The Position of Midculter and its Direction from Boghall.
A little while back a reader who was planning on coming to Scotland asked me about some of the places in the books that she might visit and mentioned the positioning of Midculter and how it seemed difficult to work out. This reminded me of something that had occurred to me on one of my earliest reads of Game of Kings.
As we all know, Midculter was fictitious, and must have been one of the earliest things that Dorothy considered when she started writing. Like much of the early LC backstory I suspect that she didn’t work it out as precisely to begin with as she did later – when she realised that the books would continue to be published and that her readers were such an analytical bunch! The amazing precision and detailed research seemed to develop as she wrote and were already in place for Queens’ Play, but there are some anomalies in GK. This makes the connections that she made to the House of Niccolo all the more amazing and though some readers are disconcerted with those backstory problems, given that it was her first book and such a milestone in the genre it’s surprising that there aren’t more.
Anyway back to Midculter. When, years ago, I first read the description, I was confused. It didn’t quite feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why, and being swept along with the narrative I forgot about it. Much later I took a bit more time to analyse it.
Take a look at the later part of the first chapter (page 25 in the Vintage edition).
We are with Richard and Wat on the roof of Boghall Castle, and Christian has just smelled smoke.
“To the east lay the roofs of the barony town of Biggar, smoking in the socket of Bizzyberry Hill, and the Edinburgh Road. On the south, the horizon was jumbled with hills, footstools before the greater furniture of the English Border. To the north and northwest the roads for Ayrshire and for Stirling girdled the crag of Tinto.
To the west, springing from the base of the castle, the bog rolled, jellied green and shimmering between an avenue of hills, to dip three miles distantly into the bed of the Culter burn, where stood the village and castle of Midculter.”
Yet a look at the map (Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 Sheet 72 – Upper Clyde Valley) shows that Biggar lies to the north, not east, of the few remaining stones of Boghall castle. Likewise the lovely Tinto Hill lies to the west (in fact slightly south of west) and definitely not to the north. It is almost as if the compass has been turned through about 75-90 degrees. The final description in that piece tells us where Midculter is. Given the skewed compass heading it makes sense to put Midculter in the SSW direction – and indeed that is where both Culter Water and the village of Coulter lie.
What are we to make of this? Dorothy loved maps and must surely have poured over them in addition to visiting the area. Yet we see a passage with a consistent shift of bearing.
Oddly, there is another one 6 books later – when at the end of Checkmate, Lymond, having been released from the clutches of Margaret Lennox is riding home. Now we don’t know for certain which castle he was being held in – it isn’t Settrington which is far to the south in Yorkshire, Margaret is sent back there and she mentions that she wanted him dealt with well away from her husband Matthew. If he’s traveling west then it seems likely that it is on or near the coast. Nor can it be too far south as Wharton has to go back to Berwick and meets Austin there, who has further to travel than Lymond and whose path intersects his before reaching Flaw Valleys – again suggesting the east coast of Northern England. Lymond himself guesses that they are “not too far south of Berwick” during his final confrontation with Margaret.
On a very superficial reading of the map my first bets were Bamburgh or Alnwick or one of the other castles around there – a purely circumstantial idea hit me once when looking at a map of the area – Bamburgh has a place called The Master’s Tower, and if Dorothy knew about it then it’s just the sort of hidden link that would appeal to her, echoing the name by which he was known in the first book. However a quick check of the histories of those two castles suggest no links to Lennox or Douglas familes and so far I haven’t come across any Lennox histories which mention their English possessions. I wonder if it’s possible to find out which castles were associated with the Lennoxes at that time. . .
A further hint about the direction of travel in the narrative is that the escort won’t cross into Scottish territory – the border, which runs north-east to south-west, does turn sharply south for part of its length. But the description says that Lymond rode north and west which is surely wrong – it should be south and west for him to be heading for Flaw Valleys near Hexham. (Austin’s course is actually pretty much due south from Berwick on Tweed.)
Do we put this down to Dorothy’s habit of writing in a white heat of activity and hating revising? Should an editor have picked it up? I’m not sure who the UK editor was for Checkmate, and it may be that there wasn’t one for Game of Kings which was edited by Lois Cole and then sold to Cassell from the USA. Maybe it will just have to remain a mystery unless there is anything in the archive.
For online maps try the following options:
Bing maps around Biggar
Edit 2018 – When editing this link which had changed I recently noticed that the current version of Bing maps only show the Ordnance Survey options if your settings are set to use UK English, so visitors from elsewhere may need to temporarily adjust their settings to see those high quality maps. They only appear at resolutions that show them to good advantage so if you don’t see them immediately zoom in or out until the option appears.