#BookReview The Free Fishers by John Buchan #ReadJB2020

The Free FishersAbout the Book

When Anthony Lammas, minister of the Kirk and Professor of Logic at St Andrews University, leaves his home town for London on business, he little imagines that within two days he will be deeply entangled in a web of mystery and intrigue.

But he’s no ordinary professor. His boyhood allegiance to a brotherhood of deep-sea fishermen is to involve him and handsome ex-pupil, Lord Belses, with a beautiful but dangerous woman. Set in the bleak Yorkshire hamlet of Hungrygrain during the Napoleonic Wars, this is a stirring tale of treason and romance.

Format: Hardcover (320 pages)              Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: January 1936 [1934] Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

My Buchan of the Month for October is The Free Fishers which was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on 24th October 1932. You can read my earlier blog post introducing the book here.

The Free Fishers of the title is a secret brotherhood of the sea-folk of Fife akin to a masonic order, of which the book’s hero, Anthony Lammas, is an honorary member. As he explains, its full name was the Free Fishers of Forth ‘but its name was not often spoken. To be a member was to have behind one, so long as one obeyed its rules, a posse of stalwart allies’. Like the secret groups in other Buchan novels, The Free Fishers have means of covert and rapid communication.

The plot of The Free Fishers follows a familiar Buchan theme, that of the ordinary man taken out of his normal sphere and catapulted into a world of adventure.  Nanty (as he is known to his friends) finds himself pitted against a villain described as ‘the most dangerous man now alive on earth’ whose evil intention is eventually revealed as murder and the ruining of the reputation of an innocent lady.

As Nanty notes, “In two days he had stepped out of order and routine into a world of preposterous chances. He had been hunted by those who sought to do him a mischief; he was endeavoring to wrest a malign secret from a moorland fortress; he was trying to save a friend from death; and now in the dark of the moon he was tramping the high hills with an unknown lady.

Along with some companions he encounters along the way, Nanty sets out to try to foil the dastardly plot involving breakneck journeys by His Majesty’s Mail and by carriage across England. These are thrillingly described and really conjure up the experience – and perils – of travel by highspeed coach in the Regency period.

The villain himself is more spoken about than seen until he and Nanty finally confront each other during the book’s dramatic climax.  Anthony Lammas, the man of letters proves himself a man of deeds as well and gets a glimpse of the romance his life has so far missed.

As those familiar with Buchan’s writing might expect, there are some great descriptions of landscape.

The rooks were wheeling over the plough-lands and snipe were calling in every meadow. The hawthorn bushes were a young green, every hedge-root had its celandines and primaries, and there were thickets of sloe, white as if with linen laid out to bleach.” (Fife, Scotland).

The reedy watercourses were ablaze with marsh marigolds, the wayside banks were white with marguerites, the fat pastures between the dykes were gay with daisies and butterflies… At the turn of the road the sails of a huge old windmill were slowly turning, and he heard the chack-chack of the pump.” (Norfolk Fens)

I can’t say if Ursula Buchan’s likening of The Free Fishers to ‘a Georgette Heyer novel, but written by a man’ is a fair one as I have never read a book by Georgette Heyer.  However, I can completely agree with her description of The Free Fishers as ‘a rollicking, exuberant story’ that I really enjoyed.

Next month’s Buchan of the Month is his portrait of Britain during the reign of King George V, The King’s Grace, published to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the King’s accession to the throne.

In three words: Fast-paced, dramatic, adventure

Try something similar: Huntingtower by John Buchan

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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 one hundred 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.

Buchan of the Month 2020

#ReadJB2020 Buchan of the Month: Introducing…The Free Fishers by John Buchan

9781846970658The Free Fishers was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton in June 1934 and in the US by The Riverside Press on 31st July 1934. It had first appeared in serial form in Chamber’s Journal between January and July 1934. My own copy is from January 1936. Buchan’s historical fiction was never as commercially successful as his “shockers” although the combined sales of the Hodder & Stoughton and Nelson editions of The Free Fishers totalled 100,000 up to 1960 and the Penguin paperback edition added another 21,000.

The last historical novel Buchan wrote, The Free Fishers is set in the Regency era at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The story takes its hero Antony Lammas, a young Professor of Divinity, from the coast of Fife, to the moors of Northumberland and the fens of East Anglia. John Buchan’s first biographer, Janet Adam Smith summarises the plot as “the rescue of a young man from a black-hearted fanatic”. She notes that the appearance of Prime Minister Spencer Percival “adds colour” but although describing the book as lively enough she finds it rather short on suspense.

Buchan scholar David Daniell takes a somewhat different view. He admires the book’s “speed and zest” and the fact the exuberance of the action does not overwhelm the plot. One particular scene in which the heroine is first glimpsed, he sees as evidence of Buchan’s “fine, assured touch”. Ursula Buchan, John Buchan’s granddaughter, concurs describing The Free Fishers as ‘a rollicking, exuberant story”. In her biography of her grandfather, Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, she writes, “It is meant as a high compliment to say that this is a Georgette Heyer novel, but written by a man.”

Andrew Lownie sees in the book many of the ingredients of the contemporary shocker, especially its villain, Julian Cranmer, described variously as “the most dangerous man alive on earth” and “an immense perverted genius”. Sounds good to me so look out for my review of The Free Fishers later this month.


Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan: A Biography (OUP, 1985 [1965])
Ursula Buchan, Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (Bloomsbury, 2019)
David Daniell, The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975)
Kenneth Hillier and Michael Ross, The First Editions of John Buchan: A Collector’s Illustrated Biography (Avonworld, 2008)
Andrew Lownie, John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (Constable, 1995)

Buchan of the Month 2020