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Authors: John Buchan

John MacNab


John Buchan led a truly extraordinary life: he was a diplomat, soldier, barrister, journalist, historian, politician, publisher, poet and novelist. He was born in Perth in 1875, the eldest son of a Free Church of Scotland minister, and educated at Hutcheson's Grammar School in Glasgow. He graduated from Glasgow University then took a scholarship to Oxford. During his time there – ‘spent peacefully in an enclave like a monastery' – he wrote two historical novels.

In 1901 he became a barrister of the Middle Temple and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa. In 1907 he married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor; they had three sons and a daughter. After spells as a war correspondent, Lloyd George's Director of Information and a Conservative MP, Buchan moved to Canada in 1935 where he became the first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield.

Despite poor health throughout his life, Buchan's literary output was remarkable – thirty novels, over sixty non-fiction books, including biographies of Sir Walter Scott and Oliver Cromwell, and seven collections of short stories. His distinctive thrillers – ‘shockers' as he called them – were characterised by suspenseful atmosphere, conspiracy theories and romantic heroes, notably Richard Hannay (based on the real-life military spy William Ironside) and Sir Edward Leithen. Buchan was a favourite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose screen adaptation of
The Thirty-Nine Steps
was phenomenally successful.

John Buchan served as Governor-General in Canada from 1935 until his death in 1940, the year his autobiography
Memory Hold-the-door
was published.

is the author of six collections of poetry, two books about his Himalayan expeditions
(Summit Fever
Kingdoms of Experience),
and five novels including
The Return of John Macnab,
to which he is currently completing a sequel. His latest book is
Preferred Lies,
a memoir about golf and everything else.

John Macnab

Introduced by Andrew Greig

This eBook edition published in 2011 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road

First published in 1924 by Chambers Journal.
This edition first published in 2007 by Polygon books, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

Copyright © The Lord Tweedsmuir and Jean, Lady Tweedsmuir
Introduction copyright © Andrew Greig, 2007

Map courtesy of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form, without the express written permission of the publisher.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-113-2

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.


‘So you reckon I'm a bit like this John Macnab bloke?' Mal Duff mused as our truck bumped across the Tibetan plateau with the still-unclimbed North-East Ridge of Everest diminishing behind us. ‘Didn't he shoot a salmon, a stag and a brace of grouse all in the same day?'

I shook my head. ‘No, that's a debased form of the original ploy. The original was a challenge that he could
a deer or a salmon from three Highland estates between such and such a date,
telling the owners he was going to.'

‘Wow, that's brilliant!' Mal had looked exhausted and depressed since he'd torn his diaphragm at 8,000 metres, somehow struggled off the Ridge and shortly thereafter called off our Expedition. Now he was back to his enthused, unstoppable self. ‘You can shoot, can't you, Andy?'

I nodded. I'd been brought up in the country, could use a .22, had been in the rifle club at school.

‘And I can catch the salmon, no problem. And then we've got the climbing – that'll give us an edge over the ghillies. I've an SAS mate who can get us infra-red gear . . .'

I wasn't sure what he was raving about, but it was good to see my old friend coming alive again.

‘Of course, we'd need to up the stakes a bit,' he mused. ‘Let the papers know, make it into a bit of a Land Access rights thing . . .' He thumped the ancient dashboard of the Chinese truck and whooped. ‘Got it! The third estate has got to be Balmoral! When the Royals are there!'

I looked at him, then at Everest, still massive behind us. I'd thought he'd been joking when he first brought that one up.

‘Duff,' I said, ‘you're completely crazy. We can't do it.'

‘For when we get a bit old for this Himalayan malarkey! If this John Macnab fella could do it, why can't we?'

‘In the first place John Macnab wasn't one person, he was three. And secondly, he didn't exist. It was a story by John Buchan.'

Thirty-Nine Steps
fella?' I nodded, he gazed off into the distance, in the direction of home, Scotland. ‘So we do it for real.'

As it happens there
a real progenitor for John Macnab: Captain James Brander Dunbar, born in 1875, the same year as Buchan. An upper-class, ex-Boer War eccentric, spy, crack shot and terrific fisherman, flouter of convention while being a Tory to the core – his successful wager with Lord Abinger that he could poach a stag from his estate had become legendary.

If Brander sounds like one of Buchan's high-achieving, stirring Tory heroes, there's a reason: Buchan's key characters, however dashing and improbably multi-talented, were always drawn from experience. When Buchan writes of a winter crossing of the Alps, stirring up revolution in the Balkans, using a trick of the wind to mis-direct deer, giving a hustings speech as a nervous Tory candidate (a recurrent scene), the burdens of high office and dyspepsia, crawling through Highland estates with a ghillie and a gun, teasing salmon with a dry-fly, he had either done it himself or knew well people who had.

This gives his writing authority, passion and conviction, however improbable the tale. And though the social and political attitudes of his times have vanished, Buchan's writing still reads well, for his model was Stevenson, not Scott. The prose remains clear, stripped and yet stirring, combining pace, reflection and uncluttered, characterful narration. Though socially ambitious, Buchan's interest in, attention to and respect for ghillies and ‘tinklers' and ‘other ranks' makes for a wide range of encounters in
John Macnab,
most memorably with ‘Fish Benjie' whose name closes the tale. The various Scots of the book – Lallans, Doric and Highland – are parts of a remarkable linguistic patchwork, happily embracing inter-textuality and much quotation from classics, folk-tale, Scott, the Bible, Bunyan.

John Macnab
stands apart fom the Richard Hannay novels. It is an adventure, not a thriller. There is no great Jewish-anarchist-Bolshevik conspiracy, no great cause into which the heroes are reluctantly drawn. The nearest we come to a baddie is Johnson Claybody, the heir of a self-made millionaire, whose crime is his pompous priggishness, self-importance, materialism and an entire absence of humour or romance.

It also has the most interesting female character in Buchan's fiction in Janet Raden, daughter of Lord Raden, an old-aristocracy Highland landowner. Like all Buchan's good women, she is essentially a chap, at home on the hill, wearing breeches, adept at fishing and stalking, with ‘the eyes of an adorable boy'. (Just as Sandy Arbuthnot, the most romantic of Buchan's heroes, is repeatedly described as having ‘the eyes of a girl'.) Not only does Archie Roylance (the Fourth Macnab in the way George Martin was the Fifth Beatle) fall in love with her in an almost Wodehousian tongue-tied way, but she utters the most unexpected and striking and perhaps deeply-felt notions in the book. She argues passionately with Archie that the old aristocracy are dying, are losing their place and possessions,
because they deserve to.
Her phrases jump out, startling Archie and ourselves equally: ‘We've long ago lost our justification'; ‘Nobody in the world today has a right to anything he can't justify'. When Archie says this sounds like Bolshevik talk, she retorts it probably is.

Though a Tory to the core, Buchan was an odd and peculiarly Scottish one. Here he argues – and no one, least of all Archie, contradicts Janet – a radical meritocracy. The status quo itself is no justification. Buchan and his characters consistently approve the self-creating nature of American and Colonial life, the lack of ‘side' and social inhibition.

John Macnab
is the sunniest of Buchan's fictions, as
Sick Heart River
is the most dark and deeply felt. Both take Sir Edward Leithen as the central character, the one Buchan wryly acknowledged as being closest to himself: a dry, if successful, over-worked, assiduous, sober lawyer. Along with his friends Palliser-Yates (something big in the City, the least rendered character) and Lord Lamancha (Cabinet Minister and crack shot) he suffers from ‘taedium vitae'. Work and play have lost their savour. ‘I daresay it's due somehow to the war' – and the Great War is the key backdrop to this tale, as it was in Buchan's life. They have got too deeply into their comfort zone, and, lacking a war or crisis, their only solution is to generate a challenge and risk failure and ridicule. Turning their backs on analysis and the ‘talking cure', they take up the Stalking Cure.

This theme of comfort zone, staleness and cure by self-created adventure (which can include falling in love) is the heart of
John Macnab,
and it remains lasting and universal. We may live in an age of anxiety and insecurity; it is equally true that we suffer at times from staleness, predictability and living too long inside our comfort zone. That was what drew Mal Duff to the book, for climbing arises more from a terror of boredom than any self-destructive tendency.

A comic outlook does not come naturally to the son of a Free Kirk minister. His fictions can be dashing, stirring, dramatic, but they are always high-minded and Presbyterian at heart. But
John Macnab
is a comedy-adventure, full of flicks of wit, mischief, mockery and mickey-taking (his portrait of the newly-arrived Lady Claybody is quite inspired); like all good comedy it ends (without giving too much away) in an engagement, a feast, self-knowledge (‘I think we have all made fools of ourselves'), forgiveness and healing.

We never did our John Macnab ploy, of course, though there was a certain amount of, shall I say, reconnaissance and research. Mal kept going on expeditions, I was ill, we both got older, and one day I realised I was better fitted to write it than do it. So I wrote
The Return of John Macnab,
with somewhat less elevated protagonists, very different politics, and a Janet Raden character that ran away with the book, the ploy and several hearts. It was a very different take on land ownership, hunting, politics, love and sex, reflecting the distance between now and then.

Yet the heart of Macnab remains the same: for those times when our lives lose their savour, we can turn to the self-created adventure, the challenge, the game, whether it be poaching, climbing or falling in love. I sent up Mal Duff something rotten in the Alastair Sutherland character, which he greatly enjoyed. He was still urging we should do Macnab for real the last time we had a drink together, before he set off on another Everest expedition. He died unexpectedly from a heart attack in his tent. I miss him still, as Buchan so patently missed and mourned for his brother and the friends who died in the Great War, those whose absence and whose memory so inform this rather wonderful and oddly touching book – a lasting celebration of adventures, hills and rivers and friendships shared.

Andrew Greig
May 2007


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