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Flamborough II: 18 May


The Gansey of Shame – see below…

I gave a talk to the Family History Society last week, looking at what you can find out about people who lived in Victorian Caithness using some of the less common sources. And while I was thinking about how best to showcase the registers of fishing boats with a Wick (WK) registration I had an idea.

M&M Crew

The crew of the Mary and Maggie in 1910 – Donald Angus centre, holding the cup [image is deliberately small to respect copyright]

Both of the Wick ganseys I’ve knitted have been based on a photograph of Donald Angus’s 1910 prize-winning crew of the Mary and Maggie (WK.29), which appears in both Hetty Munro and Rae Compton’s “They Lived By the Sea” and Michael Pearson’s “Traditional Knitting”.

So I looked the Mary and Maggie up in the register, and this is what I found: the boat was registered in 1899 and one of the joint owners was a Charles Angus of Thurso, whose occupation was fisherman. Now, Angus isn’t a very common name up here, so someone called Charles Angus who was also a fisherman wasn’t hard to find: in fact there was only one, and he lived in Shore Street.

Entry for the "Mary and Maggie" in the register of fishing boats

Entry for the “Mary and Maggie” in the register of fishing boats [image courtesy of Caithness Archive Centre]

I found his death certificate online, and learned he died in 1927, aged 72. This was interesting, because the register says that the Mary and Maggie’s registration was cancelled in November 1928, with the vessel “a total loss” – so the boat only survived its owner by a year.

But when I looked him up in the 1901 census I found something rather sweet. For the name of his wife was Margaret, which the Scots shorten to Maggie; and his two daughters were called Mary and Maggie. He named the boat after the women in his life, the old softy. Isn’t that great? (Donald, who would skipper the boat in 1910 and win the prize cup, was just 17 in 1901 and still living at home.)

1901 Census entry for Charles Angus and family

1901 Census entry for Charles Angus and family

It doesn’t make a lot of difference; but it makes me feel a little closer to the people in that photograph, somehow. One of them, at least, isn’t just a face and a name.

Now, gansey news. As you’ll see, I’ve been making good progress; but there is a problem, which you can see if you look closely at the top couple of diamonds compared with the rest. They look different, don’t they?

You see, after I knitted the Lopi jumper last Christmas, my gansey stitch gauge went all to hell, and ever since I’ve struggled to rein it in. As a result, my last couple of ganseys have bloated and sagged, like a well-fed burgess after a civic function, undoing his trouser buttons with a contented sigh and letting his waist expand like a cottage loaf in the oven. Now I quite like baggy jumpers, so that was fine, but something’s gone wrong with this one. It’s too big, too loose, to the point that the pattern has lost definition.

gansey detail copy

Detail of pattern (it’s not actually pink!) – note sharper diamonds at the top

I put it on a strict diet and exercise regime and deliberately knit the last couple of inches more tightly, and you can see the results for yourselves: the diamond pattern is crisper and clearer, better defined, compared with those that came before.

Clouds Over Outer Harbour

Clouds over Wick Harbour

I’ve tried to persuade myself I can live with it, but I can’t, so I’m going to stop knitting this one and rip it out and start again. It seems drastic, but to be honest it’s a minor nuisance, nothing more. (In fact, if I didn’t have to confess on this blog in front of hundreds of ninja gansey-knitting readers, I’d barely give it a thought – but there’s nothing like a public confession to stop you from getting above yourself, is there?)

There won’t be a blog next week, not because I have to be whipped from one side of the town to the other in punishment for what I’ve done, but because Margaret is away just now (I thought she was just knitting shawls; turns out it was a lace rope ladder to climb down the wall of her turret and escape across the fields) and I’m going to take a break and think about what to do next. See you in a fortnight!

Gansey Nation will return on Monday 1 June.



Flamborough II: 10 May

2F150510a Evening all. Before we get started, I’d like to flag up a couple of slight changes to the website you may have noticed. First of all, we’ve amended the Gallery pages so that the ganseys are grouped by region of origin now; basically I’ve been knitting so long the list was scrolling off the bottom of the screen! So hopefully this will make them more accessible, as well as useful.

Secondly, we’ve added a PayPal button to the left-hand border. This is so that anyone who wishes to make a contribution to the costs of running the site, and keeping me supplied with Guernsey 5-ply yarn, cups of coffee and, ahem, bars of tablet, can now do so whenever they like.

2F150510b(Important note: any contributions are entirely voluntary, and I won’t know who has or hasn’t made one. It won’t the blindest bit of difference to the way Margaret and I respond to comments or emailed queries. It’s entirely up to you. The site will be free to access, just as it is now. But if you’ve enjoyed reading the blog, or if you’ve ever found the techniques useful in your own knitting projects, and wanted to make a donation, well, now you can.)

The alternatives were to make the site subscription-only, or allow advertising, and we really didn’t want to go down that road. And speaking of roads, have you ever considered buying a new Hyundai Paracetamol land cruiser? A unique blend of rotational steering, traction engine technology and organic chemistry; for a headache-free drive contact your local dealer now!

Oh, I’m most terribly sorry—I can’t think what came over me.

2F150510dWhere was I? Oh, yes. I’ve reached that exciting part of knitting a gansey when the body is jettisoned like the first stage of a Saturn V rocket, flaring away and falling back to earth, and the small but dedicated crew soar onwards, free of the dead weight, to their goal—in their case, landing on the moon; in mine, finishing the back of the jumper. It’s always good to reach this stage, even though I have to pay close attention, as the pattern is now reversed every other row.

As you’ll see from the picture Margaret is still taking commissions from Galadriel for hand-knitted lingerie. It’s nice to have the work, of course, but it’s a bugger knitting with thistledown and unicorn hair, even with a unicorn farm just down the coast, and then it has to be washed in dryads’ tears or else it shrinks—luckily, though, some of them voted Liberal Democrat in last week’s general election so tears weren’t hard to come by…

Ah, yes, the election. Scotland has voted overwhelmingly for the Scottish National Party. It’s both a complete shock and yet hardly a surprise: the way the main UK parties have been treating Scotland recently I almost expected a shipment of tea to be dumped in Wick harbour by men dressed as Native Americans. Now the whole country seems gripped by a sort of wild uncertain excitement, like a nuclear physicist who’s just pressed the large button on the console and is suddenly wondering if in his calculations he remembered to carry the one…

As someone who preserves the documentary DNA of history it’s interesting to find myself living through these times: history, as they say, never stops.


Flamborough II: 3 May

2F150503a Just before ten on Sunday morning the alarm company called to say the intruder alarms were going off at the library, and would I mind frightfully popping round to see what the problem was?

Usually when this happens it’s because a spider has inadvertently crossed the grid of laser beams, or a woodlouse has sneezed and triggered the internal decibel monitor, so I was more annoyed than worried. But when I got there this time the front door was hanging ajar.

Now, it’s never a comfortable feeling to enter a supposedly empty building with an intruder alarm ringing in your ears, and certainly not when you see the door’s been forced open and everyone else in town still seems to be in bed. And while it’s possible the people of Wick are so keen on culture that they’ll break into a library on a Sunday morning to get their hands on it, I wouldn’t bet my life on it.


Old Lifeboat House, Wick

Well, as it turned out there weren’t any crazed knife-wielding coked-up meth-drinking second-hand book dealers in there; whoever had forced the door had obviously run off when the alarm sounded. (I wasn’t taking any chances, though—I’d got my archivist’s utility belt with me, which is much like Batman’s, except whereas his has grapnels, ninja weapons and ropes, mine has a pencil, an eraser, and a sheet of acid-free paper.)

Now I think of it, this is the first time in what I laughingly think of as my career that I’ve been called out to a genuine break-in; usually it’s false alarms, like one New Year’s Eve in Wales when an air conditioning conduit sprang a leak and pumped out steam so thick it triggered the smoke alarm.


Staxigoe on a sunny day

The biggest disaster I ever faced was in Milton Keynes, where the archives were stored in a factory unit. Over the Christmas holidays a water pipe in the kitchen had burst, blasting a hole in the wall and then slowly filling the unit with water. By the time I came back to work the whole building had three inches of water in it, I remember it cascading out over my shoes when I unlocked the door. (This is why good archivists, like we were, always have the bottom shelf a few inches off the floor; and why good archivists, like we weren’t, never store boxes of records on the floor because they’ve run out of space…) Sometimes I wonder if I’d taken an extended holiday whether the water would eventually have emerged out the chimney, or if the building would simply have burst?

2F150503bIn gansey news, I’ve reached the gussets: more proof, if any were needed, that slow and steady, if not actually wins the race, at least finishes the marathon several days after everyone’s gone home. I’m aiming for a long body, over 28 inches, and so I knitted 16 inches from the cast-on before starting the gussets.

Finally this week, I’m delighted to say that the Wick Heritage Museum has accepted the second Wick-patterned gansey I knit as a gift; the other one is already on display, worn by a dummy in rather better shape than yours truly, and this one may join it. I flirted with the idea of knitting a full boat’s crew of ganseys once—but that was typically eight men, and at my advanced time of life I’m only thinking of short-term projects…

Flamborough II: 26 April

2F150426aThe game’s afoot, as Sherlock Holmes used to say. Well, Sherlock, I’ve got news for you: so’s my gansey. (In fact it’s nearer 13 inches than a foot now, but let that pass.)

This rate of progress shows I’m back in the groove – two rows a night, more at weekends. This means an hour a night, give or take, and I usually knit while listening to music or an audiobook; if I try to knit this sort of pattern while watching TV I make mistakes. But as the old saying goes, many drops wear away the stone; it’s surprising how the rows mount up.

It was my birthday on Sunday (I’m 55, but requesting time off for good behaviour) and it snowed.  Snowed. We drove out to Staxigoe harbour and all it needed was an iceberg or two and some penguins for David Attenborough to cover the Arctic section of his next series without having to renew his passport. (I thought I saw a polar bear but it turned out to be a pensioner in a fur coat; luckily for her I’d forgot my harpoon.)

2F150426cMore proof, if any were needed, that I’ve been assigned Laurel and Hardy as my guardian angels. My optician called me in last week for peripheral vision tests, as he’s concerned I might have glaucoma. Over lunch I got something in my eye, and reached for a cotton bud and some of Margaret’s contact lens saline solution to rinse it with; except, and you’ll laugh when you read this, with my eye watering and my vision blurred I took down her acid cleaning solution instead. Then I scrupulously rinsed the bud with it and proceeded to swab out my eye.



After I’d finished pushing the boundaries of modern dance, hopping about the bathroom making a noise like a wet thumb on a hot kettle, I prised open my burning eyelids and peered inside. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an eye that’s been rinsed in cleaning solution? Imagine Peter Lorre using a piece of beetroot as a contact lens for a joke, or the quivering, slimy horror inside a Dalek’s metal armour; a sort of pinky-red poached egg stared back at me.

2F150426bI pass over the subsequent interview with the optician. Suffice it to say that the pain of having to confess what I’d done far exceeded that of the actual accident; and even the confirmation that I’m being referred to the hospital for further tests pales in comparison. In fact, if you open a window and listen carefully, you can probably still hear him laughing…

Finally this week, Judit has sent me a brilliant link which I won’t spoil for you – you’ll have to click it and see.

And in other parish news, Nigel has sent pictures of his completed Flamborough gansey. It’s a really effective combination of cables, moss and diamonds, and warmest congratulations to Nigel – it’s excellent.

Flamborough II: 19 April

2F150419a Wick lies on the south side of a long promontory that stretches out into the North Sea, with the lighthouse at Noss Head gleaming on the farthest tip like the red nose of Rudolph the eponymous reindeer. On the north side, overlooking Sinclair’s Bay, is the ruined castle of Sinclair Girnigoe where we went at Easter.

2F150419cUsually when I think of castles I imagine the great Welsh and English fortresses of Harlech or Warwick, the kind of buildings a Dark Lord would besiege with an army of orcs. Caithness is different: here the castles are perched on thin slivers of rock jutting into sea from the local inlets or goes like hangnails on a giant’s big toe.

Sinclair Girnigoe is a hell of a location, just the wide sweep of the bay and the ocean before you and the narrow promontory at your back. It was more or less impregnable before the age of cannon, as from the sea you’re faced with sheer cliffs and the only way in by land was over the drawbridge. It’s all ruins now, the haunt of a rather sharp wind and some stroppy seagulls which perch on the crumbling walls flipping coins and spitting out of the corner of their beaks.

2F150419dSinclair Girnigoe is about the same size as our house and garden, though to be fair no one’s ever tried to assault us in Miller Avenue using cannon – yet. Still, inspired by this I may submit a planning application for a drawbridge and portcullis, if only to keep out trick-or-treaters at Halloween, and especially the neighbours’ cats.

2F150419fIn knitting news, I’m settling into a groove with the Flamborough gansey, and the pattern is starting to emerge more clearly. It’s an easy one to keep track of, with a change every two rows. (Incidentally, is it just me or does knitting a gansey always feels like cloning an old fisherman from the bottom up?)

Finally this week, a word about the new edition of Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting. I received my copy last week, and although I haven’t had a chance to go through it in detail, a few points stand out. First of all it’s significantly expanded, and now includes patterns and photographs from his other books, such as the one on the Scottish fleet; secondly it now includes more charts, as well as an index; and thirdly the photographs are sharper than before, the patterns easier to make out.

So, if you already have the original is this new edition worth buying? My opinion is, yes, definitely, it’s much more than just a reissue. And if you don’t already have it, well, what are you waiting for…?