 

South Africa and the Boer War were no picnic, but they were, JB told his fretting mother, an Adventure. Dolphins and flying fish followed the ship that left for Cape Town in September 1901. JB joined the Rand Rifles and served as a trooper, diplomat and intelligence gatherer. He rode a horse called Alan Breck through deserts of prickly pears, cactuses and wait-a-bit thorns. The “concentration camps” for Boer women and children made JB’s hair go grey. He suffered dysentery, sunburn, saddle sores and fevers. Still, it was the richest and most beautiful wilderness in the world. He hoped one day to “leave my bones there”. 

The trouble with John Buchan (1875-1940) is that one so wants him to be Richard Hannay, the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), Greenmantle (1916), Mr Standfast (1919) and The Three Hostages (1924). For the first 100 pages of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, Ursula Buchan’s biography of her grandfather, always known to the family as “JB”, the life from kirk boyhood to the Boer War is pure Hannay: page-turning, buccaneering stuff. 

After that, the pace slows. In the Great War JB joined the news department of the Foreign Office and reported from Loos and Passchendaele. He became an MP in May 1927, lord high commissioner to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1933, Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and governor general of Canada in 1935, and chancellor of Edinburgh University in 1937. An effective civil servant — with a rare imagination. 

Ursula Buchan makes a strong case for the books — more than 100 of them — and their enduring appeal. JB may have deprecated The Thirty-Nine Steps as a “dime novel” and a “shocker”, and thought the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film “better than the book”, but by 1960 his “little volume” had sold 355,000 copies in hardback and by 1965, 1.5 million copies in paperback. The Thirty-Nine Steps has never been out of print. It has even inspired a bingo call: “39, all the steps”. Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John le Carré have tipped their hats to Buchan. 

We hear from friends, family and fellow writers. JB was “patience and courtesy itself”, “so imaginative… so punctual… the best Pal in the world”, “a young Caesar”. Those who knew him remembered “his unquenchable spirit and energy”, “his kindly and scholarly wit”, his “heart of gold”. He was a fond father, an expert flower arranger, a peerless fly fisher and an indulgent master to Spider, the tyrannical terrier. 

He rarely swore and never in front of women. He was for women’s suffrage and against big-game poaching. At first you suspect a granddaughter’s partiality, but as encomium follows encomium you can only conclude that he was a fine fellow all told. JB and his wife, Susie — “the perfect comrade” — shared a partners’ desk and called their four children “the blessings”. But the lives of scoundrels are often more interesting than those of saints and rancorous marriages more readable than rapturous ones. 

The isn’t-he-lovely stuff does become wearing and JB is immediately more convincing when he speaks for himself. Before they were married Susie told him she had heard a rumour he was a “ladies’ man”. He was outraged. “I don’t suppose any charge — except that of being Liberal — could be more shamefully untrue.” Invited to a Literary Fund dinner in 1913, he declined. “I love writers individually, but assembled in bulk they affect me with overpowering repugnance, like a gathering of clerics.” He thought Henry James’s late style like “swimming in spinach”. 

“No man,” JB wrote, “however high his spirits and rich the life within him, can hope to be a great writer save by the restraint, the pains, the hard and bitter drudgery of his art.” 

The reader finishes this biography full of admiration for the pains that he took, for the bitter drudgery that reads like effortless dash, and bidding him “good-bye, old chap”, turns again to The Thirty-Nine Steps. And there is Richard Hannay, lately back from Bulawayo, a dead man in his smoking room, a coded notebook in his pocket and a nameless, ceaseless enemy closing in over the heather. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan by Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury, 480pp, £25 

From the Gorbals to the 39 Steps – can we learn to love John Buchan again?

By Mark Smith, The Herald,

LIKE the spies who lurk in it, you can’t really trust what you know about The 39 Steps. Remember that erotic moment in which Richard Hannay’s female companion removes her stocking while handcuffed to him? Not in the book – Alfred Hitchcock made it up for his 1935 film. Or the moment Hannay hangs from the clockface of Big Ben to defuse the timer on a bomb? Not in the book either – that was Robert Powell in the ‘78 film. The 39 Steps may be one of the most successful novels of the last 100 years and the daddy of a whole genre of thrillers and spy novels, but its fame is built largely on the films.

Ursula Buchan

The fame of the man who wrote the book is just as complicated. When he died in 1940, John Buchan was given a state funeral and was revered as a novelist, scholar, politician, publisher, war correspondent and imperial proconsul, but, as with many other great Victorian figures, there has since been a reassessment. Was Buchan just a “Scotsman on the make” out to use his connections to get on? Was he anti-Semitic? Was he racist? His granddaughter Ursula Buchan has set out to give her answers to those questions in a new biography Beyond The 39 Steps and, as the title suggests, she also wants to remind us there was more to John Buchan than his most famous book.

One of the most surprising episodes in the new biography is Buchan’s experiences in the Gorbals as a child. If we think of Buchan, we probably think of him as a slightly grand Victorian figure, but his childhood was anything but. His father was a minister at the John Knox Free Church in the Gorbals and John went to school in the area, at Hutcheson’s on Crown Street, where he came to know the population and their problems. Many years later, he featured a gang of Gorbals schoolkids, the Diehards, in one of his novels, Huntingtower, and Ursula Buchan is convinced his time in Glasgow’s most notorious slum had a profound effect on him.

“It had a huge influence,” she says. “Though Huntingtower, which is the first book where the Gorbals Diehards appear, doesn’t come out until the 20s, he’s remembering his walking through the Gorbals to school every day. And, also, when he went to Glasgow University, he walked everywhere so this was the Glasgow he knew and of course because his father was a minister in the Gorbals, he was brought up knowing about what it was like to be poor and I think that was huge for him. He never forgot it and it was one of the reasons he could get on with anybody – he could walk with kings but never lost the common touch.”

The other extraordinary thing about Buchan’s time at Glasgow University, and then Oxford, was his capacity for work – something that never left him. He was studying for a classics degree, but he was also writing short stories, articles for The Glasgow Herald about what it was like to be a student, and a history of Brasenose College. A journalist at the time noticed Buchan and called him a “miracle of precocity”. Mind you, the journalist also said that there was no sign that he would ever do much in fiction.

To be fair, that was pretty much true until The 39 Steps was published in 1915 when Buchan was 40. It was an immediate success and even now, 100 years on, you can see why: Hannay is hugely likeable, the prose is pacey, and Ursula Buchan believes the modern novel of espionage would not have developed along the same lines without it. Certainly, both Graham Greene and Ian Fleming acknowledged their debt to him.

However, Ursula Buchan does get slightly frustrated that the story of her grandfather has become pretty much all about The 39 Steps. “That’s why I called my book Beyond the 39 Steps,” she says. “I knew I had to have it in there somewhere but he wrote that book in six weeks when he was ill to amuse himself because he’d run out of thrillers. He never made any literary claims for it, but he realised he could make some money.”

Ursula Buchan believes her grandfather’s real legacy lies in the fact that he lived a good and useful life and says she has tried her best to emulate it in her own work as a gardening journalist and writer. But just look at the list of what he did and you can see how hard that would be: he wrote more than 100 books, he was an MP, he was a publisher in Edinburgh, he was Governor General of Canada, he worked as a journalist during the First World War and wrote a 24-volume history of it. He also worked as an administrator in South Africa on improving the conditions in the concentration camps that had been set up by the British Army to accommodate Boer prisoners. The conditions at the time were a scandal and Buchan managed to get the death rate down by improving sanitation and water supplies.

“People don’t understand that the concentration camp in South Africa is not the same as an extermination camp in Germany,” says Ursula Buchan, “but they weren’t nice places and when the civil authorities took them away from Kitchener and the military, they were absolutely horrified by the death toll. The army weren’t, I don’t think, actively cruel but it’s not what armies do – they don’t know how to look after civilian populations.

“By the time John Buchan got there in October 1901, there was already deep disquiet in Britain. That was what impelled them to turn it over to the civilian authorities and really try and do something. And they did. Within six months they had cut the death toll substantially and the protests in Britain died down.”

Ursula Buchan says her grandfather’s approach to the camps was typical of his pragmatic views. “He was not a jingoist,” she says, “and he worried the Empire, if clever energetic and public-spirited people didn’t continue to be involved with it, would decline to the detriment of everybody. In some ways, he was very much ahead of his time.”

Read more: The 39 Steps Plan

In other, more controversial ways of course, he was very much of his time and Ursula Buchan acknowledges this of her ancestor: his occasional use of the n-word, for example, or his use of language, mainly in The 39 Steps and the other Hannay books, that would now be considered anti-Semitic. His granddaughter points out that there are favourable depictions of Jews elsewhere in Buchan’s work; he also supported the Balfour Declaration and in 1933, less than three months after Hitler came to power, he was one of only 50 MPs who signed a motion deploring the treatment of Jews in Germany.

“Those were different days,” says Ursula Buchan, “and we have to be very careful about wagging a disapproving finger because if we do that, we don’t allow ourselves to understand people in earlier times. We put a distance between them and us – ‘they use the n word, they’re deplorable, I’m not going to connect with these people’. It’s very interesting that nobody criticised him at the time because everybody was using the same language – they generalised about peoples and races in a way that we’re very much more reticent about.”

Ursula Buchan also has a warning for Scottish Nationalists who might seek to claim John Buchan as one of them, based mostly on his famous statement “every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist”. In fact, Buchan was a “unionist nationalist” who supported Scotland’s place in the British union and Ursula Buchan is clear about where his loyalties lay. “I don’t think he would have supported the modern Scottish Nationalist Party,” she says firmly.

Latest Offers from Crask Books! 11 March 2019

Hello again

Here is the final batch of books from the collection I bought in just before Christmas. No particular theme, just the remaining books, some of which are quite scarce whilst others are just nice copies of readily available books.

As always all prices are in pounds sterling (£) and exclude postage/shipping. To order simply email or telephone me with the reference number and title of he book(s) you would like and I will then confirm availability and the total cost including shipping. 

Two things I should add:

  1. As this is the last batch I will add any new orders to books I have already set aside for you, calculate the postage cost and invoice for the total amount. Otherwise one-off new orders will be dealt with in the usual way.
  2. If you are attending the John Buchan Society AGM weekend in Peebles I can retain any books you order and bring them to Peebles for you.

Kind regards


--  Peter Thackeray Crask Books 1 Halls Brook, East Leake, Loughborough, LE12 6HE, UK email: Telephone: +44(0)7947 733860

Please click on the pdf link to view Peter’s list.http://New John Buchan stock 110319.pdf

The John Buchan Society – January 2019 Newsletter

The latest, January 2019,  John Buchan Society’s Newsletter is now available.

Please click on the link below to read the pdf version.


“BEYOND THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS” by Ursula Buchan – 18 April 2019

Ursula Buchan’s long-awaited biography is due to be released for publication on 18 April. As part of her extensive research Ursula has been able to draw upon recently discovered family documents as well as a number of major archival collections. In addition to producing a comprehensive record of JB’s life her aim has been to reveal more of ‘the man’, something which has been lacking to some extent in earlier biographies.

The RRP of the book is £25 but you will be able to obtain a copy through Crask Books for £24 inclusive of UK postage. Orders from overseas will attract additional shipping costs which will depend on the destination; those costs will be advised at the time of ordering.

All copies ordered through Crask Books will be signed by Ursula and, in accordance with my usual practice, 5% of my gross profit will be donated to the John Buchan Story.

In order to reserve a copy please email, write to me or telephone me using the attached form below. Orders should reach me no later than Thursday 28 February.

Payment will not be required until the book is available. I am hoping to have copies available for the John Buchan Society weekend in late March and if you are going to be there you will be able to obtain a copy for £20 if pre-ordered or £22 if not.

Peter Thackeray

Crask Books

1 Halls Brook, East Leake, Loughborough, LE12 6HE, UK


Telephone: +44(0)7947 733860


‘John Buchan was a writer of considerable significance but he was also a man who led a remarkable public life. This magnificent biography leads us through that life with great style and understanding’ Alexander McCall Smith

John Buchan Prize at Sunderland University – Class of 2018: from Trauma to Triumph – November 2018


Class of 2018: from trauma to triumph

My attackers made me a victim for the 20 minutes they beat me – they weren’t going to make me a victim for the rest of my life

Anthony Anderson had a love of English for as long as he could remember, but it was only after a horrific attack in his own home that he found the strength to pursue his passion for the written word.

That passion has now led him the stage of the Stadium of Light today to collect his English Master’s Degree and pick up the John Buchan Prize for the Best Dissertation by an MA English Student at the University of Sunderland.  

His lecturers selected his work for the prestigious annual prize for its “exceptional standard” and described him an “incredibly resilient individual and a “real life-changer”.

The attack happened in 2010 when the 36-year-old answered a call at the front door of his flat only to be punched in the face by a man armed with a hammer, this was followed by another four men who dragged him inside, tied him to a chair and beat him for the next 20 minutes as they ransacked his home in Washington.

They broke every bone in his face, and it was only emergency surgery which saved him from being deformed for the rest of his life.

The men were never caught, and it took Anthony a year to recover from his injuries. He endured months of surgery to rebuild the structure of his face with titanium plates and it was six months before he could eat properly with his weight dropping to just eight stone, in his words, he says: “It was a pretty rough time for me”.

Despite the ordeal and having been made redundant from his managerial role with a national bingo and casino chain, it was while he lay recovering, he thought about how to could take his life forward.

“The attack was a traumatic experience to say the least, and the pain after surgery was at times excruciating. I’m well aware the others may have dealt with it differently, but I had a great network of family and friends around me, who helped me focus. The attackers made me a victim for 20 minutes, but they weren’t going to do it for the rest of my life, that’s for sure.”

His love of English and creative writing had never wavered since his school days, but he admits he made the “wrong” choices in his early days from giving up a place at London’s School of Music to completing a History BA degree, before working full-time for 10 years.

He decided he would finally take the plunge back into higher education and completed an English and Creative Writing Course with the Open University, all while working full-time.

He loved the course and was inspired to take his career further by signing up for the Master’s degree at Sunderland, but his confidence of returning to the classroom after such a long time made him apprehensive. However, he says: “If you’re going to do something, time is of the essence, you literally never know what’s going to be around the corner, it’s what I say to the younger students now. Life has a habit of interfering with the best laid plans so I’m of the mindset now – you just go ahead and do it.”

Despite that early wobble, Anthony found university life and his fellow students of all ages and backgrounds, inspiring, and his grades continued to rise.

He also managed to overcome a collapsed lung half way through his term and had to take a month off to recover. Despite the setback he still managed to achieve an 85 per cent grading for his dissertation, based on culturally traumatic events that indelibly marked society from the Holocaust and Slavery right up to the modern #MeToo movement and how Gothic Science Fiction confronts the patriarchal issues in our society.

The work was selected for the John Buchan Prize. John Buchan was a novelist, historian, journalist, politician, soldier and public servant, and is best known for this influential espionage novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Anthony was presented with his award at the University’s Winter Graduation Ceremonies by John Buchan’s granddaughter, Laura Crackanthorpe.

Anthony Anderson with Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell

Anthony said: “When I started this journey, I never expected to be winning any awards, and this was the first time I’d written a piece like this. So, it was a complete shock when I was told I’d won because John Buchan is legendary, so it’s a huge honour.”

Dr Alison Younger, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Sunderland, said: “Anthony thoroughly deserves this award; his work was exceptional, and he was a joy to teach. We were so impressed with his resilience, given all he’s been through, he’s a real life-changer.”

Long term, Anthony, from Washington, wants to eventually teach his beloved English subject, and will begin his PhD next February at Sunderland.

He says: “Studying the Masters made me realise how much I love the research side. Being in this environment you hear about new ideas all the time and it’s exciting. The academics are at the top of their game and it has benefited me from working with people like Alison and Dr Colin Younger, who give you this confidence to go out and do your own work, not just to recycle arguments you’ve heard before, but think about what you want to say. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

The University of Sunderland’s School of Culture has been working closely with the John Buchan Society and John Buchan Story Museum on a number of collaborative projects.  These have included the digitisation of the Society’s Journal and the redevelopment of the Museum’s website.  For 2018 the Museum, in Peebles, Scotland, helped create a centenary exhibition on John Buchan, as Minister of Information in the final year of World War One.

Steve Watts, Head of the School of Culture, added: “I am delighted with the close collaboration that has been developed with the John Buchan Society and the John Buchan Story Museum.  The University has been working on several projects with the Society and Museum to support them in their aim of making their Journal and artefacts available on-line and accessible to everybody.   

“We would like to join Laura in congratulating Anthony, a truly deserving winner of this year’s John Buchan Prize.”

John Buchan

John Buchan (1875-1940) was born in Perth, Scotland. As well as popular fiction, Buchan was also an historian, diplomat and politician. He was Minister of Information from 1917, was elected to Parliament in 1927, and was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935, where he died, before his ashes were returned to the UK.

John Buchan’s most famous work, The Thirty Nine Steps, was first published in 1915, and was an instant success, particularly among soliders in the trenches during World War One. The book has been adapted for film, TV, radio, stage and even as a computer game, and has never been out of print.

In 1935 he was given the honour of the First Baron of Tweedsmuir. Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in British Columbia, Canada, was named in his honour.

NOW IN THE MUSEUM! – JB’s Blackfoot Hide Cloak & Gauntlets

The Blackfoot hide cloak and gauntlets were presented to John Buchan, Governor General of Canada by Chief Shot-both-Sides.

The cape is possibly made of deer hide, decorated with fringing and appliquèd satin ribbons with embroidered medallions in the centre and corners.

The gauntlets are hide with glass beadwork floral motifs and a paler hide fringing. They are lined with a quilted satin.

Visit the John Buchan Story museum and see it for real!

2018 Winners of the Runagates Club – 27 August 2018


This year’s Runagates Club draw took place on the 27 August – the day after Buchan’s birthday! – in the museum just before Ian Buckingham (Chairman of the Museum Trust) began his talk “John Buchan and the First Nations of Canada”. The photo shows our Treasurer, Peter Macnab, drawing the winning number, 32. The lucky winner with a prize of £390 was William (Bill) Galbraith from Canada. The second prize of £117 (=3x£39) was won by Tom Steele from Peebles with the lucky number of 13.

For further details of the Club please go to the Runagates Club page on this site.


“Huntingtower” – the Missing Film!

This 1927 film has long been lost. However, thanks to the National Library of Scotland we are able watch “SIR HARRY LAUDER VISITS THE REGENT PICTURE HOUSE, GLASGOW, TO VIEW HUNTINGTOWER” –- simply click HERE

              Harry Lauder as Dickson McCunn with the Gorbals Die-Hards in Huntingtower, 1927. During the filming, John Buchan visited the sets in Elstree and exchanged fishing stories with Harry Lauder.