I was reminded unexpectedly of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps on recent a visit to Glasgow. Credited by some as the forerunner of the modern thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps is probably Buchan’s most well-known work and since its first publication in 1915, film and theatre adaptations have expanded its reach considerably. In the light of its reputation, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised to find it referenced at the top of a flight of steps adjacent to the new St Vincent Plaza office complex linking St Vincent Street with William Street in the centre of the city. I was on my way to a meeting at the Plaza and had time only to take a quick snap. Landscape architects LDA Design created the steps and terracing as a public space to complement the new office complex. Their image doesn’t quite show the full extent of the flight so on my next visit I’ll have to make time to check whether there are indeed 39.
Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps when he was too ill for active service in World War I but his subsequent war-time work inspired at least one of his later works of fiction. Buchan was a war correspondent for The Times and Daily News and by 1916 had moved into intelligence. In 1917 he was appointed as director of a new government department of information which, in addition to intelligence, was concerned with propaganda. Buchan established sections focused on art and literature as well as the press and cinema but found himself attacked by the newspapers owned by Alfred Harmsworth, Viscount Northcliffe. His detractors included The Times for which Buchan had previously written. Perhaps Northcliffe’s 1918 appointment as Director of Propaganda in Enemy Countries hints at a possible reason for his newspapers’ antipathy towards Buchan.
Buchan’s focus for his war propaganda was allied and neutral countries but he also recognised the important role propaganda could play at home. He increased the quantity of propaganda the Government produced and significantly expanded the use of film. The extent to which The Thirty-Nine Steps reached a wider audience through film therefore seems fitting. There have been three versions of a film (that I know about) based on Buchan’s book. The original, and some would argue the best, was The 39 Steps directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. A later version, starring Kenneth Moore as Richard Hannay and directed by Ralph Thomas in 1959, included a famous scene on the Forth Bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also used locations in rural Perthshire as the backdrop for the hero’s bid to evade his pursuers one of which, the tearoom in The Trossachs hamlet of Brig o’ Turk , is almost unchanged since the film was made. Sadly closed at present, the tearoom has long been a favourite stop for walkers, cyclists and other visitors to The Trossachs and many recall its starring role in the 1959 film.