By Kenneth Maclean, RSGS Collections Team

Maps always enhance the reading and understanding of novels, whatever your age. They certainly assisted my boyhood reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island: fine adventure stories whose maps, for example, respectively highlighted David Balfour’s eventful flight across the heather with Allan Breck Stewart, and introduced long-remembered names such as Spyglass Hill, Captain Kidd’s Anchorage, and raising questions about Stevenson’s inspiration for the island. In later years, another useful map showed the site of Blaauwildebeestefontein and its environs, well dubbed the ‘theatre of so many strange things’, as described in Prester John by John Buchan.

Born in Perth in 1875, John Buchan was the son of a Free Kirk minister, later translated to charges at Kirkcaldy and Glasgow. Educated at Hutcheson’s Grammar School, Buchan won a bursary to the local university, followed by a scholarship to Oxford University to read Greats. After graduation with first class honours in 1899, he read for the bar. From undergraduate days at Glasgow, he already had published his first books, the start of a varied career: as a life-long author, a journalist, a lawyer, colonial administrator, a director of Nelson’s publishing house, a WW1 correspondent in France for The Times, a Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information, and Unionist MP in 1927.  Twice Buchan served as Lord High Commissioner to the Church of Scotland General Assembly, and in 1935 –the year of his ennoblement as Lord Tweedsmuir - he was appointed Governor-General of Canada, a post held until his death in 1940 in Montreal.

Buchan’s extensive writings included historical biographies, histories and short stories, but he is mainly remembered as a successful novelist introducing heroic characters, including Richard Hannay e.g., in The Thirty-Nine Steps, published 1916; Edward Leithen, e.g., The Power-House, 1916; and David Crawfurd in Prester John, 1910. Part of Buchan’s success as a fiction writer was his ability to convey a sense of place, exemplified by his keenly-observed, well-tramped, beloved Southern Uplands, realistically depicted in several novels, notably his archetypical thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Aged twenty-five, Buchan was equally attracted by the Highveld landscape of South Africa, the setting for Prester John. In 1901 he joined the staff of Lord Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa, tasked with the reconstruction of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, after the Anglo-Boer War. His duties included improving conditions in the concentration camps, and the surveying and allocation of farmlands to new settlers, hopefully loyal to the empire. Desk-based paperwork was balanced by, at times, arduous miles traversed on horseback, enabling Buchan to observe and be inspired by the distinctive Highveld plateau, north of the Drakensburg mountains, some 5000 feet high. It was:

    ‘a soft, rich and fascinating garden land … a kind of celestial Scotland where the main lines of landscape

    are Scottish, but when you examine details, you find the water-meadows full of tree-ferns and arums

   and orchids, and the little copses, which should be hazel or birch, full of trees, 200 feet high, and

   monkey-ladders, and strange ferns, and wild pig, bush-buck and tiger cats.

This part of the Highveldt, known as the Wood Bush, was the locale for Prester John, published some seven years after Buchan left South Africa in 1903. It is a compelling, popular page-turner, with estimated sales of over a million by the 1990s. Through the novel’s narrator, David Crawfurd, Prester John, not only reflects Buchan’s attachment to South Africa, its peoples, his views on imperialism and the potential shaping of the colony’s development.

The initial narrative begins in Kirkcaple, a Fife coastal town, where Crawfurd’s father is the Church of Scotland minister.  One sabbath evening, on the deserted shore, the young Crawfurd and three friends witness the ostensibly Christian the Reverend John Laputa performing a pagan ritual. Incensed at being discovered, Laputa gives chase, but the youngsters successfully escape.

Some years later, Crawfurd, now nineteen and obliged to forego studies at Edinburgh University after his father’s death is to serve as assistant storekeeper in a remote Transvaal village – Blaauwildebeestefontein; sailing on the same vessel is Laputa. Although Laputa’s destination is unknown, Crawfurd overhears the word “Blaauwildebeestefontein”, in an exchange between Laputa and Henriques, a vicious-looking Portuguese individual. Within weeks of settling at the store, Crawfurd becomes aware of a potential native uprising, initiated by Laputa claiming to be the embodiment of Prester John, the legendary 15th century King of Abyssinia. The plot unravels, and involves young Crawfurd uncovering illicit jewel smuggling, orchestrated by Henriques; providing essential information to colonial forces led by Captain James Arcoll; stealing and hiding the ‘Great Snake’- a ruby necklace, essential symbol of Laputa’s authority; witnessing the suicide plunge of a fatally wounded Laputa into the watery depths of a subterranean cavern; and an epic climb out of the cave.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in the area depicted on the map. It shows a part of the Highveld enclosed by a horseshoe formation of the steep sided berg, breached in places by rivers such as the Blue Wildebeeste. Overall, it is a sparsely peopled landscape. Dispersed compact, circular-shaped Kraals, named after the local headman, are sited close to the berg; Blaauwildebeestefontein, a cluster of twenty or so houses with a school and store just appears in the north-west. A thin network of footpaths and tracks link the various settlements. A compass provides direction, but the map lacks a scale. Arguably this is understandable: distance among the local inhabitants was measured in hours, as Buchan stressed in an official publication, The African Colony. For example, Crawfurd’s journey from the cave to where he hides the necklace occurs overnight, no linear figures are given.

For Buchan, the Highveld was inspirational, well exemplified in his initial description of Blaauwildebeestefontein:

‘The Spring of the Blue Wildebeeste was a clear rushing mountain torrent,, which swirled over blue rocks into deep fern-fringed pools. All around was a tableland of lush grass with marigolds and arum lilies instead of daisies and buttercups. Thickets of tall trees dotted the hill slopes and patched the meadows as if some landscape gardener had been at work on them. Beyond, the glen fell steeply to the plains, which ran out in a faint haze to the horizon. To north and south I marked the sweep of the Berg, now rising high to a rocky peak and now stretching in a level rampart of blue’.

As one reviewer put it, Prester John was ‘a ripping yarn’, But it was more; with the aid of a map, it provided not only pace and pleasure, but, critically, also captured a sense of place. The use of literature in enhancing geographical description is not uncommon in geography. One eminent advocate was the late Professor Wreford Watson of Edinburgh University. In his 1983 address – ‘The Soul of Geography’ - to the Institute of British Geographers, he admitted that ‘he threw in his lot with literature’ throughout his academic career in Scotland and Canada. Its value could be found in virtually any field of geography, whether physical, human or regional. Geographers often speak of the ‘personality’ of a region, often uncovered so effectively through novelists such as Buchan, just one of many, whether D.H. Lawrence and his mining landscapes of Nottinghamshire; Thomas Hardy and his Dorset; Neil Gunn and Sutherland and Caithness; Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the Mearns; James Kelman and Glasgow. All testimony to the strong links between literature and geography, that most promiscuous and eclectic of subjects.