Scottish Boys' Clothes: Literary References in Novels: John Buchan

Figure 1.--.

John Buchan is another popular Scottish author who has has had his worked turned in to both movie and television productions. Buchan gives us some rather gritty views of childhood in Scotland. His spy novel Hunting Towers (1922) described how working-class boys dressed in Glasgow, a very run-down city after World War I. He also explains that Boy Scouting while popular was a primarily middle class organization. Many working-class boys could not afford to purchase a uniform.

John Buchan (1875-1940)

John Buchan is today most famous for his thrilling novels, especially The Thirty Nine Steps. He was much more than a movelist, but diplomat, barrister, journalist, historian, and poet as well. Buchan was born in Perth, Scotland. He was the oldest son of Rev. John Buchan and Helen (née Masterton) Buchan. I do npt yet have details on his early education or childhood in general. He was a clever boy and studied at the University of Glasgow and Brasenose College, Oxford with considerable academic success. After graduating he became a barrister of the Middle Temple (1901) and a private secretary to the High Commissioner for South Africa, Lord Milner (1901-03). Buchan returned to London and continued to parctice law, specializing in tax law. His interests were, however, increasingly drawn to literature. He began working for a publisher, Thomas Nelson and Sons (1906). He promoted the publication of inexpensive pocket editions of classic literature and played a key role in the The Spectator He married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor (1907) There were three sons and one daughter. After World War I began, Buchan served as a war correspondent and then joined the army. It was at this time while ill that he wrote his most famous book, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1914). He was assigned to the Headquarters Staff of the British Army in France as a temporary Lieutenant Colonel (1916-17). When Lloyd George became Prime Minister, Buchan was appointed Director of Information (1917-18) and then briefly Director of Intelligence. After the war Buchan gravatated to jornalism becoming a director of the Reuters news agency. Later he entered politics, serving as a Conservative MP for the Scottish universities (1927-35). Apparently there were some seats in Parliament reserved for academic institutions. He was appointed to several important positions. including Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland (1933-34) and first Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield, He moved to Canada and served as Governor General. He died in Canada (1940).

Buchan published almost 30 novels and several collections of short stories. His first novels were published while he was still at Oxford. His first book was Sir Quixote of the Moors. Other books written at Oxford were Scholar-Gipsies (1896) and History of Brasenose (1898). Grey Weather (1899) was a collection of tales and sketches. His book Watcher by the Treshold (1902) had some almost pagan stories--starnge reading for the son of a reverend and a future Commissioner of the Church of Scotland. His political attitudes were strongly affected by his time in South Africa working for the British High Commissioner. This was only a few years after the Bohr War. Buchan became a committed advocate of the British Empire and a little embarassed over his earlier books. His book Prester John (1910) was based on his South African experiences. It is The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). Alfred Hitchcock made a film version (1935). Hitcock especially liked Buchan's books. Many film historains consider it to be one of his nest films. It also was popular in America and Hollywood became interested in him. Hitchock returned to the basic premise, an innocent man persued by the police, in several of his subsequent films. Another spy novel Greenmantle (1916) followed. Huntingtower (1922) was another of Buchan's spy novels. For a man of conservative bent, Buchan writes rather perceptively about poor children in Huntingtower. , written during the War that he is best known. It was shot as a silent film (1928), unfortunately now lost. This book was turned into an exciting Scottish TV series. Besides his novels, Buchan also wrote some competent hostory books, including works on Nelson, Scott, Cromwell, Montrose, and Augustus. His memoir was Memory Hold-the Door (1940).

Individual Books

Huntingtowers (1922)

Buchan's spy novel Hunting Towers (1922) described how working-class boys dressed in Glasgow, a very run-down city after World War I. He also explains that Boy Scouting while popular was a primarily middle class organization. Many working-class boys could not afford to purchase a uniform. A Scottish reader reports, "So scouting was not always open to all, because of the cost of the uniform--but it was popular." The book was shot as a silent film (1927) which is now lost. Some information is available on the Scottish movie page. It was also made into a Scottish TV series, "The Gorbals Die-Hards" (1978).

The grocer, McCunn,is preparing to leave for the countryside. "Before he left Mr. McCunn had given Tibby a letter to post. That morning he had received an epistle from a benevolent acquaintance, one Mackintosh, regarding a group of urchins who called themselves the "Gorbals Die-Hards." Behind the premises in Mearns Street lay a tract of slums, full of mischievous boys, with whom his staff waged truceless war. But lately there had started among them a kind of unauthorized and unofficial Boy Scouts, who, without uniform or badge or any kind of paraphernalia, followed the banner of Sir Robert Baden-Powell and subjected themselves to a rude discipline. They were far too poor to join an orthodox troop, but they faithfully copied what they believed to be the practices of more fortunate boys. Mr. McCunn had witnessed their pathetic parades, and had even passed the time of day with their leader, a red-haired savage called Dougal. The philanthropic Mackintosh had taken an interest in the gang and now desired subscriptions to send them to camp in the country."

Later on a boy turns up at the guest-house McCunn is staying at demanding to see him. Here there is a detailed description of Doiugal's clothing, including a Sxcout hat and a make-shift-kilt. This is a novel of course, but often such books include insights into contemporary attitudes about clothing. Here Dougal clearly wants to wear the Scout uniform, even wearing a hat much too large. We are less sure why he wants to wear a kilt. We think here it was not because he is Scottish, but rather because Scottish Scouts wear them. The inferenece here is thta working-class boys by the 1920s do not have kilts. Buchan weites, "It was a stunted boy, who from his face might have been fifteen years old, but had the stature of a child of twelve. He had a thatch of fiery red hair above a pale freckled countenance. His nose was snub, his eyes a sulky grey-green, and his wide mouth disclosed large and damaged teeth. But remarkable as was his visage, his clothing was still stranger. On his head was the regulation Boy Scout hat, but it was several sizes too big, and was squashed down upon his immense red ears. He wore a very ancient khaki shirt, which had once belonged to a full-grown soldier, and the spacious sleeves were rolled up at the shoulders and tied with string, revealing a pair of skinny arms. Round his middle hung what was meant to be a kilt—a kilt of home manufacture, which may once have been a tablecloth, for its bold pattern suggested no known clan tartan. He had a massive belt, in which was stuck a broken gully-knife, and round his neck was knotted the remnant of what had once been a silk bandanna. His legs and feet were bare, blue, scratched, and very dirty, and this toes had the prehensile look common to monkeys and small boys who summer and winter go bootless. In his hand was a long ash-pole, new cut from some coppice." [HBC does not know what a coppice is.]

"The apparition stood glum and lowering on the kitchen floor. As Dickson stared at it he recalled Mearns Street and the band of irregular Boy Scouts who paraded to the roll of tin cans. Before him stood Dougal, Chieftain of the Gorbals Die-Hards. Suddenly he remembered the philanthropic Mackintosh, and his own subscription of ten pounds to the camp fund. It pleased him to find the rascals here, for in the unpleasant affairs on the verge of which he felt himself they were a comforting reminder of the peace of home."

Dougal tells McCunn to come to their camp the nexy day with another guest, "Presently, as they tramped silently on, they came to the bridge beneath which the peaty waters of the Garple ran in porter-coloured pools and tawny cascades. From a clump of elders on the other side 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. Some command was issued, the child saluted, and trotted back past the travellers with never a look at them. Discipline was strong among the Gorbals Die-Hards; no Chief of Staff ever conversed with his General under a stricter etiquette.


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Created: December 30, 2003
Last updated: December 30, 2003