How the cynic became an admirer

Helen Nigel and Cameron at Dirleton

'Cameron,' said my wife, Helen. 'I see that Nigel Tranter is coming to the local library to give a talk. With your interest in Scottish History why don't you go and hear him? You might get some ideas for your web page.'

I hummed and hawed about going. I had always believed the academic historians on the various courses that I had attended. Their general view seemed to be 'Nigel Tranter, he distorts Scottish History', 'He makes up what he couldn't possibly know.', 'He is not accurate in historical detail', 'He is not a 'real' historian.' Naively I believed them. After all they were the experts.

Finally I decided to go and, to my surprise, I found that they were totally wrong. For years, I had missed out on a veritable treasure trove of reading pleasure. To rectify that I have been working my way through his books at a rate of about two a week. I admit I have tried to catch him out on historical detail but every time found him to be accurate.

At the library,after a delay for a press photograph and finding more seats for the already packed room, Nigel stood up to talk. Slight in figure, his gentle voice commanded attention from the start. Clearly here was someone who knew his subject outside in and projected a strength of character, a presence, that belied his almost fragile appearance.

As if reading my thoughts he said that he did not see himself as a historian but as a storyteller. He illustrated the 'accuracy' question with an appropriate anecdote.

While lecturing one day he noticed a well known historian in the audience. This man challenged Nigel at the end of his lecture saying that his description of an audience with Mary Queen of Scots was made up and could he prove that that was how it had been. Nigel riposted 'Can you prove to me that that was not how it had been'. Of course the historian could not do so.

Nigel went on to explain that he had researched other audiences with Mary, where information was known and, using that detail plus his storytellers talent, he had interpreted how this one might well have been conducted.

As I listened to this explanation I began to understand. To appreciate the difference between the talent of the academic and the talent of the storyteller and become aware that there is a place for both. I realised that, as we read historical information, we visualise the events for ourselves. Using our imagination we think ourselves into the situation. We visualise what it must have been like to be there. To be part of the action we develop a close affinity with the characters.

Nigel, with his great skill, ability and talent as storyteller, does that for us. He fleshes out the bare bones freeing us to even more closely identify with the events. This is his genius.


To Tranter links Pages