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Nigel Tranter (1909–2000)

Nigel Tranter was probably the most prolific Scottish author after Sir Walter Scott. He published over 100 historical novels and many non-fiction books such as The Queen’s Scotland series. Born in Glasgow, he spent much of his life in Aberlady, which he loved.

His grandfathers were church ministers, but a great-grandfather invented the Tranter pistol. He was descended also from James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. He himself wanted to become a restoring architect, but the early death of his father forced him to stop studying. Instead he trained as an accountant and worked in the Scottish National Insurance Company. He served in the Royal Artillery during World War II.

Tranter went to George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, which may have inspired his love of castles. His earliest writing on these was at the age of 13. As a boy he spent hours cycling to castles and mansions, and drawing them in meticulous detail, before going on to write about them in his first published book, The Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland, 1400-1650, at the age of 22. This was followed by the five volumes of The Fortified House in Scotland. In later life he loved to take visitors out to castles and assisted many castle restoration projects inScotland such as Fa’side.

He married May Jean Campbell Grieve in Athelstaneford Church in July 1933 and they had two children. He and May worked together on The Queen’s Scotland series, giving a short history of parishes in four Scottish regions until her death in 1979, when the project stopped.

Their son Philip was a climber, who sadly died in a car crash in 1966 on his way home from an expedition in the Dolomites. Tranter wrote No Tigers in the Hindu Kush from Philip’s notes.

Tranter saw himself primarily as a storyteller rather than a historian, and his first novel, Trespass, was published in 1937. Although criticised by some academic historians for writing fiction, he developed a huge new audience, who loved his tales of Scottish historical events and people. He wrote his fiction with increasing knowledge of Scottish history, introducing the subject to millions of people worldwide. From 1947 he decided he could earn a living by writing, and produced several novels for children, as well as adults. The Bruce Trilogy sold over 1 million copies and he had fan clubs in many countries. He also wrote Westerns, using the pen name Nye Tredgold.

Nigel Tranter received many honours and awards during his life, and was also actively involved in several organisations, including the St Andrews Society of East Lothian, Scottish PEN, Athelstaneford’s Flag Fund and the Saltire Society. He believed Scots should ‘be responsible for our own decisions’, and as chairman of the East Lothian Liberal Association for 15 years, he was part of the Scottish Convention, a cross-party pressure group set up to push for devolution. ‘We Scots are different, not better, but long live the difference’.

He continued to write into his 90s, starting each day with a walk across the wooden bridge at AberladyBaywhich he called ‘The Footbridge to Enchantment’. He was a familiar sight walking on the coast, stopping to jot down neat notes for his books on cards or even shells picked up from the beach. Some of these can be seen in the TranterMuseum, which is currently in AthelstanefordParishChurch. His last novel was Envoy Extraordinary. On his death thousands mourned and many friends and residents in the county remember him with great fondness.

Tranter and his family are buried in Aberlady Churchyard. There is a memorial cairn to him at the carpark near the footbridge which leads over to the nature reserve at Aberlady. The Scottish Castles Association have an annual Nigel Tranter Memorial Award in his memory.

Further reading: 

Bradfield, Ray, Nigel Tranter: Scotland’s Storyteller

Pritchard, Michael & Alison, Tranter’s Terrain

5 thoughts on “Nigel Tranter (1909–2000)”

  1. Robert Baker says:

    A correction – his last published book was “Hope Endures”. “Marie and Mary” was his second last.

  2. Robert Baker says:

    His last published novel was “Marie and Mary”. His daughter is alive and well on 2nd February 2020. He, his wife and son are buried at Aberlady.

  3. Duncan Brown says:

    Thank God he wrote it all down for us. History would have been so much more interesting if they had taught it this way at school. Nigel opened a couple of Scottish History art exhibitions of mine for me many years ago. There wasn’t an inch of Scotland that he couldn’t tell you what happened there a thousand years ago.We became friends, and my final honour was to play the Great Highland Pipes at his funeral. I still miss him dreadfully. God bless you old man.

  4. R Duns says:

    He is buried at Aberlady, not Athelstaneford. The footbridge that his cairn is at, leads to Aberlady Bay and nature reserve not the village itself. I don’t think academics minded that he was writing fiction, just some thought facts were romanticised in some of his fiction.

    1. KateM says:

      Dear Robin, thank you for your note, apologies for our mistake. I’ve amended the article as per your comments.

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