Introduction to the Dunnett Blog

Whether you are a long time reader of the Dunnett newsletters, or a new reader of the books, welcome to Bill’s Dunnett Blog.

I intend to use this blog to pass on any news of events in the Dunnett world, and to add my own thoughts and commentaries on the books. Some of it may turn into articles which I’ll transfer to the main site. Some of it may invoke discussion either here on in the online Dunnett discussion groups of which there are many, or maybe even on the pages of Whispering Gallery – the paper magazine of the DDRA.


Dunnett Newsletter – Dunnett Blog announcement

Greetings from Edinburgh – full of Festival tourists but suddenly a lot cooler after basking in the UK heatwave of July.

It’s been a long time since I last sent out a newsletter (Dec 2003 in fact) and most of you probably thought I’d abandoned them. In fact I’ve had a half-written one on my computer for many many months, but never any time to finish it. The last couple of years have been extremely involved, working in the daytime for a startup company in search engine optimisation and in the evenings on my own web design business. Throw in my chess administration duties and my membership role for the DDRA and there was little time left over. Having recently finished a particularly heavy spell and wanting to get back to some writing and discussion I reviewed the position with the website and the newsletters, and came to the conclusion that a blog might be a more suitable vehicle for providing information since it would be better for short pieces which take less time and it would get rid of the need to administer the email list.

Before going any further I should offer my apologies to those of you who have subscribed to the newsletter list over the last year or so but have never had a reply from me. In the past I always prided myself on replying to everyone individually, but this simply became impossible. Too often I was still working at 1 in the morning and some things just fell off the end of the priorities list.

So, to the blog. It’s reached quite easily at
or from a menu item under Questions on the site’s pages.

In it I’ve archived all the old newsletters so anyone interested can read them in a better formatted form than with the old text files. New items will appear in the main screen initially and then be archived under various categories such as news, book discussion, etc. Comments can be added by anyone registering on the site, but it might also be appropriate for more involved discussion to move to one of the Yahoo based discussion groups such as Marzipan if the list admins are happy that this be so.

One of the advantages of a blog is the ease with which it allows an RSS feed to be used. There is an explanation of this on the blog for those who have yet to embrace RSS, but basically it’s a way of automatically keeping up with developments without having to manually check sites for changes.

As for this newsletter I’ll use it to catch up with some of the things that have happened over the intervening period since the last one, at least up to the beginning of this year. I’ll then post all further items and articles as blogs. Hope you like the new format and look foward to re-establishing contact with you all.


Let’s catch up, what’s happened over the last couple of years or so? If you’ll forgive me I’ll mix in my own activities with the directly Dunnett ones so they make some sort of chronological sense.

January 2004 saw the death of a brilliant and very well known Scottish fiddle player who had moved to America some years before. This was Johnny Cunningham who had been a founder member of Silly Wizard, one of the key bands of the Scottish folk music revival. I had once worked with him, and was a great admirer of his music, and his death came a a great shock. I was astonished to learn later that he was a Dunnett reader and had expressed an interest in writing music inspired by Dorothy’s work and using it in a film if one were to be brought to fruition. That we had never made the connection and had a chance to discuss this made his death all the harder to take.

By early 2004 I had been out of work for about 8 months and things were getting a bit grim. However my old friend and flatmate for the previous year and a half, John Sampson, had a new show coming up with the Natural Theatre Company of Bath. Another dear friend is usually their technical wiz but he was unwell and they were looking for a sound engineer to take his place on the tour. I’d worked with them many years previously when I did that for a living so John suggested to them that I should do it.

I had always loved that job and jumped at the chance, so it was off down to Bath for reheasals of “Scarlatti in Paradise”, and then off to Germany for two months where we had a wonderful, if rather hectic, time dashing around most parts of what was previously West Germany from Hamburg and the northern coast towns down to Munich and Kempten in the south. The scenery was superb, the people almost invariable friendly and helpful, the show went perfectly and the audiences were wildly enthusiastic. As a bonus I was able to meet up with German Dunnett fan and King Hereafter expert Heike Meyer on one of our days off, and we spent a lovely afternoon exploring one of the nearby medieaval walled towns.

Incidentally while staying with John I noticed a large model ship in his collection of artefacts brought back from various overseas music tours. Closer inspection revealed it was none other than the Peter von Dansig!

I was not long back from the tour when the DDRA AGM was upon us, and it was a rather traumatic one as membership had been falling rapidly in the years after Dorothy’s death and there was a move to wind up the association before we found ourselves in an impossible position. I was deeply uneasy at this but with touring in Germany I wasn’t in a position to do much about it. I don’t want to rake over old ground so I’ll just say that it turned out that the motion was defeated, but in the process we lost Val Bierman who as editor and chief organiser had been the mainstay of Whispering Gallery magazine and in effect the DDRA and its forerunner the DDF for all the years they had been going. Val received a remuneration for her work but it has to be said that it didn’t remotely begin to cover the vast amount of work that she did. Losing her abilities was a grievous blow and it meant that the committee would have to completely change its functions and spread all the work over a wide range of people. We were fortunate that the new committee members were willing and able to take this on but I think everyone found out just how much work and time was involved. We began a thorough review of just about everything that the DDRA was involved in and email flew thick and fast for many months afterwards.

I should also mention the Sunday trip of that AGM weekend which was to Stirling. We had a glorious hot April day and were guided on our way round Stirling Castle by Doreen Grove of Historic Scotland who gave us some wonderful insights into the development and history of the castle, which was one of the most important pieces of royal architecture of its period. We also got to see the superb Unicorn Tapestrys being woven, which we had been given an excellent talk on the previous day by the artist who had not long previously finished the first of them – the Unicorn in the Garden – which was now on display in the Chapel Royal.
I added a Stirling page to the Dunnett Places to Visit section with photographs from that trip. Access it via the North page on the menu or see the photos directly at

I was back to looking for work and was just about to start up my own little web design business when a former colleague from a couple of years earlier asked me to join his new company and I started travelling out to Livingston every day. After 21 years of walking to work at Thins it was a shock to become a commuter, though at least I was always heading in the opposite direction to the bulk of the traffic!

During that summer I was invited to give a talk on Dorothy to a party of Americans who were visiting on a literary tour. I was happy to do so and this took place in the Royal Overseas League. The ladies had visited Orkney and Roslin amongst others and while they weren’t all Dunnett readers they seemed to enjoy the talk and I received a charming thank-you letter from the organiser.

Another addition to the website around this time was a new page on the book covers section dealing with non-English covers. This was prompted by the receipt of some messages and copies of four covers from Russia. My correspondent, a young lady by the name of Galyna, has become a firm fan and has been inspired to read more Scottish literature. It transpired that the first two books of Lymond have been translated into Russian but published as four books.

I also added the hilariously inappropriate German Dolly covers to that page, while on the Old Book Covers page I added some of the Sphere editions of Lymond which are also amongst the less realistic covers we’ve had inflicted on us over the years!

The Bibliography page had a long overdue revamp – split it into a number of sub-sections relating to the different series and made much clearer. I also updated all the entries for the Howes audiobooks having been back in touch with Paul Radford at Howes who was as always very helpful and sent me scans of the titles I didn’t have for inclusion in the new Audiobook Covers page.

Dictionary of National Biography

Dunnett reader Belinda Copson had been working on Dorothy’s entry for the Dictionary of National Biography. This is a huge reference project which was published later in 2004 and as such the memoir will be a definitive one for future researchers. Belinda asked me if I would cast an eye over her early drafts and I was able to offer a few small amendments.
Readers should be able to access the new DNB via academic libraries and possibly larger public county libraries (it’s appeared both in print and in an online subscription version).

New German Editions of Niccolo announced

Martine Dauwel, who runs the excellent German Dunnett site, had been busy making converts in the publishing world and was able to announce some good news. Klett Cotta, one of the oldest publishers in Germany had decided to produce new translations of the House of Niccolo beginning with Niccolo Rising in 2005. (In fact this was a little delayed and was published recently)
Congratulations to Martine. Excellent work! Lets hope the books are a great success there.

Peter McClure

The artist and cartographer Peter McClure, who worked on the covers and maps for Dorothy’s books for many years, sadly died around this time. I’ve heard him described as a charming if slightly eccentric man who always insisted on delivering his finished works in person even though it must often have meant substantial travel costs. A talented artist who took great interest in producing images that reflected the books, his designs occasionally had to be rejected because they gave away important plot points – however he always took it in good grace and enjoyed the challenge. He had been due to speak at Jo Kirkham’s Dunnett day in Rye and would undoubtedly have been a big hit there.

Geography and Paintings

Two pieces of correspondence occurred which are interesting enough to be given separate articles in the new blog. The first was an enquiry about the geography around Midculter and the second was concerned with the painting used for one of the Niccolo titles. Look out for these articles appearing shortly.

April 2005 saw the DDRA AGM weekend move to a new venue. The Point Hotel, while having excellent rooftop views, was lacking in certain facilities and had put up its prices, so we were forced to look for an alternative home for Edinburgh in the Spring. We looked at a variety of options, most of them turning out to be way too expensive, before deciding on the Royal Overseas League on Princes St, which I’d suggested investigating following my earlier talk there. It has, if anything, even better views of the Castle, and has proved popular with the attendees.

There were plenty of highlights in the weekend. A talk on “Loving Sybilla” by Julia Hart was clearly extensively researched and delivered with great aplomb and conviction. I’m sure she will have won a few converts. Doreen Groves also gave a talk – one that can hardly be adequately summarised such was the breadth of its scope – putting Marie de Guise in the context of the political and dynastic landscape of Europe and based on some very new and as yet unpublished research which she decided at the last minute would be of interest to us.

However despite the excellence of these talks the undoubted highlight was the Sunday visit to the National Library of Scotland in George IV Bridge to see a selection of items from the Dunnett Archive. This was a specially arranged visit and as far as we know the only time in recent years that the Library has been opened on a Sunday. There were numerous items from various parts of the archive – some very early notes and card indexes from the time of Game of Kings. The famous roll of wallpaper which held the genealogy of the European rulers in the time of Thorfinn. Some items from Dorothy’s schooldays. There was far too much to take in and remember in the limited time available as we divided into two groups to make viewing easier, and we hope to return at a later date to see more of it. Our visit was followed by splitting into smaller groups for a walk down the Royal Mile – I had the pleasure of conducting one of these and pointing out various places of interest. Lunch was then taken in Jackson’s restaurant and followed by a tour around the new Scottish Parliament building. While many people found this interesting I’m afraid it merely confirmed to me that it had cost far too much money.

2005 also saw the publication of a list of the 100 Best Scottish Books. This was compiled to celebrate the launch of Edinburgh as the first European City of Literature – an ideal promotion for a city in which printing and publishing played such a prominent part, though sadly the days when it boasted the headquarters of many internationally important publishers have now gone. The 100 Best was a competition instigated by Prof Willy Malley of Glasgow University to encourage reading and discussion and he set it off with a list of his top 100 and invited people to vote for their favourite. Game of Kings achieved 2nd place, beaten only by Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. A wonderful achievement even if the votes were boosted a little by our strong organisation as Dunnett readers.

This wasn’t the only success in terms of national recognition. The venerable BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour asked their listeners to vote for their favourite romantic hero – the result was a clear win for our favourite blond Scots mercenary, Francis Crawford, an outcome that seems to have caught the show’s producers a little unprepared, as they were clearly expecting the winner to come from the likes of messers Darcy, Rochester and Heathcliffe. Just to confirm Dorothy’s prominence she also appeared in the same programme’s list of Books That Changed Your Life in the top ten.

Later in 2005 the Dunnett Siege of Malta took place, a gathering organised by Simon Hedges and Cindy Byrne. Sadly I was unable to attend so I can’t give any first hand descriptions, but it was very well attended with readers coming from all over the world. Anyone interested can see descriptions and photos on Simon’s site at or may wish to take out membership of the DDRA and obtain copies of the relevant copies of Whispering Gallery which also contained a report and colour photos.

Many of you have enjoyed the CD Music for Lymond and Niccolo produced by the Edinburgh Renaissance Band who have played at a number of Gatherings. After being unavailable for a while they managed to get some more pressed towards the end of 2005. They also brought out a new CD – Music of Castle and Kirk, which while not as closely associated with Dorothy’s work as the first one, is of the same period and contains further examples of the sort of music that was around during our heroes’ time. Once again this is a private production and not available in shops, but they have asked me to continue to offer them for sale through the website and I’ve added the details of it next to the first one.

That takes us to the end of 2005 and we’ll leave it there with the catch ups and I’ll add the 2006 activities to the new blog.

best wishes to you all



Dunnett Newsletter – 13th Dec 2003

Winter Greetings from Edinburgh

I’d originally intended to get this out for last month but the stresses of job-hunting and a number of other personal matter (mum’s been in hospital for the last two weeks) have side-tracked me. I’ve also been having a lot of email problems – despite now having three different ISPs – and have been missing quite a few days incoming mail and a disturbing number of outgoing messages. I was thus reluctant to send out a newsletter until I was confident that it would go out without too many problems. I suspect that much of the difficulties have been caused by the massive number of worm-distributed fake Microsoft patches that were going around for a while as the failures mostly coincided with attempts to filter out those messages due to load they imposed on servers. One of the ISPs said that they were getting 4Gb of them a day at the height and before I found a suitable spam filter to run on my mailboxes I was getting around 40-50 of them a day. If any of you are having problems with spam and fake attachments then I can recommend Mailwasher as an excellent solution. Just as an added complication a couple of days ago AOL bounced a message I sent out via Freeserve (the largest UK ISP and part of the multinational Wanadoo group) and it looks as if they’ve blacklisted them so I’ll be using a different outgoing server and keeping fingers well and truely crossed. It’s maybe about time I set up my own mail server but that will have to wait until I have a permanent connection.

Orkney story and pictures

The principle feature of this newsletter is something I’ve had in half-finished form since last year – a description of the return trip I made to Orkney in August 2002. With the Claes group re-reading King Hereafter it seemed an appropriate time to finish it off and I’ve added some new Orkney photos to both the Dunnett web site, where I’ve rewritten and expanded the Orkney page, and my personal site, where I’ve added a second page for Orkney photos. ( Both Orkney trip descriptions have been put onto the Dunnett website and I’ll put some illustrations into them later.

Another site that you may want to check out is which is run by Orkney photographer Charles Tait. With the winter solstice coming up he’s set up three web cams which, weather permitting, will show the sun streaming down the low passageway and being reflected around the interior of Maes Howe. He has loads of pictures on that and his other associated sites including some very atmospheric shots of Brodgar in mist and one of the sites has some wonderful photos of the recent spectacular Auroras. I rather think I could die happy if I could see an aurora from the Ring of Brodgar!

Writers Museum Exhibition page

There is a new page just added ( with some pictures of the small exhibition about Dorothy in the Writers Museum in Edinburgh. Once again we’re indebted to Elspeth Morrison for putting that together. The two interior pictures aren’t the greatest as I wasn’t really supposed to be taking them and the person I needed to get permission from wasn’t available. One of them shows the Warming Apple and the Unicorn Collar in the display case and I knew everyone would like to see those. If I get a chance I’ll go back and try and get permission for proper photos with the serious camera gear. The museum is an interesting building dating originally from 1622 and known as Lady Stair’s House. Extensively restored by Lord Roseberry in 1897, it now houses full time exhibitions about three of Scotland’s most famous writers – Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson, with many artefacts and pictures which will fascinate all devotees of literature.
There are also additions to the pictures in the Edinburgh pages (

Venice Pictures and new Maps

Since the last newsletter I’ve added a new item to the Dunnett Places to Visit in Europe page – some photos of the eternally romantic city of Venice very kindly sent to me by Sharon Michalove. (
A Maps page has also been added with centralised links to the maps on the site, including a new map of Europe in Nicholas’ time and a redrawn and slightly clearer Orkney map. I hope to add further items when time allows. (

Forthcoming Events page

There is now a long overdue Forthcoming Events page with details of the various Spits and Gatherings (
A notable one for those living “down-under” is the Sydney Revel in Australia on Saturday 17th January 2004 being organised by Michael Sedin. There is a registration form you can download if you want to attend this, or contact him at

Along with the now well established UK dates such as Oxford there are also plans for a gathering in Malta in either Autumn 2004 or Spring 2005 and there is a Yahoo discussion group formed by Simon Hedges and Cindy Byrne to arrange this if you’re interested in seeing the home of the Knights.

DDRA AGM in April

Of course we also want to see as many of you as possible in Edinburgh in April for the 4th DDRA AGM. Alongside the AGM there will be a talk on the Unicorn Tapestry project by one of the weaving team from Stirling and Charles Burnett will give us more insight into Heraldry. Stirling – site of the Papingo Shoot in Game of Kings – is also the focus of the Sunday trip and we’ll take in the site of the Battle of Bannockburn on the way. A visit to the 16th century Argyll’s Lodging and lunch in Mar Place House will then leave the whole afternoon for exploration. Of course the E2000 Gathering Banquet was held in the Great Hall of Stirling Castle and it will be good to get a chance to explore the castle in more detail than was possible then. Cost is UKP 33 for the Saturday and UKP 27 for the Sunday trip.
Bookings or enquiries should be sent to The Editor, Whispering Gallery, 9 Gillespie Crescent, Edinburgh. Note that she’ll be away during February and during that time I’ll be taking enquiries instead.

At this point I should make an appeal to anyone whose subscription to the DDRA has lapsed – issue 81 has just come out and if you didn’t receive one it may be that you were one of the 37 people who were due to renew after issue 80 but didn’t. If you’re unsure please contact me as I now administer the membership database. We need as many members as possible to keep the Association going and keep Dorothy’s legacy of writing available to as wide a readership as possible.

Renaissance Band CD problems

A word about the Edinburgh Renaissance Band CD – I’ve been unable to get hold of my usual band contact Peter Jones since August, and his phone number has been out of service for some months, so I currently don’t have any copies of the CD. I’m trying to get hold of other band members at the moment. Will keep you posted.
I do still have signed copies of the Lymond Poetry for anyone who is looking for it.

Dunnett Readers in Spain

Earlier this year I received a message from Liza Cochrane in Spain who’s been running reading classes on Lymond! I asked if she could elaborate for us and she sent me the following delightful article.

– – – – – –
At various stressful times in my life, I’ve escaped into the 16th century. Reading the Lymond Chronicles again last summer, I realised just how much history I’d learned from them, and because of them! I live on Spain’s Costa del Sol where, for 4 years, I’d been giving a U3A course on Art History. Why not give Art a rest and offer a course on 16th century history? Being a Scot, I thought I might start with the How When and Why the United Kingdom became united. Why not, in fact, use Game of Kings as a starting point? The result was: 10 readers signed up for the course, all ex-pats like myself – a fellow Scot, three Americans, the rest English. To their own subsequent astonishment, none of them had even heard of Dorothy Dunnett! One lady commented, “I wondered how we were going to spend six sessions discussing one book. But then I started to read it; and it’s not just an ordinary book, is it?”
Indeed not!
“I found history boring at school,” said another.
“If only we’d had a book like this, making it so real!”

After Kings, I suggested we skip on to Disorderly Knights, but two members (hooked on Lymond) insisted they read Queens’ Play, so I asked them to give us all a résumé of it – which also allowed time for everyone to do the inevitable re-reading of Knights! During the Christmas break, two members went to Malta and returned with maps and books.

We studied the history of the Knights. We sidetracked into heraldry. Those of us with Internet researched Dragut Rais. I passed around my holiday photographs taken inside and outside a Scottish keep (Hunterston Castle, in fact) to explain the fight at Liddel Keep. I also encouraged those English members who’d never visited Scotland (!) to take a trip to the Borders on their next visit ‘home’ – and to look out for the keeps that belonged to the Kerrs. You can tell, I said, from the spiral stairs twisting the ‘other’ way, for defence by left-handed swordsmen.
“Fascinating!” said someone. “I know a Kerr. He’s left-handed.” (Corrie- or Kerrie?- fisted.)

By that time, we were all caught up in the Lymond story, so we’re about to start the new term and Pawn. Two members have bought all six books. One couldn’t stop, and has read the lot. Another “rationing myself”, she says, has deliberately left Checkmate in England for a Christmas treat.

She told me a funny story. At Easter, travelling back from England by train, there was a three-hour hold-up in France. She didn’t mind. She was engrossed in Pawn. Last week, travelling back from England by train, there was another delay. She didn’t mind. She was deep in Ringed Castle… But she’s wondering if bringing Checkmate back after Christmas might be tempting fate!

At least one of us (our computer guru) dips into several of the DD websites, but where our reading of the last three books will take us, who knows? Moscow? Istanbul? A search for Sevigny?

I did that very thing many years ago, and wrote to Dorothy about it. Her charming and lengthy reply (typed, with errors corrected in ink) has been with me through four ‘flittings’ – including the move to Spain. A treasure to treasure! My greatest pleasure has been in introducing Dorothy’s ‘box of delights’ to a group of brand new fans.
– – – – – – – –

Liza tells me she even negotiated a discount at her local English-language bookshop since they’ve been doing bulk sales of DD books! Long may she continue her excellent “missionary” work and many thanks for letting us know about it.

On to the main item. Many people wrote to me after I produced the Modern Orkney Saga to say how much they enjoyed it so I thought you might also appreciate a description of a second trip I made just over a year later.
– – – – – – – – – – –

Return to Orkney

In the 16 months since my previous joyous visit to these haunting isles a great deal had happened in my life – much of it things that I would dearly wish undone. So it was with some hope of drawing a curtain on that unfortunate period that I ventured back to the north for another visit – to seek rest, renewal and refreshment. This time I was going for myself and for the wonders of Orkney rather than for the connections with the world of the writer in whose influence I’d spent so long basking, yet it is impossible to visit such a magical place where the landscape cries out to be described in those rich and evocative phrases, without thinking of the incomparable lady who we’d lost so suddenly.

Compared to the train trip which I’d enjoyed the previous year the drive north was comparatively uneventful – a number of heavy squalls breaking the journey and clearing the August air. The only stop was in the pretty little village of Alness. A recent winner of the Britain in Bloom award, it was bedecked with hanging baskets cascading with colour and its pavements sprouted trays and tubs which would have been at home in the Alpine regions I usually favour at this time of year.

Once again the noticeable change in the light as we gained the north-eastern coast but this time the route was to Wick rather than Thurso, and the land north of Helmsdale, where the railway line leaves the road and turns inland, was unfamiliar to me. The place-names of course were now reflecting the Norse influence and the road wound along the clifftops giving excellent views with occasional plunges into river cut ravines concealing villages nestling in their sheltering folds.

A stop at John O’ Groats gave a fine sunset though the wind was keen and fresh. The area is named after Jan de Groot, a Dane who was asked by James IV to set up a ferry service to Orkney to cement the island’s ties with Scotland and whose family continued to run the service for the next 200 years. A new ferry runs between Gills Bay a few miles along the coast and the village of St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay, providing a shorter and cheaper crossing than the more familiar one between Thurso and Stromness. Disappointingly the day dawned grey and cold but the trip was enlivened by the brief spotting of a porpoise heading in the opposite direction. A reminder that we don’t have the seas to ourselves and that the northern islands are far closer to nature than the cities of the south.

Taking the boat early in the morning gave plenty of time to drive up from these southernmost parts of the Orkneys, across the Churchill barriers and over the length of the Mainland (as the largest part of Orkney is known) to our accommodation in a converted barn near the village of Evie in the north-west section of the island. Having settled in we went for a drive along the coast to the Brough of Birsay, and were delighted to find the overcast conditions breaking to give a much more appealing light than had been the case on that windy wet visit of the previous year. Our timing was perfect – the tide was just going out and the walk across the causeway perfectly dry. No sheltering in the lee of the old settlement walls needed this time; instead the views along the dramatic coastline stood out clearly as the sun broke through to pick out the colours of the fields and rocks and reflect off the white froth of the waves churning against the cliffs. Still no Puffins though – too late in the season for them – but plenty of seals and the usual profusion of gulls and terns. The improvements to the lighthouse on the north of the island are now finished and it sports a large bank of solar panels, though the renovation work claimed the life of a helicopter pilot whose machine crashed in high winds while delivering supplies during last winter. Today the scene was peaceful, if such a description is ever apt in a place with views down the cliff edge to the blue and white foaming water which batters the rocks even on a calm day. But after the stressed and bustling conditions of festival Edinburgh this is indeed a haven of peace and after such a wet year it was a treat to be able to lie on the dry grass and listen to the distant cries of gulls and oystercatchers.

Monday – no showers today!

Monday morning brought a nasty shock as we discovered the shower didn’t work. Our barn is high on the hillside and the water has to be pumped up from the village below and is thus on the threshold of sufficient pressure for the system to operate. Fortunately this was the only morning when this applied but it was a gentle reminder of the differences of remote living compared to the taken-for-granted luxuries of the city.

A trip to Kirkwall to sort out the second week’s accommodation gave us time to take a stroll round St Magnus Cathedral and marvel anew at the astonishing stonemasonry that could be achieved at a time when the rest of the country was living under thatched roofs and earth floors. Returning to the warmth of bright sunlight prompted the thought of Orkney ice cream – there is none better and it was eagerly dispatched!

Our barn is only a short drive from the Broch of Gurness – one of the places that we hadn’t had time to visit the previous year – so the late afternoon sun made this an essential stop. It lies on a small promontory beyond a picturesque little beach and has a wonderful outlook across the bay to Eynhallow. Even having seen pictures of it beforehand one is still astonished by the size of the construction and the amount of effort that must have gone into assembling the thousands of stones – not just for the tower itself but also for the adjacent houses and everything contained within them. The old entrance point is a mass of upright stones and my photographers eyes struggled to cope with the myriad possibilities of angle and juxtaposition that present themselves. I longed to be able to spend time exploring the changing light over an entire season.

Brodgar, Stenness and Maes Howe

A cooler and cloudier day presented itself on the Tuesday but clear enough for us to persist with our intention of visiting the three ancient sites in the centre of the western arm of the island. The Ring of Brodgar comes first – visible from afar and drawing the eye like a magnet. Devoid of the masses of curlews whose plaintive cries had filled the air in the springtime, it seemed a different atmosphere this time but still a wondrous sight and a rare pleasure to feel again the warmth of the stones under my hand and gaze around the incomparable setting. It is a place that is hard to tear oneself away from, always one last look back, one more comparison of the angles and alignments, trying to commit the shapes and feelings to memory so that they can be recalled on a cold grey city afternoon when the heart longs for the peace and tranquility, the vast open skies and pearlescent light.

Just down the road, past the various outrider stones and across the narrow causeway that splits the two lochs, lie the even older Stones of Stenness. Far fewer in number but impressively taller, they had been off limits due to foot and mouth disease restrictions the previous year, so this was my first opportunity to get close to them. Their height makes it even more of a surprise just how thin the slabs of rock actually are – you wonder how on earth they stand up to the mighty blasts of Orkney’s winter winds. Visible over the fields is the third of the Neolithic set – Maes Howe. Once again the low stooping walk to the interior chamber, past the massive door stone which can be rocked into position far easier than its bulk suggests possible, past the thirty ton single slab of rock that makes up the left hand face. Once again to gaze on the distinctive Viking runes and then to marvel at the thought that they are but modern graffiti on an incomparably older structure whose purpose we can only guess at but whose winter solstice alignment can still infuse us with awe. Lucky indeed are those that have been inside this chamber when the winter sun shines directly up the passageway and fills the space with light. A webcam now records the event for the world, but to be there, oh to be there….

Our cultural appetites having been filled for the day, those of a more mundane type came back to the fore, and finding to our surprise that the fish and chip shop in Stromness didn’t open until 8pm we drove over to Kirkwall again for sustenance. Simple fare but fresh and hugely satisfying. The return trip once again brought us to the two lochs and we strolled the shores, squinting against the light on the water before returning to the Ring for the promise of a sunset. Though not the dramatic orange and red of the previous June it is still the time when the Brodgar stones seem at their most alive and magical, sounds carrying vast distances across the water on either side and leaving a deep serenity that is hard to imagine anywhere else.

Scara Brae and Yesnaby

High winds greeted us in the morning as we set off for Scara Brae. But at least they kept the clouds busy and allowed us clearer light. Finding the stone village busy with a bus party we took time to walk along the beach, seeing the first examples of the local children’s miniature reconstructions of the stone circles and brochs that surround their landscape. Well-built with a good eye for detail they seemed surprisingly durable and dotted the sands in echo of the ancient dwellings just behind the dunes. The village itself had lost none of its ability to captivate, and the better light allowed my photographs a better chance of recording the fascinating details of the sunken rooms. The snell wind still drove white waves against the beach and we were glad to retreat to the warmth of the old house.

Conditions brightened again by the time we moved down the coast to Yesnaby but a sudden soaking squall drove us back into the car for half an hour before we dared venture down the path to one of the most dramatic cliff scenes in the island. At times the wind threatened to reduce us to a crawl, while we were intrigued to see flecks of foam filling the air hundreds of yards from the rocky bay where it was being plucked from a seething mass. On my previous visit the rain had curtailed our walk and we hadn’t got as far as the much photographed stack, and I had begun to wonder if it had fallen, but this time the weather relented long enough for us to make the trip and we watched in awe as the waves battered and churned round the narrow slotted column of rock which holds the stack aloft. Photography was attempted but the camera vibrated uncontrollably in my hand even when lying as close to the ground as possible to escape the worst of the storm.
On the return walk to the car we were caught not 200 yards from our goal by another squall which quickly demonstrated that even the best of modern waterproof technology is worthless against the Atlantic elements. The car steamed for the rest of the trip back to the barn.


A day that started with rain and midges became torrential rain and seals. We were booked on the ferry across to Rousay with the plan being to walk along the stretch of coastline that contains a remarkable number of archaeological sites including Midhowe Cairn and Broch. However by the time we had landed the rain had become sufficiently heavy to delay that plan so we decided to drive round the island in the hope that it might have abated a little by the time we’d finished. Although the crossing had been flat calm in the water around Wyre, the conditions were rather different around the point where the tidal race runs between Rousay and Eynhallow, and although much reduced from the previous day there was still a fair amount of white water on the Atlantic-facing side where there are some attractive cliffs. Continuing round to the north side we came across a small bay where a speckled object out in the water that at first seemed to be a conical buoy, was soon revealed be a resting seal with its head flung back, accompanied by about a dozen others who appeared out of the surf. It wasn’t clear whether we were watching them or they were watching us but we all seemed to be intrigued. As I strolled along the edge of the beach path to see if there were any others up on the sand further along, the seals swam along to see where I was going!

With the rain getting steadily heavier and water streaming across the road in a number of places we considered getting a much earlier ferry back but fortunately after a warming bowl of soup in the hotel bar we decided to take a quick trip back to Midhowe and see if we could take it in without getting too wet. Both the Chambered Cairn and the Broch are exceptional sites – the cairn is covered by a large protective building with an overhead walkway from which you can look down into the long narrow passageway that runs the length of the structure, while the broch stands on a number of slabs of rock that jut out into the sound. It’s impossible not to imagine longboats or coracles milling about in the water waiting to land. Perhaps the most amazing consideration is that despite the age of the broch the cairn predates it by around 3500 years.

Moving down to Deerness

Thursday’s high winds returned with a vengeance as we prepared to move out of the barn and down to our new base in Deerness. Eynhallow Sound again speckled with white horses glinting in the sharp northern light as we headed down the road. Since entry to the cottage was from 4pm onwards we had time to spare so on reaching the Stromness to Kirkwall road we diverted down to the south towards Orphir on a little used back road which we had to ourselves. The village of Orphir is a mile or so from the church and a trip up the back road above it provided a fantastic view over to Stromness and Hoy with the lighthouse standing out clean and white in the clear sunlight and the ships battling in and out of the Sound. Down to the Orkneyinga Saga visitor centre and enjoy again the local children’s choice of film and TV stars to represent the Norse heroes in the Genealogy table. There is an excellent unmanned film show in a mini-cinema there which gives an overview of the Sagas in relation to Orkney and Iceland and a storyteller narrates some well chosen examples. I’ve sat embarrassed through some dire examples of the genre but this one captures the Viking spirit perfectly and the photography of the two island groups, particularly the winter shots, is superb. By the time we’d watched the film the weather had changed again and our trip out to the remains of the round church and cemetery was soon cut short by the biting wind and squally showers. Our new accommodation, another converted farm building, proved to be extremely comfortable with lovely views over Deerness Sound and even had underfloor heating!

Mine Howe

Amongst the sites I hadn’t been able to get to on the previous visit was the remarkable Mine Howe, which descends steeply into the ground as a rock-built series of chambers. As it was only a few miles from the cottage it was high on our list so down we drove to discover an archaeological team excavating trenches around the area and an explanatory tour round the dig about to start. We were treated to an excellent talk by Nick Cant, the first archaeologist to descend into Mine Howe when it was rediscovered in 1999, and an interesting display of bones and artefacts described by other senior members of the island’s overworked but happy archaeological team. Nick, who some of you may have seen on the Time Team program which visited the site, is an assured speaker and gave us as detailed an understanding of the site as was possible in the available time. He certainly passes on his enthusiasm for the work and if it hadn’t been for the chilling wind I might have been reconsidering my career options! The decent into the “mine” itself was an eerie experience – I had a curious desire to somehow stand back and view it in perspective. The effort and workmanship involved in its creation must have been immense, and it appears that there is a large ditch – possibly a henge – surrounding the entire site and making it all the more impressive.

Gloop and Brough of Deerness

Just a few minutes down the road from our cottage was the path to the Brough of Deerness. Having been so captivated by it the previous year another visit was a must. Putting on our walking boots we were befriended by a local cat who was determined to inspect every inch of the car. Leaving it to its hunting we walked down to the Gloop and marvelled again at its depth and distance from the sea. It must have been an impressive cave before the roof fell in many centuries ago.
The walk to the Brough was much calmer than the storms of a few days earlier, and we were able to admire the coastline in peace, dropping down to the flat rocks by the coast to see the variety of birdlife. The view out to the northern isles was clearer today and we could pick out the different islands much more easily. Down to the little boulder-strewn cove and up the rock-cut steps to the flat top of the Brough itself. It’s a timeless place and as inspiring in its solitude as before. The view along the cliffs from the end beyond the little ruined chapel pulls you forward to watch the seals and birds far below, but you must be careful not to be drawn too far for the thick deep grass hides some precarious overhangs.


Superb sunny weather took us round to Tankerness and Renwick Head. Despite being strewn with old wartime lookout posts it’s a peaceful spot. We pottered amongst the rocky nooks and crannies observing the birds on the skerries a little way offshore. Later back at the cottage I walked down to the point and along the beach from where I could just make out the sandbanks with basking seals. On the way back I diverted down an overgrown lane to arrive at another beach from where I could access an intriguing broch mound nestling between the sea-loch and a small fresh-water pond busy with ducks and waterfowl, which we could see from the cottage. Anywhere else this mound would have been an important and much-investigated object – on Orkney it’s just part of the landscape and in a very long queue for the attentions of the archaeologists.

The Tomb of the Eagles

South to the furthest tip of South Ronaldsay – to St Margaret’s Hope and the Tomb of the Eagles. Some time ago, after trying for 20 years to interest the island’s over-stretched archaeologists in the tomb, the farmer was told that it wasn’t of sufficient interest to them and he was given permission to excavate it himself. The results were extraordinary and he and his family have made a popular attraction around describing it. The tomb yielded remains of around three-hundred and forty people, a number of animals, and at least ten white-tailed sea eagles.
In the purpose-built centre near their farmhouse, we listened to an excellent talk by one of his pretty grand-daughters, then out to another site on his land, a Bronze-Age house where the man himself gave us a short talk on it – breaking off in the middle to point out the owl that was hunting in the field behind us. Having heard his description of the water and heating systems which our ingenious ancestors had built into the house, we chatted to this wonderful old character before watching him climb on his motorcycle to head back to the farm for his lunch! Then out along the cliff path to the Tomb itself perched on the edge. You have to enter the Tomb, which has been roofed over with concrete to protect it, by lying on a wheeled bogey and pulling yourself through on a rope. While the interior is naturally no longer as interesting as it must have been when full of bones it retains an eerie atmosphere and the outlook from the front “door” over the weirdly layered rock of the cliff echoes that.

Orkney was hosting its Science Festival during our visit and that evening there was an event which connected to one of my other favourite places. A visiting scientist from Slovenia was giving a talk and wine tasting at the Kirkwall Hotel. As many of you will know I have visited the tiny alpine country on many occasions and am a great fan of its excellent wines, so this was too good to miss. Though his command of English was not as good as many of his compatriots he nevertheless gave an interesting account of the history of viticulture in the area and his selection of wines was a treat.

Seal Evening

The morning was spent shopping in Kirkwall and attending another festival event while the rain fell heavily, but later we had one of those sudden changes that are normal on Orkney and the late afternoon saw us down on the beach near the cottage again. After a splendid sunset we tarried in the evening twilight enjoying the profound silence and deepening blues of sea and sky and were rewarded with a seal popping up inquisitively in the water just a few yards from us. A magical moment to round off a memorable stay.

Dunnet Head and the return home

An early start saw us on the boat back to Scotland – Orkney has such a unique character that I can no longer consider it as anything other than a separate country – and a sunny but breezy voyage. Alas no porpoises this time. On landing we decided to drive along the coast towards Dunnet Head and down the narrow lanes out to the lighthouse perched on the high cliffs, where we gazed over to Hoy and watched ships ploughing through the Pentland Firth.

Reluctantly we turned South. Normally the trip through such scenery would be memorable on such a fine day but the sights and atmosphere of Orkney linger long in the mind’s eye and I find that I have little recollection of it. Only the timeless stones, the restless sea, and the vast endless skies.

– – – – – – – – – –

That’s all for now. Off to do some more job hunting.

A good New Year to you all when it comes



Dunnett Newsletter – 4th September 2003

Greetings from post-Festival Edinburgh where the heatwave seems to have finished at last. While never quite reaching the heights of temperature experienced further south or in Europe we were certainly sweltering in unaccustomed heat for the last few weeks.

I had planned to send this newsletter a week or so ago before the start of the King Hereafter read on the Game of Kings newsgroup for reasons that will become obvious later, but I’ve been down with a virus and sinus infection which seems to going around just now so things got delayed.

This time around we have amongst other things the new address of my Dunnett website, news of an exhibition here in Edinburgh featuring Dorothy’s work, and an unearthed article by her on Macbeth.


First the website – as I suggested earlier I’ve moved the site to new webspace with more room, taking advantage of spare space alongside my new business site. The address is now

I’ve added a link to it from the old Dunnett homepage on my personal site and will leave the old pages around until the search engines have spidered and indexed the new site, after which they’ll be removed to avoid diluting the search engine positioning.
Only a couple of additions to the site recently as I’ve been very busy setting up my web design business. A picture of Cortachy Castle, which unfortunately isn’t open to the public, has been added to the North Scotland section of the Places to Visit section. Secondly since the Game of Kings members have been reintroducing themselves and there are a number of new subscribers to the newsletter who weren’t around when I was first involved, I thought I’d join in and give an explanation of my own background, so I’ve added part of the text of my contribution to the commemorative book that Dorothy was given at E2000.

Writers Museum exhibition

Starting on 27th September there will be a small exhibition of Dorothy’s work at the Writers Museum in Lady Stair’s Close just off the High St in Edinburgh. Running until June 2004 it will feature items that the family donated to the museum including the Unicorn Chain and the Silver Apple.

An Article by Dorothy on Macbeth

I recently made a “discovery” of an old series called The Sunday Mail Story of Scotland, which was published in 1988 in 52 weekly parts. At that time the Sunday Mail was what might be called a “quality tabloid” and often contained interesting articles about the country, but I had no recollection of this series. The copies I’ve seen have been 32 page semi-glossy magazines priced at £1.

A look at the editorial board is revealing – there were three members:
Gordon Donaldson, the Historiographer Royal for Scotland and a prolific author.
Archie Duncan, who at the time had held the Chair of Scottish History and Literature at Glasgow University for 26 years.
And our own Dorothy Dunnett.

Contributors included Prof. Ian B Cowan of the Dept of History at Glasgow University, and G.W.S. Barrow, Chair of Scottish History and Palaeography at Edinburgh University.

Part 4 contains an article by Dorothy called The Real Macbeth, and although it is aimed at a general audience and makes no reference to her own theories regarding Thorfinn it makes interesting reading, particularly for any of you who haven’t yet read King Hereafter or are taking part in the Game of Kings group read.
I’ve made enquiries in an attempt to get permission to reproduce the article but the company that is quoted as the copyright holder in the magazine – The British Magazine Publishing Company – was part of the old Robert Maxwell group which collapsed after his death and is no longer in existence. If anyone knows if their assets have been transferred to another company then I’d be happy to hear from you so I can follow it up and perhaps include the article on the website.
In the meantime I feel that it is unlikely that any objection would be made to quoting an article written by the subject of this newsletter so I have included it below. However please do not include this in any archives until the situation is clarified.
The Real Macbeth by Dorothy Dunnett

Who was the real Macbeth? A power-crazy, murderous, yet weak man, as depicted by Shakespeare in his dramatisation, or a strong and able king, who ruled wisely and in peace for 17 years?

Ask most non-Scots to name a Scots king and they will eventually remember this fellow Macbeth, who murdered a kindly old man for his crown, egged on by his shrew of a wife who then went crazy and killed herself .

It is small wonder that this story has all but smothered the true one. Since Shakespeare wrote his famous play (more than 500 years after the real Macbeth ruled) brilliant actors from Burbage to Barrymore, Garrick to Gielgud have persuaded thousands in a range of accents from American to conscientiously-drilled urban Glasgow that this was indeed a slice of actual Scottish history.

Actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt, Vivien Leigh, Diana Rigg and Judi Dench have brought their own ardour, ferocity and intensity to the role of Lady Macbeth on the stage.

This has all come into being because of Shakespeare’s play, not because of Macbeth himself. But because of the play, the real life of Macbeth has been obscured. The evil portrayed in the play has even come to represent a threat to those who act in it. Macbeth has long been considered an unlucky work with injury, fire and trouble falling in its wake. It is never named in the acting profession but referred to obliquely as ‘the Scottish Play’. When the superstition first arose is not known but some like to believe, even today, that the witches’ song still has the power of working evil. Investigation shows, none the less, that the witches’ song is an invention and that the true tale of Macbeth has nothing to do with witches or witchcraft at all.

The real Macbeth, who died in 1057, was not regarded as a villain in the bald monkish records that survive from his time. So far as one can tell, the legends surrounding his reign began between four and five hundred years after his death.

While Macbeth lived, his name as a warrior-prince must have carried some weight among the other rulers of the countries within reach of Alba, his Scotland. Because of its situation between Scandinavia, England, Ireland and the continent, Alba was a place of strategic importance. In Macbeth, it seemed to find a capable and imaginative king who held the throne in disturbed times for 17 years and was able, indeed, to leave his shores for a very long time without fear of upheavals behind him – something Edward the Confessor was never able to do.

In fact, Macbeth went to Rome – an event about which Shakespeare knew nothing. We know the date – 1050 – from the chronicle of an Irish monk writing in Germany; and we know that Macbeth was free with his gold when he got there, scattering his alms ‘like seed’ (as indeed was the custom in a ceremonial entry). He may have visited Rome as a pilgrim. His reasons were more likely to do with the benefits a Roman association might offer a country backward in development, which had hitherto relied on the care and protection of the Celtic pastoral Church.

Macbeth and his kingdom stood at the hub of a power struggle in which the Norse and the Danes, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Saxons of England, the Normans and Flemings and the Celts of Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland all played a part, with the pope in Rome courting them all. None of this could be guessed from the enclosed claustrophobic world Shakespeare created, for which he gutted a recent and unreliable history, ‘the Chronicle of England, Scotland and Ireland’, published in 1577 by Raphael Holinshead enhancing and twisting it, telescoping battles and years.

What did Shakespeare change? For a start King Duncan was not an old and wise man, even according to Holinshead. He was likely in fact to have been in his mid 30s or younger when he met his death on campaign, having spent the previous months in the disastrous attempt to capture the city of Durham in England. His grandfather had failed in this acquisition, and so did he. What drew him to travel from Durham to his death in North Scotland is not recorded, although it is most likely that his army went with him. Holinshead simply says that Macbeth, with the support of Banquo and others, slew Duncan at Inverness or another place which has never been fully identified. Shakespeare picked Inverness for the deathblow, but he was almost certainly wrong. John of Fordun, writing about 1385, says that Duncan was mortally wounded at Bothgofnane and was taken to Elgin, where he died. Bothgofnane – meaning ‘hut of the blacksmith’ in Gaelic – could be a number of places.

Macbeth’s wife is not linked with this killing. It was Shakespeare who introduced her as spur and fellow conspirator, and invented a murder that copied the killing of Duff an earlier King he had noticed in Holinshead.

King Duff, history stays, made his name at the castle of Forres. The killing was arranged by his host the captain, urged on by the lady, his host’s wife. Befuddled with drink, the royal chamberlains were blamed for it afterwards.

All this Shakespeare transferred to Macbeth’s time. Then he wrote a new role for Macbeth’s wife, his imagination fired by another reference in Holinshead. According to this, Macbeth’s wife ‘lay sore upon him’ to attempt to usurp the kingdom, ‘as she was very ambitious running in unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen’. In fact, Holinshead lifted the reference himself from romantic history written about 50 years earlier by Hector Boece, who seems to have invented the lady’s fit of ambition, since previous writers say nothing of it.

Alas for Shakespeare, Macbeth’s wife appears to have been a loyal and blameless lady. From a previous marriage, she brought him a stepson, Lulach, who Macbeth seems to have cherished, and who was crowned king after Macbeth, before being killed in his turn. Nor was she ever called Lady Macbeth. Macbeth, meaning ‘Son of Life’ or ‘of the Elect’ is not a surname. The king’s wife would have been addressed as the lady Gruoch in Gaelic. The name is recorded in Fife where she and her husband are said to have gifted land to the Celtic monks of St Serf’s island, loch Leven.

And what about the witches? Holinshead had already written about three women ‘in strange and wild apparel’, who promised Macbeth the thanedoms of Cawdor and Glamis as well as the throne, and who informed Banquo that his heirs, and not Macbeth’s, would rule Scotland. The prophecies, according to Holinshead, drove Macbeth to think of taking the throne, and later to kill his friend Banquo. Developing this Shakespeare turned the women into the ‘secret black and midnight hags’ of the kind King James I, his patron, had written about in his volume ‘Daemonologie’ And so were created the chanting chrones with the cauldron who have become attached to the tale of Macbeth, adding to its superstitious horror and poignancy.

The earliest known Scottish history of Macbeth’s reign say nothing of witches. They only enter the story in a popular chronicle, ‘The Orygnale Cronykil of Scotland’. Written by Andrew of Wyntoun, Prior of St Serf’s, some 350 years after, this mentions ‘weird sisters’ who offer Macbeth the crown but quite different honours. Hence the present castles of Glamis and Cawdor have no connection at all with this part of Macbeth’s story – indeed, there were no stone castles in mid-11th century Scotland, only halls and fortifications of wood. Nor can the ‘blasted heath’ and the ‘witches stone’ beside Forres be anything but inventions provoked by the legend.

If there were no prophecies, and no evil Lady Macbeth, why did Macbeth killed Duncan and Banquo, if not to seize the throne and prevent Banquo from founding the royal line?

To begin with, Macbeth did not kill Banquo because Banquo did not exist. The invention of Banquo began, not with Shakespeare, but with Hector Boece, who produced Banquo and his son Fleance from nowhere. By linking Fleance with Wales and the ancestors of the Stewarts, Boece managed to eliminate the Stewarts connection with the Archbishop of Dol in Brittany – a tender point at the time when relations between the kings of France and Scotland were bad.

The creation of Banquo served another purpose. It disguised the fact that the line founded by Duncan sprang from an unorthodox marriage. Crinian, father of Duncan, was not only abbott of Dunkeld but very probably connected with the minting of money. It was even possible that he and Bethoc, Duncan’s mother, had had several partners in marriage. By the time Boece was writing, a much-married clergyman, who was also a professional moneyer, was the last person a king would want to claim as a forbear. (Indeed, so worried by this was one later historian, that he took the risk of proclaiming that Duncan’s son Malcolm was a bastard).

In Macbeth’s time, none of this would have mattered. Several hundred years later, however, both churches and Kings lived according to different standards. By the time of the Stewarts, no one wanted to remember that once, kingdoms had to be ruled by men who were war-leaders, and thrones fell to the strongest and most worthy, and not automatically to the first-born. In Macbeth’s time, when England was overturned by the Danes and later the Normans, bastardy had no importance at all in the choice of the royal succession, and order of birth hardly mattered. Many of the monarchs in Alba seem to have allotted a good deal of time to fighting and killing unwanted successors and rivals. If Duncan, as a weak king, challenged Macbeth on Macbeth’s own homeland and lost, the outcome was probably good for the kingdom. Only, by NOT killing his nephew Malcolm, Macbeth put his own future at risk. Duncan’s son fled to the English court, to be reared as combined hostage and puppet-king and to become, in time, the excuse for an English invasion.

That invasion, under Earl Siward of Northumbria, is the climax of the play, and again Shakespeare takes liberties with his source. According to Holinshead, Macbeth was defeated in battle at Dunsinane (in fact, a prehistoric hill fort on the Tay, seven miles north east of Perth), but fled to Lumphanan in north-eastern Scotland. There (says Holinshead) he was finally slain by the Scots lord Macduff, whose family Macbeth had caused to be murdered. It suited Shakespeare instead to have Macbeth beheaded at Dunsinane by the vengeful Macduff, thus bringing to fruition two other mysterious prophecies; that Macbeth would never die until Birnham Wood moved the 12 miles south-east to Dunsinane, or until he was faced by a man ‘never born of a woman’.

What was the truth? Holinshead and Shakespeare both got it wrong. There was no such lord as Macduff. In fact, Macbeth was killed three years after the battle at Dunsinane by Malcolm.

Contemporary writers thought of the battle of Dunsinane as being entirely the business of Earl Siward, backed by the English king Edward. Independent records (and the earliest historians) admit that Malcolm eventually slew King Macbeth, but later historians were more coy, and introduced the fictitious Macduff.

Both prophecies date from the chronicle written by Wyntoun, who probably got the idea from early Celtic and classical legends. It is more than lightly that the battle did take place at Dunsinane, a hill of some military importance, although there is no sign that it ever bore a stone castle.

It is known however that Earl Siward at once marched south to York, where he was to die the following year. In Macbeth moved back to his own land in the north east and lived for a further three years, until Malcolm raised a party in turn to kill him and his stepson.

There is still much to find out about Macbeth. Holinshead and others attribute to him the institution of an enlightened code of new laws. They may be right, but Macbeth’s Scotland was a place without towns or proper markets or roads. His administration was clearly good for its time, but it needed later Norman-trained rulers and the help of the Church to develop what he had started.

Shakespeare wrote his great play, and analysis of what he wrote will occupy scholars for ever. For good or ill the character of Macbeth has been firmly established throughout the world.


Scots Magazine article about Alastair Dunnett

The August issue of the Scots Magazine – a popular if slightly old-fashioned monthly magazine which has been going since 1739 and is produced by the same Dundee-based company which produces the Sunday Post as well as the legendary Dandy and Beano childrens comics – included an article about Sir Alastair Dunnett in their Great Scot series. Written by Rennie McOwan, well known as an outdoors writer and once employed by Alastair as a sub-editor on The Scotsman, it’s a five page tribute to “a man of total integrity”. While anyone who’s been fortunate enough to read Among Friends will know the story well, it’s a useful reminder to the wider Scottish-interest readership of the massive contribution he made to his native land.

News of mini-gatherings

Sydney, Australia – Jan 2004
A group of readers in Sydney are organising a one day event.
The Mini Gathering will be held in the Meeting Room at The Australian
Society of Genealogists, 24 Kent Street, The Rocks, Sydney on Saturday 17
January 2004 from 9.00 am to 4.00 pm.

Anyone interested in attending should contact Michael Sedin who will have full details available during September. His email address is

Oxford Day – Sept 27th 2003

Anyone wanting to attend should get in touch with Olive Millward ( as soon as possible.

DDRA and Whispering Gallery

First of all can I appeal to people not to write to the Whispering Gallery editor Val Bierman except on editorial business – if you have any DDRA-related questions then you can contact me or any other member of the committee and we’ll be glad to help. If you do have letters, articles or photographs for inclusion in the magazine then Val will be very happy to hear from you – though preferably not immediately before a deadline! – but general DDRA business or enquiries about books or CDs are really not something she has time to deal with. Editing and laying out the magazine and arranging its printing and dispatch takes quite enough of her time!

Can I also make an appeal for anyone who is a member and whose subscription is about to (or has recently) expire(d), to renew their membership. At the last committee meeting I agreed to take on the membership database and have been looking at the membership profile while reorganising the data. We are totally dependent on continued subscriptions for the existence of the DDRA and at the moment the membership is dropping. From now on I hope to send reminders by email to those who are net connected, but in fact the majority of the current membership is not. If you haven’t been a member please consider taking out a subscription – overseas readers can do so using the PayPal option which Simon Hedges offers on his own site at (I mistakenly gave a address for him last time so please check that your bookmarks are correct).

Can I also ask the organisers of the various Dunnett days, weekends, and “spits” to consider advertising DDRA membership, and if at all possible to send reports on your activities for publication. The more people know about them the more chance of new attendees, so it benefits everyone.

It may be that if numbers continue to drop we will need to look closely at how the DDRA is set up and what its future role and direction will be. Most of our time up to now has been spent in setting it up and organising the Spring AGMs and mini-gatherings, but we need to try and give it a long-term future. It is after all only in its third year and that period has tragically seen Dorothy’s death. Naturally there will be some fall-off in interest with no new books to look forward to and some of the long-time Whispering Gallery readership heading towards old age, but if we hope to see the books remain in print so that new generations of readers discover the wonders that we have enjoyed then we need to keep the DDRA going in the same way that other associations do, such as the Neil Gunn Society or the John Buchan one.

I’d like to hear your views on this and so would the rest of the committee. How would you like to see it develop and what would make you consider joining? While debate could be conducted on the discussion groups not everyone has the time to follow those and sometimes enthusiasm takes over from considered analysis in such a forum, so I would prefer if ideas were sent to me by email and I’ll analyse them and discuss them with the committee. I won’t even begin to promise that I’ll reply to all of them as I know from experience that there will probably be a lot, but I will promise that they will be read and considered. Remember though that we have to consider everyone – for instance a wholly internet-based solution would disenfranchise a great many loyal WG readers – and it has to be financially viable in a way that will accord with our charitable status and aims. It also has to be practical with a volunteer workforce.
**Please use the subject line “DDRA Future” when emailing me on this subject to make it easier to sort the messages**

Lymond Poetry and Renaissance Band CDs

Last time I mentioned that I had signed copies of the Lymond Poetry available and in the following weeks was kept busy sending out lots of that and the Renaissance Band music CD. Unfortunately my mother-in-law’s health deteriorated while I was in the middle of this and she died not long after that. Between helping my wife cope with that and trying to get my business set up, things got pretty complicated and when I ran out of copies for a while I may have missed out on replying to two or three people who had enquired about them. (The advent of the Blaster virus which took down one of my ISPs for two days and the Sobig.F worm which flooded my mailbox and overloaded the other ISP didn’t help either!) If anyone was missing a reply from me please accept my apologies and if you still want a copy please get in touch again. I’m currently out of the CD but hope to have more copies shortly now that the band are finished with Festival appearances – but have plenty of the Poetry left if anyone wants one.

What’s in a Name

A little bit of trivia. One of the discussion groups were recently talking about names and whether they were still in use. That one revolved around Gelis but how about Khairredin? Well there is a BBC Scotland news and sports reporter working at the moment who is called Keredine Issidnissan. I’d heard his name spoken a few times (the shortened version sounds like Kirdy Nissan) and hadn’t made the association until I saw it written down and the connection clicked. I’ve seen it in collections of moslem names when I was researching for a page for Theresa Breslin’s book “Name Games”, but I wonder how common the name is in the moslem community these days?

A Question

I was recently talking to Jenny Renton, editor of Scottish Book Collector magazine – there’s a good chance that I’ll be writing an article for her about Dorothy – and we got to wondering about the likely interest for the mag overseas. It’s a literary magazine with a rather broader scope than its title suggests and knowing that there are a number of Scotophiles amongst you who may have connections to others of similar bent I’d be interested to hear if such a publication, either in paper or e-letter form, would find favour in your area.

A Late Entry about Viking Longboats

Just as I finished off this newsletter there was a TV programme shown on Channel 5 about the Vikings. Having just been reading the sea-battle scene in KH I was interested to hear that Viking longboats have been rebuilt and investigated at Roskilde sailing museum in Denmark. They were very light and flexible due to the clinker style of construction (overlapping boards) and the split rather than sawn timber used as the spine of the ship. Because of this they tended to aquaplane on top of the water rather than plough through it and could travel at up to 16 knots – a very respectable figure even today.

It was also mentioned that their sails were controlled closely by criss-crossing lines held by the crew, enabling them to get the best trim, and were made of a surprising material – wool. Apparently you can sail higher into the wind because of its elasticity but you would normally expect it to be unsuitable due to becoming waterlogged. However the wool they used was from an ancient breed of sheep called Spelsow (spelling may be wrong). These sheep had a double coat, the outer one of which was naturally water repellent. The two yarns were separated and then woven together on a special vertical loom which gave a denser cloth that was waterproof.

Finally a bit of shameless self-advertising – my new business site is now online at
If you know anyone who wants a website built please send ’em my way!

Best wishes to you all