This is in response to a query in another discussion, in which someone asked which of Nigel Tranter’s novels were worth reading besides the Bruce Trilogy.
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.
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 usually follow a nice neat “story arc” (I think that’s the correct lit-crit term?), and doesn’t always take the most dramatic turn of events. I find many of Nigel Tranter’s novels episodic, rather than following a simple three-act play 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 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. If you enjoy romance and relationships, you’ll 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 you are likely to be those that deal with a period or a character you’re particularly 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’.