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Wick V – Donald Murray 8: 16 January

Winter came to Caithness this week. I don’t mean the usual 60-70 mph winds, leaden skies and rain—though we had those too—but genuine snow and ice, skating-on-the-Thames kind of weather. It’s melting even as I type this, rain and dank fog turning the crisp, white snow to grey slush, but it was fun while it lasted.

Wick River

The snow arrived borne on a hyperborean wind, straight from the Arctic; it didn’t settle at first because it was blowing horizontally, just passing through, you might say. I went out for a walk and when I turned into the wind my glasses rapidly became coated, everything whited out until I was effectively blind; it was like a time-lapse of developing cataracts all over again. In a very few minutes I was transformed into a sort of walking snowman, and I had to dodge swiftly to prevent some children from sticking a carrot and some lumps of coal in me—at least I think it was a carrot.

In other news, I’m sorry to say that I’m signed off work for another month. A friend who’s been through something similar told me that it’s like being a battery that’s gone flat—you think you’re recharged, but you go flat again very quickly—and I think that sums it up pretty well. (Of course, it doesn’t help that both my parents are currently in hospital away down south in England, and Margaret’s gone to help out.) Anyway, the doctor felt I just need more time.

Miller Avenue, Wick, now apparently twinned with Narnia.

So, looking positively, time is what I have plenty of right now; and you’re never bored if you have some 2.25mm needles, a woolsack of Guernsey 5-ply and a box set of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as any fule kno*. So I’ve completed the somewhat-too-large cream Wick gansey this week and darned in the ends—though it won’t be blocked till Margaret gets back, which, also on the plus side, means no photos of me wearing it and looking like a 12 year-old trying on daddy’s clothes; albeit a bald, bearded, chubby 12 year-old (what can I say? I was a precocious child).

Casting on the new gansey—the loops are stitch markers every 50 stitches to make counting easier

I’ve also cast on my next project, another Wick gansey inspired by the wonderful photographs of the Johnston Collection, this time in Wendy navy yarn. This one will feature a Scottish flag patterned yoke, the same design of half-flag that appears in the classic Mrs Laidler pattern. More on this next week, but be warned: I’m already 3 inches up the welt.

By the way, the fact that Margaret’s away just now means that (a) the quality of the photographs will necessarily nosedive, and (b) I won’t be able to post any pictures of ganseys people send me; you see, in the absence of Tech Support I’m not entrusted with the website’s command codes (at my own request—as otherwise it’d be like putting Mr Bean in charge of engineering in the Starship Enterprise…)

Normal service will resume, well, eventually.

[*Down With Skool by Willans and Searle reference—what do you mean, you haven’t read it?!]

Wick V – Donald Murray 7: 9 January

So there we are: 6 January is past, the Feast of Epiphany and Twelfth Night, and all the decorations and tinsel are packed away; Christmas is officially over, departing like a  travelling funfair, and we’re left to wonder if that packet of magic beans was really worth blowing the kids’ college fund on after all.

Rainbow at Dunnet Beach

Epiphany is also the day that traditionally marks the visit of the three wise men to the nativity of the baby Jesus. The wise men were Zoroastrian magi, which is of course where we get our word magicians from. Their names, if I remember correctly, were Caspar, Melchior and the Great Zucchini, and they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and a selection of comedy noses and some pigeons tucked up their sleeves.

Joking aside, I always feel there’s a genuine poignancy in the story of the visit of the magi: for the Zoroastrian religion was one of many that got swept aside by the new faith of Christianity. So the story of the nativity not only represents the manifestation of divinity in the affairs of men: but it also shows the old order giving way to the new. These wise men would be among the last of their kind.

Walking the dog

Also coming to an end is the current gansey: I have finished the first sleeve and am almost halfway down the second. With a fair wind I should finish it this week, then will just have need another week or two to darn in all the loose ends (serves me right for using 100g balls). You’ll have to wait a bit to see it blocked, I’m afraid: Margaret’s going to be away for a couple of weeks.

The ghost of ganseys present…

Meanwhile, and bear with me here, I wonder if you’ve ever bought any wool that was possessed? It seems to have happened to me. I was cheerfully working my way through one of the balls of yarn on its holder the other day when I happened to turn round and saw a face leering back at me. It gave me quite a shock, I can tell you.

Well, few things are more disconcerting than being sneered at by your yarn. It was rather hard to concentrate: I kept wondering if I was going to be visited by three ghosts and told to mend my ways. But I kept working away, invoking the protection of St Blaise, the patron saint of wool combers, and with every length of yarn I drew from the ball the more worried the face became; until it finally dissolved into a shapeless tangle and the spirit was released with a low despairing moan, probably to haunt some polyester sweaters in Marks and Spencer.


Anyway, in commemoration of Epiphany I leave you with the traditional carol as I learned it as a schoolboy in Northampton in the 1970s (in fact there were other versions: this is one of those best suited to mixed company):

We three kings of orient are,

One in a taxi, one in a car,

One on a scooter blowing his hooter,

Smoking a fat cigar…

Wick V – Donald Murray 6: 2 January

Well, here we are in 2017, so let me begin by wishing everyone a very happy New Year; and a special welcome to any new readers who found a do-it-yourself gansey kit in their Christmas stockings only to realise that batteries were not included… Here’s to another year of bunting and frolic, though not necessarily in that order.

It’s been another pretty good year for this blog: we’re currently averaging over 100 visits per day to the site, and overall last year we had over 30,000 visits. So if you thought you were the only one, nursing in solitude your secret shame, be comforted: you are not alone. (Our name is Legion, for we have many cones of 5-ply.)

I knit more ganseys in 2016 than ever before—five complete and two half-ganseys (one finished off, the other—this one—begun). It’s quite impressive, of course, but it’s a record I don’t plan to match anytime soon. As I’ve been knitting to help manage stress at work, the sensible plan is to have rather less of both.

I think of the current project as alchemy in wool: bad stuff came in, and by the magic of knit and purl stitches it was transformed into something positive, all the poison drawn out. I think there’s a good story to be written of all the thoughts and feelings that have been knitted into a gansey, all the hopes and dreams and aspirations that went into each stitch and pattern; for nobody knits something like a gansey with anything other than good intent. It’s like an arrow of hope loosed into the future.

This particular arrow is almost finished—I reckon another fortnight will see it done (I’ll slow down now as it’s back to work this week). As I’ve mentioned before, the switch to Wendy yarn has distorted my stitch and row gauges somewhat, so that instead of knitting a large / extra large gansey, I’ve got an extra-extra large on my hands. It’ll come in handy if I ever put on another three or four stone in weight, or if my knees get cold…

Because it’s a bit larger, the armholes are slightly deeper than usual, 9.5 inches per side. On the other hand, the stitch gauge is only 7.7 stitches per inch, so I’ve picked up 147 stitches in the round. I’m decreasing down the sleeve at a rate of 2 stitches every 5th row.

And so we bid farewell to 2016, and raise a glass of soluble aspirin to 2017, in the hope that it really has to be an improvement. Still, let’s look on the bright side: it probably all depends on how you look at things. To quote Hamlet, “there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. And things worked out pretty well for him, I believe…

What? Oh.

Wick V – Donald Murray 5: 26 December

I’m writing this on Boxing Day (Monday), and Storm Conor is shaking Caithness like a terrier with a rat between its teeth: there are winds up to 70 mph and vicious showers of sleet, hail and rain.

This is our second storm in three days, after Storm Barbara blew through on Christmas Eve—I was dimly aware of noises on the roof around midnight and the muffled sound of sleigh bells; I listened anxiously for Santa but there was only a sudden gust of wind followed by a distant “Ho, ho, hoeeuuaaarrrggghhhhh” and that was that.

Still, Christmas morning offered a brief respite, so we went up to John O’Groats. Looking out over the North Sea under leaden grey skies you really do feel that you’re standing at the end of the world—which, in a sense, you are, of course.

Stroma gleams in the morning sun

There’s a scene towards the end of the Lord of the Rings when the riders of Rohan come to the rescue of the besieged realm of Gondor, and in the battle Eomer believes that his uncle and sister have been killed. Seized with a beserker death wish he rallies his men with the world’s greatest battle cry: “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world’s ending!”

Well, I always picture the host of Rohan several days’ later sitting on their panting horses at John O’Groats, staring at the bleak expanse of the North Sea. Eomer looks round and observes, ‘Well, it’s the world’s ending all right—kinda ruined, too. Hmm, wonder how it all worked out back at Gondor? Ach, it’s probably fine, yeah: now, who wants ice cream?”

Gordon impersonates . . .

In gansey news, I have slowed down a little but not much: so that I have finished the first side and am over halfway up the second. At this rate I should manage to get the shoulders joined this week. It’s going to be long—about as long as a cricket sweater, I think—but I can always fold up the ribbing the way they used to in the old days.

. . . George M McKay.
Courtesy Wick Heritage Society

Finally, I’d like to thank all those who’ve read, commented or made a donation this year: as my favourite Anglo-Saxon saying goes, “Everyone who cries out wants to be heard”—so thank you. See you next year! And to quote the traditional Somerset Carol:

God bless the ruler of this house and long may he reign,
Many happy Christmases he live to see again!
God bless our generation, who live both far and near
And we wish them a happy, a happy New Year.

(Well, it was either that or “Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the year’s ending!”…)

Wick V – Donald Murray 4: 19 December

It’s the week before Christmas, and I’ve been signed off from work till the new year. The infection has pretty much cleared up but I’m still not fully recovered from the stress-cum-overwork, so the advice is to rest up and come back refreshed for 2017.

Well, knitting is about as relaxing an occupation as I know, so that’s mostly what I’ve been doing—as you can see by the progress I’ve made over the last week. I won’t quite manage seven ganseys during the calendar year of 2016 but I won’t be far off it at this rate.

You can see the pattern more clearly now, what I think of as the distinctive Wick gansey: a wide central panel divided into two or three horizontal bands, and flanked by three or more narrower side panels, including zigzags and moss stitch.

Tonight’s sunset

I’m finding that using Wendy’s yarn has had an effect on my row and stitch gauge; so that I am knitting at 7.7 stitches to the inch instead of 8, and 11½ rows to the inch instead of 12.75. So it’s definitely going to be roomy (which should still be fine—I have broad shoulders, so that although my chest size is 42 inches, I’m most comfortable in jumpers with a 48-inch chest).

In parish notices, Elizabeth has sent me pictures of a vibrant Fair Isle tam she’s knitted as a gift, which offers a welcome splash of colour in what has been a pretty monochrome season. (I do love Fair Isle, and at times think of one day giving up ganseys when I retire and just switching codes, like Sherlock Holmes giving up detecting and deciding to keep bees.) Many congratulations to Elizabeth: finding one of those in your stocking would be even better than a chocolate orange.

Waves at Thurso

It doesn’t look as though we’ll get a white Christmas this year: so far December’s been dreary, grey, wet and mild. (As the old song says, “I’m dreaming of a Wick Christmas / When all the skies are dreary grey / And the weather’s boring / And the rain comes pouring / And the wind blows Santa’s sled astray…”) 

Evening light by the harbour

I think Christmas is still, for me, the most wonderful time of the year. There are a whole jumble of reasons for this, partly tied up with childhood memories and the strangeness of snow, the way it alters a landscape and makes it unfamiliar and unsafe; and partly because it is one of the few times of year when I can make the emotional, imaginative leap to something like religious belief.

This is best summed up for me by Vaughan Williams’ Christmas cantata Hodie. In it, he sets Thomas Hardy’s poem The Oxen to hushed, mystical, magical music. The poem is all about the old legend that at midnight on Christmas Eve all cattle, descendants of those at the original Nativity, would kneel in reverence in their stable. Well, the narrator believed this when he was a child; but he’s older now. And yet, he says, if someone should say to him at midnight on Christmas Eve, “Come, see the oxen kneel”, he would still go, “hoping it might be so.”

And that is Christmas for me. For one night and day of the year, in spite of everything—and let’s be honest, 2016 can jolly well go to gosh-darned heck—I too would go. Hoping it might be so.

Happy Christmas, everyone.