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John Buchan, officially 1st Baron Tweedsmuir was born in 1875 in Perth, Scotland and died in 1940 aged only 64 in Montreal, Canada. He was Governor General of Canada until he died in office. His father was a minister of the Church of Scotland. Many of our ghost story writers are children of clergymen.
He studied Classics at the University of Glasgow and then moved to Oxford University. After that he went to South Africa where he was private secretary to the High Commissioner of South Africa. Like Kipling, who we read last week, Buchan was a conservative son of the British Empire. He was a bit of a softie for a conservative though because later when MP for Peebles just south of Edinburgh, he supported votes for women, national health insurance for the poor and curtailing the power of the House of Lords.
Though a Scot, he was not a Scottish Nationalist, and in common with many Scots of his class and time, he though Scotland was best off within the British Empire.
When he returned from South Africa, he was called to the English Bar as a barrister (an advocate in Scotland). He was also editor of the still existing conservative magazine: The Spectator.
In 1916, Buchan went to the Western Front, attached to the Intelligence Corps. Just before this he had just published his famous spy story The 39 Steps.
In 1935, Buchan went as Governor General to Canada. He had always liked Canada, written about it as a journalist and fought alongside Canadian troops in the First World War. He encouraged a distinct Canadian identity and nationality. He hosted King George VI on the king’s tour of Canada.
He suffered a stroke at Rideau Hall and then a head injury as he fell. He was treated by the famous neurologist Wilder Penfield.
A Journey of Little Profit was published in 1896 in The Yellow Book, so he was just twenty-one at the time. It’s a well-regarded story about a bargain with the Devil.
Because of its Scottish setting it has echoes with James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and of course with the Faust Legend.
The great use of dialogue and language with lots of Scottish dialect words sets this story apart but also the fact that Duncan Stewart becomes fond of the Devil and escapes with his soul. We see him first the older wiser man, now regretful of his wild youth.
It’s a great story, I hope you enjoyed it too.
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