Tranter initially wrote less for literary perfection than to support his wife, May, who died in 1979, and their children, Frances May and Philip, who died in a car crash in 1966.
He was known for his scores of historical romances and books of Scottish history and places. But to fund his offspring's college education, he penned 13 children's books and even churned out westerns under the pen name Nye Tregold, noting that he "read one and then wrote 14 of them."
Literature probably will best remember Tranter for his five-volume "The Fortified House in Scotland," published between 1962 and 1970, for which he drew his own pictures and studied 653 complexes, and for his early 1970s trilogy on Robert the Bruce, the hero who freed Scotland from British rule in the 14th century.
In childhood, Tranter had wanted to be an architect who restored castles. His first book, written at age 21, was "The Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland." Although he later would call that title "pretentious," the book established his lifelong interest in the buildings, and he claimed a hand in saving 64.
Born in Glasgow, Tranter was the son of Gilbert Tranter, a former minister in the Catholic Apostolic Church who lost the family fortune in a gamble on De Beers diamond shares and then went into insurance work.
"It ruined him in every way," the writer later said of his alcoholic father, whom he called "Sir" and who died when Nigel was 19.
Unable to afford a seven-year architectural apprenticeship, Tranter followed his father into an uncle's insurance business and stayed for 10 years. Because of his father's experiences, he became a lifelong teetotaler and never bought anything on credit.
"Strong tea and weak women are what I always say are my weaknesses," the nonagenarian quipped last year.
Tranter published his first novel, "Trespass," in 1937. After publishing 10 more and serving in the British Royal Artillery during World War II, he became a full-time writer, conceding years later, "I didn't like insurance at all."
At one time, the author had his own historical program on Scottish television, "Towers of Strength." He frequently appeared on other programs for the BBC and was much in demand as a speaker.
Late last year, author Ray Bradfield published a biography of Tranter, fittingly titled "Scotland's Storyteller."
On his 90th birthday last Nov. 23, Nigel Tranter had his morning bowl of porridge, donned his tweed jacket and cap, and made his daily 10-mile ramble around Scotland's East Lothian, jotting down his thoughts on note cards.
"I have written around 5 million words and have produced 120 books, with another seven in the pipeline," he told the London Daily Mail on that milestone birthday, with no hint of boasting. "I am just a storyteller, and very lucky to have survived all these years on my writing."
Tranter, a historian and novelist and one of Britain's most prolific writers, died Sunday at his home in Gullane, Scotland, of the flu.
The name Tranter, has been translated as "walker" and, by Tranter himself, as "hawker" or "carrier." All are appropriate for the man who wrote while he walked, at a rate of about 100 words a mile, and formalized the stories on a typewriter later for hawking or carrying to readers around the world.
Nigel Tranter's historical novels
Nigel Tranter wrote more than 60 historical novels set in Scotland, plus a great many other books. The public library in the town I lived in as a kid had a lot of his historical novels, and I read twenty or thirty of them. So although I haven't read everything, and a good many of them have blurred together in my memory, I can probably claim that my impression of his novels is based on a reasonably representative sample.
I find Nigel Tranter's novels to be variable. Some, such as the Bruce Trilogy, are among my all-time favourite historical novels. Others have turned out to be, in my view at least, disappointing. This article is an attempt to summarise what I like about Nigel Tranter's novels and why. I hope it will be useful for people who are new to Nigel Tranter and who want to have an idea what to expect and where among his many novels they should start.
The typical Nigel Tranter historical novel takes a chunk of Scottish history and dramatises it in narrative form. It may be a historical event or episode, e.g. the Wars of Independence or Bonnie Prince Charlie's flight after Culloden, or a dramatised biography of a historical figure, e.g. William Wallace or Rob Roy MacGregor, or a combination of both e.g. the Bruce Trilogy is both a biography of Robert Bruce and an account of the Wars of Independence. Sometimes the main character is an important historical player, e.g. Bruce or Wallace, sometimes it is a real figure on the periphery of events, e.g. Thomas Kerr of Ferniehurst who tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots' personal rule in Scotland in Warden of the Queen's March. As far as I can tell, the novels stick closely to historical events and weave a story in the gaps where information is missing.
Real life, and therefore real history, doesn't always follow a nice neat story. Unlike fiction, real life doesn't have to make sense. I find many of Nigel Tranter's novels episodic, rather than following a simple narrative structure with a character in pursuit of a single goal. I think this is probably a consequence of respect for the underlying history. For example, it would be satisfying for Robert Bruce to defeat his main antagonist (Edward I) in battle to win Scotland's independence, and it's less dramatic for Edward I to die of a stroke and Robert Bruce to defeat his successor, Edward II, at Bannockburn. But that's how the history happened. Another author might have chosen to alter the date of Bannockburn or the date of Edward I's death in pursuit of a dramatic clash between the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Tranter sticks to the history. I prefer that approach - that's why, in my view, it's called historical fiction - but plenty of people disagree. You take your choice. When the underlying history is stirring stuff, as with the Wars of Independence, the actual events are dramatic enough to carry a story, even if it may not be as neat as books of literary theory prescribe. When the underlying history is rambling, as with Bonnie Prince Charlie's flight after Culloden where he seems to have stumbled from one refuge to another without much of a goal beyond avoiding capture, the associated novel seems to be rambling too.
Tranter is good at capturing political complexity. Taking the Wars of Independence again, plenty of Scottish nobles fought for Edward I and/or against Bruce. Rather than taking a simplistic nation-state view that they were 'traitors' or 'backsliders', Tranter's Bruce Trilogy recognises that family loyalties and rivalries were at least as important as nationality (a concept that hardly existed at the time). Similarly, although Robert Bruce is the hero of his trilogy he is not without flaws, and although Edward I is on the opposite side he is not shown as a black-hat villain but as a fully developed character with a mix of good and bad qualities. Expect to find at least two sides to every war, and good and bad people on all of them.
Tranter is also very good on historical detail, especially on minor aspects of everyday life. Expect to learn about the workings of a Highland shieling (summer grazing in the high mountains), the method for waterproofing boots when going duck shooting in a marsh, castle architecture, battle tactics and strategy. Landscapes are accurately and vividly described. I happen to have visited the Pass of Brander, Rannoch Moor, Glen Sligachan on Skye and Glen Trool, and they look much as described in the novels. The plants and wildlife are right too, except for that curious conspiracy of silence about the midge common to most Scottish novels and maintained by Highland tourist boards to this day.
Tranter's historical novels are stronger on battles and politics than on relationships and romance. There are some convincing romantic relationships, such as Robert Bruce's marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, but they are not a key feature. Readers who enjoy romance and relationships will generally do better elsewhere. His prose style is fairly straightforward, though it does tend to be verbose and can veer into the coy. Love scenes in particular can get so purple as to be unreadable for me (they are short, so easily skipped). If you subscribe to the view that the only acceptable dialogue tag is 'said', you may have problems as Tranter's style is to vary the verb wherever possible, so you get 'mentioned', 'observed', 'began', 'returned', 'wondered', 'asserted', 'objected', and so on. I like variation, as I find 'he said/she said' gets on my nerves, but one can have too much of a good thing and occasionally I feel as if I've stumbled into a game of Thesaurus Bingo. Also expect quite long stretches of narrative and backstory, with a fair amount of 'telling' not 'showing'.
In summary, I'd say Nigel Tranter's historical novels score highly for content, but less so for structure and style. So the 'best' for any particular reader are likely to be those that deal with a period or a character the reader has a particular interested in. A bibliography organised by historical period and character can be found on the Nigel Tranter website*.
The ones that stand out for me are:
- The Bruce Trilogy, for its recognition of the political complexity of the Wars of Independence, for the delightful character of Jamie Douglas, for the heroic figure of Bruce, for the description of the Hebridean Lordship of the Isles, and for the battle scenes. Easily my favourite of Nigel Tranter's novels.
- Macbeth the King, because the historical Macbeth is an intriguing historical puzzle and Shakespeare was very unfair to him. And Thorfinn of Orkney is great if you like big bluff hairy Vikings.
- Margaret the Queen, about St Margaret daughter of Edgar Aetheling and wife of Malcom Canmore (Macbeth's successor), for the comparison between the 'Celtic Church' and Margaret's Roman Christianity.
- Wallace, as an antidote to the historical liberties taken in the film Braveheart.
Four that stick in my mind as being rambling and meandering, with lots of detail but not much of a story (a bit like Odinn's Child in that respect) are:
- Crusader - an affectionate portrait of a high-spirited eight-year-old who becomes King of Scotland, fine if you like winsome children
- Highness in Hiding - a travelogue of Bonnie Prince Charlie's wanderings after Culloden, fine if you do a lot of hillwalking and can recognise every mountain pass they limp over and sympathise with every bog they fall into
- Gold for Prince Charlie - lots of description of Highland shielings and how to keep goats
- Warden of the Queen's March - the main character, Thomas Kerr, isn't party to the dramatic incidents in Mary Queen of Scots' life (e.g. was she complicit in the murder of Darnley, what was her relationship with Bothwell, etc), and his own life isn't that exciting.
* This is one of those annoying websites where it seems to be impossible to link directly to a specific page, so scroll down to the bottom, click the yellow button labelled 'Links Page' and then scroll down and click the flag next to 'A dated timeline of the historical novels'.