There are very few details known about Nairne’s early life. He arrived in South Carolina from Scotland sometime before 1695. In that same year Nairne married Elizabeth E. Quintyne, a widow. The marriage brought Nairne four stepchildren and produced a son named Thomas, born in 1698.
Nairne obtained land grants on St. Helena Island from the Lords Proprietors, eventually amassing some 3,600 acres. By the early 1700s Nairne led Indian raids against Spanish Florida both to weaken the Spanish and to obtain slaves from among their Indian allies. In 1707 he entered the Commons House of Assembly as a representative of Colleton County where he headed a group politically opposed to Governor Nathaniel Johnson.
As a legislator, Nairne was part of the assembly that drafted new laws to change the Indian trade, specifically reducing the governor’s role and his income derived from it.
In 1707 the Commons House created the Board of Indian Commissioners to regulate the trade. The act created the office of Indian agent, who was to spend at least ten months of the year among tribes to supervise traders and resolve problems.
Nairne was Carolina’s first official Indian agent, Nairne traveled across the Southeast and conducted missions to southern tribes such as the Tallapoosas and Chickasaws. He also worked to keep unlicensed traders from participating in the Indian trade, which caused him considerable trouble after he arrested the governor’s son-in-law, Thomas Broughton, on charges that he was enslaving friendly Indians and stealing deerskins.
Nairne’s opposition to Governor Johnson led to Nairne’s arrest in June 1708 on charges of treason. Nairne claimed that Governor Johnson had falsely accused him to be rid of a political opponent and to allow the governor to regain his ascendancy over the Indian trade. Nairne was released in November 1708 but lost his office as Indian agent. He sailed for England to defend his actions before the Lords Proprietors, who exonerated him. Upon his return to South Carolina, Nairne was reelected to the Commons House of Assembly in 1711.
In December 1712 Nairne again became South Carolina’s Indian agent. His second tenure coincided with rising unrest among neighboring Indian nations, especially the Yamassees, who had been abused by Indian traders and feared the expansion of white settlement into Indian territory.
In early 1715 there were rumors in Charleston that the Yamassees would attack to resolve their trade problems. Nairne met two Charleston officials at the Yamassee town of Pocotaligo to negotiate with the tribe. On Good Friday, April 15, hostilities erupted as the Yamassees attacked white settlements along South Carolina’s southern frontier, beginning the Yamassee War. Nairne was captured and tortured to death by burning wood splinters into his skin for several days.