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John Buchan and the Black Cuillin of Skye November 11, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking in Scotland, literature, Munros.
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Am Basteir in the Black Cuillin

Am Basteir in the Black Cuillin

The Black Cuillin, the Black Coolin—every place on the Isle of Skye seems to have more than one spelling and more than one name.  “Am Basteir” in the photo is also known by climbers as “The Executioner.”  We can safely say that these mountains are fierce.  The Scottish Mountaineering Club’s guide to the Munros warns of steep precipices, airy ridges, persistent mists, and “local magnetic anomalies.”

And how does John Buchan come into this?  (We’ll get there.)  He is best known as author of “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” the novel on which three film adaptations have been based.  That was the first of several books to feature the character of Richard Hannay, who always seemed to be enmeshed in international espionage.  Hannay was generally to be found running, in hiding, moving desperately across complex terrain, pursued by a demonic foe.  As Robin Winks has written, the winner in this game “will be the person with the resourcefulness to use the environment to his advantage, to go to ground with rather than against the landscape.  Thus the locale is of the greatest importance, not simply because it may be exotic, or vaguely threatening, but because it is in reality the third player in the game, a great, neutral (and therefore, to the harried, apparently malevolent) landscape.”*

It is in the third Hannay novel, “Mr. Standfast,” that the hero finds himself in “on the skirts of the Coolin.”  It is during the First World War, and Hannay is on the track of a traitor who has been feeding intelligence to the German military establishment.  Hannay follows the traitor’s spoor from Glasgow to a small freighter nosing its way among the islands of the Inner Hebrides, then goes ashore and across hills and valleys of the West Highlands, and then over to Skye.  On the island occurs one of those twists of good spy yarns in which an enemy is suddenly revealed to be a friend, but the real enemy is watching from the shadows, and who knows whether the next revelation will be for the good or the bad.  Hannay is on the slopes of Sgurr Vhicconich (Sgurr Mhic Choinnich) and looks over to Sgurr Dearg (also Inaccessible Pinnacle, also “the In Pinn”) and Sgurr Alasdair.  He has some good scrambles up gullies and chimneys and across boiler-plate slabs.

Buchan, born in Scotland, was a man of vast energies.  As well as turning out more than a hundred works of fiction and military history over the course of his life, he went to South Africa in 1902 as a staffer for Lord Milner after the Treaty of Vereeniging that ended the Boer War.  He was a journalist in France in 1911 and Director of Intelligence in Britain’s Ministry of Information in 1918.  After the war he eventually went into politics and in 1935 became Governor-General of Canada.  He died in 1940.  His works of fiction lack the universality that seems to define great literature, but it is partly their quality of being period pieces that makes them appeal to me.  In “Mr. Standfast,” the reader enters certain worlds within Britain in 1917 with complete confidence in the depiction of manner, dress, social class, social attitude, the pacifists in the Cotswolds and the soldiers from the Royal Scots Fusiliers on leave.

But for me the best draw is the chase, the pursuit across terrain that is both real and dreamlike, the lone person running at midnight beneath the black sharp-edged crags.

*Introduction to Buchan, “The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay,” David Godine, 1988.


1. Caroline @ Coastcard - February 26, 2009

I have really enjoyed this post! I am a member of the John Buchan Society … and I love Skye. I wonder what you made of the new version of The Thirty Nine Steps …

2. Jenny - February 26, 2009

Thanks for your comment! Due to the fact that I am a dilettantish sort who skitters from author to author rather than someone who seriously follows developments concerning Buchan, I wasn’t even aware of the new version. I see from some quick googling that it seems to be controversial, and apparently it was filmed in Australia? Should I bother watching it—what do you think? (If it has interesting scenery, I will find it worth watching even if the adaptation stinks.)

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