This fine novel from 1930 about newspaper proprietors and their unexpected influences has a title that hasn’t travelled well. Be it known that the ‘Gay’ of the title is an invented Scottish clan-type name that probably derives from the medieval ancestry of its Westwater owners, headed by Lord Rhynns. ‘Gay’ is a place-name. Let’s get on with the plot.
Castle Gay is one of my Top Five Favourite John Buchan Novels. * I love it for its sunny, cheerful attitude, the thorough modernity of its characters and its theme, and for the glorious Scottish country walking and slithering around in ditches. It has some of the best disguise episodes in all of Buchan’s fiction, and solves a troubling question of intruder etiquette by the butler offering them a wastepaper basket for their revolvers. It is also a cracking good newspaper novel, because it draws on Buchan’s detailed, first-hand knowledge of the power of British press barons in the early twentieth century.
It is the late 1920s in Scotland. Thomas Carlyle Craw is a national newspaper proprietor and a celebrated pundit and columnist. His writing is half-baked, anodyne, pompous and opinionated, and utterly confident in the rightness of his views insomuch as they will sell his newspapers. He takes a political stance when he feels sure that he will not be held to account for it. He is also rather shy and unconfident among strangers, painfully aware that his speaking voice is an unctuous squeak, and he has never really had much experience with people. He employs staff, but he has no family or friends. He stays hidden behind his armoury of publications, that range from the scrappy penny weekly to august journals that come out at ponderous intervals. He sends editors to meet the politicians desirous of his opinions and advice, and he lives and works in a bubble. Castle Gay in south-west Scotland is his favourite retreat, which he rents from Lord Rhynns, and fancies himself secure among baronial trappings.
All this is poor preparation for the accident of identity that brings Craw to Kirkmichael railway station en route to the castle. Instead of being met by his own driver, he is suddenly grabbed from behind, smothered in a bag, and bundled into a car. On being deposited in a lonely but warm and comfortable cottage for safe-keeping, his horrified kidnappers realise that he is not, in fact, the rival candidate for a student election they’d intended to keep out of the way at Mrs Catterick’s house to the benefit of their own. They disappear from the plot, and the surprised but hospitable Mrs Catterick has a furious newspaper magnate on her hands. Trouble is, he has no money, the wrong clothes and footwear for Scottish moorland, and devoutly wishes to be kept out of rival newspapers’ notice, because of all things, Mr Craw’s dignity must be kept intact. The rival newspapers are all, very unfortunately, in the area, since there is a contentious by-election taking place in Castle Gay’s constituency, so even getting to his safe house is going to be tricky, or so Mr Craw’s paranoia believes.
Enter two of Buchan’s new generation of heroes, both doing well after an unfortunate beginning in the Glasgow slums: the Socialist and Craw journalist Dougal, and Jaikie the Cambridge undergraduate and rugby international. They try to rescue Mr Craw by taking him on a long walk through the hills to attempt to reach the castle, but then a further complication ensues. The Evallonian Monarchists are in town, and so are the Evallonian Republicans, both determined to see Mr Craw and demand his support in their country’s political struggles, since he has pontificated loudly and for a long time on their politics in his columns. Buchan updated Ruritania to create the proto-Fascist state of Evallonia, teetering between its ancient monarchy and a new, upstart Republicanism seething with Communists. Mr raw is petrified even more: now he has to dodge the rival newspapers and the crazy foreigners, who include a real prince. He’s caught a cold, and has been scared by a drunken man on the road who wants to sell him a scruffy dog (Jaikie bought the dog), and he is very, very far from his comfort zone. Mr Craw is also showing no signs of the leadership, decisiveness and command that he normally displays in his proper place. He has to be shown the way to find his self-respect again, to outface the intruders, and to deal decisively with the infestation of newspaper journalists whom he does not employ. Jaikie and Dougal do this, along with the Honourable Miss Alison Westwater, a resourceful tree-climbing daughter of the castle who is Buchan’s most successful female character (he was usually catastrophically bad at writing women). The dog, a nice little Sealyham, is named Woolworth, and Mr Craw recovers his courage with the help of a masked ball and Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Castle Gay is a delightful farce on the trouble that newspapers can bring, and how interfering in the affairs of other people, without proper knowledge, is bound to cause trouble. Buchan has a lot of fun with the complexities of a press baron’s life and the flaws in the machine that can bring him down, if he is not paying enough attention to the weaknesses in his empire.
* Since you ask, the others are: Salute to Adventurers (1915), Mr Standfast (1919), The Dancing Floor (1926) and The Gap in the Curtain (1932). I admire The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle and The Three Hostages, but I’ve worked on them too often to want to reread them for pleasure.