John Buchan is one of Scotland’s most popular writers. He is best known for one book, The Thirty-Nine Steps, seen by many as the first ‘spy thriller’ and his hero Richard Hannay as ‘the father of James Bond’. Yet this represents just one aspect of a massive literary talent. Buchan was not only a novelist, but a biographer, poet, historian, journalist (The Spectator), critic and publisher. Alongside his writing, he assumed many public roles, (Including Director of Intelligence in the First World War and Governor General of Canada) to which he brought enormous commitment and moral conviction. The John Buchan Story, located in Peebles, follows his extraordinary career and life. The museum is small but perfectly formed and, staffed by incredibly committed volunteers.
‘The John Buchan Story’ explores Buchan’s life and legacy, showing the variety and scale of his personal experience and literary output, beyond “The Thirty Nine Steps”. Using personal artefacts, family photographs and Buchan’s own writing, a truly remarkable story unfolds. The reading room contains a complete collection of Buchan’s published works, together with letters from luminaries such as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. “I cannot thank you enough for all the help you gave me with my speeches” reads a letter from King George VI.
A lifelong passion
Buchan was born in Perth (1875), brought up in Glasgow and spent much of his adult life in England, but Tweeddale is where his soul resides. This is where he spent his youthful summers, at his grandparents’ Broughton farmhouse (in a house his ancestors still live in today), hiking across the moors and fishing in the Tweed. ‘My chief passion,’ he recalled, ‘was for the Border countryside, and my object in all my prentice writings was to reproduce its delicate charm.’
Anna & Walter Buchan
‘The John Buchan Story’ also portrays his family’s broader associations with Peebles and illustrates some of their achievements. His sister Anna and brother Walter became residents of Peebles. Encouraged by Buchan, Anna became a successful novelist, writing under the pen-name of O Douglas. Walter, a keen local historian, took a leading role in the life of Peebles as a local solicitor.
The Thirty Nine Steps
The Thirty-Nine Steps is Buchan’s first and most famous adventure story, published in October 1915 by William Blackwood and Sons of Edinburgh. It is the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay. Hannay is an all-action hero with a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. Until fairly recently I had’t read the book but was in love with the films. The book differs quite a lot from the films. There are no women in the book, no submarines and no dramatic escapes across the Forth Road Bridge. Buchan wrote four more Hannay novels – he was a practical Scot, and he discovered that they made money. ‘I always felt a little ashamed that profit should accrue from what had given me so much amusement,’ he reflected towards the end of his busy life. ‘I had no purpose in writing except to please myself; and even if my books had not found a single reader I would have felt amply repaid.’ Despite a succession of demanding jobs and a lifetime of ill-health Buchan somehow managed to write 100 books. His 30 novels are best remembered, but he also published numerous biographies, and a 24-volume history of the Great War. Buchan died of a brain haemorrhage in Montreal 1940. Buchan loved the Borders and the Borders still loves him back.
My favourite film is the 1935, black and white version, directed by Hitchcock, with Robert Donat and Madelaine Carroll. It is regarded by many critics as the superior film version. In 1999 it came 4th in a British Film Institute poll of British Films. Total Film (2004) named it the 21st greatest film of all time. The 1959 colour version stars Kenneth More and Taina Elg and is closely based on Hitchcocks adaptation, with Hannay’s dramatic escape from a train crossing the Forth Road Bridge. In the 2008 version, with Rupert Penry-Jones as our hero, the storyline only very tenuously follows that of the book. Many of the characters were omitted or had their names changed. The film ends with a scene involving a submarine in a Scottish loch, rather than the original setting off the Kent coast.
The Peebles of John Buchan Audio Trai
The Peebles of John Buchan is a 60 minute audio trail with a beautiful artist-produced map, by Inge Panneel. It invites visitors to hear the words of the great man as they trace his footsteps around town. You can take the map home as a souvenir of your tour.