Edinburgh in the Spring 2003
The third Annual General Meeting and Mini-Gathering of the Dorothy Dunnett Readers' Association
Saturday April 26th
The mini-gathering is always as much a lovely social occasion as it is a formal event and with Olive Millward's usual prompting about 20 of us had gathered in a Chinese restaurant for a meal on the Friday evening to kick things off. Having had only one day of rain in the previous two months - very unusual for Scotland! - we were worried that the weather had broken as it poured down most of the evening but we needn't have been concerned.
The weekend proper started on the Saturday morning when we gathered as usual on the top floor of the Point Hotel, where the view was better than ever this year with the bright clear conditions making the castle appear almost in touching distance and giving us superb views over the city to the Forth. There were around 55 of us in attendance with readers from Germany, France and the USA as well as from various parts of the UK.
On this occasion we started with two of the talks before holding the formal AGM proceedings.
Elspeth and Richenda on The Lymond Poetry
The AGM day simply wouldn't be the the same without Elspeth Morrison and Richenda Todd who've become a lively and entertaining double act. This year they gave us an insight into the work they had done together in editing the manuscript that Dorothy had originally written in 1976 between finishing Game of Kings and starting King Hereafter.
The Lymond Poetry, copies of which we had obtained early especially for the event, contains 66 poems in various Euopean languages with Dorothy's own translations. She intended that this be a collection of the best love poetry and ballads from the period as well as giving extra insight to the Lymond Chronicles which contain fragments of around 200 poems.
The original plan had been to publish them after Checkmate (in fact one suggestion was that it be published at the same time) but although her agents were enthusiatic the publishers seemed not to see the potential and for a while Dorothy intended to publish privately. However these plans had to be put aside when Alastair suffered a major heart attack and although a number of the poems were later reworked and added to the two Companions, the full original manuscript only came to light after her death.
Elspeth set to work tracing the original sources with her usual mixture of diligent research, inspired thinking, and close understanding and affinity with Dorothy's writing and research techniques, and with Richenda's help they put together backgrounds and biographies which they placed on the facing pages to the poems.
Between them they gave us an glimpse of the choices and difficulties they faced in trying to adhere as closely as possible to Dorothy's wishes and the original sources, while dealing with proofreaders and publishers. Proofreading was particularly difficult as the spellings were often different within poems - one poem switches from Spanish to Italian and has misspellings in it - while punctuation often varies from one source to another and they felt it was important to make sure that the choices Dorothy had made were accurately reflected, even if she herself had made the occasional mistake. Only very occasionally did a source prove impossible to find, but in three instances a poem was quoted which they were unable to find in any of the six Chronicles. Penguin are now offering a prize for anyone who can find the references to these three.
All this background was conveyed with the light touch and humour that we've come to expect from them, and everyone, whether or not familiar with the intricacies of research and publishing, was left with a sense of both the expertise required and the immense fun that they both had in working on the project.
Jenny Smith on Music
It's obvious to anyone meeting her that music is Jenny's passion - both it's execution and history. Here she gave us an impression of the rich background that lurks within the musical references contained in the Lymond Chronicles.
Starting with an analysis of Jouissance vous Donneray - the music which Francis played for Christian while she lay dying in Flaw Valleys - she traced the connections and inferences which can be gathered about his skill as a performer and the political and cultural clues that are apparent in those people he deals with. She touched on the Netherlands as a centre of musical excellence, their influence reaching the Italians, and what can be read into Margurite asking Lymond if he can play Palestrina. She also discussed the academic and social place of music in the period - its connection to mathematics and the wide ranging availability of degree courses in universities.
Philippa's musical abilities were also mentioned and the contrast made between Flaws Valleys which had a music room and Midculter which, perhaps surprisingly, did not, but had instead the cold room containing Lymond's books and broken lute.
These are just a few of the points covered but I'm told that Jenny is producing an article about her talk for Whispering Gallery which I very much look forward to reading.
Jenny finished her talk by leading a brave band of singers in a rendition of It was the Frogge in the Well, which plays a prominent part in the early chapters of Game of Kings. The performers doing an excellent job dispite having had no real chance of rehearsal.
The AGM was fairly short but with two important aspects. The present committee was re-elected with the welcome addition of Simon Hedges to fill the one empty place. I'm particularly happy to see this as it means I'm no longer the only male committee member!
The second important item was the Treasurers report and subsequent discussion. This revealed that in the last year the subscription income had dropped by around £1800 and it was therefore proposed to raise the subscriptions by £3. It will be obvious that such a reduction in income cannot be sustained for long so it's important that we try to regain as many of the international subscribers that we lost after the demise of Thins, and the facilty they provided for Credit Card subscribing, as possible. Simon's assistance in this area by acting as a go-between for overseas readers who would otherwise find it impossible or prohibitively expensive to convert their currency into Sterling has been invaluable.
Henk Beentje - From Blue Hands to Racing Camels
For the afternoon session Henk gave us a follow up to his legendary Flora and Fauna of Lymondshire at the Edinburgh 2000 Gathering, and once again had compiled an astonishing number of slides of animals and plants mentioned in the eight books of House of Niccolo. As he said, where would we be without natural history? - most of the book titles wouldn't exist and there would be no "date stones". And there would be no food - nothing to describe sticking to Fra Ludo's clothes. No Ostrich for Nick to ride and he wouldn't have the love of his life - Chennai the camel. No oysters in Gemini, sugar in Cyprus or apricots in Sinai.
I won't even try to list a fraction of the items which Henk described, quoted, and illustrated - my attempts to record the highlights in my notes were overwhelmed by half way through and I just sat back and enjoyed them - but again look forward to seeing an article in Whispering Gallery in due course. Suffice it to say that it was a delight to be reminded of so many of the wonderful images that Dorothy filled her stories with, particularly with Henk's melifluous accent. It must have taken many hours of re-reading and preparation but it was certainly worth it.
Sunday April 27th - The Coach Trip to Culross and Falkland
Sunday morning turned out to be far better than the meteorologists has predicted as we set off from the Point towards the Forth Bridge and Fife. As in previous years we were joined by Charles Burnett.
As we crossed the bridge the clear conditions allowed us to pick out Blackness, which we had visited last year on a windy, grey, and damp day. Once across the bridge we turned left and took the minor coastal road past Rosyth naval yards and through the villages of the area. It has to be said that this is not one of the more scenic areas with the view up the firth being dominated by Grangemouth oil refinery on one side and Kincardine Power Station on the other, but again the clear sunlight picked out the famous Abbey in Dunfermline which lies to the north of the road.
Through the village of Torryburn the houses became gradually older and more attractive, until we reached the outskirts of Culross, our first stop. As anyone who has read the website will know, the village, or to be more exact, the Royal Burgh, is a remarkably well preserved example of 17th and 18th century buildings which, because of the way in which the local industry declined, was not subjected to the demolition and improvement that occurred elsewhere. This gave the fledgling National Trust for Scotland an ideal opportunity when they were offered the "palace" for £700 in the 1930s, and they went on to purchase many more properties in the area, resulting in a uniquely preserved and renovated village which still manages to maintain a healthy living community.
After a refreshment of tea and scones in the Bessie Bar Hall, which was originally a malt house, our party was split into two and one started their tour of the palace while the other went up to the Study. The intention had been that Elspeth and Charles would take the groups round but in fact we were assigned local guides who clearly had their own ideas on what subjects the visitors would like to hear about. Under normal circumstances I would have enjoyed the eccentric character of the guide and there were certainly some snippets of information that I had not heard before, but knowing Elspeth's vast store of knowledge and meticulous preparation I suspect we'd have heard a lot more of relevence to our favourite reading had she had the chance to impart it.
The Study is a fine building constructed around 1610 and is painted a brilliant white. It forms part of the small square which houses the Mercat Cross dating from 1588 and its facade is pierced by the typical windows of the period with half-wooden shutters and diagonal leaded glass upper sections. There is a crowstepped gable in traditional Scottish style and a corbelled outlook tower from which the occupant could look over the Forth and watch the ships as they entered and left. It is reputed to have been used by Bishop Leighton of Dunblane as his study room.
On the first floor is a fine room with wonderfully painted ceilings by a man who had studied the ceilings of the Palace while they were still clearly visible. The guide told us he had a visit from the painter's nephew who was able to telephone his father to confirm that the work had been done while lying on his back! There was also a fine piece of 17th century panelling and a Witches Ball - a glass ball filled with Mercury which was supposed to protect the house from evil spirits.
The study itself is at the top of the tower up an extremely tight spiral staircase and is a small room with windows on three sides.
Although we didn't have time to climb further up the hill to the Abbey and Church, it is well worth the walk up the narrow inclined street of brightly coloured houses with wooden steps up to their front doors. The Abbey was set up by the Cistercians in the early 13th century and was where the young St Mungo was taught by St Serf before moving to Glasgow to found his own community. It was said he was the son of a princess who was cast out of her home in the Lothians and whose boat landed at Culross.
It was the Cisterians who first made Culross a prosperous town by mining the "black stone that burns" - coal, and thus developing both its trade and the closely connected industry of the salt pans.
Near the Abbey is the Abbey House, a very advanced design which looks almost Georgian but in fact dates from as early as 1608. Later it was the home of the famous naval hero Admiral Thomas Cochrane - The Sea Wolf as Napoleon described him - whose life was the inspiration for many well known naval stories.
Returning to the palace we were first of all shown a video describing the history of the town and the Trust's involvement before learning more about the man who created it. The palace was built by Sir George Bruce, a descendent of King Robert the Bruce, who had taken over the running of the colliery and brought in many engineering techniques from the continent that enabled deeper mines to be dug by improving drainage and ventilation. While the mines had previously been only 30 feet deep, his techniques, such as the horse-powered 36 bucket Egyptian Wheel, allowed a depth of 240 feet to be reached and the mine was probably one of the most advanced in the world at that time, eventually extending a mile under the Forth. The shaft even had an outlet in a substantial round stone building on a tidal island and James VI was taken there on a visit to the mine where he was apparently so surprised to find himself surrounded by water that he feared treachery and panicked.
We were taken up to the main hall, withdrawing room, guest rooms, and the painted chamber, with their panelling and painted barrel ceilings. In the hall we heard the origins of the word "threshhold" and had a description of 16th century toilet facilities that was probably more information than some would have preferred! We were also told the reason behind the yellow ochre colouring of the outside walls - it was originally covered in sheep-dip!! This was often applied to houses at that time as there was nothing else that could be done with the liquid - you couldn't put it in the river or on the land due to its poisonous effects - and since the roof would originally have been thatch it was useful for keeping down the insects which would otherwise live there. In fact the guide reckoned that the palace colour was too brown because as the richest house in the area it would have had fresh sheep dip which would have been a lighter yellow.
Sadly there was insufficient time to properly explore the restored gardens which lie on the slope behind the palace or to walk much more around the village before we were due in the Red Lion for lunch, though some people did manage a quick visit to the Town House and the Trust shop, where the attendant had heard of Dorothy and knew she'd been born in Dunfermline.
There are a number of photgraphs of Culross on the Dunnett Places to Visit - North page
An excellent meal allowed time for interesting conversation before we headed for Falkland and the favourite palace of Mary de Guise. Though the weather briefly threatened to close in it had cleared again by the time we arrived and although the gardens were only just beginning to show glimpes of the rich and fragrant blossoms that it will have in a few weeks time it was still a lovely sight in the sunshine.
The guides happened to be in period costume that day, with one in each room available to answer questions. This time however we had Charles and Elspeth to describe the surroundings for us. There were a number of paintings of 16th and 17th monarchs including one of James V and Mary de Guise, an ornately carved and inlaid four-poster bed, and some fine panelled and painted ceilings. There is also a fine tapestry gallery which runs the length of one wing.
A quick trip down to the end of the garden and the royal tennis court gave mixed results - on this occasion there was no-one playing and the viewing angles didn't really allow a good photograph, but I was delighted to find that there were newly arrived swallows in the viewing gallery - always a welcome sign of Spring. Diverting out through a side gate brings you to the tranquil adjoining meadow where pink blossom adorned the trees and bluebells shimmered in the grass. It's a timeless view over to the turrets of the Palace gate and the roofs of the old inns on the main street and that feeling was compounded by the site of a man in full armour and helmet on the main lawn next to the ruined north wing. However it proved to be a photoshoot rather than a time warp!
All too soon we had to head for home and maybe in retrospect we tried to fit too much into the day, but when people are coming to Scotland for what may be the only time you want to give them as broad an experience as possible. Incidentally we are always looking for suggestions for places to visit on the Spring weekends so if you have any ideas please send them to me. I think we've pretty much covered the accessible western and northern sides having been to Linlithgow, Torphichen, and Blackness, as well as Rosslyn in the south and St Mary's Loch at the time of the 2000 Gathering. Within Edinburgh Elspeth has often taken guided walks down the Royal Mile but we haven't done Edinburgh Castle itself - should we include this or would people prefer a coach trip further afield. Craigmillar Castle is fairly close and Haddington is interesting although there is nothing left to see of the nunnery where Kathi visited. Likewise North Berwick is a lovely town but the Dunnett sites are not accessible - the final scenes of Gemini are now within the grounds of an old people's home. Traquair, which is the oldest house in Scotland, is on the site of the fictional St Mary's and has its own brewery so it might be a good place to go, and there is a nearby printing museum which while much more recent than our time period would surely be in the spirit of Lymond's interests. Let me know what you think.
Certainly everyone I spoke to seemed to enjoy the day and hopefully many will have seen enough to encourage return visits. We certainly all enjoyed renewing friendships and making new ones, as is always the case at Dunnett gatherings. I hope we can continue them for many years to come.
Photographs of Falkland can also be found on the Dunnett Places to Visit - North page