#BookReview John Burnet of Barns by John Buchan

John Burnet of BarnsAbout the Book

A story of adventure, treachery and revenge, set in the Scottish Borders in the 17th century, John Burnet of Barns is a young nobleman who sets out to gain an education abroad only to find himself betrayed in his absence by his cousin.

Format: Hardcover (317 pages) Publisher: Canongate
Publication date: 1978 [1898] Genre: Historical fiction

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My Review

Like Sir Quixote of the Moors (last month’s Buchan of the Month), John Burnet of Barns is written in the first person and set in 17th century Scotland at a time of political and religious turmoil. However, its hero is a boy from Tweeddale with interests – fishing, walking – very similar to Buchan’s own. The reader witnesses John’s first meeting with local laird’s daughter, Marjory Veitch, their childhood games and, as he grows older, his growing affection for her. However,John comes to fear he has a rival in the person of his cousin, Gilbert Burnet. Rightly, as it turns out.

Initially John goes to study in Glasgow but, seized by a desire to travel, sets off for the Low Countries to continue his studies in Leyden. His studies are cut short by a plea from Marjory to return home where dastardly doings have been taking place (courtesy of guess who?). Setting foot back in Scotland, John finds himself unjustly declared an outlaw and pursued by soldiers. He is forced to takes to the hills leaving Marjory in the care of trusty companion, Nicol Plenderleith.

John has a number of narrow escapes and fortunate rescues whilst being chased across the Scottish countryside (in the manner of Buchan’s later and more famous character, Richard Hannay). There are detailed descriptions of John’s travels across various terrains, in fair weather and foul. A few too many detailed descriptions, if I’m honest, although it clearly demonstrates Buchan’s knowledge of the area in which the novel is set. Some of the dialogue, especially that of John’s companion Nicol Plenderleith, is rendered in broad Scots which may prove an obstacle for readers. I also have no idea why Buchan chose to have two characters who go by the name Gilbert Burnet – one of which is his sworn enemy and the other who helps him achieve his ambition of studying abroad.

Buchan shows his talent for creating exciting scenes including a battle in a gypsy camp, a duel with a one-eyed man and a dramatic cave collapse. And for depicting scenes of Scottish life such as a bowls match and the impact of the River Tweed in full spate. Buchan’s passion, shared with John Burnet, for the landscape of Tweeddale is evident in lyrical passages such as this:

The goodly valley, all golden with evening light, lay beneath me. Tweed was one belt of pure brightness, flashing and shimmering by its silver shores and green, mossy banks. Every wood waved and sparkled in a fairy glow, and the hills above caught the radiance on their broad bosoms.”

Throughout the book, John does not ally himself strongly with one side or the other in the political and religious conflicts of the time. He considers himself a ‘King’s man’ more as an expression of instinctive loyalty. As Buchan’s biographer, Janet Adam Smith, notes John conforms to the pattern of other Buchan heroes by being a ‘passionate moderate’. Furthermore, in tempering his hatred for his enemy with a degree of admiration for his courage, John foreshadows later Buchan heroes who manage to retain a surprising respect for people out to kill them.

Does our hero John Burnet get the girl? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out although John’s later description of Marjory and he as “comrades on the road, to cheer each other when the feet grow weary” perhaps gives you a clue.

I was more favourably impressed by John Burnet of Barns than I expected given it’s such an early novel. It has its flaws but the story is an engaging historical adventure/romance with more than a touch of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped or Catriona about it. (Buchan was a great fan of the author.)

Next month’s Buchan of the Month is A Lodge in the Wilderness. Look out for my introduction to the book and my review.

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John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.


#BookReview The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark @TwoRoadsBooks

The House by the LochAbout the Book

From the bestselling author of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, a novel of long-hidden family secrets that refuse to lie buried in the past . . .

Scotland, 1950s. Walter MacMillan is bewitched by the clever, glamorous Jean Thompson and can’t believe his luck when she agrees to marry him. Neither can she, for Walter represents a steady and loving man who can perhaps quiet the demons inside her. Yet their home on remote Loch Doon soon becomes a prison for Jean and neither a young family, nor Walter’s care, can seem to save her.

Many years later, Walter is with his adult children and adored grandchildren on the shores of Loch Doon where the family has been holidaying for two generations. But the shadows of the past stretch over them and will turn all their lives upside down on one fateful weekend.

Format: ebook (384 pages)             Publisher: Two Roads Books
Publication date: 13th June 2019 Genre: Historical/Contemporary Fiction

Purchase links*
Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com | Hive (supporting UK bookshops)
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

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My Review

I think I was expecting a lot more of this novel to be set in the past and, although a good portion of it is, the primary focus is the present day and the MacMillan family: grandfather,Walter; his son and daughter, Patrick and Fiona; their respective partners, Elinor and Roland; and Walter’s grandchildren, Pete, Carson and Iona. A lot of the story is seen from the point of view of Carson and I particularly liked the strong bond she has with her grandfather and her willingness to embrace exciting opportunities.

I enjoyed the sections of the book looking back at the development of the relationship between Walter and his late wife, Jean, from their initial meeting, their courtship and marriage to starting a family. However, behind the scenes there are tensions including Jean’s domineering father, her troubled mother and the long hours Jean spends alone in their house on the remote, if picturesque, Loch Doon. How these tensions manifest themselves in Jean’s behaviour, and the impact of this behaviour on Walter and their children is heartbreaking. Even more so, when the full story becomes known.

As for the story set in the present day, it becomes gradually apparent that history may be repeating itself. Loch Doon may be a place of beauty but it has also been the scene of tragic events, including one witnessed by Walter as a young boy, and will be again.

In her afterword, the author writes, “This novel means a great deal to me. It expresses my love of Scotland and the power it holds over me, and it also expresses the complexity of what family is and the way that it remakes itself endlessly.” The author’s love of Scotland definitely comes through in the wonderful descriptions of the loch and the surrounding Galloway hills.

The House by the Loch is an emotional, well-crafted story of a family dealing with change, guilt and loss, and how – together – they must come to terms with secrets of the past and face up to the future.

I received a review copy courtesy of Two Roads Books and NetGalley.

In three words: Emotional, dramatic, engrossing

Try something similar: The Stationmaster’s Daughter by Kathleen McGurl

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About the Author

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who has presented a wide range of BBC programmes over the past thirty years, from the ground breaking Late Show to the nightly current affairs show Newsnight and the weekly arts and cultural review and comment show, The Review Show.

She has conducted longform interviews with everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Madonna, Harold Pinter, Elton John, the musician Pete Doherty, Damian Hirst, George Clooney and the likes of Toni Morrison, Donna Tartt and Philip Roth.

Kirsty has won several major awards for her work, including BAFTA Awards for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting, Journalist of the Year and Best Television Presenter. Her debut novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, was published in March 2014 by Two Roads and was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as nominated for the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award. The House by the Loch has been inspired by her childhood memories and family, particularly her father.

Born in Dumfries and educated in Ayr, Scotland, Kirsty now lives in Glasgow.

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