On leaving school he was fortunate to obtain an apprenticeship with one of the foremost architectural firms in Edinburgh but, sadly, on the death of his father the family could no longer afford the apprenticeship fee and Nigel had to look for a different career. He trained as an accountant and worked for his uncle's insurance company in Edinburgh for the ten year period 1929-1939 when he entered the army, joining the Royal Artillery for the duration of the second world war.
Despite this change of career, he never lost his interest in fortified dwellings and the people who had lived in them. In 1935 at the age of twenty six he wrote and had published his first book entitled 'The Fortalices and Early Mansions of Southern Scotland', making use of the material collected since childhood. This was, as he commented himself, 'a highly pretentious title'.
He shared with us his excitement about being the author of a published book only to be brought down to earth by his wife, May Jean Campbell Grieve whom he married in 1933. May considered that books about fortified dwellings were not 'real' books. Real books she clearly equated with fictional stories.
This picture of Nigel and May was taken in the grounds of their beloved 'Quarry House' in Aberlady.
Spurred on by this remark Nigel described how he set about writing his first novel 'In our Arms our Fortune' and duly submitted it to the publisher of 'Fortalices'. After a very long time he came back to Nigel commenting that 'there was enough material in the book for twelve novels but not enough for one'. Nigel admits now that it really was 'unpublishable'.
Not discouraged Nigel continued to write and eventually became a full time writer. His first 'real' book 'Trespass' was published in 1937 followed by 'Mammon's Daughter' two years later. Even the war did not stop his literary creativity and he published his third book in 1940. Two others followed in 1941 and again in 1942, 1944 and 1945. Although set in Scotland these and subsequent early books were considered by him as romantic and adventurous 'period pieces' about imaginary characters.
In many ways castles were, yet again, to be the incentive that brought him to what could be considered as the major turning point in his career. This came about with his publishing of five volumes, between the years 1962-1971, entitled 'The Fortified House in Scotland'. In researching the 663 castles for the series he came to know even more about the stories of their occupants and appreciated the part that they had played in Scottish history. This led to him to start to write about 'real' rather than imaginary people and to set them into the framework of history where their influence had been greatest.
The 'Master of Gray', telling the story of Patrick of Gray and his plotting to release Mary Queen of Scots, is considered to be the first of the new genre of historical novels and could be condidered as marking a watershed in Nigel's career.
Basically, over his lifetime, he has written six types of books. All very different and a reflection of the breadth of imagination and talent of the man.
These six are;
The latter, Nigel explained, were basically 'pot boilers' written between 1949 and 1958 to usefully provide additional income to help pay for his children going through college. Nigel has one daughter and a son Philip who died in 1966 in a tragic accident as he returned from a mountaineering trip to Turkey.
Nigel's wife died in 1979 and I appreciated his gentle, loving humour when he said that he hoped that she was finding peace as 'Living with me couldn't have been very peaceful'. I imagine that many wives or husbands of exceptionally talented authors, artists, musicians would echo that remark.
The amount of time needed for his highly detailed and complex research, plus his prodigious output over the past 64 years, requires such dedication and single-mindedness of purpose that, unrestrained, could almost verge on the obsessional. That CAN be hard to live with.
At the request of the chairman Nigel showed us part of the draft of his latest book. I found it hard to equate the finished volumes that I had read with the dozen or so crumpled sheets of paper, written that very day, that he pulled from his jacket pocket. He went on to explain that during the second World War, as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, he could only find enough peace to write as he walked around the camp and its surrounding countryside. That became his 'modus operandi' and has been his practice ever since.
His popularity as an author can be appreciated when we realise that over a million copies of EACH of the three books about Robert the Bruce have been sold worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world know about Scottish History as a result of Nigel's amazing output over the years and this must give him great satisfaction.
All in all I found it to be a memorable evening. My one regret is that I took heed of the 'Academics' in the first place and came so late to Nigel's work. On the positive side, however, I look at the list of his publications on this website, note all his books that I still haven't read, and savour the thought about how much future enjoyment I have coming to me. I have now become such a Nigel enthusiast that I have collected all but four first edition hardback books, all first edition paperback books and Spanish and Japanese translations..
INTERESTS AND PURSUITS