100 years of The 39 Steps

05/09/07, TSPL, SCOTSMAN  COLLECT PICTURE OF JOHN BUCHAN. IAN RUTHERFORD
05/09/07, TSPL, SCOTSMAN COLLECT PICTURE OF JOHN BUCHAN. IAN RUTHERFORD

The National Library of Scotland has marked the centenary of the archetypal spy story, tracing its influence from Borders cottages to Hollywood and beyond.

John Buchan published The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1915, and it’s massive popularity sparked a century of spy thrillers.

The story featured war hero Richard Hannay, as the man on the run from shadowy forces intent on plunging Europe into war and chaos.

Despite the international plot that drives the action, the main setting of what the author described as a “shocker” is rural southern Scotland.

Buchan spent much time in the Borders as a child, particularly at Broughton, and he would go on to stand as a Unionist candidate for the parliamentary seat of Peebles and Selkirk.

As a politician, he supported controversial policies including women’s suffrage, House of Lords reform, and the introduction of national insurance.

And his memories of canvassing made it into The Thirty-Nine Steps, as his protagonist finds himself stumbling into - and addressing - a Borders election meeting.

Highlights of the library’s display include a typewritten script from Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation, rare editions of Buchan’s book, and letters from the author to his publishers.

The story has been adapted into films, a stage farce and even a videogame, and the Borders have also not been slow to recognise its legacy.

The John Buchan Way, between Broughton and Peebles, was opened in memory of the author’s local connections, incorporating many traditional shepherds’ paths through 14 miles of the Peeblesshire countryside.

Andrew Martin, curator for literature and the arts at the National Library of Scotland, said: “Buchan went on to write better novels, but the original tale of a man on the run from dark forces remains his most famous and has been hugely influential.

“Thriller writing has become big business but very few, if any, of today’s books can ever hope to achieve the lasting appeal of The Thirty-Nine Steps.”