Nigel Tranter's historical novels are so many windows into Scotland's tragic history, ranging from the days of the Druids through the Middle Ages and the struggles for independence to our own time. Typically (the Robert the Bruce trilogy is a notable exception), he takes either a minor or even fictional character and makes him the lens through which the characters and deeds of the times are experienced.
ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY is no exception. Patrick, Earl of Dunbar and March, is made to serve as a mirror to the short reign of Alexander III (1249-1286) -- the last legitimate monarch before Edward I of England ("The Hammer of the Scots") asserted his claims over the realm, leading to the Wars of the Bruces and the short career of William Wallace. As such, a pall of doom hangs over the story as Alexander's reign winds to a close.
Things begin hopefully enough: Despite a long and troubled regency after the sudden death of his father in the Western Isles, Alexander asserts himself by winning a decisive victory over the Norse and their Hebridean allies at Largs (1264), after which Norway renounced all claims to the Hebrides: Never again would Viking raids be a major threat to the Scots. It is the growing aggressiveness of Edward I to the south that become ever more worrisome to the young monarch.
The anxiety finds a focus in the historical character of Thomas Learmonth, known as Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas, whose prophecies of doom clouded Alexander's last days as he sees his hopes for maintaining his dynasty crumble before his accidental death from falling off a horse. Earl Patrick serves his monarch well to the end, and then sadly returns to his lands resolved to involve himself no longer as an envoy for the monarchy. In a brief epilogue, Tranter describes how the end of the dynasty led directly to the Wars of Independence.
While not the best of Tranter's work (the Bruce Trilogy takes that honor), ENVOY EXTRAORDINARY is a great read for those who, like me, prefer a large dollop of history with their fiction.