Norse Names in the Lothians

A few weeks ago I was researching other sites which mention Dorothy and I came across a reference in the Electric Scotland site which is run by the now Canadian domiciled Alastair McIntyre, who had previously been the owner of Almac in Grangemouth – the first ISP that we used at James Thin when I first set up their website. The reference was contained in an article by Iain Johnstone about his book Viking Place Names of East Lothian

In the article he is very complimentary about Dorothy’s research for King Hereafter and her assertion that Macbeth and Thorfinn were the same man. This was in the context of discussing his outspoken view that many of the accepted derivations for Scottish Lowland place names are erroneous, and based on a faulty view of Anglo-Saxon influence on the area. He believes that many of the names are Norse in origin but have been written out of history for political reasons. I found his ideas fascinating and followed the links back to his own sites which are quite local to me at and

The former takes a fair bit of reading and you may find his style a touch on the strident side on occasions, but it is clearly the result of his enthusiasm to tell what he believes to be the real story and the content is pretty convincing if you know much about Scots and have pored over maps and wondered at the variations in language that they reveal.

Having digested his site I wrote him an email, expressing interest and thanking him for his King Hereafter comments, and suggesting that he might like to write an article either for the website or for Whispering Gallery, or perhaps give a talk to a Dunnett event.

Sadly I was too late. His wife Margaret wrote to me this week telling me that he had died in August after a sudden illness and saying he would have been delighted to have had such contact with Dunnett readers. Both of them have been great admirers of Dorothy’s work from the time of the early Lymonds and Margaret had even read the Dollys in their original editions. I am making arrangements with her to purchase copies of both Iain’s books and will read them with interest (and probably quite a few maps!) His death came before he could update his website with the latest book but the first one can be ordered through the Tarmagan site using PayPal, and hopefully the new one will soon follow suit. Once I have a chance to read them I’ll post a review here. Now if I can just find time to re-read King Hereafter and see if there are any interesting placenames…

500 years of Scottish Printing

2008 will be the Year of the Printed Word and it’s being celebrated by various events with the promotion of The National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Printing Archival Trust, with backing from the Scottish Executive. With the importance of printing to Lymond and of course the overwhelming importance of books to all of us as readers I thought you’d all be be very interested in the following from the new site at

Today, 15 September 2006, sees the 499th anniversary of the granting of a patent by James IV, King of Scots, to Androw Myllar and Walter Chepman authorising them to set up a printing press in Edinburgh – the first in Scotland. The earliest known output from their press – ‘The Complaint of the Black Knight – is dated 4 April 1508. The National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Printing Archival Trust is jointly promoting the 500th anniversary of this publication in 2008.

Dunnett Directional Discrepancies

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.


Map Images produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

To see the maps online follow the Get-a-map link and click on the BIG PINK BUTTON, then type “Biggar” in the search box. For other online maps try the following options

Google maps around Coulter

Multimap around Biggar

The Tavola Strozzi

Back in 2004 I received an email from Andrew Daniels, an art writer and researcher who had recently been asked by an elderly lady if he could tell her anything about a print that she had of the Bay of Naples. He suggested to her that it probably dated from the 15th century and, as a panoramic view in its own right, was quite unusual, and that he would try to find out more. That brought him to the Dunnett website because the painting in question was one that was used as the cover for the Penguin edition of ‘Race of Scorpions’, details of which are available on the Bibliography page, with the information that it is attributed to Francesco Rosselli (1445 – c.1513), and depicts the re-entry of the Araganese fleet after the Battle of Ischia in 1442.

Much encouraged he had tried to find more information, such as the current location of the painting, but had so far drawn a blank, so he was writing to me to ask if I had any other sources of information on the painting or if the publishers might have any. I hadn’t, and knowing that the editors who’d worked on HN had since moved on I doubted if Penguin would either, but I was sufficiently intrigued to start my own net research, and being professionally involved with search engines I was able to find some resources that had escaped Andrew up till then.

Searching based around variants of “Francesco Rosselli Naples Napoli” etc. I found a couple of Italian sites, and although my knowledge of Italian is barely even rudimentary I was able to extract the name of the painting as being “Tavola Strozzi” with sufficient information to move on to some other sites. Now of course as soon the name Strozzi came up I was further intrigued. I’m not sure if Dorothy had any input into the cover designs but just maybe there was more to the choices than there appeared. Tavola appears to mean table, in the sense that the painting was done on wood, and it seemed that it was either commissioned or donated by Filippo Strozzi. It is now in the Museo di San Martino in Naples.

One of the sites is unfortunately no longer there but there is some useful information at some others including the following.

Although some of the sites appeared to suggest that the painting was anonymous others suggested that Francesco Rosselli was an accurate attribution. However the date of the depiction quoted on the book cover seemed to be doubtful and 1465 appeared to be suggested instead, with the painting donated by Strozzi in 1472/3. Andrew thanked me for my research pointers and, being familiar with the 14th and 15th centuries, felt that these dates would fit in well with Filippo Strozzi’s return to Florence in 1466, after his family’s banishment by the Medici in 1434. Filippo had been on intimate terms with the Italian courts, especially Naples, and a gift sent there after his very ‘grand’ re-establishment in Florence would help to cement his status.

He further felt that the suggested date for the naval depiction in the Italian extract I’d sent him – 1465 – seemed more sensible than the 1442 Battle of Ischia suggested by Penguin. It celebrates a victory achieved under the current regime (Ferdinand I of Naples, from 1458), and more or less coincided with Filippo’s return to Florence. Thus seeming more relevant to both parties.

At this point Andrew confessed that he had “only read the first two volumes of ‘Niccolo’ – they’re both still on my bookshelves, and I never got round to the rest”. I replied that while they were perhaps not the easiest of books to read because of the many puzzles and complex plots, they contained rich and meticulously researched descriptions of 15th century life in Europe and would repay the time spent in all sorts of ways. He later promised he would return to them.

Andrew continued his research and told me he’d found reference to the picture in Alison Cole’s ‘Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts’; which had been on his bookshelves all the time! (That sort of thing happens to me too!) He also found Lorenzo de’ Medici’s visit to Naples in Macchiavelli’s ‘History of Florence’ (Chapter IV), though unfortunately the website on which this was available at the time is no longer holding it.

Not long after he sent me a copy of the report he’d given to the owner of the print who had started the enquiry, and indicated that she was very happy with it.


Your picture of Naples is known as the Tavola Strozzi, or ‘Table of the Strozzi’, because it was painted on wood, common practise at the time. The original is in the Museo di San Martino in Naples. Topographical views were popular in the later 15th century because of the influx into Italian Courts of Flemish paintings, which included detailed landscapes.

The Strozzi were a famous and powerful family in Florence, but from 1434 – 66, they were banished from there by the Medici, the ruling family. As a result, Fillipo Strozzi, born in 1438, became well known in several princely courts, especially Naples, where he gained wealth and influence. Naples was ruled at that time by the house of Aragon, and from 1458 to 1494 by Ferrante of Aragon, also known as Ferdinand the First.

The Strozzi were allowed back into Florence in 1466, and Fillipo returned in ‘grand’ style, becoming even more wealthy and powerful. He built a famous ‘palazzo’ there for himself and his family, and became a trusted advisor to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the leader of Florence’s ‘Republic’.

It’s believed that Fillipo commisioned your picture of Naples from a Florentine map-maker and artist called Francesco Rosselli, in order to present it as a gift to Ferdinand in Naples. This would have been a shrewd move, as gifts to prestigious acquaintances underlined his own status in Florence. It’s not certain that Francesco painted it, but it seems likely as he too had spent much time in Naples. It was painted in 1472 or 1473, and supposedly depicts the triumphant re-entry into the Bay of Naples of Ferdinand’s fleet, after he’d routed his Angevin enemies in the Battle of Ischia in 1465.

The picture may also be connected to a daring diplomatic visit made by Lorenzo de’ Medici to Naples in 1479, when the Florentines were under threat from an alliance made up of Naples, Milan and Pope Sixtus IV. Lorenzo personally sailed into Naples, spending several months there and completely winning over Ferdinand and his people. Lorenzo emerged a hero, celebrated for his international statesmanship. (In fact, there was more to it than that, but that’s the legend!) The picture may have been presented to Ferdinand on the occasion of Lorenzo’s visit in 1479, whether as a gift from Fillipo Strozzi or Lorenzo himself is debateable. This seems likely given Fillipo’s links with Naples and his position of trust with Lorenzo – he must have been seen as a perfect mediator by Lorenzo, and encouraged to exploit his connections?


Altogether a perfect illustration of the sort of delightful byways that reading Dunnett can take you down. We have a number of Italian readers amongst the newsletter recipients and discussion groups. Perhaps one of them can add something to this research? Dorothy’s books were well translated into Italian and still sell well there, and she always enjoyed her promotional trips as well as the research ones. She once told me that the head of her Italian publisher was also a director of La Scala Milan and used to get her the best seats in the house for the opera, which she adored.

I wonder if any of the other cover paintings have similar connections to the stories…