William Cook

Retracing The Thirty-Nine Steps in Buchan’s beloved Borders

Richard Hannay’s first adventure, now 100 years old, is a pastoral disguised as a thriller

Like Richard Hannay, I had to run to catch the early morning train from London to Edinburgh. Thankfully, unlike Hannay, I wasn’t wanted for murder — I’d merely overslept again. As the train pulled out of King’s Cross, I fished out my old Penguin edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Hannay’s first — and most famous —adventure. Each time I reread it, I marvel at what a brilliant book it is — how modern it still seems, how easily it draws you in. As we raced through England towards Buchan’s beloved Borders, I rejoined Hannay on his mad dash across the country, urging him on in his heroic quest to save Britain from the beastly Hun. By the time I’d turned the final page, we’d already reached Berwick. Buchan understood the value of clear and simple writing. He also knew the power of a rattling good yarn.

This year marks the centenary of the publication of The Thirty-Nine Steps — the template for countless spy stories and the inspiration for Hitchcock’s greatest film. A hundred years since Buchan wrote this slim book to wile away a dreary convalescence, his hero Richard Hannay remains the archetypal man of action, the father of James Bond. The Thirty-Nine Steps is a tale of derring-do, but it’s also a heartfelt homage to the landscape of the Scottish Lowlands. What better way would there be to mark this centenary than to visit Buchan’s native land, guided by his granddaughter, Deborah Stewartby? It feels a bit like playing truant, but isn’t that what The Thirty-Nine Steps is all about?

Lady Stewartby meets me off the train at Waverley, demurely dressed in pale green tweed, as elegant and timeless as one of Buchan’s heroines. For her, Buchan’s legacy has been nothing but a bonus — she’s full of admiration for him — but for her father, William Buchan 3rd Baron Tweedsmuir, the writer’s fame cast a longer shadow.

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