In early November 1935 John Buchan, novelist, war correspondent, historian, essayist, lawyer, politician and publisher, arrived in Canada to take up the position of governor general. He had been appointed to his new role as John Buchan; he sailed up the St Lawrence as Lord Tweedsmuir. Not all Canadians were pleased at this transformation. Many, including Canada’s prime minister Mackenzie King, preferred Canada to be detached from archaic traditions of privilege and preferment, but Buchan was a representative of the king, and a title was deemed necessary.
These were interesting times on both sides of the Atlantic. The 1931 Statute of Westminster had granted Canada constitutional equality with Britain. A dominion with her own parliament since 1867, Canada was now, in theory at least, able to develop her own foreign policy and establish independent relations with other nations. But trouble was brewing in Europe and Canada’s immediate neighbour was the USA. For Britain, sympathetic relations with both her former and her current colonies were crucial. Britain’s man in Canada was required to be astute, tactful, wise and thick-skinned. Did Buchan measure up? J. William Galbraith’s account argues that Buchan not only proved a canny diplomat, but established an affectionate and unusual relationship with the Canadian people.
Buchan’s reputation as the author of best-selling thrillers was not necessarily an asset when it came to establishing himself in a vice-regal role in a vast territory with a scant (around ten million) but diverse population. But he brought with him sixty years of varied and often challenging experience. Born in 1875 a son of the manse, he had grown up in Fife and Glasgow, which acquainted him with both a small mining community on the shores of the Forth and the turbulent realities of an industrial and commercial complex on the Clyde. As Scotland’s gateway to empire, Glasgow perhaps suggested one of the directions Buchan’s life would take.
After Glasgow University Buchan went to Oxford, clearly aiming for an academic life. He was already a published writer, but was disappointed in his academic aspirations. He was called to the bar, but diverged from his legal career when in 1901 he was asked by Lord Milner, high commissioner for Southern Africa, to join his staff. He had two years in South Africa with responsibility for the controversial concentration camps – under his aegis conditions improved – and later for land settlement. It was an experience that would affect his writing and his outlook. ‘I began to see,’ he wrote, ‘that the Empire…might be a potent and beneficent force in the world.’
The eve of World War One saw Buchan a barrister and Tory parliamentary candidate, a husband and father, a regular contributor to The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement, and the author of a just completed novel which would confirm his reputation as a skilled writer of thrillers – The Thirty Nine Steps. Next year, the centenary of its publication in 1915 will no doubt be marked. Buchan’s fragile health kept him from service on the Front, but he had an important role in the years of conflict, both as an historian of the war and as head of the government’s Information Department, all grist to the fictional mill as well as adding to Buchan’s experience of public life. In 1927 he was returned as Unionist MP for the Scottish universities.
Although Buchan’s parliamentary career never brought him the cabinet appointment he wished for, in his various professional and public roles he proved himself highly skilled and adaptable. Thanks largely to his Oxford years, he also had numerous friends and contacts in useful places. When the question arose of who should succeed Lord Bessborough as Canada’s governor general Buchan was not an obvious candidate, which was part of his appeal to Canadians. Although of the establishment, he was also something of a maverick, a commoner without high political office, a conservative with independent views, a serious thinker and a popular novelist. His Scottish identity was perhaps also a factor. Mackenzie King, himself of Scottish and somewhat maverick descent – he was grandson of the volatile radical William Lyon Mackenzie, from Alyth – was leader of Canada’s Liberal opposition and later prime minister. He was keen to have Buchan, although their subsequent relationship would prove ambivalent. King misjudged the tenacity as well as the tact of Buchan’s interpretation of his role. And it was a role that required both, for Canada’s position both in relation to the mother country and on the international stage was evolving. Buchan had a clear perception of how it should take shape.
Part of that perception was his appreciation of Canadian identity. He believed that it was possible and necessary for Canada to be both distinctive and accepting of her dominion status. He helped to engineer the first visit of a reigning monarch to a dominion, in 1939, which presented George VI as king of Canada. As the possibility of war edged closer, the part that Canada might play in a European conflict was a key issue. Although Buchan himself resisted the prospect of another conflict and supported Chamberlain’s Munich agreement, once Canada had declared war against Germany, a week after Britain, his efforts were focused on ensuring smooth cooperation between Britain and Canada. His active and congenial association with President Roosevelt helped to pave the way for the US’s later participation in the war – in 1936, thanks to Buchan, Roosevelt had made the first official visit to Canada by a US president.
As governor general Buchan was an intermediary between governments, but he also sought to draw together the vast and disparate territory that was Canada. He travelled extensively and exhaustingly, often to the detriment of his fragile health. He visited the drought-stricken prairie provinces, the far west beyond the Rocky Mountains, the Maritimes in the east and, most challengingly, the far north. ‘I have been happiest among the men who spend their days on the outer fringes of civilisation,’ he said. If it was a sense of duty that propelled him, it was a love of wild country and its elemental demands that enticed him. But he also had a genuine interest in the people and peoples he encountered, the First Nations, the Inuit, and communities from different parts of Europe. His fluent French was a significant asset in Quebec, and of course wherever he went he encountered the legacy of Scottish immigration.
With the rise of Fascism and the approach of war Buchan stressed his belief in what he called ‘humanitas’, the heart of the Classical Mediterranean tradition and its Christian adaptation. ‘It represents in the widest sense the humanities, the accumulated harvest of the ages, the fine flower of a long discipline of thought,’ he said in a Montreal speech. His optimistic view of the twentieth century’s inheritance may now seem limited and misplaced, but there is no doubting its sincerity and no doubting that humanitas was what drove both his public and his private life.
Photographs of Buchan in Canada show a slight, dapper man often formally dressed for official functions, sometimes more relaxed in some wilderness outpost or indulging in his favourite activity of fishing. He managed to be simultaneously Lord Tweedsmuir and John Buchan, instinctively sensitive to the requirements of privilege and protocol and at the same time responding to the expectations of ‘ordinary people’. He drove himself hard. Alongside his official duties he was always writing, and his final work of fiction is both his best and the most revealing of Buchan himself. Sick Heart River, a tale of a dying man’s search for redemption in Canada’s most unforgiving wilderness, was published in 1941. Buchan had died in Montreal of a cerebral thrombosis in February 1940.
Galbraith’s account of Buchan’s years in Canada is meticulous and detailed – at times perhaps overburdened with detail. It is a workmanlike illumination of the intricacies of diplomacy, internal and external, at a time of great significance in both Europe and North America. It will be read as a useful contribution to imperial history, but it is – as the title suggests – a portrait of a governor general rather than of a man and a writer. (None of his books feature in the index.) Some readers may look for more exploration of the relationship between Buchan’s Scottish Presbyterian origins and his highly developed sense of fairness and responsibility, his judicious intellect and his creative energy. They will certainly flinch at some of the errors – when Buchan is summoned to visit the king he alights at Ballater station ‘near Buckingham Palace’. A sharp-eyed editor might have eliminated some of the repetition and the superfluity of exclamation marks.
In Alberta Buchan was made a chief by the Cree First Nations, who gave him the name Okemow Otatowkew, ‘Teller of Tales’. The echo of R L Stevenson as Tusitala is appropriate. Although very different in personality and in their attitudes to convention, Buchan and Stevenson shared more than their Scottish origins and upbringing, their physical vulnerability and a similarity in the manner of their deaths. They both had a powerful sense of obligation and empathy, often expressed and enacted outwith the country of their birth. They were both attracted by environments that freed them from constraint. They both used their writing to explore worlds unfettered by the quotidian. They both absorbed a new identity from the places where they lived their last years. And they both help us to understand the complex story of Scotland’s imperial role. In recent decades Stevenson has been rescued from the shelf marked ‘adventure stories for boys’. Galbraith’s book suggests, though perhaps inadvertently, that now it’s Buchan’s turn.
J. William Galbraith
John Buchan Model Governor General
DUNDURN, £26.99, ISBN 978-1459709379, 544PP