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Hero Ahead of His Time

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I spent the freezing cold winter of 1976 working in a flowering bulb nursery in Haarlem in Holland. Every day after work, I slipped and slid along frozen canals on wooden skates that Pieter Bruegel would have recognized, then retired to my room to try to teach myself Dutch. I was young and sometimes homesick, so I turned quite often in relief to English books that I borrowed from the local library. One day I found a copy of Montrose, written by my grandfather, John Buchan, and published in 1928. Despite having been taught at university to be pretty sniffy about any history that made personality, rather than socio-economic forces, the driver of great events, I nevertheless thankfully abandoned my Dutch and read the book straight through.

I wrote to my 93-year-old grandmother to tell her how much I had been moved, impressed and, frankly, horrified by it. She replied that she was very pleased that I had come to discover the merits of Montrose for myself, since she had made a point of never pressing her husband’s works upon the grandchildren he had died too early to meet.

This was the perfect truth, which even now makes me want to cry out: ‘Why ever not?’ Was it an habitual reticence, in a woman who was 19 when Queen Victoria died, or a fear that I might be put off the man and his hundred books by pressure from her, or even, perhaps, an unassuaged grief, that struck her dumb and denied me the priceless knowledge of how and why and in what way the books were written? I can recall us talking of the works of writers she had known ‒ H. G. Wells, A. L. Rowse, Virginia Woolf and Henry Newbolt ‒ as well as of the German poets she liked, especially Goethe and Heine, but rarely, if ever, of her husband’s books. So, although I have read and reread his twenty-eight novels over the years – especially when I’m ill or out of sorts, and in need of sprightly prose and thrilling excitement – it’s taken me half a lifetime to discover and

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I spent the freezing cold winter of 1976 working in a flowering bulb nursery in Haarlem in Holland. Every day after work, I slipped and slid along frozen canals on wooden skates that Pieter Bruegel would have recognized, then retired to my room to try to teach myself Dutch. I was young and sometimes homesick, so I turned quite often in relief to English books that I borrowed from the local library. One day I found a copy of Montrose, written by my grandfather, John Buchan, and published in 1928. Despite having been taught at university to be pretty sniffy about any history that made personality, rather than socio-economic forces, the driver of great events, I nevertheless thankfully abandoned my Dutch and read the book straight through.

I wrote to my 93-year-old grandmother to tell her how much I had been moved, impressed and, frankly, horrified by it. She replied that she was very pleased that I had come to discover the merits of Montrose for myself, since she had made a point of never pressing her husband’s works upon the grandchildren he had died too early to meet. This was the perfect truth, which even now makes me want to cry out: ‘Why ever not?’ Was it an habitual reticence, in a woman who was 19 when Queen Victoria died, or a fear that I might be put off the man and his hundred books by pressure from her, or even, perhaps, an unassuaged grief, that struck her dumb and denied me the priceless knowledge of how and why and in what way the books were written? I can recall us talking of the works of writers she had known ‒ H. G. Wells, A. L. Rowse, Virginia Woolf and Henry Newbolt ‒ as well as of the German poets she liked, especially Goethe and Heine, but rarely, if ever, of her husband’s books. So, although I have read and reread his twenty-eight novels over the years – especially when I’m ill or out of sorts, and in need of sprightly prose and thrilling excitement – it’s taken me half a lifetime to discover and take pleasure in the short stories, the poetry (much of it in Scots dialect), the military histories, the political thought and, of course, the biographies – of Oliver Cromwell, Sir Walter Raleigh, Augustus, Julius Caesar, Sir Walter Scott, as well as the Marquis of Montrose. It’s been my loss. In the 1920s, Buchan wrote his fiction and non-fiction at weekends at his home near Oxford, after busy weeks spent in London working for Thomas Nelson, the publisher, as well as Reuters and, from 1927, as a Conservative MP. Montrose was the fruit of much research in contemporary accounts and pamphlets (he had a well-stocked library) and indeed was a second stab at the subject. In 1913, he had published a shorter book, mainly dealing with Montrose’s campaigns, but he had not yet learned to be entirely objective about his hero and the result was not popular with the critics. He made a much better fist of the task the second time round. He said his aim was to ‘present a great figure in its appropriate setting’ and for someone like me, brought up in England and completely ignorant of the religious struggles in seventeenth-century Scotland, this is exactly what he does. This book may one day be superseded in scholarship (although apparently it is still considered the definitive biography) but I should be surprised if it were ever bettered for readability. Clarity of thought, brevity of expression, acute historical imagination, breadth of learning and courage of conviction were the hallmarks of his biographies, and Montrose exhibits all these qualities. His subject, James Graham (1612‒50), head of the clan Graham, was certainly a remarkable man. Scholar, sportsman and poet, he was a devout Presbyterian who signed the National Covenant against the imposition of Laud’s prayer book in 1638 and opposed Charles I, before coming to realize that the Covenanters were determined to extend their influence into the civil sphere and establish an oppressive theocracy. This he could not support, which is why he never signed the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, the promise made by Scottish Presbyterians to join with English Parliamentarians against the King. During what is now known as the War of the Three Kingdoms, Charles made him a Marquis and then, in 1645, his Captain-General in Scotland, although initially he had no army. He travelled from Carlisle to Scotland disguised as a groom, with ‘two followers, four sorry horses, little money and no baggage’. However, he was joined by the Earl of Antrim’s 2,000 well-trained Irish levies, under the charismatic leadership of Alasdair Macdonald, known as ‘Colkitto’, and together they won a series of stunning military encounters for the King, often when seriously outnumbered. The most notable were Tippermuir in 1644, and Inverlochy, Auldearn, Alford and Kilsyth in 1645. All Scotland was now at Montrose’s feet but, after Charles’ defeat at Naseby, it could not last. In the end, Montrose was beaten by the treachery, self-interest or half-heartedness of Scottish chieftains, Colkitto’s defection to wage his own battle against the Marquess of Argyll and clan Campbell, and the brilliance of another great commander, David Leslie, who caught Montrose by surprise at Philiphaugh in the Borders in September 1645, and ruined the Royalist cause in Scotland until the return of Charles II. It is hard to hold back the tears when reading the account of Montrose’s betrayal, capture, removal to Edinburgh and brave death by hanging, aged only 37, in 1650. The strengths of Montrose are the vivid descriptions of weather and landscape, the understanding of military tactics, religious profundities and political wranglings, and the portrayal of a man (usually) of honour and integrity, a romantic who was cast in a heroic mould and born well ahead of his time.  Montrose won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, but I should be surprised if it is on many people’s reading list these days. Modern books about the man apparently tend to concentrate on his military exploits, which were impressive, but the religion and politics, especially the reasons why Montrose, a good Presbyterian, rejected the Solemn Covenant, seem to me to be as important. Montrose was committed to religious toleration, at a time when that was widely considered the Devil’s work in Scotland. That, for Buchan, was his crowning glory. Not everyone will agree with the author’s conclusions, but the argument is well made. And his belief that individual personalities change history is now back in fashion, with even such a respected historian as Margaret MacMillan writing a book entitled History’s People. Buchan believed that Witch Wood (1927), the novel he wrote at the same time and which drew on the sources he studied for Montrose, was his best work of historical fiction; and many commentators since have agreed. In it, Montrose plays a crucial, if mostly off-stage part, winning over the earnest, ardent and scholarly young minister of the Kirk, David Sempill, who has the cure of souls in a benighted parish in Tweeddale, called Woodilee. Woodilee was based on Broughton, where Buchan’s mother was brought up, on the edge of the ancient Wood of Caledon. Some of the self-righteous Calvinists in his congregation, who believe that their ‘Elect’ status entitles them to do whatever they like, are practising witchcraft in the wood; David, with the help of a lovely young gentlewoman, Katrine Yester, with whom he falls in love, as well as a few villagers of generally ill-repute, determines to root it out. In the process, he uncovers hypocrisy and licentiousness on a grand scale, but he brings down the wrath of his blinkered Kirk superiors, haters of the ‘malignant’ Montrose and deeply suspicious of Sempill’s emphasis on Christian charity to all. Buchan took more care over this book, particularly the psychology and the characterization, than over his rollicking adventure stories, and devised some memorable characters, such as David’s friend and Montrose’s captain, Mark Kerr, whose denunciation of fundamentalist Bible literalism is a tour de force and accurately describes Buchan’s own attitude to the Calvinistic tradition in which he was bred. Sempill is one of Buchan’s most cherished character types: the scholar called to action. He is also one of the most complex. This is a book of light and shade, of paradisiacal contentment and stark tragedy, and it stays with you. Much of the dialogue is in Borders dialect, which was already in rapid retreat by the 1920s and has now all but disappeared, so the modern reader may need to call up an online dictionary of Scottish words (I suggest www.dsl.ac.uk). But you get used to Lowland Scots surprisingly quickly and it’s an idiom that adds mightily to the power of the language – as does the author’s sure use of biblical texts, learned as a boy during long Sabbath services. Those readers who don’t want to take on a detailed, lengthy biography will be pleased to know that there is probably enough sound history in Witch Wood to satisfy them. Both Montrose and Witch Wood are compelling expositions of the disastrous consequences of religious fanaticism: destructive both to society and to the faith it perverts. This is something that resonates like a clanging bell with us today. It is possible to draw a pretty straight line between the Scottish Covenanters of the mid-seventeenth century and the extreme Islamists of today. For that reason alone, if for no other, these books should still reward the thoughtful reader, more than eighty years after they were written.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Ursula Buchan 2016


About the contributor

Ursula Buchan is very glad not to have lived through the Civil War, but is happy to read about it from a safe distance. She is writing a biography of John Buchan for Bloomsbury.

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