Lymond re-reads and the writer as Dunnett fan

Reading Lymond en-mass

For anyone who doesn’t keep up to date with the various discussion groups but might like to follow along with a Lymond Chronicles group read, one has just started on the Game of Kings Yahoo group list. From what’s already been posted it looks like it’s going to be interesting!

I’ve made a couple of posts myself although I’ve been working 12 hours and more a day for the last 10 days and have only managed the posts when sleep was beyond my over-tired brain. I’m trying to recapture the feelings I had on that very first read, how unexpectedly but completely at home I felt as I was plunged headlong into DunnettWorld, and how I was soon being beguiled by the wordsmith’s sorcery.

I’ll quote a section of one of my posts because I feel the descriptions mentioned are worthy of wider viewing, since it’s all too easy to rush through the first few pages in our haste to get into the meat of the story. These refer to material early on page 2 (and page 1 was only half a page!) where Lymond is about to enter the water of the Nor’ Loch.

“Across four hundred feet of black lake, friezelike on their ridge, towered the houses of Edinburgh”.
“Friezelike”; what an evocative description. Anyone who has looked up at the high tenements of the Old Town from Princes St on a dark night will recognise this at once – the way the buildings seem 2-dimensional against the sky compared to the emphatically 3-dimensional bulk of the castle.

And the next sentence – “Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit, laying constellations on the water;”
Note firstly the capitalisation of Castle; subtly giving it a greater sense of size and power (if you’ve seen it you’ll know that’s exactly what it has). But then that fabulous description – not the easy descriptive “reflecting on the water”, not even something flowery like “myriad scintillations”.

“Laying constellations” gives us in two words a complete picture of the scene in front of us. It is an early suggestion of the sort of wizardry that she will conjure up as the books progress. We are _in_ the scene in the most complete way and yet we are only a quarter of the way down page 2. We sometimes think of GK as a little over-decorated, yet here is the most elegant economy of words.

And remember this was the first book of a new author; still finding her literary feet. You can almost feel the assurance growing as you penetrate further into the story – in fact in the next paragraph she throws in “oriflamme” and you know for certain that you’re not in the company of any ordinary writer!

Then you start wishing you had a large dictionary to hand, and a French one, and maybe a Latin one….

Authors who read and admire Dunnett

When I wrote the last newsletter/first blog I stopped at the end of 2005. It was around that time that I’d been contacted by a fairly new author who wondered if I could build her a website. This was Linda Gillard, previously an actress, journalist and teacher, who now lives on the lovely Isle of Skye. She knew of me through the Dunnett website as she was a long-time reader and admirer of Dorothy. With a bit of a false start caused by flu and bronchitis on my part we soon forged an excellent rapport and the result was which was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying design jobs I’ve done.

Unlike Dorothy, Linda writes about modern times, but is already an accomplished author who isn’t afraid to tackle difficult and controversial themes. She sent me her first novel – Emotional Geology – prior to starting the site design and I read it in one go pausing only to eat. Based on South Uist in the Hebrides, it’s a complex story of a woman recovering from manic depression and concentrating on her work as a textile artist to blot out the unhappy end of a love affair. I highly recommend it, particularly for its sympathetic depiction of the male characters and the insight into the psychology of the female ones.

Her second novel – A Lifetime Burning – treads such difficult emotional territory that it is almost impossible to describe, set in the very different world of English village life, the local manse, and musical virtuosity, with a number of doomed relationships central to the story. It’s the sort of challenging read that Dunnett readers are likely to enjoy.

Linda’s website was completed without us having met, and we only got that opportunity during the Edinburgh Festival a couple of months ago. We spent a most enjoyable evening in a New Town hostelry talking at great length like old friends… about Dunnett!

Linda was recently asked by Norm Geras to write a piece about her favourite books for his blog, so naturally she chose Lymond. You can read a copy of her piece on her site at – an eloquent and heart-felt description which with any luck will bring Dorothy to the attention of some potential new readers when it appears on Norm’s pages.

I should also mention another author, Carla Nayland, whose blog is well worth a visit. I came across it while looking for Dunnett mentions due to her succinct but complimentary review of King Hereafter. Welcome Carla, and thanks for the comment on the previous blog entry.

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.

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.

Google maps around Coulter