One of the most popular novelists of the 20th Century, John Buchan is forever known for his best-selling work The Thirty Nine Steps and the books that followed in the series. However, he was much more than ‘just’ a novelist. At various times also a journalist, historian, diplomat, politician and soldier, Buchan was a hugely influential figure – a polymath with an international reputation, but who always retained a strong local connection with Peebles and wider Tweeddale.
Although born in Perth in 1875, the son of a Free Church minister, Buchan had strong family links with Tweeddale, where his father once stood in as minister of Broughton Free Church, near Peebles. Buchan’s parents had themselves grown up in the area and family holidays were often spent in and around Tweeddale, leading to Buchan’s love for the Borders countryside and its people.
In the early years following his graduation from Oxford, Buchan combined writing with a stint serving as a diplomat in South Africa from 1901 to 1903. There followed a career in publishing before he served as a member of British Intelligence during the First World War.
Following the war, Buchan took up a post as Director of Reuters news agency and also began to write historical works, becoming President of the Scottish Historical Society. His career took a further turn in 1927 when he was elected as Member of Parliament for Scottish Universities before a further appointment, in 1933, as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
But both roles were relinquished in 1935 when he was appointed Governor General of Canada – a post occupied until his death five years later. During his time in Canada, Buchan travelled widely, and was enthusiastic in his promotion of the evolution of Canadian culture.
He was also ennobled at the same time, choosing the title 1st Baron of Tweedsmuir as a special nod to one of the places he loved most.
Buchan’s remarkable life is wonderfully explained by the excellent John Buchan Story housed in the Chambers Institution on Peebles High Street. It provides a fascinating account of a full life lived well, with a few nice additional touches: look out for the books written by Buchan’s sister, Anna, who wrote more than a dozen novels under the pen name Olivia Douglas to avoid confusion with her brother’s works.
The John Buchan Story in Peebles is open from Easter weekend until the end of October, although staff are always happy to accommodate visitor requests during the winter months.
Do ask about a new 60-minute audio trail that enables visitors to follow in Buchan’s footsteps around the centre of town.
And for a taste of the countryside that Buchan loved so much, why not put on your walking boots and step out on the John Buchan Way – a delightful 14-mile trail between Peebles and Broughton.
Photography: Rich Rowe