November 23rd 1909 heralded the birth of Great Scot, Nigel Tranter who was born in Glasgow on that day. He is commonly referred to as a ‘historical novelist’ or just plain old ‘author’. I prefer the moniker ‘Great Scot’. Tranter, who was voted Scot of the Year by BBC Radio listeners in 1989, realised major success and world renown as an exceptional wordsmith, who could bring Scottish history to life, like no other. It is reasonable to say that Nigel Tranter has inspired many Scots to appreciate the unique and multi-faceted story of a nation. Undoubtedly, to write about Nigel is a privilege for me as I confess to being a collector of his first editions and have some lovely leather bound unique editions that were gifted to Nigel himself from publishers Hodder & Stoughton as well as some of the original Val Biro artwork for his dust covers.
Nigel was prolific with a capital ‘P’ with over 130 published titles. It was an incredible literary career spanning his first book in 1935, the first novel, Trespass (1937) to his last book to be released, (one of 7 to be released after his death), being the aptly titled Hope Endures (2005) focusing on the life of Sir Thomas Hope, a 17th century Baronet and lawyer who like Tranter achieved much in his lifetime. As printed by the Daily Telegraph, ”Mr. Tranter works on a broad canvas; nobody does it better”.
In the foreword of Nigel Tranter’s Scotland (1981) he describes his own endeavors in typically self-effacing style “The object of putting pen to paper thus is simple of design if somewhat complex in operation perhaps. I have thought to set down my own very personal views and ideas about Scotland and the Scots, and how I have been involved in trying, on occasion to do something about them both and their problems- very modest efforts, to be sure, diverse and not always judicious nor yet successful; but well-meant and consistent at least in the ultimate aim.”
The accomplished, yet humble Scot was born Nigel Godwin Tranter and educated at George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh. He aspired to be an architect; to the extent he would climb walls of estates just to inspect the features of houses at close range. It was this attention to detail that led to the Yorkshire Evening Post point that “Nigel Tranter captures the spirit of the time and writes with an absorbing attention to detail”
The ancient buildings of the nation, especially castles were an active passion. He wanted to see Scotland ancient ruins restored to their former glory. He made it a personal mission to pair ruined manor houses and fortresses with apt buyers from all over the world, using his extensive knowledge. He was essentially an unpaid estate agent who took great satisfaction that the new and happy owners would be not only restoring these important buildings to make habitable but also actually saving them from sure-fire demolition.
He worked as an unhappy accountant straight from school, but was destined for better things. His first book was the non-fiction The Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland (1935), a theme he was to revisit in the 5 volume, The Fortified house in Scotland (1962-71). During the war years he started writing many novels full of romance, intrigue and adventure, which would hone the storytelling skills that would later serve him so well. And led the Glasgow Herald to simply bestow him the title of “A magnificent teller of tales”.
This was done while in active service in the Royal Armed Service Corps and the Royal Artillery. Following the war and needing the money, he would release a series of westerns under the pseudonym Nye Tredgold, although by his own volition, these were throw away novels that were popular at the time.
Most of his novels were written during his pre-lunch daily walks with his dog ‘Tess’ over the ‘timber brig’ into Aberlady Bays tidelands, saltings and nature reserve on the other side. For this was one of the odd things about Nigel Tranter, he wrote while walking, ever since finishing active service in 1946. His name for this activity became the title of the book Footbridge to Enchantment (1993) and gives real insight into Tranter, the man. He would walk and write, on the back of cut up old placards from his campaign to get a Forth Road Bridge built, which happened sooner than expected in the end, so he had a store of ‘’WOT NO BRIDGE!’ and suchlike. Frances May Baker, Nigel’s daughter unveiled a memorial cairn to her father near this spot on November 23rd 2000.
Nigel Tranter was a man who loved and lived his country and knew more about it’s dark corners and spellbinding secrets than anyone else that came before him or after him. He proudly declared:
“Although I have travelled to far places and seem many other countries, and often liked what I saw, it is Scotland for me”
He went on to say “Scotland is a place apt for full living, a land of heights and depths, of contrasts and exaggerations, of aching beauty and sheer damnable ugliness, of poetry and the most prosaic prose imaginable.”
He was certainly very candid when describing his fellow Scots who inhabited this land “Scots like to describe themselves as Gods most solid, competent, down to earth, reliable and well-doing creation, a worthy model for less favoured folk; whereas in fact they are a race of argumentative extremists, sentimental softies, with a genius for invention, religious disputation, metaphysics and disunity, brilliant at successfully minding other folks business but not their own.” I readily concur; I doubt many would disagree with that representation. He also observed his countryman’s characteristic that, “Scots, always fighters, seem to prefer to fight each other than the obvious foe”, another national phenomena.
With The Queen’s Grace (1953) Tranter wrote about his first historical character, Mary, Queen of Scots. This contained more fiction and conjecture than later efforts but was undoubtedly a milestone moment for Nigel. By the time he was penning the MacGregor Trilogy (1957–1962) Nigel was skillfully combining his skills for excitement and intrigue honed in his earlier novel writing, with his passion for the Scottish land and it’s historical characters. He would revisit Rob Roy McGregor as a subject with the non-fiction Rob Roy MacGregor (1991), a renowned source for this inimitable character.
By 1961 Nigel had nailed his true calling as a writer with The Master of Gray (1961–1965), which would be the first of very many highly researched, historical novels and fictionalised biographies and would later become a trilogy about Machiavellian Scottish nobleman Patrick Gray, 6th Lord Gray during the reign of James VI. This would illuminate many often-obscure corners of Scottish historical events and their actors. He would stick closely to extremely well researched historical events and would leave no stone unturned to understand the real people involved.
Coupled with his incredible knowledge of Scotland geographically and the buildings and castles themselves, he was then able to bring stories to life by fictionalising the likely conversations that would have taken place around the unfolding events, which he would do in a genius way using the ‘prose’ of the day. Undoubtedly, Sir Walter Scott was the father of the historical novel, as we know it today but none would dispute Nigel elevated the genre to new heights.
The most famous of these historical novels is his Robert Bruce Trilogy (1969-71), and is often people’s first Tranter experience, and was certainly mine. Not many books have provoked shivers down the spine in the way an epic film might, but this was as gripping a read as I’ve ever had. When the Daily Telegraph enthused “Tranters style is compelling and his research scrupulous. He reaches down the ages to breathe life into his characters”, it could not have been truer.
The Stuart Trilogy (1976-77) is an enthralling read about this Scottish dynasty, while Macbeth the King (1978) placed Shakespeare’s Macbeth in the realms of fantasy where it belongs. In a Scotsman review, Montrose – The Captain General (1973) which sold for a mere £2.75, 40 years ago, stated “Mr. Tranter has done his usual immaculate homework and given us a detailed picture of the great Scotsman’s final campaigns for his king (Charles I)”. The Admiral (2001) 15th century fascinating tale of Andrew Wood a seafaring hero loyal to James III who defended Scottish waters against English privateers and incurred the wrath of Henry VII of England. There are so many, I need to stop! Oh yes, and he also wrote several children’s novels between 1958 an 1968 that often featured his dog Tess.
Nigel’s life was not without tragedy, and Philip Tranter a renowned climber and Nigel’s son, died in a car crash in 1966 in France after him and 3 friends drove a land rover 6,000 miles from Scotland to Nuristan on the ‘Scottish Expedition’ to climb unknown peaks in Afghanistan. The accident happened on the way back after ironically risking his life climbing in dangerous unmapped terrain. From Philips extensive diary notes of the expedition Nigel edited them and after much thought released them as No Tigers in the Hindu Kush (1968) and also inspired him to write the novel Cable From Kabul (1968).
A serial campaigner, who was pervasively active in public life, Nigel was part of the original Scottish Convention, a cross-party pressure group established during the 1940s to encourage devolution, Nigel was keen to see powers transferred to Scotland. He visited the Scottish Parliament for the first time in December 1999, as a guest of SNP MSP Richard Lochhead. At the time, Mike Russell, who was SNP shadow minister for culture commented “As a long-standing supporter of a Scottish Parliament, he [Nigel] was thrilled with developments in Scotland, and full of hope for the country’s future,”
Tranter had a hand in writing the ‘Scottish Covenant’, which more than 2 million people signed in 1949 and was a pledge towards supporting the implementation of a Scottish Parliament. It took 50 years for that parliament to come to fruition. It is interesting indeed to read what so many Scots signed up to, half a century ago:
“We the people of Scotland who subscribe this Engagement, declare our belief that reform in the constitution of our country is necessary to secure good government in accordance with our Scottish traditions and to promote the spiritual and economic welfare of our nation.”
“We affirm that the desire for such reform is both deep and widespread throughout the whole community, transcending all political differences and sectional interests, and we undertake to continue united in purpose for it’s achievement.”
“With that end in view we solemnly enter into this covenant whereby we pledge ourselves, in all loyalty to the Crown and wit the framework of the United Kingdom, to do everything on our power to secure for Scotland a parliament with adequate legislative authority in Scottish affairs.”
There is not enough space here to do Nigel justice, as he was seldom idle. For example he was also President of the East Lothian liberal association 1951-55, Chairmen of the Society of Authors of Scotland 1966-72, Chairmen of the Clan Albainn Society, led the Berwick for Scotland campaign, which led to investigating fisheries rights and he subsequently wrote the novel Kettle of fish (1961). One particularly notable escapade was his involvement in the conspiracy and intrigue following the infamous event when Scotland’s symbol of nationhood, the Stone of Destiny was repatriated back to its spiritual home on Christmas Eve 1950, by a band of adventurous students led by Ian Hamilton Q.C. You can read about this in detail in Ian’s book A Touch of Treason (1990) where Nigel also wrote the foreword. Nigel was involved in a committee of patriots in the aftermath of the amazing event to decide what to actually do with it, and there is some evidence to say they handed back a fake to authorities! Nigel also released a fictional story on similar lines called The Stone (1958).
He was appointed an OBE in 1983, and shortly afterwards in a typically modest act, he wrote to a fan in County Durham (letter in my possession), on his trusty old typewriter from his home at Quarry House in Aberlady Bay on the Southern Shore of the Firth of Forth. “As requested, I enclose a signed photograph. I fear that I am not in the least photogenic, so I doubt the value of having this. However you asked for it. Authors, you know, should be read and not seen!” Although, many of you will have seen and driven over one of his more visible legacies, as he was Chairmen of the National Forth road bridge committee 1953-57 which successfully campaigned for the building of that bridge!
Filmmakers take note: The Bruce Trilogy is the best film that has never been made and as the Observer observed “He has a burning respect for the spirit of history and deploys his characters with mastery”. Surprisingly, only one of his books, The Bridal Path (1952) resulted in a 1959 film version starring Bill Travers, George Cole and Gordon Jackson. There are a lot if film scripts waiting to be discovered in the pages of a Tranter. As Frank Delaney, Scotland on Sunday wrote “He will-and should- receive nothing but praise…an engrossing and generous biographer of his own land”
His Obituary in The Times rightly said of his many learned books and articles that he “Contributed more than any man in his times to an understanding of Scottish history.“ and was “More than a chronicler of his country’s heritage.” It would have been interesting indeed, to hear his views on recent events in the country he loved so much. I will leave you with this pertinent quote from the Great Scot himself, when he explained:
“It’s a self-evident fact that Scotland is not well governed and has not been for a long time. One does not have to be any sort of nationalist nor student of political theory to perceive this”