John Buchan, the Presbyterian Cavalier

By Kernohan, R. D. | Contemporary Review, February 1993 | Go to article overview

John Buchan, the Presbyterian Cavalier


Kernohan, R. D., Contemporary Review


IT isn't unusual for successful thriller-writers to take their most popular books less seriously than readers do. The writers may have been intensely committed to causes their best-known books hardly hint at, and proudest of other books that were not to outlive them.

Rider Haggard was knighted for services to agriculture, not for King Solomon's Mines. His extra-curricular enthusiasms included support for the authenticity of the Jerusalem site known as 'Gordon's Calvary'. Conan Doyle, though foiled in his bid to kill off Sherlock Holmes, became an historian of the Boer War and devotee of spiritualism and psychic research. John Buchan spent more time on serious biographies and histories than on the thrillers that remain in print, more than 50 years after his death while serving as Governor-General of Canada. He had also been a Tory member of parliament before becoming Lord Tweedsmuir and was a notable lay theologian.

Like Conan Doyle, and much more than Rider Haggard, Buchan created works of art from what might otherwise have been a mixture of pleasant relaxation and useful remuneration. The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle achieve a classic perfection of their kind. Moreover, Buchan brought to thrillers set anywhere from Scottish deer-forests to the Transvaal highveld by way of the Danube something of Sir Walter Scott's capacity to extract the most from atmosphere and environment.

There is more to Buchan than this, and in one important respect he differs from Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. In Buchan's case his beliefs, dilemmas, and interpretations of history are reflected in his thrillers as well as in his 'serious' writing and the speeches and lectures of his public life. And in his case it is not always possible to keep a rigid distinction between what was written for fun and profit and what conveys an earnestly high moral and artistic intent.

Perhaps that is as it should be in a son of the Scots manse who, even when he lived in a manor-house near Oxford, retained his attachment to the Kirk. He also wrote a notable analysis of the Scots religious tradition to mark the Presbyterian reunion in 1929 which shaped the present Church of Scotland and shortly afterwards was Lord High Commissioner -- the royal representative -- to the reunited Church's General Assembly.

But Buchan was not just a Presbyterian elder. He was also a Presbyterian Romantic and, in a phrase he coined for his historical heroes, the Presbyterian Cavalier.

Buchan's original 'Presbyterian Cavalier' was James Graham, Marquis of Montrose. In 1638 Montrose was one of the leaders of the Scots National Covenant of resistance to Charles I but he later took the King's side in the Civil War. Though beaten at last, he waged a brilliant campaign against the Clan Campbell and the second-string army left at home in the Lowlands when the Scots sent their first team to play on the Parliamentary side in England. He was eventually executed, amid the execration of the dominant party in the Kirk, after the failure of a later foray. Buchan portrayed him (in the biography which is probably the most enduring of his 'serious' books) not just as a master of small-scale mobile war but as a political philosopher and a religious moderate whose ability to combine conviction with tolerance was far ahead of his time.

There were other heroes whom Buchan classed as 'Presbyterian cavaliers', notably the Virginian soldier 'Stonewall' Jackson and the First World War British commander Douglas Haig, who had also been a Brasenose man at Oxford and whom he served in what would now be called public relations.

Yet the really devoted Presbyterian cavalier was Buchan himself, son of a Free Kirk minister who had combined enthusiasm for two Scottish traditions usually thought hopelessly at odds with each other: those of the Covenanters and the Jacobites. In fact the two influences can be traced in many Scots: for example in Burns; in Sir Walter Scott, whom Buchan so much admired and took as another of his serious biographical subjects; and as any reader of Kidnapped must remember, in Robert Louis Stevenson. …

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