Nigel Tranter was born in Glasgow and educated at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh. He trained as an accountant and worked in Scottish National Insurance Company, founded by his uncle. In 1933 he married May Jean Campbell Grieve and had two children, Frances May and Philip. He joined the Royal Artillery and served in East Anglia in the Second World War.
From childhood onwards, Tranter took a great interest in castles and their associated history. As a result, in 1935, at age 25, he published his first book, The Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland. Encouraged by his wife, he wrote his first novel, In Our Arms Our Fortune, which was rejected by the publishers. However, Trespass soon followed and was accepted by The Moray Press. Unfortunately, they went bankrupt soon after its publication in 1937, and he didn't receive any payment. Over the next few years, he wrote several more novels in the same vein: light-hearted romantic adventures about imaginary characters. These had varied settings, from modern-day Europe to historical Scotland. Tranter also wrote several westerns under the pseudonym Nye Tredgold to provide additional income for his family, and a dozen children's books -adventure stories aimed at 8-10 year olds.
War service did not stop Tranter writing, and a number of novels were published during the war years, some inspired by his own experiences. While Tranter never served overseas, one of his manuscripts did; it was never recovered.
Between 1962 and 1971 Tranter published the landmark series The Fortified House in Scotland (in five volumes). This covered the history and structure of every castle and similar structure in Scotland, 663 buildings in all. Highly regarded at the time, it is still read by those who have an interest in this specialist area.
While researching the castles, Tranter realised that there were many characters and incidents in Scottish history which could be used as the basis for novels, which he tried to make as accurate as possible - while making no effort to hide his own strong Scottish identity. The Queen's Grace (1953) was his first novel to focus on an historical character (in this case, Mary, Queen of Scots), although it contained a high fictional content. Two trilogies followed: the MacGregor Trilogy (1957—1962) and the Master of Gray Trilogy (1961—1965). By this time, Tranter was well-established as a writer of serious historical fiction. The fictional content decreased as he became more experienced, and his later novels were almost entirely composed around the historical record. These novels have gained a wide readership while providing a basic grounding in Scottish history to their readers.
As noted above, Tranter had a life-long interest in Scottish castles. Initially intrigued by their architectural history, Tranter soon developed an interest in Scottish history generally. As he moved into historical novels, his research became deeper until he had amassed vast knowledge of Scotland's history to a very detailed level. His ability to retell history as a 'story' provided an accessible source for many people. As well as his novels, this knowledge was translated into such non-fiction works as The Story of Scotland. Becoming intimate with so much of the historical record, Tranter formed many theories of history, some of which were contrary to established thought. These were presented throughout his books. One example of this is his belief that the stone under the Coronation Chair is not the true Stone of Destiny, but a thirteenth century fake which he refers to as the Westminster Stone.
Tranter was actively involved in affairs outside his writing. From the 1940s onwards he delivered lectures to private groups and organisations, and, as his writing career developed, he undertook many speaking engagements, including some tours to the USA. He was also invited to join...or was instrumental in setting up...many committees and community groups, in fields as diverse as Scottish Highlands roads and settlement, wild fowling and Athelstaneford's Flag Fund.
His notable involvements include: the original Scottish Convention, a cross-party pressure group established during the 1940s to encourage devolution (Edinburgh chairman); National Covenant Association; National Forth Road Bridge Committee; Saltire Society (honorary president).
Following the publication of The Fortified House in Scotland, Tranter was regularly asked for advice on the restoration of many tower houses and castles. He was closely involved in the restoration of over 60 castles, such as Fa'side Castle and Menstrie Castle.
Historical novels by Nigel Tranter set before 1286
Historical novels by Nigel Tranter set between 1286-1603
Historical novels by Nigel Tranter set after 1603
Contemporary and adventure novels
This includes some books that can be classed as 'historical' as they are set in the past, but do not qualify for the above categories as the story and characters they depict are almost wholly imaginary. Tranter called these 'period pieces'.
For a complete list see: Novels by Nigel Tranter.
Spaniard's Isle (1958, Brockhampton Press)
Border Riding (1959, Brockhampton Press)
Nestor the Monster (1960, Brockhampton Press; paperback edition 1992, B & W Publishing)
Birds of a Feather (1961, Brockhampton Press)
The Deer Poachers (1961, Blackie)
Something Very Fishy (1962, Collins)
Give a Dog a Bad Name (1963, Collins. Published as Smoke Across the Highlands in USA, 1964, Platt & Monk)
Silver Island (1964, Thomas Nelson)
Pursuit (1965, Collins)
Tinker Tess (1967, Dobson Books)
Fire and High Water (1967, Collins)
To the Rescue (1968, Dobson Books)
The Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland 1400-1650 (1935, The Moray Press)
Contains the sketches and notes of small castles visited throughout his teenage years and early twenties. Tranter later described it as "terribly pretentious and pretty amateurish." He expanded the format for his later work The Fortified House in Scotland.
The Fortified House in Scotland (in five volumes)
Pegasus Book of Scotland (1964, Dobson Books)
Outlaw of the Highlands: Rob Roy (1965, Dobson Books)
A study of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor. Reissued as Rob Roy MacGregor by Lochar Publishing (1991), and Neil Wilson Publishing (1995).
Land of the Scots (1968, Hodder & Stoughton)
The Queen's Scotland (in four volumes)
Intended to be a detailed gazetter of every parish in Scotland. His wife assisted him heavily and she died before it could be completed. Tranter never finished the series.
Portrait of the Border Country (1972, Robert Hale)
Revised edition published in 1987 as The Illustrated Portrait of the Border Country.
Portrait of the Lothians (1979, Robert Hale)
Nigel Tranter's Scotland (1981, Richard Drew Publishing. Penguin edition 1983)
Scottish Castles: Tales and Traditions
First published 1982 by Macdonald Publishing. Revised edition by Neil wilson Publishing, 1993. US Edition by Barnes & Noble, 1993.
Traveller's Guide to the Scotland of Robert the Bruce (1985, Routledge & Kegan Paul; US edition by Historical Times Inc, 1985)
The Story of Scotland (1987, Routledge & Kegan Paul. Re-issued 1992, Neil Wilson Publishing)
Honorary MA from the University of Edinburgh, 1971
OBE for services to literature, 1983
BBC Scotland Scot of the Year, 1989
Honorary Doctor of Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1990
In 1961, Nigel Tranter was dubbed Knight (Chevalier) of the Order of Saint Lazarus by Duc de Brissac, Grand Prior of the Order. He advanced to Commander of Merit and (in 1986) Chancellor of the Order in Scotland.