11th Century Celtic Psalter goes on display

A book which has been only available to research students and is believed to be the oldest book in Scotland is to go on display for three months at Edinburgh University Library – starting on Friday 11th Dec and lasting till the 14th March 2010.

Dating from around Thorfinn’s time, the book contains psalms with vivid illustrations of Celtic and Pictish symbols and is being likened to the Irish Book of Kells. It may indeed have been produced on Iona where the monks were also involved in the Irish masterpiece.

More information on the BBC site.

Hope any Dunnett readers in Scotland can get along there – just a pity the display isn’t on for another month when the attendees at the DDRA AGM might have been able to fit in a visit.

A timeless French street scene

One of the many RSS feeds I monitor from time to time is a photography one, and I just came across a photo that is a “perfect little European medieval street … in Lyon” but since the photographer lost track of his shots there’s a “10% chance it is in Paris”. Wherever it is the first thing I thought of was Lymond and Philippa’s chase through Lyon. See if you agree . It’s certainly a fine photograph


Edinburgh in the Spring 2009 – the DDRA AGM weekend

This year has seen one of the best Springs we’ve had in Edinburgh for many years – it arrived early, stayed largely clear and bright, and the blossom has stayed on the trees for longer than I can remember for many a long year. So it was that delegates to the DDRA AGM had a warm sunny day to view the castle from the Royal Overseas League through a haze of pink blossom. (They also got a traffic noise free environment since Princes St is completely dug up for tramline laying but it kinda spoilt the view).

Numbers were down this year – partly due to the economic climate no doubt, and probably partly due to the overseas contingent being much reduced in anticipation of next year’s Le Spit gathering in Paris. However we still managed a healthy enough number.

After the AGM itself we had a talk from Prof. David Bradley, entitled “The Open Sea, with some Charts”, on the history of maritime exploration which included ship design, maps, and navigation as well as some of the personalities involved. He took particular care to mention Richard Chancellor. This was clearly a broad subject which could be studied for a lifetime and time was limited, but Prof. Bradley did extremely well to get through an illuminating session conveying a wealth of information.

After a fine lunch we had what for me was the highlight of the day – “Weaponry and Arms of the 16th Century” by Hugh Robertson, a demonstration of 16th century weapons, swordsmanship and fighting techniques. However this was far from a dry demonstration – rather it was a humorous, engaging, and sometimes knockabout session which educated while being immensely enjoyable. Would that we had had a higher ceiling so that Hugh (dressed as a gentleman) and his assistant (dressed as a soldier) had more freedom to swing their weapons without hindrance. With examples of many different swords, pikes, and pieces of armour on show – which we were able to handle while peppering the two men with questions afterwards – it was an ideal way to get a feel for the sort of warfare which our characters would have been engaged in. My thanks to them both and I do hope we’ll be able to invite them back at some stage.

With fewer delegates we were able to use the round tables for the evening dinner rather than the long lines of tables, which made for a more spacious and convivial experience. No formal speeches this time but the evening was again enlivened by Anne Buchanan’s readings of poems by William Topaz McGonagall.


After considerable thought over many months I had decided to step down from both the chairmanship and the membership administrator role that I’ve held for some years now, and I did so at the AGM. There are various reasons for this but the primary one is sheer lack of time due to increasingly complex personal, family and business developments. In hindsight I should have relinquished the membership role when I took on the chairmanship and I feel that I have not had anything like enough time to devote to steering the association’s development. Since time is likely to be in even shorter supply this year I feel that it is right to hand on to someone else. It was an emotional decision and not one taken lightly, as I never like to leave a job unfinished. However as a notorious perfectionist I also can’t face doing a job less than well.

I have also long wanted to redevelop the Dunnett website which, apart from this blog, has had little attention in the last few years. I need to take a step back from organisation for a while but I hope that after a few months break while I concentrate on business I’ll be able to devote some time to bringing the site, which I’ve always regarded as Dorothy’s as much as mine, back up to an appropriate level.

I had originally planned to step down completely but with two members retiring and only one joining I have been prevailed upon to remain on the committee for another year as a general member without specific remit other than to offer my experience and knowledge where required. Olive Millward will be taking over the membership administration as soon as we can successfully convert the database. At the short committee meeting following the AGM Simon Hedges was elected chairman and I leave matters in his capable hands. I would say that all the roles in the committee take considerable time and expertise that in most organisations would require professional input. That we have had a series of committee members of the last few years who have sacrificed large parts of their personal lives to the cause says a great deal about their integrity and commitment.

“As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down…”

The second in a series looking at favourite Dunnett quotations – this time from Checkmate.

“She thinks, as a maiden lady, I should wear my hair down…”
“As a maiden lady, you would wear anyone down…”

“I shall call you mon compere, as the King does the Constable. You haven’t enough artillery, have you?”
“Against you or the Germans?”

These two seemingly casual quotes, dropped in before two of the most dramatic episodes in the series, are amongst my favourites. Both for their examples of Dorothy’s humour and for their subtle and leading insights.

Lymond and Philippa are on their way to the House of Doubtance in Lyon. Lymond is now Captain-General in charge of defending the city and is busy dealing with rich merchants who would rather escape or even switch sides, but must take time out to honour the Dame’s will. Marthe has schemingly arranged that Philippa, who arrived at the house of Marechal de St Andre disguised as a boy, should also be there. Philippa is attempting to discover as much as she can about Lymond’s origins in order to heal the rift between him and Sybilla. We know, but Philippa does not, that he has fallen in love with her but has decided that he cannot pursue such a match despite the fact they are, by force of circumstances in Istambul, married. He is thus trying to keep a certain distance between them, and still desires to obtain a divorce and return to Russia where he is second in power only to the Tzar.

From her escapade as ‘Annibal, Lymond is discovering even more about how resourceful and quick-witted she is, and must find their verbal sparring both a delight and a trial. Here she flits between innocent (or is it?) banter and incisive insight into military status and strategy, and Lymond has to parry almost defensively.

These two quotes, following on from the byplay with the fan and Annibal’s resourceful double bluffing as Lymond unmasks her, show us that the two of them are now much more closely matched. Philippa is more than capable of standing up to him and trading quips, and she is also quite comfortable in befriending the Marechale or twisting the Schiatti brothers round her little finger. No longer is Lymond in undoubted control of the relationship as he was in the Mediterranean. His advantages in age and seniority have seemingly evaporated (“Do you consider I’m old enough to stop calling you Mr Crawford?”), and his aura of untouchability and the scathing tongue that scares his men rigid mean very little to her.

Of course we are being manipulated. Dorothy is preparing us for events that will take place later that night when the heady mix of mortal danger and ingenious escape will combine to provide Philippa with her own revelation of love. But she does it with such a light touch that we are hardly aware of it at this stage. A probing remark, a description of an outrageously ostentatious dress, a pun here, an unexpected change of subject there. We are entertained, lightened, admiring this sophisticated and attractive girl (Jerott doesn’t even recognise her at first) who deals so easily with our irascible and tortured hero. So that when the moment comes it is the most natural development in the world. Yet without those two apparently insignificant pieces of conversation – easily missed or forgotten compared to the high drama of the Dame’s voice from the grave and the chase through the traboules – the following chapters would be far less of an inevitable progression, the rhythm of the narrative weakened.

This is the difference between a talented author and a genius.