A tower to guard the nation's history

4th February 2000 at 00:00
TO AN observer of the scene, Scotland's history teaching profession presents as a somewhat downtrodden and dejected bunch without much of a public voice. Their subject seems to lie squashed between geography and modern studies in the S3 curriculum choice columns, or lost in the swirling mists of primary environmental studies.

So they should lift their heads and give thanks for the rich, multifaceted and single-handed legacy to Scottish schools and the teaching of history left by the late Nigel Tranter.

Nigel was a born raconteur and, I am privileged to say, an old friend. Before Christmas - and just before his 90th birthday - I heard him address a rapt audience on the subject of the history of the parish of Prestonkirk - a performance any politician would sign the pledge for. Without notes, one interesting or entertaining anecdote followed another, until after an hour plus he looked at his watch and conceded to time - long before the boredom threshold.

Nigel's 90th birthday was celebrated in fine style twice over. One of his passions was advising the moneyed and energetic on how and where to find Scots tower houses to save and renovate. Ballencrieff in East Lothian was one of dozens which owes its restoration to his friendly enthusiasm and encouragement, and was the setting for a gathering of family and friends.

Nigel Tranter was a lifelong nationalist who may eventually come to be seen as having done as much for Scotland's awareness of itself as did Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, albeit in

a different and more populist way. His gift was for narrative, and for enabling readers to visualise what our familiar countryside was like for say baggage-

handlers charged in the 12th century with getting ox-drawn cannon fromEdinburgh to Tantallon.

Nigel was a modest man in a society where self-effacement wins few honours, and probably, let it be said, he was a lifelong nuisance to bureaucrats and civil servants. At the 90th party we heard his old friend and fellow conspirator in the liberation of the Stone, Ian Hamilton QC, speak of Nigel's hurt at not having been invited to the opening of the Scottish Parliament last May.

Similarly he was overlooked at the previous gathering of the great and good for the return of the Stone of Destiny to Edinburgh Castle. Likewise the celebrations at the opening of the Forth Road Bridge - a lifelong endeavour for which Nigel inaugurated the campaign in 1953.

The second party was given by the Society of Authors at the Scottish Arts Club. Here First Minister Donald Dewar did the honours, recalling that for many Scots the only home history they ever learnt came through reading Tranter's historical novels. He omitted to mention that he and his Executive had never thought to as much as extend Nigel an invitation to visit the new Parliament for a cup of coffee.

Ten years ago this distinguished Scot celebrated his 80th in an even more remarkable way. His book The Warden of the Queen's March centres on the life of the young Thomas Kerr, follower of Mary Queen of Scots, and ancestor of the present marquess. For this occasion the Lothian family invited the flesh and blood descendants of the characters in the novel to meet the author at Ferniehurst Castle, where it is set.

Nigel Tranter's legacy, with half a dozen books still to publish, represents a rich source and seam hardly touched by film, television or video. He could yet become a cult figure in the new Scotland. Entrepreneurs and history teachers please note.

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