The Capital Builders: Novelist and Governor General, Lord Tweedsmuir had the common touch

John Buchan scattered clues to his dynamic life throughout his books.

Known as Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s 15th governor general wrote everything down, chronicling his time in Canada including King George VI’s royal tour in 1939 and his own famous boat ride down the Mackenzie River. He’s best known for his most celebrated novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, later adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock.

His legacy today includes the Governor General’s Literary Awards, Canada’s oldest literary prize, given out for the best English and French-language books in a variety of categories.

But Tweedsmuir, well-known around Ottawa, left his personal mark on the capital, too.

Lord Tweedsmuir welcomed to Canada
Canada’s new Governor General, His Excellency The Right Honorable Lord Tweedsmuir with Her Excellency, Lady Tweedsmuir and their son, Honorable Alastair Buchan, age 17. Nov. 16, 1935 ©Art Gravure Corporation


John Buchan was born to John Buchan Sr., a well-known reverend, and his wife, Helen, in Perth, Scotland. From modest wealth, the younger John worked hard to move up the social ladder. His early career spanned many professions: journalist, diplomat, historian, lawyer, novelist and politician.

The chance introduction of Buchan and William Lyon Mackenzie King in England by a common friend in 1919 left a long-lasting impression on King. The two bonded over their love of Scotland and the Presbyterian church.

In 1924, when King welcomed the Buchans to his estate in Canada, he took them to a Gatineau Park lookout spot. The future Lord Tweedsmuir later said the hills were a beautiful “promised land.”

Buchan was named Governor General of Canada – and given a peerage – four years after Canada’s independence was outlined in 1931 through the Statute of Westminster. “Half-detached and half-embroiled, Canada’s position seems to me much like my own,” he remarked in his memoir, Memory Hold-the-Door. As governor general, he focused on finding a national identity.

“He was fascinated with Canadian unity, how to bring the provinces together into one nation,” historian J. William Galbraith says of Buchan.

“(Buchan) was our most Canadian British Governor General.” – William J. Galbraith

At his installation in 1935, the new governor general said, “It is the glory of our empire to embrace within its confines many races and traditions. It is in its variety that its strength lies.” It was a multicultural message that would easily resonate today.

The Canadian public was fascinated with its new governor general, and why not? He had written prodigiously, was a friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt and eagerly travelled the continent, even taking a steamer down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Sea in 1937.

Buchan and his wife, Susan, were given Ottawa’s first key to the city by Mayor Patrick Nolan before thousands of cheering supporters. In the spirit of the award, Lord Tweedsmuir opened Rideau Hall’s doors to his neighbours – the first governor general to do so.

Arriving in Southampton
Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada and noted author, pictured with Lady Tweedsmuir on their arrival at Southampton. July 20, 1938 ©Montreal Star File Photo

“Being a storyteller, he would invite the children in to tell them all sorts of stories around Christmas time,” Galbraith says. “Rideau Hall became a lot less formal under the Tweedsmuirs.”

Although Buchan travelled, he had a genuine presence in the capital.

“He made sure to not forget about the people of Ottawa,” Galbraith adds.

An avid outdoorsman, Lord Tweedsmuir spent many weekends at Camp Fortune hiking or skiing through the Gatineau hills.

At the beginning of the Second World War, women would flock to Rideau Hall for workshops run by the Tweedsmuirs to learn how to sew linen, socks and clothes to send off in packages to Canadian servicemen stationed overseas.

Lord Tweedsmuir was often spotted around town. Whether he was assisting ministers at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church for Sunday mass, strolling the streets of New Edinburgh or speaking at opening events for hospitals around the valley, the governor general’s every move was followed by Ottawans.

“For locals, he was both John Buchan the man, and Lord Tweedsmuir the governor general,” Galbraith says. “He had a double identity.

“People all across Canada would say ‘we felt we knew him.’ ”

Honored by First Nations
Lord Tweedsmuir in headdress attending a ceremony at Rideau Hall on May 5, 1937 ©Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada

Buchan left words of advice for everyone, including past governor general Adrienne Clarkson.

“He was the only British governor general that wrote novels,” she said. “In that way, I felt very close to him.”

Clarkson welcomed the Buchan family to Rideau Hall in 2004 to celebrate the anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Award, and shared a personal moment with the late John Buchan’s grandson.

Indeed, Buchan had a talent for forming relationships with everyone, a trait that runs through the stories the Buchan family still tells.

“As he was travelling British Columbia, he came across an old Scottish couple that rolled up in a beat-up car to hear him speak,” recalls Tweedsmuir’s granddaughter, Ursula Buchan, recounting an old family tale.

“My grandfather approached them and spoke in their Scottish dialect, and immediately both the man and woman burst into tears,” – Ursula Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir’s granddaughter and historian.

Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, a distant relative of John Buchan, also maintains his family connections.

“Lord Tweedsmuir is the antithesis of who I am,” he laughs. “But we inherited the same soft skills, like the thirst for exploration.

“Space meets my need to go and explore new worlds, just like the way Tweedsmuir wanted to explore Canada,” – Robert Thirsk, Canadian astronaut.

Most recently, Thirsk brought two novels that had been awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award into space in 2009 to “profile the necessary association between the arts and the sciences.”

Tweedmuir himself left behind a legacy of 120 works, and that’s how Ursula Buchan came to know and study her family legacy.

“(His books) are not biographical, but they contain things he learnt, things he knew, things he believed in,” the British historian smiles. “The last book he ever wrote, Sick Heart River, is about a dying man’s thoughts on life.

“It was very important to him that his last work be set in Canada.”

Along with a collection of memories, histories and anecdotes, Tweedsmuir left Canadians with advice during troubled times. The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, he would say, but to elicit it – for the greatness is already there.

A John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir) timeline

Born: Perth, Scotland, 1875

Became Canada’s Governor General: 1935

Died: Montreal, 1940

Job list: Government administrator, First World War British officer, British MP, tax lawyer, journalist, literary adviser, author.

Literary legacy: One hundred or more published works including about 30 novels, various short story collections, several biographies. Instituted the Governor General’s Literary Awards in 1937.

Reposted from the original at:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s