National Library marks centenary of Buchan classic

The original artwork for the cover of the 1915 first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Picture: NLS
The original artwork for the cover of the 1915 first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps. Picture: NLS
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THE first ever printed edition of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps will go on public display at the National Library of Scotland today to celebrate its centenary.

Buchan’s classic man-on-the-run adventure story first appeared in 1915, serialised in Blackwood’s magazine, where it was published under the pseudonym H de V.

The story that gripped the nation later inspired a famous Hitchcock film and may also have been the fictional “father” of James Bond.

Rare editions – including the century-old magazine in which it first appeared – will be displayed until November 22.

Andrew Martin, curator for literature and the Arts at the National Library, who has organised the display, said: “Buchan wrote to George Blackwood that as he was becoming ‘a serious historian’ it would be better to sign the work by a nom de plume and suggested H de V.

“It appeared in three monthly instalments. There was a great tradition of writers like Conan Doyle writing in that format and readers were eager to buy the magazine in order to see the next instalment.

“It is said to have inspired Ian Fleming – the creator of James Bond – as well as Graham Greene and John Le Carre.

“There have been three major films, countless radio and television productions and a comedy spoof based on the book has just finished its stage run on London’s West End.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps, set in the days leading to the outbreak of the First World War, is about the chase to unmask German spies before they escape with Britain’s military secrets.

Buchan, who was born in Perth in 1875, was an established writer of both fiction and non-fiction before he turned his hand to the escapist adventure story in 1914.

At the time, Buchan was also wring a factual account of the First World War as it happened, titled Nelson’s History of the Great War.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was written as a distraction by Buchan as he was recovering from illness.

When the book came out in October 1915 it proved to be an immediate success with 33,000 copies being sold in the first three months.

The display seeks to set the fictional story in the Britain of the time by using contemporary documents.

Visitors can see varied editions from the last 100 years, as well as a typewritten script from the Hitchcock film and three letters from Buchan to his publisher George Blackwood, who operated from 45 George Street.

A range of supporting items on show include railway maps showing how the main character Richard Hannay would have made his way by train from London to Galloway in the south west of Scotland. Later, Hannay boards a train near Moffat and visitors can see a copy of Grieve’s penny guide to Moffat from 1904.

It also includes cigarette cards of the stars of the 1935 Hitchcock film, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat, together with the original film script. Hitchcock substantially re-wrote the story, introducing a female character and transferring some of the action to the photogenic Forth Bridge in one of the most famous scenes from the film.