Sunday, February 20, 2005



Saskia's slim figure is "curiously like that of a boy in a school blazer." Saskia's eyes are as grave and candid as a boy's".

She has a "delicate figure, exquisite colouring, eyes both arrogant and charming" and a "little face...more square than oval". She is "a tall child", she has a loveliness "greater than imagined by the Almighty." She is a Russian princess, forced to flee from Russia to Rome as a result of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Dougal has the "stature of a boy of twelve." He has a "pale freckled countenance, a snub nose, sulky grey-green eyes and a wide mouth." He wears an oversize Boy Scout hat, "an ancient khaki shirt, a massive belt, a kilt of home manufacture, the remnant of what had once been a silk bandanna, bare legs and bare feet."

Dougal and his fellow Gorbals Die-Hards are on a camping expedition financed partly by a retired Glasgow grocer (The Gorbals is a slum area of Glasgow). Dougal is brave, honest and a good scout.

There is a mysterious young man: tall, lean, "fine drawn, deeply sunburnt, pale blue eyes..." He is apparently an Australian. "There's nothing else so lean and fine produced on the globe today...Lord! Such men!...most look like Phoebus Apollo," says John Heritage.

Heritage is a young Englishman, a paper-maker, a would-be modern poet, an admirer of the Bolsheviks. In 1918 he had briefly met Saskia in Rome and fallen in love with her slim figure. Now he is on a walking holiday in scotland.

To Dickson McCunn, Heritage is "a queer poet" and Dougal "a queerer urchin" (words often had different meanings in the 1920's).

Dickson, the main hero of John Buchan's 'Huntingtower', is a wealthy retired Glasgow grocer who looks like "a wise plump schoolboy." He is a reader of Izaak walton and Defoe, an elder of the kirk and a conservative with absolutely no sloppy sentimental liberal ideas about the working man or Bolshevism.

Dickson has conceived the Great Plan : while his wife is enjoying herself at the hydro, he is having an adventurous walking holiday in South West Scotland.

He is staying in inns, places with "bright fires, old soft leather armchairs, an aroma of good food and giant trout in glass cases."

By chance Dickson meets up with Heritage. Together they come across a mysterious mansion called Huntingtower, a group of evil and ugly villains and Dougal....

"Dougal...squatted down on the patchwork rug by the hearth, and warmed his blue-black shins... 'Lean's after me wi' a gun. He had a shot at me two days syne.' Dickson exclaimed, and Dougal with morose pride showed a rent in his kilt... 'Ive found out some queer things,' said Dougal...."

Dougal and Heritage want Dickson to help them commit an act of burglary. Conformist Dickson has a sleepless night. "Heritage a yard distant appeared also to be sleepless, for the bed creaked with his turning..."

Dickson finds himself not running away from adventure. He finds himself crawling on all fours through the countryside.

"From a clump of elders...Dougal emerged. A barefoot boy, dressed in much the same parody of a Boy Scout's uniform, but with corduroy shorts instead of a kilt, stood before him at rigid attention..."


Huntingtower is a Glasgow Fairy Tale. A beautiful princess is locked in a tower. A lovelorn suitor attempts to rescue her. There is a world-wide conspiracy penetrating to every level of British society, and which the forces of law and order are powerless to defeat. But the Gorbals kids will help save the day. The Die-Hards are clever, determined and fascinating characters.

Take Dougal who is fond of singing: "Class conscious we are and class conscious will be Till our fit's on the neck of the Boorjoyzee."

And Thomas Yownie.Poor Thomas has no parents. He is a street child. But Thomas is a hero. Ye'll no fickle Thomas Yownie!

And Wee Jaikie. "Don't be mistook about Wee Jaikie. He's terrible fond of greetin', but it's no fright with him but excitement. It's just a habit he's gotten. When ye see Jaikie begin to greet, ye may be sure that Jaikie's getting dangerous."


So, what are we to make of author John Buchan's Huntingtower?

This is an adventure story to rank with Treasure Island, Wind in the Willows and Lord of the Rings.

The style is literary as in Wind in the Willows, the pace is fast as in Treasure Island, and the tone is romantic as in Lord of the Rings.

It can be claimed that Buchan helped invent a new genre of adventure story, a genre typified by Thirty Nine Steps and Greenmantle, thrillers full of spies and international politics.

What about the language? Sometimes it is beautifully poetic; but critics have considered it occasionally a little stilted.

I haven't noticed the stiltedness (well, apart from this one odd sentence: "He was intoxicated with the resurgence of youth and felt a rapture of audacity which he never remembered in his decorous boyhood.")

But I think that for non-Scottish readers, some of Dougal's conversation might pose problems.

And the ideas? Sometimes Buchan seems like an out-of-date conservative. Yet he had the good sense in the 1920's to see the communist leaders of the Russian Revolution as less than perfect.

Dickson, when talking to Heritage about Russia's leaders, says "the power - the true power - lies with madmen and degenerates." Russia is a "nursery of crime" (Hence the Russian Gulags or concentration camps).

Buchan has been accused by some critics of being a repressed bisexual, a snob, and an anti-semite. Let's look a little at his life.



Born in Perth in 1875, John Buchan was the son of a minister who belonged to the Calvinist 'Free Church'. Did he have a sexually repressed upbringing under a tough Calvinist father? Buchan's papa was evidently a kindly man with a good education.

Buchan suffered from an almost life-long duodenal ulcer, something which might have been an indicator of hidden conflicts in his life.

Buchan was no cloistered aesthete. He was an aesthete who climbed mountains and got involved in true-life adventures from an early age.

Buchan's heroines tend to be slim, boyish (like boys in school blazers) and slightly vaguely drawn. Some critics have found this odd. However, according to biographers, although Buchan would forget his wife's birthday, his marriage was a happy one.

And consider this, when worrying about the sexuality of Shakespeare or Da Vinci: research (observing the pupil's of people's eyes) done for the advertising industry in the 1970's indicates that the 'image' which has the most universal appeal (appealing to male and female, old and young, black and white) is ....someone like Pamela Anderson? No. Tarzan? No..... the image which proves to have the most universal appeal is that of twelve year old image like that of Saskia or Dougal or some of the kids in adverts for bulding societies and toothpaste. Makes Buchan seem normal.

Does Dickson McCunn give us any clues? Dickson's wife has gone off to the hydro. "There was a letter from his wife...she reported that her health was improving, and she had met various people who had known somebody....Mr McCunn read the dutiful pages...he knew that for his wife the earthly paradise was a hydropathic...For his part he rancorously hated hydropathics, having once spent a black week under the roof of one in his wife's company." We must not jump to conclusions. Authors often put words with which they do not necessarily agree into the mouths of their characters.

Was Buchan a snob? One of the heroes of Buchan's first adventure story 'Prester John' was a black man. Radical indeed! And the Gorbals Die-Hards, of whom Buchan writes so lovingly, were children of the slums. "The Die Hards are so tiny, so poor, so pitifully handicapped, and yet so bold in their meagerness...Their few years have been spent in kennels (Glasgow children have it rough) and closes, always hungry and hunted, with none to care for them; their childish ears have been habituated to every coarseness, their small minds filled with the desperate shifts of living...and yet, what a heavenly spark was in them!"

Buchan, who had lived in a better part of the Gorbals during part of his childhood, was apparently happy to mix with all sorts. He had taught kids like Dougal in Sunday school. On the other hand, Buchan was a Tory MP who allegedly loved to mingle with the high and mighty. It is possible that Buchan's views on the working man were not all that different from those of Dickson McCunn. In conversation with heritage, McCunn says of the working man that he is "only looking for a drink and a rise in wages." But wait! At one point, near the end of Huntingtower, Dickson says to the Die-Hards: "There's stuff in you to make Generals and provosts - ay, and Prime Ministers..." Buchan was against sentimental liberalism, but, he may have had no objection to a Dougal ending up in Downing Street. Radical again!

Anti-Semitism? Some of Buchan's books are notorious for containing anti-semitic statements uttered by certain char acters(Anti-Black and Anti-Semitic views were common among some people in the 1920's). In Huntingtower, heritage says to Dickson that the Bolsheviks "are doing a great work in their own fashion. we needn't imitate all their methods - they're a trifle crude and have too many Jews among them..." Buchan's fans point out that Chaim Weizmann, founder of Israel, was one of Buchan's best friends, and that Buchan's name is inscribed in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund of Israel.

Were Buchan's ideas old-fashioned and out of date? Buchan had read Henri bergson's 'Time and Free Will' and Drayton Thomas's 'Some New Evidence for Human Survival'. In Buchan's group of stories called 'The Gap in the Curtain', a character called Professor Moe states, "Time is not a straight line, but full of kinks and coils...the Future is here with us now, if only we knew how to look for it. Buchan explores ideas such as the redemptive power of love, resurrection, reincarnation, the nature of Free Will and predetination. Radical!

Enough of speculation. Huntingtower is meant to be an exciting adventure story and indeed it is. Whether you are seated on the beach in Spain, or in a tavern in Galloway, you will enjoy reading this thrilling, humourous and romantic tale, written by a sensitive and kindly genius who is in the same league as Barrie and Stevenson.


Postcript: from that excellent biography JOHN BUCHAN, THE PRESBYTERIAN CAVALIER by Andrew Lownie (Constable) - "Men like T E Lawrence appealed to him because he saw much of himself in Lawrence... A Calvinist drawn to paganism, an admirer of both Plato and Theocritus, a Romantic Conservative who felt towards the end of his life that he had become a Gladstonian Liberal, Buchan was full of paradoxes. Many of these contradict ions he suppressed in his own life and attempted to reconcile in his writing and much of his personality and views can be found by judicious reading of his books, for as he wrote in his memoirs 'a writer must inevitably keep the best of himself for his own secret creative world.'"

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

Best of all, it's available in full at Project Gutenberg.