Huntingtower is a novel written by John Buchan in 1922. The first of his three Dickson McCunn books, it is set near Carrick in south-west Scotland around 1920. The hero is a 55-year-old grocer Dickson McCunn, who has sold his business and taken early retirement. As soon as he ventures out to explore the world, he is swept out of his bourgeois rut into bizarre and outlandish adventures, and forced to become a reluctant hero.
The leading characters are:
Dickson McCunn: an affluent retired grocer, whose unostentatious and dour but stubborn and determined nature makes him a surprising hero. Dickson McCunn is formidable and dangerous partly because he seems unremarkable and ordinary, and friends and enemies alike are taken by surprise when he acts boldly.
John Heritage: an unsuccessful poet and ex-soldier. McCunn's first impressions of Heritage in the Black Bull Inn at Kirkmichael are poor; Heritage is opinionated on poetry, sourly cynical and openly patronising. But later, Heritage proves to be courageous, even foolhardy, romantic in his views towards Saskia, whom he loves from afar, and despite his war experiences he still has enthusiasms and a belief in right and wrong. It is his memory of meeting Saskia in Rome during the World War which prompts him to break into Huntingtower when he has discovered that she is there and is in danger.
Dougal, leader or "chief" of The Gorbals Diehards, a small group of six boys from the slums of Glasgow who have organised themselves into an adhoc scout troop and are camping in the vicinity of Huntingtower. They are the first accidental discoverers of things amiss at Huntingtower and act as a vital scouting force providing intelligence to the adult players.
Wee Jaikie, the most junior member of the Diehards, who is held in respect by his older friends because he is implacable in a fist fight and has the ominous characteristic that when other boys weep it is a signal that they have lost the will to fight, but when Jaikie weeps, it means that he has only just begun to fight. Jaikie acts as a messenger between the Diehards and their adult allies, especially McCunn and Phemie Morran, in whose house they are lodging.
Mrs Morran, the lady who gives McCunn and Heritage rooms in her house after they are turned away from the Inn by a man who turns out to be a member of the conspiracy, put in charge of the village inn to keep out potentially interfering people such as Heritage and McCunn. Mrs Morran proves to be a shrewd advisor, and articulates the novel's core philosophy of allegiance and loyalty. In her young days she was a maidservant at Huntingtower and it offends her deeply that bad people have put the house to evil uses.
“If I was young and yauld like you I wad gang into the Hoose, and I wadna rest till I had riddled oot the truith and jyled every scoondrel about the place. If ye dinna gang, ’faith I’ll kilt my coats and gang mysel’. I havena served the Kennedys for forty year no’ to hae the honour o’ the Hoose at my hert....Ye’ve speired my advice, sirs, and ye’ve gotten it. Now I maun clear awa’ your supper.” Huntingtower, chapter four.
The story revolves around the imprisonment under false pretenses by Bolshevik agents of an exiled Russian noblewoman. The Scottish local community mobilises to uncover and thwart the conspiracy against her, and to defend the neutrality of Scotland against the Russian revolutionary struggle. A plot based on espionage and covert violence is set against the seemingly tranquil Scottish rural backdrop, a narrative device commonly found in Buchan’s novels. He uses this notably in The Thirty Nine Steps. The novel contrasts the domestic characters, heroes and villains, with their more alien Russian counterparts. Huntingtower is characteristic of Buchan’s novels, particularly in its class-based paternalism; its xenophobic prejudices, which are mitigated by instinctive humanity and dry humour; and its shrewd common-sense understanding of personality and motivation. We see Buchan's class based paternalism in the attitudes of various characters, from Saskia's insistence on pointing out the former status of her Russian family to Phemie Morran's lifelong loyalty to the extinct Kennedy family, to whom she was once a domestic servant. Heritage and McCunn instantly react to the first foreign resident of Huntingtower, a man called Leon, whose unwholesome appearance Buchan describes with relish:
"He was a sturdy fellow in a suit of blackclothes which had not been made for him. He might have been a butler en deshabille, but for the presence of a pair of field boots into which he had tucked the ends of his trousers. The curious thing about him was his face, which was decorated with features so tiny as to give the impression of a monstrous child. Each in itself was well enough formed, but eyes, nose, mouth, chin were of smallness curiously out of proportion to the head and body. Such an anomaly might have been redeemed by the expression; good-humour would have invested it with an air of agreeable farce. But there was no friendliness in the man’s face. It was set like a judge’s in a stony impassiveness." Huntingtower chapter three.
The moment when Dickson McCunn relinquishes his timid wish to remain strictly inside the law and decides to take a hand against the foreign conspirators gives an ironic insight into McCunn's social conditioning, whereby the veranda is an acceptable way to break into a house and the coal hole is unacceptable.
"They both looked at Dickson, and Dickson, scarlet in the face, looked back at them. He had suddenly found the thought of a solitary march to Auchenlochan intolerable. Once again he was at the parting of the ways, and once more caprice determined his decision. That the coal-hole was out of the question had worked a change in his views, Somehow it seemed to him less burglarious to enter by a veranda. He felt very frightened but for the moment quite resolute. “I’m coming with you,” he said." Huntingtower chapter five.
In this novel Buchan creates characters across a broad spectrum of Scottish social classes and backgrounds, and while no one except McCunn is presented in great depth, we are given sharp and revealing character sketches of other key characters. Heritage’s single handed defence of the actual tower and his attempt to free-climb away from the burning building show not only his actions but his reasons and thinking, why he is doing what he is doing. Wee Jaikie's inner life is only hinted at occasionally, but his dogged perseverance and resourcefulness come through at several moments when his interventions are important. In the final resolution of the story, a band of adventurers ranging from an injured laird and his faithful menservants to a group of semi-outcast street urchins from Glasgow have bonded and have combined to fight for a common purpose, out of belief in right and wrong, and allegiance to Scotland.
The 1927 black-and-white silent film Huntingtower was based on the novel and directed by George Pearson. Huntingtower was adapted for BBC television in 1957. Starring James Hayter, the six episodes were aired weekly, from Jun 16 through July 21. Huntingtower was also adapted in three one-hour episodes for BBC Radio in 1988 by Trevor Royle and directed by Patrick Raynor, and starred Roy Hanlon as McCunn, Stuart McQuarrie as Heritage and David McKail as the Narrator. These have been repeated on Radio 4 Extra, most recently in November 2014. In addition to the above, BBC Scotland produced an adaptation which was broadcast over six episodes starting in October 1978. Among the cast of the Gorbal Diehards, one Iain Stewart, who played Napoleon, surfaced on TV 20 years later as Professor Iain Stewart, geologist and presenter of such programmes as Men of Rock and more recently How to Grow A Planet.