None of the books I’ve been remembering on Throwback Thursdays comes close to the joy I’ve gotten from Dame Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I was sixteen the summer I picked up The Game of Kings. I remember walking to a babysitting gig and reading every step of the way along the sidewalk because I couldn’t put it down. The opening line is riveted on my brain: “Lymond is back,” and it brings the same surge of excitement every time I pick the book up. I can’t count the number of times I’ve reread it since.
The Lymond Chronicles completely absorbed my adolescent mind. Some folks called it a Renaissance soap opera. On Heroes and Heartbreakers, Regina Thorne has called it “the Scottish love-child of Alexandre Dumas and Dorothy L. Sayers, with an added layer …reminiscent of Game of Thrones.” I just called it great reading. GoK had the things I looked for: a sprawling book with maps and a long list of characters in front. It also gave me my first experience of waiting impatiently for sequels. The second book came out a year later but it wasn’t until 1975 that she finally brought the series to a close. She left her readers in endless speculation as to what might have happened next.
After Dorothy Dunnett sent a lengthy hand-written response to our jointly written (and terribly breathless) fan letter, a dear friend and I agreed that we would go to Scotland before we were thirty to find the castles she claimed were real, but in “glorious ruin.” We didn’t make it. The year we turned fifty it hung over me as an unmet promise to myself. With little more than a few weeks preparation the two of us took of to find Lymond, or at least the places in the book.
We took the night train from London to Edinburgh and rented a car. With a map of Scotland and the map in the front of the novel propped up in front of us we began to search. We knew, of course that Midculter, Francis Crawford of Lymond’s childhood home did not exist, but we were determined to find the spot it should have occupied. FIrst we located the ruins of Boghall, the castle from which his brother Richard watched smoke rise from Midculter. The place itself couldn’t be far, right? Following the Tweed as the map in the novel showed came upon, well, not exactly a castle. Here I am at the Culter Mill, now apparantly The Mill at Coulter.
We laughed about our quixotic search for a fictional castle and headed back to Edinburgh. Along the way and slightly off our planned route, we came upon Neidpath Castle, a twelfth century keep built for the Fraser family. In we went. Who can resist a twelfth century keep. After a brief guided tour we wandered a bit and round ourselves on the top floor. We sat on a bench for a while and the light bulb went on. It looks exactly like to solar room in which Lymond’s mother entertained guests when Lymond and his men perpetrated his preposterous, drunken home invasion. It even had exactly the circular stairway we expected to find. Of course there was no way to know whether she modeled Midculter on Neidpath but I believed it. I still do.
That’s the story of the day my friend and I went in search of a wholly fictional castle—and found it.