Introducing Nigel Tranter -- The Most Prolific Scot

by Ruairidh Mor

Nigel Tranter not only published more books than any other Scot but no one even comes close to having as many books currently in print, certainly the acid test of popularity. Among the reasons for his prolificacy is the fact that, even though he lived into his 90th year he did his writing"on-the-hoof",as he called it -- while walking daily by the shore of Aberlady Bay on the Firth of Forth near his home at Gullane some eighteen miles east of Edinburgh. He lead a very active life right to the end even though he had moved to a modern house with gas hyeat rather than having to chop wood to heat the 17th century Quarry House where he lived for the previous fifty years.

Tranter was born in Glasgow in 1909 and raised in Edinburgh. From an early age he has been interested in Scottish domestic architecture so it isn't surprising that the first book he wrote was Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland. It was first published in 1935 and contained his own pen and ink drawings of the houses he wrote about.

What is surprising is that he became a writer at all because his objective as a youth was to be a restorative architect. Tranter tells us that he started writing as a way of avoiding having to continue with the family insurance business, the way he supported his mother and sisters when his father died and there just wasn't enough money for a seven-year apprenticeship in architecture. His family thought he was a fool to give up a promising career in insurance; as a middle-aged writer he began wondering if perhaps they weren't right. But we all are the beneficiaries of that choice when he chose to continue writing.

No Longer Counting
His first novel, Trespass appeared in 1937 and he produced at least one a year -- often two or more -- from then on. By my count his published novels rose to 88 when Envoy Extraordinarywas published in December of 1999. Of course, that total doesn't count the dozen or so of his children's novels that began to appear in 1958 nor his two dozen works of nonfiction that began with his first book nor the ten western cowboy novels he published under the pseudonym, Nye Tredgold. In 1990 Tranter told an interviewer "I stopped counting at 100. I have sometimes wondered if I shouldn't have done half as many and written twice as well. One year I had five books -- ridiculous! But there was something that had to be paid for. I think it was school fees."

His first novels were adventurous romances with a strong topical flavor and a background of dramatic events such as a changing way of life in the Scottish Highlands and Borders. But Scotland wasn't the only locale; some stories are set in such places as Afghanistan and Andora or the jungles of South America, the Hindu Kush mountains and the Baltic Coast. In 1957 MacGregor's Gathering was published -- a major departure from his earlier works. His hallmark from then on was to be the substanial novel with historical figures as the major characters acting out the roles they performed in
their own times.

Living History
Again Tranter's concentration on highly accurate and detailed historical novels brought him worldwide attention. This fame accrued because he consistently gave his readers the impression that they are at the very site where each historic event he wrote about is taking place and are watching it unfold in full living color on a wide-screen TV). This holds true whether are reading about the coronation of Robert the Bruce at Scone in 1306 or the dashing Montrose deploying his troops before the battle of Auldearn in 1643 or the debates in the parliamentary conventions prior to Bonnie Dundee's departure from Edinburgh in 1689. This ability to create presence in the reader's mind stems from a balanced attention to topological detail, both indoors and out, reasonable but brief dialogue and a plausible explanation for why the events turned out the way that they did. But his writing is not all pomp, ceremony, debate and battle -- the homely side of his characters' lives are convincingly portrayed and the story doesn't always stop at the bedroom door.

A Fascination With the MacGregors
A list of Tranter's novels that are currently available follows this brief sketch of the author. As an example of these, consider his MacGregor Trilogy. The first of Tranter's historical novels MacGregor's Gathering was focused on the exploits of Rob Roy MacGregor, a character who was one of his favorites and long preceded the recent screen epic. The success of this effort led to a sequel that appeared in 1959 -- The Clansman tells of Rob Roy's further adventures including his leadership of the MacGregors at the battle of Sheriffmuir in 1715 and undid some of the misinformation that was initiated by Sir Walter Scott's story of Rob Roy written in 1814. Tranter's third story about the MacGregors -- Gold for Prince Charlie -- appeared in 1962. It deals with the MacGregor's involvement with safeguarding of the French gold that became known as the Arkaig Treasure and the arms that were landed on the coast of the West Highlands in 1746 too late to help Prince Charles Edward's forces at the Battle of Culloden. These three novels are now available as The MacGregor Trilogy.

Tranter's interest in the MacGregors didn't stop there. He wrote a non-fictional account of Rob Roy's life -- Outlaw of the Highlands, Rob Roy MocGregor -- that first appeared in 1965. In 1992, his fourth novel on this subject was published as Children of the Mist and tells of the MacGregors struggle with the Campbells which led to the Clan being outlawed and the name being proscribed in 1603. In an interview preceding its publication he said, "After this one the Campbells aren't going to have anything to do with me." Actually, they didn't fare too badly, certainly better than James VI/I has, another of Tranter's favorite characters. He wrote at least nine books about him and his times.

The MacGregors also figured in one of his latest stories, Honours Even, which is set in the time of Oliver Cromwell's occupation of Scotland in the 1650s. It tells the story of how the Honours of Scotland -- the crown, sceptre, sword and orb -- were saved from capture by the English forces of Oliver Cromwell and the role that the MacGregors and others played in defeating the occupiers.

Asked about this fascination with the MacGregors, Tranter told me that it partly stems from his mother who was a Cass. He added that this name is an adaptation of 'Carse', one of the names that the MacGregors adopted when theirs was proscribed. It is a name that was derived from the geographic area known as the Carse of Forth, MacGregor country. One last point to underscore this penchant for Rob Roy and the MacGregors. When Tranter was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Strathclyde University in 1990, he wore a kilt made in the Rob Roy tartan. He bought it with the proceeds of the first book about Rob Roy.

But perish the thought that MacGregors were his only subject. Just cast your eyes on the list of Tranter books that are currently available found elsewhere on this website and you will understand why many people credit Nigel Tranter with teaching more of his countrymen the history of their heritage than the public school systems have.

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