Author of Thirty-Nine Steps which inspired 007 and Hitchcock
John Buchan’s gentleman spy, Richard Hannay, outstripped his pursuers at every turn and was the precursor to James Bond 007.
Buchan was born in Perth in 1875 and it was his father’s profession as Free Kirk’s minister that brought the family to Kirkcaldy where he remained until he was 13 years old.
Bond creator Ian Fleming is said to have been inspired by Buchan’s Hannay novels, including his most famous book, The Thirty-Nine Steps.
Buchan’s name became known around the world for the classic thriller that inspired many adaptations, including Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1935 film.
Yet there was so much more to ‘JB’ who was a prolific writer of over 100 books and 1,000 articles for newspapers and magazines before his death in 1940.
Buchan was also an academic, antiquarian, colonial administrator, publisher, war correspondent, director of war propaganda, Unionist MP and, at the time of his death, Governor General of Canada.
Buchan was intensely loyal to Scotland
The Buchan author’s granddaughter, Ursula, is trying to keep her memory alive and has shed light on the thriller writer’s relatively humble beginnings in Kirkcaldy.
Ursula, who lives in Peterborough, walked the Thirty-Nine Steps to see where he spent his childhood and said Buchan had always been intensely loyal to Scotland.
“As you know he was born at 20 York Place in Perth on 26th August 1875, but he left Perth as a baby, only about three months old, when his father, Minister of the John Knox Free Kirk in Perth , was called to a church at Pathhead on the Fife coast,” she said.
“John attended Burgh School, later renamed Kirkcaldy High School, from the age of 11, and the family remained there until John’s father was called to Glasgow when John was 13.
“So JB’s childhood was spent in the kingdom of Fife, and it was a very happy childhood, remembered in two of his novels, Prester John and The Free Fishers.
‘Pathhead Rectory was on Smeaton Road, near the Nairn linoleum works, and opposite a colliery, laundry and rope way.
“As for Perth, there is a plaque at 20 York Place.
“I know he was very proud to be Scottish, and he was proud to have made his way in the world, without privilege, relying on his rigorous but happy Scottish childhood and youth.”
He was 13 when his father was called to a Gorbal church.
Buchan stayed in Glasgow until he was 20 before successfully winning a scholarship to Oxford University and he never lived north of the border again.
A trio of books published during World War I cemented his reputation as a thriller writer and the first of these was The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915.
“I don’t think it’s her best novel, although it’s very good, and much better written and smarter than a lot of comparable thrillers at the time,” Ursula said.
“It was written very quickly, at the start of the Great War, and it was an immediate critical and commercial success, probably because it appealed to civilians as well as the military. The men in the trenches are known to have particularly enjoyed it because it was very short, to the point, escapist, and it was about a man desperately trying to salvage their country’s defense secrets. You can see why all of this would appeal to them.
“The Thirty-Nine Steps always makes lists of the top 100 novels.”
The movie was better than the book!
Buchan sold the film rights for £800 and master of suspense Hitchcock used the ‘runaway man’ theme to create his first masterpiece in 1935.
“John completely understood the power of the film, which is why he told the boss of Gaumont-British, who made the film, that it was much better than the book!
“No writer had apparently ever told him that before, but it shows John’s modesty, sense of humor and appreciation for what the film could do.
“We must not forget the other two film versions, one in the 1950s with Kenneth More as Hannay, and the other in the late 1970s, with Robert Powell. They’re all very enjoyable and worth watching, and they’re on TV quite often.
But it was in 1933 that he won the Freedom of Perth at City Hall, which filled him with as much pride as anything he achieved in his literary life.
“I think it has to do with the pride he had in being a Scot, which he never lost, even though he lived in England as an adult, until went to Canada as Governor General in 1935 and died there in 1940,” said Ursule.
“When he was in Canada, he was always very fond of meeting those of Scottish descent who had settled in Canada, especially if they were from Perth, Kirkcaldy, Glasgow or Peeblesshire, which were the places he knew best. .
“I have visited Perth, where I marveled at the majesty of the River Tay, when the John Buchan Society met there some years ago, and I have also been to Pathhead and Kirkcaldy, to see where he spent his childhood.I walked on the beach near Dysart, where he learned to swim and which he describes at the beginning of Prester John, listening to the whistling of the oystercatchers, which was unforgettable.
“I searched, in vain, for the rectory in Smeaton Road and the kirk in St Clair Road, to get a sense of what it was like to grow up in that environment.
“I definitely understood my grandfather better, having visited Perth and Fife, and got to see the places he had known in his formative years.”
When Buchan died in office in 1940, the editor of The Times newspaper said he had never received so many letters about a public figure before.
He had just signed contracts for five books before his death and he was going to leave Canada this fall and return to Oxfordshire to write.
“Very sadly, he passed away many years before I was born, which of course I deeply regret,” Ursula said.
“But he was only 64 when he died, which makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable.
“I remember very well my grandmother, his widow, because she lived until she was ninety years old.
“I wrote about going to visit him in the afterword to my biography of John Buchan.
“She was a huge influence on me, as she encouraged me a lot to read a lot and study hard, and I took her advice seriously.”
Tears rolled down their cheeks
Ursula used family documents, papers and photographs to write an in-depth biography of her grandfather which landed in 2019 to excellent critical reviews.
She said: “Of course I’m very proud of his heritage: he was a man who, while not born into wealth or high social status, made his way in the world entirely through hard work, his high principles and his courage in the face of pain and long-term chronic illnesses (he was dogged by duodenal ulcers for most of his adult life, which could not be cured in the days before antibiotics .)
“And thanks to his qualities, and the appeal of his writing, he is still widely read today.
“Everything he wrote is available in print or as a digital download, there is a flourishing John Buchan Societythere is a fantastic museum, the John Buchan Story Museum, in the Chambers Institution in Peebles, and there is a John Buchan Way for walkers which stretches 11 miles from Broughton to Peebles.
“All this, I highly recommend it!”
Buchan never forgot his Scottish roots during his lifetime.
“While I was writing the book, I came across many stories of his kindness and philanthropy that really touched me, but only one thing stood out: he was inspecting a dam in a very remote place in Canada and the whole region had come to hear him speak.
“He was told there was a Scottish couple, who had emigrated from the Borders 40 years previously, who had traveled 100 miles to ‘take a look at John Buchan’.
“He asked to meet them and spoke to them in their own Lowland Scots dialect, as tears rolled down their cheeks.”
It was the magic of John Buchan.
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[Thirty-Nine Steps author who inspired 007 and Hitchcock]