11th February 1940

Scottish novelist John Buchan dies in Canada

John Buchan is best remembered as author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, in which Richard Hannay meets a freelance spy with knowledge of a plot to destabilise Europe in the lead-up to the First World War. When the spy is murdered, Hannay finds himself in an impossible situation, and must try to work out what the spy knew – and to keep Britain’s secrets safe from its enemies.

The story was ground-breaking and something of a sensation. It was initially published in parts in a magazine, but later assembled in book form, and it has been the basis of stage plays, films and television series since. It remains popular to the present day.

Beyond publishing

However, Buchan was a busy man, and certainly didn’t spend all his time at a typewriter working on explosive fiction. He was Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland in 1933 and 1934 and, between 1927 and 1934 had been the MP in Westminster for the Combined Scottish Universities constituency. This seat represented graduates of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and St Andrews Universities. The following year, he was made a peer, upon which he took the title The Lord Tweedsmuir, so that he could be appointed the 15th Governor General of Canada.

When his appointment in Canada was made public, Buchan was keen to point out that a Scot was a natural choice. Quoted by the Belfast News Letter of 28 March 1935, he said, “I do not feel that in coming to Canada I am really leaving home, since Canada has been so largely made by my countrymen, and has been so much inspired by Scottish tradition. I look forward, also, to seeing much of that wonderful French Canadian race who have produced some of the chief pioneers in the world’s history. I found in the war that the old Scottish friendship with France was still a living tradition.”

Dramatic fight for life

Buchan didn’t return from Canada before dying at the end of what many newspapers, including the Nottingham Journal of 12 February 1940, called “a dramatic fight for life”.

On the day of his death – the 11th – but before news of his passing had reached Britain, The People reported that he had shown “a slight but definite improvement”, explaining that Buchan, “who is sixty-four and won fame as John Buchan the author, has undergone two operations at the Montreal Neurological Institute to relieve brain concussion, the result of a fall at Government House in Ottawa last Tuesday.”

Buchan had fallen while dressing and, despite the best efforts of his doctors, died aged 65 as the result of a stroke. He was cremated in Canada and his ashes were returned to the UK for burial.



Other events that occured in February

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