Nairn was born in Glasgow, where he studied at the School of Art from 1922-6. He subsequently worked in the field of art education, mainly in Glasgow. He was also Principal Lecturer in Art at Dundee Training College, teaching alongside his friend James McIntosh Patrick. Nairn exhibited at the Royal Glasgow Institute and Royal Scottish Academy. His paintings share the same precision and clarity as found in the work of fellow Dundee-based artists Edward Baird and McIntosh Patrick.