MURDERER turned minister James Nelson divided opinion and created a chasm within the Church of Scotland.

More than 40 years on, the convict-come-clergyman remains an enigma for many - including the author who has spent five years attempting to unravel the truth while at the same time fathoming out his own Christian faith.

Stuart Kelly is probably best known for casting judgement as the literary editor of The Scotsman and book critic for The Times, The Guardian and The Scotland on Sunday.

The former Easter Langlee and Galashiels Academy pupil, who went on to gain a first-class degree in English at Balliol College Oxford, has just published his account of the Nelson scandal which rocked rood screens all over Scotland in the mid 1980s.

And Stuart is the first to admit he was still left scratching his head after completing The Minister and the Murderer.

He explained: "The story seemed to have been forgotten, and given the issues surrounding the Church today it seemed relevant.

"I took a lot of time to think about the story - several years - before I began writing.

"What we have with Nelson is either a very convincing fake or a genuine convert - after five years of thinking and writing, I still don't know.

"I don't think Nelson ever forgave himself and there were sections of the Church who tried to make his life more difficult."

In 1969, 24-year-old James Nelson battered his mother to death at the family home in the Glasgow suburb of Garrowhill.

He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

But after being released on parole a decade later in 1979, he applied to enter the ministry of the Church of Scotland, and within months had began his studies at St Mary's College, St Andrew's.

Few within the Church knew of Nelson's past and when a newspaper story broke towards the end of his studies, there was a major outcry.

Attempts were made at the 1984 General Assembly on Edinburgh's Royal Mile to stop Nelson being allowed to progress to the pulpit.

Heated exchanges took place as the Christian faith was put in the dock by great luminaries from either side of the forgiveness fence.

In the end Nelson was allowed to become a minister at the parishes of Chapelhall, linked with Calderbank, near Airdrie.

But the debate didn't relent for many years with opponents, including his own father, claiming he never showed remorse nor contrition.

Nelson had married fellow ministry student Georgina Roden prior to the Assembly of 1984.

And many believe it was her plea for him to be given a chance which swayed opinion in his favour.

Nelson's marriage to Georgina ended in 1997 and the following year he married one of his Chapelhall parishioners.

He died at the age of 60 in 2005.

Although much of The Minister and the Murderer concentrates on Nelson's story and the ethical, moral and religious dilemmas it has created, Stuart's new book is also a personal journey of re-connecting with his Christian faith.

Stuart, who now lives in Yetholm, explained: "The Nelson story made me think a lot about the Church and my own faith.

"It was very much a personal journey in a lot of ways.

"I drifted away from Church when I was younger but now I get more pleasure from sweeping between the pews than reviewing the latest Irvine Welsh book.

"In my time thinking about and writing The Minister and the Murderer I've gone from a self-satisfied, Oxford-educated atheist to someone happily scrubbing the steps of the church in Yetholm.

"The book is as much about my own loss of faith and coming back to it as it is about the Nelson story."

The Minister and the Murderer is a deeply insightful book on society, rich with literary and theological references, hugely articulate on the complexities of human nature and the role of faith.

And it has earned high praise from many other authors.

Award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane said: “What an extraordinary book.

"It follows no known laws, fits no existing genre. It is, unmistakably, the work of a polymathic thinker who is also a writer of rare elegance.

"Risk-taking but rigorous, it offers at once a history of the Church in Scotland, a meditation on the natures of faith and sin, and a searching enquiry into the soul and conscience of its own author.”

Celebrated tartan noir author Denise Mina added: "Part true crime, part Theology of Despair, The Minister and The Murderer explores the hard borders of faith in the real world.

"A beautiful, deeply thought-provoking exploration of the history and purpose of faith.”

Scottish scribe and cleric Richard Holloway said: "This is the one of the most moving and profound books I have read in a long time.

"And it’s funny.

"A colossal achievement.”

The Minister and the Murderer is Stuart's third book.

The Book of Lost Books, in 2005, and Scott-Land: The Man who Invented a Nation, in 2011, were both met with critical acclaim.

He was a judge for the Man Booker Prize in 2014 and regularly broadcasts for the BBC as well as chairing most events at the Edinburgh Book Festival each year.

While researching and writing The Minister and the Murderer, Stuart also became more involved in his own local churches around Cheviot, and now sits on the parish vacancy committee at Yetholm as well as recently completing a course to lead worship.

He hopes The Minister and the Murderer will perhaps nudge one or two readers to follow in his path towards the pews.

Stuart added: "We ought to treasure our Churches or they will end up as cafes or ruins.

"If the book gets one person to think seriously about what we might be losing, then it will have done some good."

The Minister and the Murderer will be released in hardback, priced £20, on Thursday, February 8 by Granta Publications.

Stuart will be in conversation with Edinburgh Book Festival director Nick Barley at The Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells on Tuesday, February 13. Tickets are priced at £10.