Nigel Tranter, the historian and novelist, was born on the 23rd of November, 1909.
Nigel Tranter was undoubtedly the most prolific Scottish writer of all time, producing over one hundred and thirty books, and was well qualified to be known as ‘Scotland’s Storyteller’. It was his ability to tell stories, combined with a wealth of knowledge of Scotland’s history, which gave him his lasting fame. It has often been said that the only history many Scots know was learned from reading Tranter's stories, and in the context of Scotland’s history, spanning the 6th to the 18th Centuries, Nigel Tranter certainly told its story. Although he lectured on history, Tranter disliked ‘conventional history’ and sought to bring the past to life through his storytelling. However, his approach didn’t go down too well with professional historians, but maybe they were only jealous of his popular success. Compared to the traditional, dry textbooks, Tranter’s books display a vivid imagination and appealed to ordinary readers, not only in Scotland, but around the world. His enthusiasm for history is obvious from his books and you can’t help feeling that if school history had only been taught Tranter’s way, it would have been far more popular.
Although Tranter was best known for his famous Scottish historical books, he also wrote factual books about Scotland and the Scots, novels set in Scotland and other countries, even Westerns, albeit under a pseudonym, and a series of books for children. After the success of his trilogy on Robert the Bruce, he concentrated far more on such heroic figures. He wrote books on William Wallace; the Stewart Jameses, from James II to his “Shaughling Jamie Saxt” (James VI and I); a trilogy based in the time of the early Stewart Kings, Robert I and II; the real Macbeth; David I; Thomas the Rhymer; Somerled, the Lord of the Isles; Rob Roy MacGregor; The Machiavellian Master of Gray; Bonnie Prince Charlie; and many more… all of them immensely readable.
Some historians have criticised his prodigious output and it’s fair to say that not all of his books are deserving of the accolades he got for say, ‘The Wallace’ and his Bruce trilogy. However, Tranter himself was aware of his failings, such as they were, and once said, “I have sometimes wondered if I shouldn't have done half as many and written twice as well”. Magnus Linklater, when chairman of the Scottish Arts Council, said that Tranter “popularised Scottish history more than anyone else in the last 100 years” and the Scottish First Minister, commenting after Tranter’s death said that “[Tranter’s] books gave enormous pleasure to generations of Scots. He opened up a whole world of Scottish history and did much to make us proud of our heritage”.
Carla Nayland wrote in 2006, that although “Tranter is good at capturing political complexity” and “[his] historical novels are stronger on battles and politics than on relationships and romance”, he went far beyond “taking a simplistic nation-state view” of events surrounding the likes of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. She says approvingly that Tranter’s Bruce trilogy “recognises that family loyalties and rivalries were at least as important as nationality” and that “although Robert Bruce is the hero of his trilogy, he is not without flaws”. Ray Bradfield, who wrote an excellent biography of Nigel Tranter, said that so many people owed him a debt of gratitude as “The great thing about Nigel was that he had… a gift for storytelling… combined with this really passionate love for Scotland”. Significantly, she added, “He gave ordinary people back their history and their identity. They walked taller because of Nigel Tranter”.
Nigel Tranter was born in Glasgow on the 23rd of November, 1909. His family later moved to Edinburgh and he was educated at George Heriot’s School, named after ‘Jingling Geordie’ from ‘The Wisest Fool’ – the real life George Heriot. After school, he went to work for architects Aldjo Jamieson Arnott, but the early death of his father and the need to support his mother and sisters led to his joining the Scottish National Insurance Company. In 1935, he published his first book, ‘The Fortalicles and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland’, illustrated with his own sketches. He took to writing to get out of insurance and his wife, May, encouraged him to write a romantic novel set in the Highlands. He wrote ‘Trespass’ in 1937, but unfortunately, Moray Press went bankrupt and he never received a penny. Nevertheless, he persevered and by the time war broke out in 1939, he was making £500 a year, whilst still working in insurance.
The war managed to end his career in insurance before his writing did and it was only after the war, during which he served in the Royal Artillery, that he became a full-time writer. Mind you, he managed to write five books during the war. Interestingly, Nigel Tranter wrote fourteen Westerns, under the pseudonym, Nye Tredgold, but as he claimed that each of those took him only six weeks to write, maybe they’re not all that interestin’. Tranter’s first major, historically-focused book was ‘The Queen’s Grace’, which appeared in 1953 and was about Mary I, Queen of Scots. In 1957, he published ‘MacGregor’s Gathering’, the first of another trilogy. From then on, he maintained his hallmark of the substantial, historical novel, based on real life characters and events, often told through the eyes of a fictional observer immersed in the plot. His famous trilogy on Robert the Bruce began in 1969 with ‘The Steps to the Empty Throne’, continued with ‘The Path of the Hero King’ in 1970 and ended with ‘The Price of the King’s Peace’ the following year.
In that bestselling trilogy, Tranter charted the turbulent years of what became known as the First Scottish War of Independence and as Ray Bradfield wrote, “[he] himself approached the writing of the Bruce trilogy with some trepidation, partly on grounds of its magnitude and partly because of the sheer importance of the subject”. When he had finished the third volume, Tranter wrote, “For the past four years, I have practically been Robert Bruce. The job is finished now and to some extent I feel quite lost”. That was his style, posing the question, “What would I have done?” What Nigel Tranter did, of course, was unique and he did it in a unique way. His daily routine was to go for a walk, between 10am and 1pm, by the shores of Aberlady Bay on the Firth of Forth, during which he wrote his books “on the hoof” in his notebook. After he returned to his home, he typed up his material, often virtually unaltered, on his ancient typewriter. He produced about twelve hundred words per day and spent his evenings doing research for the next day’s work. Sadly, Nigel Tranter became a casualty of an influenza outbreak in the Millenium Year and he died suddenly, on the 8th of January, 2000.