Centenary Lecture Series: ‘The Roots that Clutch; John Buchan, Glasgow and Scottish Fiction’

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On 26 April 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Douglas Gifford who discussed, ‘The Roots that Clutch; John Buchan, Glasgow and Scottish Fiction’, as part of the continuing Centenary Lecture Series,. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

John Buchan is perhaps equally famous for his popular thriller novels, like The Thirty-Nine Steps, and for his term as Governor-General of Canada between 1935-30. Yet Professor Gifford’s lecture focused on his neglected historical fiction novels set in Scotland. These continued a great tradition of historical novels by Scottish authors, such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Professor Gifford noted these works, especially Scott’s, have been misrepresented as cloying and romantic. In fact, a deep cynicism pervades the subtext of many of these books. For example, Scott was critical of wider Scottish society, corrupted by internecine religious wars and heavy-handed government policy. Stevenson’s popular Kidnapped ends with a disenchanted David Balfour utterly rejecting serious political engagement.

This approach was followed by Buchan. His first novel, Sir Quixote of the Moors (1895), written while he was still at Glasgow University, echoed this sub-textual analysis of Scotland’s ‘nasty side’. Despite the growing excitement within Glasgow about the Scottish Renaissance, spearheaded by Mackintosh, Buchan was seemingly uninterested in participating or indeed, staying in Scotland. He left Glasgow for Brasenose College, Oxford and seems to have had little desire to return to his homeland. Professor Gifford summed up Buchan’s approach to his personal identity by drawing attention to his title when he became Governor-General in 1935: Lord Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. Tweedsmuir indicated his childhood in the Scottish Borders but Elsfield (a village near Oxford) referenced the place he thought ‘the most wonderful place on earth’.

A Lost Lady of Old Years (1899) takes the model, followed by Stevenson and Scott, of paring polar opposites: two characters with diametrically opposed viewpoints in order to point out the shortcomings of Scottish society. Almost all of his historical novels featured young and unsure male protagonists, who were essentially ‘lost boys’. Their disenchantment with society reflects what has ‘gone wrong’. He also utilises the supernatural to show that even the tellers of these stories can be unreliable, evoking Burn’s, Tam O’Shanter.

Even though Buchan himself did not get directly involved in the Scottish Renaissance, he was part of a wider trend of writers who were responding the ‘false romance’ of what had gone before. Much of the writing around this period attempted to ‘exorcise the ghosts of Scottish history’, allowing the forward-looking gaze of the Renaissance. In 1919, he left Scotland for good and like other Scottish writers such as J.M. Barrie, became an ‘exile’. Professor Gifford felt Buchan ultimately saw himself as a potential future Prime Minister but unfortunately, he ‘worked himself to death’ in Canada.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

The Centre’s Centenary lecture series continues on 16 May with Dr Sheila Kidd’s, ‘Glasgow and the nineteenth-century Gaelic periodical press’. This will again be held in the Jeffrey Room of the Mitchell Library at 6pm.

And to find out more about the Chair of Scottish History and Literaturewww.wikipedia.org/wiki/Professor_of_Scottish_History_and_Literature

For a full programme, follow this linkhttp://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_246995_en.pdf

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