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


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…

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

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 http://www.simonhedges.com/ 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