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Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 3 – 14 October

On Sunday, the sun shone—actually, you know what, this has been such a rare occurrence lately that we should all probably just stop here a minute while we take this in—anyway, as I was saying, the sun shone and so, like the opposite of those Saharan flowers that bloom for an hour once every few years when it rains, we dusted off our shades and got in the car and headed off to Latheronwheel. It would have been rude not to.

Latheronwheel Harbour, looking northeast

I’ve mentioned Latheronwheel before: it’s one of those beautiful abandoned harbours on the east Caithness coast, about half an hour’s drive south of Wick, a relic of the herring fishing boom of c.1830-c.1930. You turn off the main road and drive through the village before taking a narrow road road that zigzags down to the harbour itself. It was a still day, just a light sea breeze (the Caithness wind machine having been turned down from “jet engine test facility” to “motorway service station rest stop hand dryer”, it was not unlike being breathed on by an asthmatic sheep who’d recently been eating seaweed). We crossed the burn by the beautiful old stone bridge and climbed up to the top of the south cliffs. Here the ruins of a small stone lighthouse give you a superb view of the entire harbour, as well as, on this occasion, the snout of an inquisitive seal bobbing in the swell like a buoy. We walked along the clifftop path for a spell, the sea a flat calm below us, as though it had been painted on, until we reached the place where the edge of the cliff is only a short metre or so away from the path. My rule on whether to follow a path is quite simple: if an incautious sneeze could send me plunging to my death, on the whole I prefer not to. So we turned back, honour satisfied, the shades safely back in storage until next spring.

Rook on a fence

This week in Parish Notices: speaking of zigzag tracks and cliffs, Judit has done it again. It’s another very effective yet simple design, single line zigzags also known as waves, and the lighter coloured yarn shows it off to perfection. The pattern comes from Rae Compton’s book, page 83, and it’s a pattern that features in Scotland and Northumberland. The book notes that this pattern “is called the multitude on the Northumberland coast, but more commonly known in a two-line version which is called marriage lines, and a single line which is likened to cliff paths, or else the plunging value of the pound since Britain voted for Brexit in 2016”. Warmest congratulations once more to Judit!

Finally this week I’d like to share a couple of quotes with you. One’s by Woody Allen, and its obvious absurdity sums up our situation as a species and a nation better than anything else I’ve read: “”More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” (I use this a lot in work presentations and then wonder why other people get promoted.)

I like this other quote because it reminds us that perspective is everything; and because I’d like it to be true. It’s by the celebrated historian of the twentieth century, AJP Taylor: “When, and if, the grubby history of the twentieth century is remembered in five thousand years it will be for one man and one man only, and his name is Armstrong. Well, perhaps two, and they are both named Armstrong.”

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 2 – 7 October

“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain,” as noted classicist Hans Gruber said in that famous documentary Die Hard, “he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”. Well, all I can say is that if someone had introduced Alexander to the concept of two-colour knitting back in c.300 BC, that would have knocked the cocky beggar off his stride without all this world domination nonsense. Yes, I’m dipping my toe into the technicolour waters of Fair Isle; Margaret bought me a kit at the Edinburgh Yarn Festival, and I’ve decided it’s time to give it a go. So far I feel rather like a cat who’s been asked to help with the washing up—I don’t seem to have enough opposable thumbs—but I shall persevere. It’s a project for the dark winter evenings, and a reminder that colour still exists in an increasingly grey and twilight world.

Showers at Sea, near the Trinkie

Meanwhile I’m progressing with the Whitby gansey with considerable relief—to be honest, if I’d finished the neck by now I’d be sobbing on it—and am slowly working my way up the back. There’s not a lot to say about it that I haven’t said before, except that it’s a superb pattern and very easy to knit. This time I’ll probably just do a standard rig’n’fur shoulder instead of the more usual saddle shoulder. Partly because the pattern is so striking it really doesn’t need it, and, to be frank with you, partly because it’s easier.

Sandy Goe

Speaking of cats, have you ever thought of the many uses cat litter can be put to? There are entire websites dedicated to the subject, more proof, if any were needed, that we are living in the end of days. You can use the stuff for removing odours in kitchens, fridges and shoes; you can dry out wet smartphones with it; you can use it for traction in icy conditions, and also for clearing up nuclear waste, as well as— Wait. Hang on: you what?

Marbled Skies over Wick – a double exposure

Apparently, yes: cat litter is every bit as good at mopping up liquid nuclear waste as it is at the more, ahem, obvious kinds of liquids. Soak it up, put it in a drum, seal it and it’s stable and safe. At least it is if you use the right kind of cat litter. It seems that industrial cat litter is made using clay, which is perfect for this kind of thing; organic cat litter, made with straw, which is effectively compost and, like compost, liable to overheat, not so much. Apparently at some point an American waste treatment plan accidentally switched from the one to the other and—well, let’s just say that it’s lucky no cats were actually using it at the time…

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 1 – 30 September

There’s a classic definition of a Scottish croft as a small parcel of land bounded on all sides by a lawsuit. I was thinking of this the other day when we went to the abandoned clearance village of Badbea close to the Caithness-Sutherland border.

As I mentioned last week, Badbea is unusual in that it wasn’t abandoned because of the Highland Clearances, it was created because of them. Although there had been a small number of inhabitants in earlier times, it was mostly settled around 1800 when twelve families, some 80 people in all, were moved there from Langwell and the Strath of Berriedale. The Clearances of course happened when landowners realised they could make a lot more money from sheep farming than from the rents of their tenants (this was known as “the coming of the Great Sheep”); as a result many hundreds of the poorest people were driven out of their homes and forced to emigrate, or else scratch a living on bleak and barren scraps of land. Few seem more bleak than Badbea.

Ruined croft at Badbea.

Even on a warm September afternoon, with the early autumn sunshine glinting on a flat, calm ocean, it looks a tough prospect. God knows what it was like in a wild, dark, stormy January. The narrow strip of land land slopes sharply down to the cliffs, a sheer drop to the sea; even today if you mowed the grass and dropped a tennis ball the chances are it would roll away to plummet over the edge. Like other crofters the people kept cows and pigs (there was one horse) and grew what vegetables they could. But without the additional income of the summer herring fishing they would’ve starved: and as the fishing declined so the people had to leave, the last inhabitant clinging on till 1911. Now it’s just stones in a field, the bare outlines of houses, and a lingering sense of injustice and the memory of a bitter wrong. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that if someone ever invents a time machine, one of its first uses will be me going back in time and giving Sir John Sinclair and the Duke of Sutherland a sharp piece of my mind.

Badbea Monument

Meanwhile, I have a new gansey to unveil. I started this one back in July, as something to do when it got too dark of an evening to knit a navy gansey (it was either that or turn on the light; honestly, this seemed easier). This is another of my favourite patterns—possibly my favouritest. I’ve knit it a few times before and it always feels like coming home. It’s in Frangipani pewter, a lovely bluish-grey, and it’s for me to wear, all the previous versions having been given away down the years. This one is intended to keep me warm in my old age, which feels like it could happen any day now.

Nybster Harbour at high tide

The one fact everyone knows about Badbea is that the locals used to tether their children and livestock to stop them falling over the cliffs. Even—apparently this is true—their chickens. (The thought of a sort of giant cat’s cradle of interweaving ropes stretching away to the cliff edge, each with a chicken attached, boggles the mind. Eminently practical, though: indeed, a few well-trained chickens could probably weave a pretty good fishing net.) But when I think of things like this I can’t help wondering—not about what caused them finally to leave – but what on earth took them so long…?

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 9 – 23 September

What’s in a name? Well, quite a lot, it appears. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, as Juliet so shrewdly soliloquised; but I for one might feel differently about it, if its Latin name was, say, Stinkpukia Arsgravia, or some such. Which brings to me to something that I’ve been mulling over recently. Not far from my parents’ house in the Midlands is a village called Badby; and not far from where we live now is an abandoned village by the name of Badbea. To the unwary, the names look similar—but they couldn’t be more different.

Badby Woods

Badby is set in the lush Northamptonshire countryside, all green fields and rolling parklands, each village seemingly crammed with manor houses and medieval churches—the kind of place where you turn a corner and expect to run into a Cavalier exercising his dogs or a Roundhead in search of a more severe haircut. Indeed, when I grew up there local people still peppered their conversations with “Zounds!”, “‘sblood!” and “Stap my vitals!”; though now I think about it that may just’ve been the school I went to. The name Badby translates as “Badda’s Settlement” (the -by suffix is from Old Norse, showing that later on it fell under the rule of the Danes after the Viking invasions).

The gansey gets an outing – Badbea monument in background

Whereas Badbea in Caithness derives from the Gaelic for a thicket of birch trees (bhaid beithe), though there are precious few trees to be seen there now. The emphasis comes on the second syllable, which takes a bit of getting used to (it’s pronounced “bad-bay”). It occupies a narrow, windswept, barren strip of land between the A9 and the cliffs which drop sheer down to the sea. Badbea was settled c.1800 by crofting families driven out of the fertile valleys further south and west, as part of the infamous Highland Clearances, where people were evicted to make way for more profitable sheep farming. History is like a series of overlapping tiles: it’s worth remembering that places like Wick harbour were built to provide employment for the hundreds of people left destitute by the Clearances. But where, one asks, are the sheep and the fish and the people now? (“Ou sont les moutons d’antan” as the poet said.)

Meanwhile, in gansey news I’m cheating slightly this week: I actually finished this jumper last week, but I’m so pleased with it I’ve decided to give it an encore, and feature it washed and blocked and in its final state. I have of course started another project, but in a transparent attempt to build suspense and heighten curiosity, I’m holding it back till next time. Be still, my beating heart. Well, maybe not that still. Stillish, perhaps.)

Badbea boundary wall

I’ll say more about Badbea next time. We visited Badby and its celebrated woods (an ancient plantation, established as a deer park by Henry III back in 1246) when we were down recently, and I can thoroughly recommend it for a walk. You may encounter locals blackberrying, or sheep, as did we—each species deploying the celebrated “you bain’t from round ‘ere” stare, the kind that makes one feel as though they’re calculating the value of your internal organs on the Daventry black market—but never mind. It’s full of what I suspect may very well be trees (nature was never my strong suit), even if there aren’t any roses. However they’re called.

Thurso (Donald Thomson): Week 8 – 16 September

And so I’m back in Caithness (Margaret following in a day or so), swapping sunshine and temperatures in the low 20ºs for downpours, gusts of 50 mph and roughly 12ºc. It’s good to be back. We’ve been taking the rest cure with my brother at the ancestral mansion, sadly ancestral no more in the absence now of both my mother and father. Strange the way bricks and mortar resonate with the absences of loved ones, the way a concert hall resounds to a great symphony in the seconds between the performance ending and the applause beginning. I love the house very deeply; but I loved it more for being theirs.

The view from the upstairs window…

The house is in the country and backs onto the Grand Union Canal. It used to be a pub. It’s four storeys high, three from the road but go round the back and the way slopes down to another floor: boatmen would tie up their narrowboats at the back garden and go inside for a drink. (The original bar is still there; lean against it, your back to the great inglenook fireplace, and history is right there nudging your elbow.) What a place to grow up in. I spent most of the last couple of weeks sitting at an upstairs window, knitting, thinking and watching the ducks, and the boats chugging past. A canal holiday is said to be one of the most relaxing things you can do; but take it from me, watching other people have one is even more so.

St Mary’s, Badby

As expected, I have finished the Thurso gansey, and I couldn’t be more pleased. It will have to wait till we get ourselves sorted before it’s properly washed and blocked, but it almost fits “as is”, and will hopefully become my new everyday gansey. (Given the weather I found awaiting me, this can’t happen too soon.) I’ve already started my next project, another very old favourite, but I’ll say more about that next week.

And if a canalside holiday is relaxing and revitalising to the soul, the 1,200-mile journey there and back down the M6 motorway is anything but. Dante originally had Charnock Richard services as one of his circles of hell, in between (appropriately) violence and fraud; after stopping there DH Lawrence described it as “utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile” (the toilets alone he said were “like black manna from the skies of doom”). It’s said that the average person spends roughly a third of their life asleep, the equivalent of 25 years: trust me, this feels like time well spent compared with time on the M6, and shorter, though there were times I came perilously close to combining the two.

Pitlochry (not to be confused with the M6)

I’m going to leave you with one of my own poems, written a couple of years back when I was experimenting with the style and spirit of zen poetry, trying to say a lot with very little. It was about going back to what I still think of as home:

House where I grew up,
How low the ceilings!
With every step
Dust rises.