Love at First Sight, or not

On how easy or hard it is “getting into” the Lymond Chronicles

(Unlike most of the posts here this one avoids spoilers apart from a few very early quotes and a very general hint about the hero, so is safe for anyone just starting their Dunnett reading experience.)

With many more people turning to books to help them get through the coronavirus lockdown, we’re seeing plenty of new readers for Dorothy’s first series and many are turning up on my Twitter timeline. Some of them have clearly become entranced immediately, but inevitably a few are finding things harder. This has revived discussion of the old question (no, not that one!) of how easy or difficult it is to get comfortable with Game of Kings and our prickly hero, and how far readers should persist with it if they’re finding it difficult.

For instance in a thread earlier today, Dunnettcentral joined the discussion with

People often say they find Game of Kings hard to get into. (Two in my own family) This baffles me, as I adored it from the start. No, I didn’t understand a lot of it, but I didn’t care, I was enthralled.

to which long-time reader Grandma Ogre responded

I was 14. I’d never read anyone who could make English weep, sing, stab – and fly! like that. Understand it, nope; I just wanted to stand under it and experience it.

If only everyone was so fortunate. I’ve said before that I had none of those problems, but it doesn’t baffle me that many people do as I was aware very quickly that I was in a very privileged position. I was about to respond on the thread but realised that it would require multiple posts, so I decided to turn it into a blog post instead.

Ooooh, what a lucky man he was

Firstly I’d met Dorothy already, albeit very briefly at that point, and had already twigged that there was a mischievous and lively intelligence behind her disarming smile. So I was almost expecting misdirection, and was certainly not disappointed there! Most new readers, unless forwarned by friends, have no such suspicion that she’ll be working in deep and multiple layers of complexity; that the characters we’ll meet will have heavily biased opinions and will have been given evidence that’s wildly innaccurate in a way that makes our modern “fake news” seem perfectly straightforward by comparison; and that, unlike almost every other author most of them have ever read, she’ll never show you anything from the main protagonist’s viewpoint! (until book 6).

The opening sequences looking up from the Nor Loch were of course a scene I knew well and that was a second advantage – I’m an Edinburgh lad born and bred and with a keen interest in its history and knew the layout and landscape intimately – so I could envisage the scenes without even thinking about them and thus had more room to appreciate the quality of the descriptions, which even at this early stage are wonderfully composed. The language was also immediately accessible to me – not just the Scots words and speech patterns but there was something Scottish in the cadence and rhythm of it that was immediately familiar and comfortable; and again the average reader – particularly those from outside the UK – wouldn’t have that. In contrast they would need to try to assimilate all this while trying to work out who the characters were, what relation they have to the story, get some sort of grasp on the basic history, and assess the character of the man whose name suggests he is the focus of the series.

Knowing me knowing you – Aha!

And I had a third advantage which many don’t have – a mind brought up on the complexities of chess and the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. It soon became apparent that Dorothy had a mind ideally suited to puzzles and intricacies, multilayered and full of false trails and red herrings. While I couldn’t possibly match her on the literary allusions or the foreign languages, I at least had the sort of thinking processes that would allow me to follow the devious plot twists and perhaps more importantly to work out what were the the important structural elements in the story while temporarily laying aside  some of the aspects (like Latin or Middle French poetry and quotations) that I didn’t immediately understand until I could follow them up – not allowing them to be a distraction from the crucial ones.

Even then, I recall very well that there was a point fairly early on in my first read where I saw a reference to something that had been said earlier and stopped dead in my tracks. I remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t paying enough attention, wasn’t concentrating enough despite being a slow and deep reader. That this author had to be watched ultra-carefully for connections that could be oh-so-easily missed as they were dropped casually into the dialogue or hidden amongst a passing description. That this book deserved the levels of intense concentration I had once given to match-play chess. And so I went back and re-read from the start until I was sure that I had settled into a sufficiently immersed reading method. I have to wonder if a speed reader would have any chance at all of understanding what is going on! And how that might affect their ability to be captured by the story.

And one must acknowledge that on top of all these aspects there is a further problem for new readers. Dorothy was writing her first novel, never knowing whether it would ever be published, and there is an undeniable feeling of her throwing in everything including the kitchen sink! The language is a little flowery in places, the quotes that flow from Lymond’s lips in multiple tongues can be a little overpowering, and that’s without even considering the impossibly complex politics. I could easily see some readers finding it all a bit too much.

Got a feeling inside (Can’t explain)

How easy it would be to throw up your hands in desperation – who are all these characters, who all seem to have multiple names? How are we supposed to like this scum-bag of a character? He’s set fire to his mother’s home, robbed her neighbours, even thrown a knife at one of them! He verbally rips his own men to shreds, confuses and confounds a potential disciple, and makes him fire an arrow at one of those men. He flirts with his brother’s wife, insults the man himself and generally acts like a criminal and traitor. Who is the hero? Is there a hero or is he going to turn out to be a Flashman scoundrel? When is anyone going to explain anything?

Why was I so sure that it all would come out in the end? So certain that Lymond would turn out ot be on the side of the angels. Well part of it is that Scottishness I mentioned earlier – we’re never simple and straightforward, always underdogs, always doing gloriously daft things for the right reasons but against all caution and advice, and seldom getting the rewards… except maybe in fiction.

Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had

There’s one further influence that I had that maybe helped/swayed me a little in a positive direction, and which few other readers would have. I had grown up reading The Scotsman, and that newspaper had been turned into a leading and respected national institution by one man – Alastair Dunnett, Dorothy’s husband. Although I was still a young man when he switched from being the Scotsman editor to his later role as Chairman of Thomson North Sea Oil, his influence permeated the paper for many years afterwards and I had read many of his editorials (does anyone read editorials now?) and later occasional articles. For many years my writing style was largely based on his.

He was universally respected – I once saw him described in the Scots Magazine as “a man of total integrity”. He was devoted to Scotland despite many lucrative offers to take him elsewhere. He’d been offered the editorship of The Times when it was a position of immense importance and political influence. It was impossible to imagine that Dorothy would write a principal character who would turn out to be a knave, when she had his example and reputation behind her. I doubt I consciously thought about it at the time but the subconscious idea will certainly have been lurking there.

Carry on my wayward son (or daughter)

So for those of you who might be struggling in Game of Kings or who have previously tried and given up – I have considerable sympathy for your confusion and frustration. You probably have none of these advantages that I did.

But please don’t give up!

Read to at least 100 pages, by which point you may well start to change your mind. You’ll meet a character who makes you reassess every problem you’ve had with story and characters so far, and crucially shows you something more of the author’s wicked sense of humour.

Now I can’t guarantee that if you get that far that you’ll fall in love the way I and many thousands of readers have – not everyone likes Dunnett any more than everyone likes Beethoven – but if you’re drawn to this type of writing at all then it is very, very likely. And like many of us it could literally change your life and give you interests it topics and places and cultures that will enrich your life in ways you can’t yet imagine. Even just in the purely literary sense you’ll find a skill in the use of language that will give you lifelong pleasure. Grandma Ogre’s description is absolutely spot on – Dorothy “could make English weep, sing, stab – and fly!” She can teach you to understand, to observe and describe, to delight in the interplay of words and concepts in a way that few other authors even approach. These books are worth the effort a thousand times over!

That opening line (sorry, ran out of song titles)

For the folks who were immediately entranced I disagree on only one single thing. I hear many who say that they were hooked by the opening phrase “Lymond is back”. I wasn’t. It was an ok opening but it didn’t grab me; and compared to some of the other quite brilliant opening lines she would come up with later it pales into the merely good. For me it was a gradual increasing admiration through the first chapter, where we had progressively:

“Across four hundred feet of black lake, friezelike on their ridge, towered the houses of Edinburgh. Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit, laying constellations on the water…”

“…oriflamme…”

“”I,” said Lymond, in the voice unmistakably his which honeyed his most lethal thoughts, “am a narwhal looking for my virgin. I have sucked up the sea like Charybdis and failing other entertainment will spew it three times daily, for a fee.”

“The sow approached her water dish, sniffed it with increasing favour, and inserted both her nose and her front trotters therein.”

followed not long after by the delightful follow-up

“She bounced once off the newel post, scrabbled once on the flags, trotters smoking, then shot Mungo Tennant backward, squealing thickly in a liberated passion of ham-handed adoration.”

By “trotters smoking” I was certain – this was unlike anything I’d ever read. And every chapter from then on confirmed it.

I’ve never for a second regretted becoming so immersed in these books – if you’re having problems with them do give them enough time to work their magic on you.

 

(no song titles or lyrics were harmed in the making of these headings, but maybe I’m going just a bit stir-crazy like everyone else in this lockdown – stay safe everyone.)

 

Views around “Midculter”

Something I’ve been meaning to do for a while is to show readers something of the flavour of the area in which Midculter is set, so they can more easily visualise some of the settings of Game of Kings and the Scottish parts of Disorderly Knights. Sybilla’s Midculter Castle is of course fictitious, and there is no village called Midculter either, but we know from the descriptions in Game of Kings roughly where it would have been situated by Dorothy’s fertile imagination.

Last weekend I was returning to Edinburgh from visiting my 95 year-old father in Lanark and a rather showery few days had resolved into a beautiful evening, so having a rare couple of hours to spare I turned off the Lanark road – known as the Lang Wang – at the village of Carnwath, and headed south towards Biggar. I was cursing myself that I didn’t have my SLR camera with me but at least I had my phone with its useful panorama feature.

The following images can be clicked/tapped to view larger versions.

The view south from Libberton

The view south from Libberton

As I climbed the rise up to the hamlet of Libberton the rolling hills of the area opened up before me in gorgeous evening light. Tinto Hill over to the west and the hills south of Biggar, including Culter Fell, running away to the south, with the River Clyde meandering between them, and over to the east a glimpse of Broughton Heights guarding the entrance to Tweeddale.

The rolling countryside looking towards Tinto Hill

The rolling countryside looking towards Tinto Hill

Some areas of Lanarkshire are rather bare and treeless and at best suitable only for sheep, but this part, despite having a distinctly rolling character, is more endowed with woodlands and good quality grasslands, housing cattle and horses in addition to the ever-present white flocks. Rather surprisingly there are even a number of remnant groups of old pine trees of the Ancient Forest of Caledon, which once covered much of Scotland, but which is now usually associated with some parts of the Highlands.

The panorama south and southeast

The panorama south and southeast

Small farms and townships dot the landscape, connected by narrow lanes and a few twisting roads winding through the topography. One can easily imagine Richard travelling this country; visiting, helping and encouraging his tenant farmers to make improvements that would benefit estate and tenants alike.

The view southeast towards Bigger and Broughton Heights

The view southeast towards Bigger and Broughton Heights

A glance at the Ordnance Survey map shows a variety of ancient markings – hill forts, enclosures, settlements, and cairns are scattered across the landscape and increase in number as we head south. For students of legends, one fort is intriguingly positioned between places called Arthurshiels and Whitecastle.

As you descend into Biggar a small road leads down to the right to a ford over the Biggar Burn where one of the town museums (I think related to an old mill but currently being refurbished) is situated. The charming little valley, carrying the burn between the site of an old Motte and a hill called The Knock, has been made into a childrens park with a new paddling pool and little pieces of play equipment. But it’s easy to imagine a far older scene with horses and carts rather than cars crossing the ford.

Biggar is a lovely little town that contains a number of interesting items including a puppett theatre and a gasworks museum, but we’ll return to that at a later date along with a look at the site of Boghall Castle. In the meantime you can see some images of the latter on the main site at www.dorothydunnett.co.uk/visits-south.php

One of the Caledonian Pines in Coulter Village

Turning into the Biggar main street we are now on the A702, the main connection between Edinburgh and the M74 motorway from Glasgow to Carlisle and the M6 which is the main artery to the major cities on the western side of England. This is an ancient route and much of it follows the course of the old Roman road. Continuing on this route south of Biggar we’re approaching the area we’re really interested in.

First the A72 branches off to the west towards the village of Symington – which has its own Castlehill – but after about 700m the road passes closely by Coulter Motte, a 12th century castle about which hardly anything is known, although historian Simon Forder suggests that it may have once been owned by the Flemish de Cutir family. thecastleguy.co.uk/castle/coulter-motte/

Back on the A702 about 3km south of Biggar we have more examples of our favourite placename – just to the west of the road at the side of the Clyde is Coulter Mains and Coulterhaugh, while on the eastern side is Culter House, a 17th century lairds house and a little further on is Culter Allers House which is Victorian but sited on a 17th century plot and has an attractive walled garden.

Culter House

Culter House

Culter House was up for sale about 15 years ago and after I posted a link to the sales brochure on the estate agent’s site it was jokingly suggested that if all the members of Dunnetwork and Marzipan were to chip in a few hundred pounds each we could buy it and turn it into the Dunnett Rest Home for the Slightly Befuddled! It’s now up for sale again but the price is rather higher at £1.1 million – though with 16 bedrooms that’s a snip considering you can pay the same for a modest 2-bedroom flat in London. You can see the current sales material while it’s still for sale at www.mcewanfraserlegal.co.uk/properties/town_coulter/culter-house-biggar-coulter-borders/81019

Mind you, anyone who has problems pronouncing Lymond may be even more befuddled to learn that whichever spelling is used the local pronunciation of the placename is Cooter. However I don’t expect to hear anyone calling it Midcooter at the next DDS AGM weekend! 😉

A hundered metres further south, as the road turns sharp west over a bridge, nestles the tiny village of Coulter.

Coulter Village cottages

Coulter Village cottages

It’s so small that a driver making sure they negotiate the sharp turn could easily miss it altogether. Only the old Mill building, now converted to a restaurant, makes much of an immediate impression.

The old mill in Coulter Village

The old mill in Coulter Village

It’s said there was a mill there going back to the 12th century and the current building is a fairly imposing 3-story structure. In contrast the majority of the houses are characterised by rows of small, low, connected cottages on either side of the road and adjoining the Culter Burn. It’s tempting to imagine a previous settlement of thatched cottages on the same ground plan.

Cottages in Coulter Village

Cottages in Coulter Village

Book lovers will appreciate the small 19th century Culter Public Library and Reading Room which sits opposite the mill – quite an achievement for such a small village.

Culter Library and Reading Room

Culter Library and Reading Room

To the south of the village as the ground rises towards Turkey Hill (489m) (was Archie’s brother named after this I wonder?) and Knowe Dod (440m), there are two more forts and a settlement, while for those of you who like to think that JK Rowling has read Lymond there is Snaip Hill.

Actually the whole area is full of some wonderful placenames and many more ancient sites. Near to Coulter is Unthank, and Mid Hangingshaw, just to the east is a fort and settlement called Cow Castle just below Gawky Hill and Scawdmans Hill, while about 600m away there is a hill which has two more fort/settlements and the ruins of Kilbucho church of which records go back to the 13th century.

Looking towards White Hill

Looking towards White Hill from the Birthwood road. There are at least 3 fort sites in this view including Cow Castle.

To the south on the Birthwood road which runs up to Culter Allers Farm there is Hungry Knees and Fell Shin. Slightly further away there are other placenames such as the wonderfully named Snickert Knees, Risingclaw Heights, Worm Hill, Knowe Kniffling, Noop End and the Deil’s Barn Door. Even to an Edinburgh lad like me there is some odd language around here, but Tolkein would have had a field day! In fact the other author besides Dorothy who is associated with the area is John Buchan, who is said to have been inspired by the landscape around here.

Gawky Hill from the Birthwood road

Gawky Hill from the Birthwood road

Park Knowe and Fell Shin from the Birthwood road with Culter Fell behind

Park Knowe and Fell Shin from the Birthwood road with Culter Fell behind

Did Dorothy have a definite place in mind for Midculter Castle? Who can say, unless we find something in her archives that gives a clue. There are a number of possibilities but nothing much in the text to go on. But I hope the photos shown here and others that I plan to take in the future will give you a feel for the countryside in which Richard and Francis were brought into the world. Next time I’ll remember my big camera!

Last light on Gawky Hill

Last light on Gawky Hill

New US Lymond editions coming

The latest issue of Whispering Gallery arrived this morning and contained alongside the usual excellent articles is the news that Knopf/Doubleday are releasing new US editions of the Lymond Chronicles on 14th May this year.

They appear to be trade paperbacks and will be priced at $18.00
US readers should be able to order them using the following ISBNs:

Game of Kings – 9780525565246

Queens’ Play – 9780525565253

Disorderly Knights – 9780525565260

Pawn in Frankincense – 9780525565277

Ringed Castle – 9780525565284

Checkmate – 9780525565291

 

New main site launched

And now it’s live!

It’s been a very long time coming but I’ve been working on it steadily for the last few months and tonight I’ve launched the completely redesigned and rewritten version of the main part of the site

http://www.dorothydunnett.co.uk/

There’s new content and photos on the Places to Visit in Scotland feature, A large collection of book covers, a re-researched listing of all the previous editions, and new header images that are matched to the subject matter of every page.

Testing stil going on – if you see any problems please let me know.

Now that there’s a solid modern base again I’ll be adding new items as time allows but I’d also be delighted to receive any material that anyone wants to send me – particularly any photo or descriptions for the Places to Visit in Europe feature for any places I haven’t yet covered, or any of the book covers that I’m missing so far. Or indeed any other ideas anyone can come up with.

Hope you like it. All feedback welcome.

slainte

Bill