Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett - A short biography

Dorothy
Photograph by Alison Dunnett ©

Born Dorothy Halliday, on the 25th August 1923 in Dunfermline in Fife, she was educated at Gillespie's High School for Girls, in Edinburgh, and her time there overlapped with Muriel Spark, who later wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie about the same school.

Her early career from 1940-55, was with the Civil Service as a Press Officer. While at the Scottish Office she met Alastair Dunnett, and they were married in 1946. Alastair later became editor of The Scotsman, a position he filled for 16 years, before moving to the oil industry as Chairman of Thomson North Sea Oil. During 1995 he received a knighthood for services to journalism and Scottish life. To universal regret, Alastair died after a short illness at the age of 89 in September '98.

From 1950, Dorothy pursued a parallel career as a professional portrait painter. She exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on many occasions and had portraits commissioned by a number of prominent public figures in Scotland. Her writing career started in the late '50s, when she complained to Alastair that she had run out of reading material and he suggested she write something herself. Setting to with the erudition and depth of research that was to become her trademark she spent the next 18 months researching in ever more detail before presenting a large pile of manuscript to Alastair with a request to read it. That he did in two nights, and immediately recognised it as a milestone in historical fiction. However five British publishers rejected it and it seems that its length was at least one factor in that. It was then that he contacted a friend in America, Lois Cole who had discovered Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind. In a letter he asked "How would you like to see an astounding manuscript of a story by the wittiest woman in Scotland?" A contract swiftly followed and Game of Kings was published by Putman in the USA in 1961, with Cole doing the editing and also selling the UK rights to Cassell who published it the following year. That was how Francis Crawford was introduced to a discerning and increasingly enthusiastic readership. The scene was now set and five more volumes of the Lymond Chronicles were written over the next fifteen years, interspersed with the lighter detective novels of Johnson Johnson, the bifocal wearing secret agent, which were originally published under Dorothy's maiden name.

By now an acclaimed writer with a mature and confident style, she was asked to produce a single volume work on a figure from Scottish history. Dismissing the publisher's suggestions of Charles Edward Stuart or Mary Queen of Scots, she proposed the Shakespeare-maligned figure of Macbeth and signed a contract to produce it in a year or two at the most. Once into the research she found herself increasingly coming across the figure of Earl Thorfinn the Mighty of Orkney and after many months of studying every related book available (around 700) and as much original material as she could find from all over Europe, she came to the conclusion that Macbeth and Thorfinn were actually the same man. Faced with the dilemma of whether to continue the research and prove her theory or to write the book she had contracted which was already years overdue she chose the latter. King Hereafter was eventually published six years late but is regarded by many as her finest work.

Following King Herafter she returned to the Renaissance period for her second series of historical fiction - the 8 volume House of Niccolo. This time, rather than a Scottish nobleman, her main protagonist was a dyeyard apprentice from Bruges, and the initial story followed his rise through his skills of accounting and code-writing. The difference from the life of Francis Crawford could hardly have been more marked, but gradually through the series there appeared subtle connections with the earlier, though chronologically later, story. It eventually became clear that she had produced what was in effect an entire prequel series.

In addition to her heavy writing schedule Dorothy also led a busy life in public service. Her positions included: membership of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Scotland, Trustee of the Scottish National War Memorial, and a Director of the Edinburgh Book Festival, not to mention work on various committees to do with books, films, and cultural subjects. She was also a non-Executive Director of Scottish Television, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 1992 she was awarded the O.B.E. for services to literature. Throughout their married life she and Alastair formed a vibrant partnership for the promotion of Scotland and the development of Scottish cultural life. They were instrumental in the development of the Edinburgh Festival and involved behind the scenes in many other important areas such as Scottish Opera.

Having completed the House of Niccolo series and attended both the Edinburgh and Philadelphia Gatherings in 2000, she spent many months working with Elspeth Morrison completing the 2nd volume of the Dunnett Companion. Shortly after its completion she became unwell and was later diagnosed with cancer of the liver and pancreas. She died peacefully a few weeks later on 9th Nov 2001 in an Edinburgh hospice.
Dorothy is survived by her two sons - Ninian and Mungo, one grandson - Halliday, and one granddaughter - Annabella Charlotte.

Portraits of Dorothy

Dorothy on tour in the US, taken by Judith Lyte A promotional photo for Knopf at the time of Niccolo Rising
This was taken by Kathy Lewis at the first DDRA AGM in 2001 and is a personal favourite of mine - not because I'm in it but because it shows Dorothy as I remember her, with that wonderful and infectious laugh.
Taken for Cassell at the time of the first release of Pawn in Frankincense in the 1960s A promotional picture taken at Craigmillar Castle for the Vintage Lymond paperbacks. Not the most flattering picture but that's probably because she was struggling with flu at the time.

 

Alastair

Dorothy by Coia

coia-400h
Alastair Dunnett in his 80s in the driveway of their house in Colinton Road A portrait of Dorothy by the acclaimed artist and caricaturist Emilio Coia, who for many years drew every famous visitor to the Edinburgh Festival for The Scotsman

 

 

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