John Buchan wrote over 100 books in his lifetime. John Macnab is the one that resonates most with sporting souls because Buchan was a consummate countryman.
John Buchan (1875-1940) penned more than a hundred books, including historical studies and novels, biographies and the adventures for which he was best known, including The Thirty-Nine Steps. His 40 works of fiction have kept generations in thrall, with characters, including Sir Edward Leithen, often appearing in more than one book. This sense of familiarity is one of the great pleasures of reading a John Buchan book. A favourite is The Runagates Club, in which 12 Buchan heroes convene once a month at their London club to tell stories of mystery and intrigue.
John Buchan’s career was multifaceted. Very much a man of his time, he practised at the Bar (after reading classics at Oxford) for a short spell before becoming a publisher. He worked for the government in various roles, wrote for The Spectator and was a war correspondent for The Times. He was an MP and university chancellor, and became Lord Tweedsmuir in 1935 on appointment to the role of govenor-general of Canada. His role in this world was underpinned by his incredible imagination and gift for storytelling.
“He was what the Scots call a ‘man of parts’,” says his granddaughter, Lady Stewartby. “His early life in the Scottish kirk was very disciplined, his father was a Calvinist Presbyterian minister but he also wrote fairy stories.”
John Buchan grew up in Kirkcaldy and spent his childhood in the hills and valleys he wrote about with such affection. “My grandmother [Lady Tweedsmuir] observed in 1947: ‘I began to understand more and more the roots from which John had sprung and from which he derived the romantic and poetic aspects of his character, which ran side by side with his common sense and his ability to grasp hard facts. In the Scotland before 1914 there was an awareness of past history which was woven into the daily life of the people. The glens and woods where the clans had marauded and fought were still haunted with memories of violence and tragedy. Memories went back a long way and curious links with the past were not uncommon.”
JOHN BUCHAN: A CONSUMMATE COUNTRYMAN
This magic remained with him throughout his life. “As a boy my grandfather spent a year in bed after an accident,” says Lady Stewartby. “His mother would read to him every day and encourage him to write.” The first chapter in Buchan’s memoir, Memory Hold-The-Door (1940) “expressed his life-long fascination with and love for the British countryside” says Kenneth Hillier, chairman of the John Buchan Society. “He was in tune with the shooting, hunting and fishing world. He edited a fishing anthology, Musa Piscatrix, for John Lane in 1896 (still just 21) and Walton’s The Compleat Angler for Methuen in 1901,” he says. He also rode, walked and stalked all over Galloway, hunting hares on horseback with greyhounds and swimming horses over the Fleet estuary at high tide.
On his return to Oxfordshire in 1919, such high jinks were replaced with fishing on the Glyme and Windrush with his eldest son, Johnnie. John Buchan was a fearsome fisherman. His son recalled how the author could easily throw a salmon fly 30yd: “The rod appeared to do his work for him. The perfect curve of his back cast seemed to follow forward with the fly drawing out the long, straight line ahead, independent of his agency. It is the hallmark of all experts that the instrument appears to do its own work.”
Family holidays were spent in the Borders or Highlands, fishing for sea-trout, bird-watching on the island of Unst and stalking. Buchan loved stalking, and was able to cover 20 miles a day for several days. Buchan could write about John Macnab’s exploits because he knew both beast and fish intimately, and the backdrop was the fabric of his sporting life.
His love of the countryside remained when he went to Canada as govenor-general. “I proved the value of trying different patterns of flies, for I got most of my fish after going over the same water with three or four different flies… I fished with fairly fine tackle and I have never had better fights than with these Canadian salmon, for they were fresh from the sea,” he wrote in June 1937.
COMBINING THE ROMANTICALLY RURAL WITH DEVILISH DEEDS
Wherever his career led him, John Buchan absorbed the surroundings and mined his life there to create an exceptional body of work. “He drew on his own experiences for much of his work, such as the third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast,” says Lady Stewartby. “In Greenmantle he predicted the rise of Fundamentalism, he explored time travel in The Gap in the Curtain and examined history with his The Marquis of Montrose. His books remain relevant for all sorts of reasons.”
His penchant for storytelling never ceased. He had completed all but two chapters of a book about fishing before he died. The working title was Pilgrim’s Rest. It begins, “If fishing, as I maintain, be not only a craft but a way of life, then a fisherman must begin young.”
Buchan’s brilliance was that he could combine the rural, romantic part of his nature with the visceral pleasure of dastardly and devilish plots and heroic deeds. Richard Hannay, on the run in The Thirty-Nine Steps, tells us as much about the beauty of the landscape the fugitive crosses as about the manhunt. John Macnab is a paean to the Scottish scenery, spritzed with just the right amount of spirit of adventure. So why not take up his mantle, read John Macnab and have your own Buchanesque adventure this year?
The story of John Macnab holds particular allure for the sportsman because it was written by a consummate countryman. Buchan was imbued with the nuances of the field and the technicalities of the sport. He also had an unparalleled sense of adventure and the ability to write a cracking yarn.
When the city loses its lustre in late summer, a sporting blade’s thoughts turn north. The anticipation of heather, hills and sporting glory are all that is needed to slough off the carapace of boredom and don fresh tweed.
The John Buchan Society exists to promote a wider understanding of the man and his works. Membership is open to anyone who has an interest in any aspect of John Buchan’s life. The John Buchan Museum in Peebles opened recently and welcomes visitors. To learn more, visit www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk.