Dorothy Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett
Born Dorothy Halliday
(1923-08-25)25 August 1923
Dunfermline, Scotland
Died 9 November 2001(2001-11-09) (aged 78)
Edinburgh, Scotland
Occupation Novelist
Nationality Scottish-British
Period 1961–2000
Genre historical fiction, mystery
Notable works Lymond Chronicles, House of Niccolò, Johnson Johnson series, King Hereafter
Notable awards OBE
Spouse Sir Alastair Dunnett

Dorothy Dunnett OBE (née Halliday, 25 August 1923 9 November 2001) was a Scottish historical novelist. She is best known for her six-part series about Francis Crawford of Lymond, The Lymond Chronicles, which she followed with the eight-part prequel The House of Niccolò. She also wrote a novel about the historical Macbeth called King Hereafter (1982), and a series of mystery novels centred on Johnson Johnson, a portrait painter/spy.

Life and work

Dunnett was educated at James Gillespie's High School for Girls in Edinburgh. She started her career as a press officer in the civil service, where she met her husband.

A leading light in the Scottish arts world and a renaissance woman, she was a professional portrait painter and exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy on many occasions. She had portraits commissioned by a number of prominent public figures in Scotland. She had a keen interest in opera, was a trustee of the National Library of Scotland, a board member of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, a trustee of the Scottish National War Memorial, and a non-executive director of Scottish Television. In 1992 she was awarded an OBE for her services to literature. Writing in The Times Literary Supplement, Alexander Fiske-Harrison reviewed her final novel in 2000, Gemini, and through that her entire oeuvre of historical fiction: "Although Dunnett’s writing style is not the neutral prose of genre fiction and it can be opaque and hard to read, especially in the early works, at times, this works with the almost melodramatic content to produce a powerful, operatic mixture... It is neither as a literary novelist nor as a historian, but as a writer of historical fiction that Dorothy Dunnett deserves recognition... The publication of Gemini completes an ambitious literary circle."[1]

In 2001 she founded the Dorothy Dunnett Society to promote interest in the historical periods about which she wrote and communication between her readers. Dorothy Dunnett's archive was left to the National Library of Scotland and articles from it appear in Whispering Gallery, the magazine of the Dorothy Dunnett Society.

Dorothy Dunnett was married in 1946 to Sir Alastair Dunnett, editor of The Scotsman newspaper, and appears in his autobiography, Among Friends, 1984. By virtue of his knighthood in 1995, she became Lady Dunnett. She died in Edinburgh, and was survived by her sons Ninian and Mungo Dunnett.

Historical fiction

Lymond Chronicles

The manuscript for the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings, was rejected by five British publishers before being published by US publisher Putnam in 1961. It was written in response to her husband's suggestion that she write something herself, when she complained of having run out of reading material.

The Lymond Chronicles is a series of six novels, set in mid-sixteenth-century Europe and the Mediterranean, which follows the life and career of a Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, from 1547 through 1558. The series is a suspenseful tale of adventure and romance, filled with action, intense drama, poetry, culture and high comedy. Meticulously researched, the series takes place in a wide variety of locations, including France, the Ottoman Empire, Malta, England, Scotland and Russia. In addition to a compelling cast of original characters, the novels feature many historical figures, often in important roles.

The volumes are as follows:

  1. The Game of Kings (1961)
  2. Queen's Play (1964)
  3. The Disorderly Knights (1966)
  4. Pawn in Frankincense (1969)
  5. The Ringed Castle (1971)
  6. Checkmate (1975)

The six volumes of the Lymond Chronicles, set in the 16th century, are part of what Dunnett viewed as a larger fourteen-volume work, which includes the eight novels of The House of Niccolò series, set in the 15th century. The House of Niccolò, which was written after the Lymond Chronicles, tells the tale of Lymond's ancestors in the previous century and includes allusions to events in the Lymond Chronicles. Dunnett recommended that readers begin with the Lymond Chronicles and then read The House of Niccolò.

The House of Niccolò

The House of Niccolò is a series of eight historical novels set in the late-fifteenth-century European Renaissance. The protagonist of the series is Nicholas de Fleury (Niccolò, Nicholas van der Poele, or Claes), a talented boy of uncertain birth who rises to the heights of European merchant banking and international political intrigue. The series shares most of the locations in Dunnett's earlier series, the Lymond Chronicles, but it extends much further geographically to take in the important urban centres of Bruges, Venice, Florence, Geneva, and the Hanseatic League; Burgundy, Flanders, and Poland; Iceland; the Iberian Peninsula and Madeira; the Black Sea cities of Trebizond and Caffa; Persia; the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Rhodes; Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula; and West Africa and the city of Timbuktu. Nicholas's progress is intertwined with such historical characters as Anselm Adornes, James III of Scotland and James II of Cyprus.

The volumes are as follows:

  1. Niccolò Rising (1986)
  2. Spring of the Ram (1987)
  3. Race of Scorpions (1989)
  4. Scales of Gold (1991)
  5. The Unicorn Hunt (1993)
  6. To Lie with Lions (1995)
  7. Caprice and Rondo (1997)
  8. Gemini (2000)

As with the Lymond Chronicles, the series features a number of historical persons, many as important characters. Both the historical and fictional characters are, however, taken from a wider variety of occupations and social classes than in the Lymond Chronicles. There are significant differences in narrative approach and writing style between the series, reflecting in part the very different personal journey taken by the central character in each.

King Hereafter

King Hereafter (1982), her long novel set in Orkney and Scotland in the years just before the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, was in Dorothy Dunnett's eyes her masterpiece. It is about an Earl of Orkney uniting the people of Alba (Scotland) and becoming its King, and is based on the author's premise that the central character Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney and the historical Macbeth, Scottish King, were one and the same person (Thorfinn is his birth name and Macbeth his baptismal name).

The Dorothy Dunnett Companions

Dunnett helped in the compiling of the The Dorothy Dunnett Companion (1994) and The Dorothy Dunnett Companion II (2002), which were written by Elspeth Morrison. These books provide background information to historical characters and events featured in the Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolò, as well as explanations of classical allusions and literary and other quotations used in the two series, notes to sources of these citations, and many maps. The second volume, which was written after the Niccolò series was completed, also contains a bibliography of many of the hundreds of primary and secondary sources Dunnett used in her historical research. Dunnett contributed much more to the second volume than the first, directly authoring many of the entries.

The Johnson Johnson series

Main article: Johnson Johnson

This series of mystery novels was written over a long period, starting when she was writing the Lymond Chronicles, with the final book published prior to the first House of Niccolò book. In the Johnson Johnson series, the date of publication is not the same as the order in the series. Each book is set in the time it is written, and some series plotlines were never resolved. Dunnett left a very brief outline sketch of an 8th Johnson novel with her papers.

The Dolly of the titles refers to Johnson Johnson's yacht.

  1. Dolly & the Bird of Paradise (later retitled Tropical Issue) (1983)
  2. Dolly & the Singing Bird (later retitled Rum Affair) (aka The Photogenic Soprano) (1968)
  3. Dolly & the Cookie Bird (later retitled Ibiza Surprise) (aka Murder in the Round) (1970)
  4. Dolly & the Doctor Bird (later retitled Operation Nassau) (aka Match for a Murderer) (1971)
  5. Dolly & the Starry Bird (later retitled Roman Nights) (aka Murder in Focus) (1973)
  6. Dolly & the Nanny Bird (later retitled Split Code) (1976)
  7. Moroccan Traffic (published in the US as Send a Fax to the Kasbah) (1991)

Other works

The Proving Climb

A contemporary short story, The Proving Climb, set on the Scottish Isle of St. Kilda, was published in the 1973 anthology Scottish Short Stories (Scottish Arts Council, published by Collins, ISBN 0-00-221851-8). It was republished by the Dorothy Dunnett Society and distributed to its members in 2008 with issue 100 of Whispering Gallery.

The Lymond Poetry

She also produced a manuscript The Lymond Poetry, containing her versions and translations of some of the poems that appeared in The Lymond Chronicles. This was finalised after her death by Elspeth Morrison and edited by Richenda Todd (ISBN 978-0141012445 published in 2003 by Penguin).

The Scottish Highlands

Together with her husband, Alastair Dunnett, she wrote the text for the photography book The Scottish Highlands (Photographs: David Patterson), published in 1988.

Additional information

Dorothy Dunnett Society

Dorothy Dunnett founded the Dorothy Dunnett Society. Membership of this registered charity is open to all Dunnett readers, and aims to promote interest in the periods of history about which Dunnett wrote, to preserve her writings, and to promote appreciation of the literary merit of her works.[2] It also encourages discussion and meetings between readers. Prior to 1 September 2011, the Society was known as the Dorothy Dunnett Readers' Association.


On 22 April 2006, a memorial stone to Lady Dunnett was laid by her grandchildren, Hal and Bella Dunnett, alongside those for Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott in the Makars' Court in Lady Stair's Close on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The Lord Provost of Edinburgh was in attendance, and gave a speech, as did the Edinburgh Makar (Valerie Gillies), and the Ross Herald (Charles Burnett). The initiative to lay the stone, and the main funding for it, came from the members of the Dorothy Dunnett Society. The Stone contains Dorothy Dunnett's name, her coat of arms, and a brief quote from one of her books "Where are the links of the chain ... joining us to the past".


Dorothy Dunnett readers are devoted and active, and have held gatherings in Edinburgh in 1990, 1994, and in 2000 with over 300 people in attendance. Similar events were held in Boston, and in Philadelphia in 2000. Since her death smaller international gatherings of between 50 and 115 people have been held in Dublin (November 2001), New Orleans (November 2003), Malta (October 2005), Saddell in South West Scotland (April 2007), Orkney (September 2007), and Paris (2010). A gathering - 'The Dunnett Siege of Constantinople' took place in Istanbul in September 2012.[3] Places visited by the 115 Siegers focused on Pawn in Frankincense and also on John Grant in the Niccolὸ series, in which historical character John Grant had taken part in the 1453 Siege of Constantinople. Another is planned for Venice in 2016.

There are several meetings of readers in the UK each year, in locations such as Oxford, Bath, London, York, Warwick, Harrogate and Stamford.[4] Also the formal Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Dorothy Dunnett Society is held each spring in Edinburgh as part of its Dorothy Dunnett Weekend.[5]

Occasional meetings are held in Australia and Canada, as well, with one SworDDplay held in Vancouver in April 2006 and another in Alexandria, Virginia in the United States in March 2008 and the Dunnett Confluence of Pittsburgh took place in Pennsylvania in October 2013. Smaller meetings also occur locally in several other countries, such as Germany (notably the annual meeting in Darmstadt) and Italy.

Readers also get together more informally to go on holiday to Dunnett locations. In 2007 some readers visited Timbuktu and others Venice.

International Dorothy Dunnett Day (IDDD)

In 2011, the first International Dorothy Dunnett Day[6] was announced by the Dorothy Dunnett Society to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Game of Kings. It was held on Saturday 15 October 2011, with readers gathering in locations around the world at 13:00 (1pm) local time to toast the author. Meetings were held in Edinburgh, London, Vancouver, San Francisco, the Costa Del Sol, Boston, and other locations. The second IDDD [7] was held on Saturday 10 November 2012, to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the death of Dorothy Dunnett on 9 November 2001. The next was held on 9 November 2013.[8]


  1. Fiske-Harrison, Alexander 'Connected By Blood', The Times Literary Supplement. 11 August 2000
  2. "Constitution of the Dorothy Dunnett Society" (PDF). Dorothy Dunnett Society. May 2011. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
  3. Whispering Gallery 117
  4. Whispering Gallery 119
  5. Whispering Gallery 119
  6. (IDDD01)Hedges, "The First Ever International Dorothy Dunnett Day", Whispering Gallery, 111.
  7. (IDDD02)Editor, "The First Ever International Dorothy Dunnett Day", Whispering Gallery, 115.

External links

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