Obituary: Lord Tweedsmuir
Saturday 22 June 1996
His adventurous life took him from St Kilda to the battlefields of Sicily, from Equatoria to the High Arctic. His later career was spent in business and public service, but one sensed that even in City boardrooms his spirit still roamed the badlands. In old age, when his thick brown hair, beaked nose and mahogany complexion made him resemble nothing so much as a cigar- store Indian come miraculously to life, Tweedsmuir could entrance a circle of children with his tales. One heard, over the eager heads, his clipped, staccato speech: "It's a Bowie knife. Don't need it often. When you need it. Need it damn bad."
John Norman Stuart Buchan was born in London in 1911, the son of John Buchan and Susan Grosvenor. His forebears on one side were Borders sheep farmers and Peebles lawyers with a dangerous weakness for poetry; on the other side, the intellectual English nobility. He was, as his father had been, a delicate boy. Unlike his father, he was at first a poor scholar. At Eton, he devoted himself to falconry and was very nearly sacked. At his father's old college at Oxford, Brasenose, where he went up in 1930, he kept a badger and a barrel of oysters in his rooms and was eventually laurelled with a Fourth Class degree in History.
Much to his surprise, he passed into the Colonial Administrative Service, and served for two years as assistant district commissioner in the Uganda Protectorate, where he contracted a severe amoebic dysentery.
Invalided out to Canada, where John Buchan had been appointed Governor- General in 1936, he had to introduce himself to his mother at Halifax: having rowed 11st 8lb at Henley, he now weighed 8 stone. He joined the Hudson's Bay Company, drove a dog team 3,000 miles, and spent the winter of 1938-39 at the trading post at Cape Dorset in Baffinland. The drastic latitudinal displacement evidently cured him of his African sickness. When the ice began to break in spring, his partner turned to him and said: "I'm glad you didn't try to speak to me during the winter, Buchan. If you had, I would have shot you."
Back in Ottawa, his father cross-examined him, and wrote down his account with the utmost fidelity:
The cold was more intense than anything he had ever imagined. Under its stress trees cracked with a sound like machine-guns. The big morning fire made only a narrow circle of heat. If for a second he turned his face from it the air stung his eyelids as if with an infinity of harsh particles. To draw breath rasped the throat. The sky was milk-pale, the sun a mere ghostly disc, and it seemed to Leithen as if everything - sun, trees, mountains - were red-rimmed. There was no shadow anywhere, no depth or softness. The world was hard, glassy, metallic; all of it except the fantasmal, cotton-wool skies.
(Attending church with Tweedsmuir was a revelation: he said the prayers, rapidly, in Inuit.)
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Johnnie Buchan enlisted in the Governor-General's Foot Guards, and was with the first Canadian troops to land in England in December 1939. His father died in Montreal the following February, and Buchan succeeded to the title created for his father and simultaneously received his army company: these duties, falling on him on the same day, seem to have submerged his restlessness.
As second-in-command of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, and then as commander, he saw action in Sicily, where he led his regiment up the Rock of Assoro, a bastion which had not been scaled in war for eight centuries: for this feat of arms, he received an OBE (mil). (He was also twice mentioned in despatches.) The next day, he was wounded, and invalided out to North Africa. From then on, he served with the general staff in Italy, responsible for liaison between the British and Canadian contingents. He was later honorary colonel of the regiment, and in 1964 awarded the CD.
With peace, Johnnie Tweedsmuir immediately took up his seat in the House of Lords and served for four years on the opposition front bench. In 1948, he married Priscilla, Lady Grant, the widow of Sir Arthur Grant Bt, and MP for South Aberdeen till she too was elevated to the Lords in 1970. Together they steered, Priscilla through the Commons and Johnnie through the Lords, the most unsordid piece of private legislation ever to pass those Houses: the Protection of Birds Act of 1954, the model for all subsequent conservation law and embodiment of Tweedsmuir's profound sense of human responsibility to the natural world.
The couple lived at Balmedie in Aberdeenshire, a stretch of coastline Tweedsmuir celebrated in a book of memoirs, One Man's Happiness (1968). Yet it is from an earlier volume, Always a Countryman (1953), that I quote to show the beautiful simplicity of the second Lord Tweedsmuir's style. It is a description of his father fishing:
The rod appeared to do his work for him. The perfect curve of his back cast seemed to follow forward with
the fly drawing out the long, straight
line ahead, independent of his agency. It is the hallmark of all experts that the instrument appears to do its own work.
Priscilla died, after a heroic battle with cancer, in 1978. Two years later, Tweedsmuir married Jean, another Lady Grant (a coincidence that has been the cause of boundless confusion to heralds). They moved to Oxfordshire, where Tweedsmuir had lived as a child, and they spent 15 happy years in the beautiful Carolean Kingston House at Kingston Bagpuize.
In his public existence, Johnnie Tweedsmuir was Rector of Aberdeen University, where he led scientific expeditions to Libya and St Ninian's island, and was for 21 years president of the British Schools Exploring Society. He also served on the boards of BOAC, Dalgety and Sun Alliance, among other companies, and was chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Two years ago, his health began to fail. It was Johnnie Tweedsmuir's great happiness that right at the end of his life, and under his wife's devoted care, he was able to return to his beloved Scotland, to a cottage in North Berwick, if only for seven weeks. His last gesture, in bidding farewell to his brother, was to raise his hands in triumph over his head.
John Norman Stuart Buchan, explorer, writer, public servant: born London 25 November 1911; succeeded 1940 as second Baron Tweedsmuir; OBE (mil) 1945, CBE 1964; Rector of Aberdeen University 1948-51; Chairman, Joint East and Central African Board 1950-52; President, Institute of Rural Life at Home and Overseas 1951-85; President, Federation of Commonwealth and British Empire Chambers of Commerce 1955-57; CD 1964; President, Institute of Export 1964-67; President, British Schools Exploring Society 1964-85; Chairman, Advertising Standards Authority 1971-74; Chairman, Council on Tribunals 1973-80; married 1948 Priscilla, Lady Grant (nee Thomson, created 1970 Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie, died 1978; one daughter), 1980 Jean, Lady Grant (nee Tollemache); died North Berwick 20 June 1996.
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