Buchan, the Oxford man, did not forget his Scottish roots. Some of his novels (such as Witch Wood) and two of his major biographies testify to this – Montrose and Sir Walter Scott (the latter in 1932). His Montrose came in two versions, 1913 and 1928. The early one did not receive critical acclaim from at least one significant Scottish church historian. The enthusiasm he had for his hero in early years laid him open to the charge, rightly or wrongly, of romancing. So he prepared the scholarly edition of 1928. Scholarly it is, and as such it was widely praised.
It is a detailed account of the Great Marquis (1612–50) who, at the cost of his life, sought to combine adherence to Scotland’s National Covenant (1638) with loyalty to Charles I. The logic behind this seeming paradox was his rejection of the later Solemn League and Covenant (1643), by which the potent first-generation extreme Covenanters had agreed to help the English Parliament against the King. This particular politicisation of the Presbyterian version of the gospel discomfited Montrose, who, though scarcely a philosopher, was able to propound a theory of government (somewhat in advance of his generation) that stressed the need for responsible kingship and a responsible people. Buchan convincingly presents Montrose as accepting neither the notion of the divine right of kings nor the theocratic tendencies in the Kirk and the Estates, nor indeed their manipulation of a population far from ready for what we could call democracy today (‘more incapable of sovereignty than any other known’!). Buchan sums up what made him tick in the chapter entitled ‘A Candidate for Immortality’: he was displaying a ‘moderation which is in itself a fire’.
With some justification JB also sees the Marquis as one of those rare spirits for whom thought does not paralyse action. The King, initially not particularly warm towards him, makes Montrose his lieutenant-general in Scotland, almost under pressure of circumstances. Buchan competently describes Montrose’s skilful generalship and his series of battles, Highland and Lowland (1645–6), conducted under the most trying conditions, but thwarted by the disaster of Philiphaugh (1646).
The book then goes on to tackle the aftermath, exhibiting Montrose’s unfailing courage and persistence for the royal cause, initially on the continent of Europe. It shows clearly the potential for the young Charles II’s duplicity (unintended, if we are kind), after his father’s execution in 1649. While negotiating with the party in power in Scotland, the new King had concurrently entrusted Montrose with the conduct of a fresh campaign in the North. This, foreshortened by the defeat of Carbisdale (1650), was followed by Neil Macleod of Assynt’s betrayal of the fugitive Marquis. The description of his subsequent trial in Edinburgh, and death by hanging, drawing and quartering, is presented with reverent, dignified but not exaggerated dramatic power.
In his early book on Montrose, Buchan had considered the politically adroit Earl (later Marquis) of Argyll – defeated by Montrose at Inverlochy in 1645 – as the ‘crude foil’ (thus Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan, p.233) to his hero. But the volume of 1928 is mostly fair to those for whom the author had small sympathy, even Argyll. It also provides a number of interesting brief characterisations of many contemporary figures, and documentary sources are assiduously provided. (Some of these effectively gave him background for Witch Wood, 1927). Early in the book, Buchan’s description of the young Montrose himself portrays him as – in modern terms – a ‘good all-rounder’; but also recalls his interest in poetry and shows that he had some knowledge of the Classics, which stood him in good stead for his political reflections.
The book gains in consistency and integrity from Buchan’s analysis of the trends in both England and Scotland which contributed to the theological and political climate of the day. As the content relates to a Scottish noble, soldier and statesman, in an age when Scotland had much of its own culture and its parliament, one might query his introductory emphasis on the English situation – though it needed placing somewhere. But the chapter on ‘The Strife in Scotland’ makes amends.
A year before the Montrose of 1928, Buchan had become an MP at Westminster for the Scottish Universities. He researched and wrote as a Scot based in London and Oxford, who had found his own Calvinism ‘mellowed’ (as he says elsewhere) by his classical studies. Living in the age of Empire, he was heir to both English and Scottish culture. Not unnaturally this synthesis shines through this worthy memorial to this hero of his Scottish boyhood
J C G Greig
Available to read at https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1204351h.html