Thursday, December 15, 2016

Buchan's John Macnab with Royal Lochnagar

The books I ordered myself as a birthday treat were waiting for me when I got home tonight. After a few admiring moments I put them on a shelf to get back to later, and realised they were sitting next to the pile of books I bought myself in The Main Street Trading Company (excellent bookshop in St Boswells, which also has a very good cafe and deli) as a late Christmas present last new year. I've walked past them almost every day over the last year, never putting them away properly because I've always convinced I'd pick one of them up next.

Top of the pile was Buchan's 'John Macnab', chosen because I've been meaning to read more Buchan forever, it seemed appropriate for a break in Scotland, and I knew D would probably enjoy it too (he might get the chance to find out this time around). This is exactly the sort of combination of book and whisky that generally makes up his Christmas present.

The idea is to choose an excellent whisky, Royal Lochnagar is one of my favourites, and a book that should be full of action, not to serious, and have a particular sort of atmosphere. 'John Macnab', allegedly Buchan's second most famous novel and published in 1925 boasts 3 high flying men (a barrister, a cabinet minister, and a banker) who are bored. To cure their boredom they inform 3 Scottish estates that they will poach from each 2 stags and a Salmon in a given time... It promises to be an evocative look at the hunting, shooting, and fishing lifestyle in the highlands in the 1920's. The introduction promises that it remains a thumping good read, and I love books that have the kind of details about a time, place, and people, that this one promises.

Royal Lochnagar sits hard by Balmoral, it got the Royal in its name after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert expressed approval of the local product (I've read that Victoria liked to mix it with her claret). I like the hint of sherry and fruitcake on the nose, and the rich palate which carries through on the fruitcake promise with extra toffee and cereal notes. It's not an especially heavy whisky, a certain peatiness is hinted at, and altogether it's an excellent all rounder  - just the thing to enjoy by a fire after a walk in the winter cold, and ideally with a slice of Christmas cake also to hand. With a book like this I hope it would be just enough to add to the general atmosphere, and make the dialect more intelligible. Slàinte mhath.


  1. Our John quarried all the glorious memories of his rambles in the Western Highlands (loch, hill and moor) in the writing of John Macnab.
    To the West Highlands he returned again for the denouement of The Three Hostages.
    And there are the Highlands once more in The 39 Steps, of course.
    Though I can't think of the novel now without Hitch's wonderful movie, and my mother's voice repeating excitedly 'Where are the 39 steps?' just before poor Mister Memory is shot on stage by the villain in the theatre box.
    Robert Donat is my vision of Richard Hannay though I liked Kenneth More too.
    My mother loved the film and always wanted to cross the Forth Railway Bridge and never did.
    Royal Lochnagar sounds the ideal partner to this Buchanite adventure.
    Read his historic novels too, my favourites being A Lady of Lost Years and Midwinter both published by B and W in Edinburgh.
    Alan Massie's introduction to the latter says Buchan was more Stevenson's than Scott's disciple, the Stevenson of Kidnapped and Catriona.
    The Borders too belong to Buchan, and not only because he grew up in Broughton and swam in the Tweed.
    Even in my beloved Cotswolds I am in Buchan country, though I think his house lay in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds rather than in my own dear High Wolds in Gloucestershire.
    Thomas More said that William Tyndale was everywhere and nowhere (see a thrilling biography of Tyndale written by David Teems and published by Thomas Nelson paperback).
    Buchan is everywhere and here, elusive only in his very private faith perhaps.
    I have yet to visit the John Knox Free Church in Glasgow where his father was minister.
    The free churches still sing the metrical Psalms which are one of the unknown glories of Scotland.
    To hear them sung on a Sunday evening is like stepping back into the 19th Century.
    The Great Disruption in the Church of Scotland occurred then.
    Nobody now is interested in Scotland's Christian history, alas.
    But Buchan novels remind us that the past, in William Faulkner's words, is not dead; it is not even past.
    J Haggerty

  2. Erratum.
    The novel I singled out for special attention is properly titled, The Lost Lady of Old Years.
    J Haggerty

  3. Addendum.
    The polymathic Allan Massie who cannot write a dull sentence has an online essay, The Wizard Who Sheds Light on the Dark Ages (Daily Telegraph).
    It concerns one Michael Scott, born in 1175 and known as the Second Merlin, who studied mathematics, law and theology in Oxford, Paris and Bologna.
    Mr Massie writes that John Buchan's Sandy Arbuthnott 'conjures him up' (Scott that is) in The Three Hostages.
    I know that Allan Massie has a special affection for Buchan's Witch Wood, and I think these historical novels of Buchan are best enjoyed in the B and W Edinburgh editions.
    When it comes to the classics I enjoy those editions with the scholarly apparatus - introduction, glossary and notes, which B and W do not have alas.
    For example, Penguin's Weir of Hermiston and Other Stories is edited by the novelist Paul Binding who also writes an introduction that brings Stevenson alive again.
    But you would be missing a lot if you didn't also read Penguin's single volume edition of Weir of Hermiston with an introduction and notes by the distinguished critic Karl Miller.
    This has a cover illustration of Lord Braxfield the Hanging Judge by Sir Henry Raeburn, whose portraits adorn the Kelvingrove Art Galleries near where I live.
    I remember my French teacher Joe Gillespie telling me how much he enjoyed Buchan's The Island of Sheep.
    That would be in 1968-69 my final school term.
    Joe was a big burly man in a black leather coat who played the Flamenco guitar.
    He had spent two years as a Benedictine monk in Haddington and was now happily married.
    Joe smoked Gauloise, enjoyed his whisky and Calvados, and had a First in French and Spanish.
    I recall his discussions on De Gaulle, Mauriac, Malraux, the heroic Albert Camus and the hardline Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre - Joe thought of Sartre the atheist as a lost, tragic figure.
    There is a fascinating biography of the far from tragic Aubrey Herbert by Margaret Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle.
    An Oxford man, Herbert was one of the happy few to whom Hilaire Belloc's toast applied, 'God be with you Baliol men.'
    I made a lasting friendship through John Buchan.
    A man in my local Oxfam bookshop asked a volunteer for a copy of Greenmantle. Standing nearby I told him it was published by Oxford.
    He turned out to be a retired Latin teacher, author and Covenanter enthusiast by the name of Robert Watson.
    Robert encouraged me to worship in Calvinist churches though I am far from what they call a five point Calvinist.
    Truth to tell, the five pointers scare the living daylights out of me.
    I am currently browsing my way through The Calvin Handbook edited by Herman J Selderhuis (Eerdmans) which has contributions from over 50 Calvin scholars.
    A cheerful young American woman has written a book called Calvin's Ladder and you can hear her preach on YouTube.
    Another woman, Kathy Childress, has translated Calvin's Sermons on Galatians for the Banner of Truth.
    John Buchan was called the Cavalier Calvinist. It has a ring to it, doesn't it?
    Iain Wells, who taught Reformed theology at the University of Aix en Provence, said the old Calvinist fathers of France passed away some generations ago.
    French intellectual society has shown little interest in its little understood genius Jean Cauvin who was born in Picardy and Latinised his name to Calvin.
    John Buchan would be surprised to learn of a Calvinist resurgence in the USA.
    Someone has written a witty online essay, Where Did All the Calvinists Come From?
    The reformed Arminian theologian Dr. Olsen has an essay on the Patheos website, Why I Am Not a Calvinist.
    I agree with his views. So I think would John Buchan, not to mention John Wesley.
    John Haggerty

  4. Postscript.
    Roger E Olson has a timely essay on Patheos, Why I Am Not A Liberal Christian.
    He explains why liberal theology can be as reductive as Fundamentalism - he abhors the latter.
    I like to think John Buchan would agree with Dr Olson.
    Julie Canliss is author of Calvin's Ladder which I have yet to purchase.
    A charming woman, she preaches two sermons on Youtube: Finding God in the Desert and Lent to the Rescue.
    I support woman preachers and ministers though my strict Reformed friends do not.
    J Haggerty

  5. My apologies again.
    I referred to Iain Wells.
    I should have written David F Wells.
    J Haggerty

  6. 3 points-
    1) you don't have to justify buying books!
    2) I may well copy this gift idea
    3) Anonymous, do you have a blog that offers more of your writings/insights?

    Happy Christmas everyone!

    1. Thanks for asking, but I don't have a blog. I doubt whether I could seriously sustain one.
      And there are so many first-rate book blogs such as Desperate Reader.
      The others on the Blog List to the right are most engrossing.
      For a time I thought of a blog about the mystery of coincidence, though I feared it might degenerate into pseudo-science and New Age.
      Last night I spoke by telephone to my sister in the Cotswolds, and told her how much I was enjoying a second viewing of David Dimbleby's DVD series, A Picture of Britain.
      And earlier this evening I bumped into David Dimbleby in Glasgow's Kelvinbridge, so I was able to tell him how much I admired his brilliant commentary on his rambles round our Sceptred Isle.
      That's what fascinated Arthur Koestler in his book The Roots of Coincidence.
      Is there anything more than material reality?
      Daniel Dennett has some good lectures on YouTube about this kind of thing.
      He has one called, I think, What Will Replace Religion?
      The theologian Roger E Olson would be rather good in a debate with the agnostic Mr Dennett as would Rowan Williamson, Os Guiness and Karen Armstrong.
      Is there a good novel about coincidence?
      I should love to read it.
      Merry Xmas to you and all Desperate Readers.
      J Haggerty

    2. Jack, you should seriously think about starting a blog, I think you might enjoy it, and how and when you post is entirely up to you so sustaining it maybe easier than you think. As is probably obvious, the thing I find hardest to keep up with is replying to comments in a timely fashion.

    3. Sir Michael Caine has a masterclass on YouTube.
      He says that performing before the camera is not so much acting as reacting.
      Quite different from acting on stage.
      When it comes to book blogs I am only a reactor. Never a blogger.
      A friend suggested starting a book group in Glasgow based on the writings of C.S. Lewis.
      Many intelligent people dislike doctrinal Christianity.
      A part of me dislikes it too. Our age is Gnostic in its tendencies.
      I have a fairly comprehensive library on gnosticism and on magic.
      They stand beside my books on Reformed theology, Calvin and the Puritans.
      Hence the value of Lewis who writes on Shakespeare and Milton and the fairy-tales of George Macdonald as well as on the canonical works of the New Testament.
      And Narnia is always a good draw.
      I never expect a personal reply to my comments.
      Keep up the Desperate Reader posts as and when you are excited by a book.
      Pairing writers with a particular drink is a novel idea.
      I was in the upper floor of Waterstones in Cheltenham one evening.
      The reading group were having a high old time opening bottles of wine between their lively discussion.
      I could even introduce wine to the C.S. Lewis group.
      Soft drinks and sparkling water for the abstemious.
      J Haggerty