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."
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.
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