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Scotland, Week 9: 9 October

No matter how thoroughly you’ve explored a place like Caithness there are always new things to discover. The other day I was talking to a visitor to the Archive about harbours and he said, “And have you been to the Bocht?” Well, not only had I not been to it, I’d never heard of it, nor did I even know how to spell it. But as he explained it’s a small abandoned harbour on St John’s Point, on the north coast between Mey and Gills Bay.

To get there you have to drive towards the hamlet of Skarfskerry, park the car by the side of the road and then cross a boggy waste of moorland. The land rises away from you, so it’s a bit of a trudge until you reach the crest and then the whole coastline eastwards as far as John O’Groats and Duncansby Head is suddenly revealed, with the islands of Stroma and Orkney tantalisingly close before you.

Caithness is, let’s face it, soggy. I’ve mentioned before how the ground underfoot feels like a carpet floating on a swimming pool; well, at St John’s Point it feels more like a tablecloth. Within a few paces I’d sunk to my calves, and a cold, brown, slimy liquid began to insinuate itself into my socks. (Hence the county’s tourism slogan: Caithness—putting the quag in mire for over 10,000 years.) We might’ve stayed dry if we’d worn deep-sea diving suits, but I doubt it.

The Bocht, one of those splendid Scottish names that sounds like a Highlander expectorating, is also known as Scotland’s Haven, and it’s quite beautiful, as though Caithness had its very own lagoon. You could imagine it as the headquarters of a James Bond supervillain, with the water sliding back to reveal a rocket launching pad underneath. In fact, as we looked some of the rocks along the sides of the bay seemed disconcertingly to move, until we realised they were basking seals. At such moments time and space cease to apply and all you can do is stand and stare in a dazed sort of wonder. It’s almost—almost—enough to make you forget that your trousers are experiencing a sort of capillary motion and icy peat water is now being transferred up from your socks to your groin in a way that is frankly disturbing.

It’s been a slightly curtailed knitting week, so not a huge amount of progress on the gansey, as we’re off down to visit my family in Northamptonshire again. The good news is, I’ve taken the gansey with me and expect to get it finished in the next few days; the bad news: there won’t be a blog next week. So: happy knitting everyone, and we’ll see you when we get back.

Scotland’s Haven

Gansey Nation will return on Monday 23 October.

Scotland, Week 8: 2 October

Here’s the good news: my right eye’s been given the all-clear by the optician, who says there’s nothing to worry about (other than not actually being able to read with it). I went back on Friday and he dilated my pupils like a Welsh wizard practicing owl transformations, and then he took a scan of the retina.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an image of your retina blown up on a big screen? I’m not sure I’d recommend it. Mine was a veined reddish pink globe, like a Hubble snapshot of Mars, with a large white pimple rising from the surface where it meets the optic nerve, as though Olympus Mons was covered with an unseasonable fall of snow: apparently my eyes are so deep (the reason I’m so shortsighted), the retina doesn’t quite stretch all the way round and there’s a bald patch. Anyway, everything looked fine and the macular, where all the important visiony stuff happens, and which he thought might have been torn by a vitreal detachment, was undamaged. So I can relax. It’s probably just debris blurring my sight. (Probably: there’s that word again.)

It’s a huge relief, of course, especially as the operation to fix a macular tear involves replacing the jelly in the eye; afterwards you have to keep your face horizontal with the ground at all times, even when sleeping, for 2-3 weeks, to keep the pressure on. I’d toyed with buying a magnifying glass so I could pretend I was a detective looking for clues, or telling people I was desperately shy or afraid of ceilings; but none of these seemed quite satisfactory.

A redshank puts its best foot forward

Well, as David Bowie almost observed, I sat right down, waiting for the gift of sight and knitting. I’ve finished the first sleeve and started the second, even unto the end of the first (tree) panel. Incidentally, you’ll notice the sleeves have roll-back cuffs for the wearer to adjust according to preference. A fortnight should see it finished now.

Stroma

In parish news, Christmas has come early this year with a splendid red gansey by the indefatigable Judit. It’s a very effective combination of chevrons and diamonds and is going to be a Christmas present for some very lucky person. Congratulations as ever to Judit!

And now I find I’m looking at things slightly differently. It’s as if I’ve got new eyes. I sound like those friends I left behind in the seventies: I feel as though I could count every leaf on a tree (this is windy Caithness, mind: the maximum this time of year is about three), or see every blade of grass in a verge. I know it’ll wear off soon (it’s started already), but while it lasts it’s as though the whole world just got closer, sharper, in high definition; almost as though it made sense.

It was David Bowie who asked, “Don’t you wonder sometimes / ‘Bout sound and vision?” Well, sometimes, David, yes: sometimes I really do…

Scotland, Week 7: 25 September

Every now and again life throws something at you that’s so unexpected it knocks you completely off balance. Imagine your life partner of thirty years telling you over the morning toast and coffee that they’re really an alien from Kepler 186f, before pulling off their face mask to reveal a squid-like horror of rippling tentacles and slime. Or England winning at cricket. That sort of thing: you didn’t see it coming and it takes a while for all the pieces of your world to settle back into place. That’s kind of where I am just now.

I went to the optician’s for an eye exam last week. I like opticians, I like the routine and the reassurance. I sat in the chair, feeling totally relaxed. With my left eye I breezed through the chart, rattling off every line. Then came the right’s turn—and time just seemed to stop around me. I couldn’t read a single letter. There was just a smudge where the letters ought to be. “Take your time,” the optician said casually, but I could hear the edge in his voice. “How many letters can you read?” I stared at where I knew the chart had to be. But I could see none of them.

Duncansby Stacks

Well: it’s probably just a chunk of debris in the centre of my eye, which should break up over time of its own accord. But we won’t know for sure till I go back next week and he can make a thorough examination. Meanwhile I’m spending a lot of time looking at things with my left eye covered up, like a trainee pirate; and if I concentrate I can see a tiny splodge shimmering in the centre of my vision like one of those energy clouds that used to give Captain Kirk so much trouble on Star Trek. Strange how something so small can cast such a large shadow.

At least it’s not (touch wood) affected my ability to knit, and I’m over halfway down the first sleeve. The size of the top panel was determined by the height of the centre tree, and I decided to make the diamonds in the centre panel shorter than their equivalents on the body or they’d have looked out of proportion to the rest. (The zigzags and plain panels are exactly the same as they were on the body.)

So now I’m filling time by brushing off my pirate jokes (Why did the pirate refuse to say ‘Aye aye, sir’? —Because he only had one eye…); and now England seem to be winning at cricket and I’m left wondering where on earth I left my face mask…

Scotland, Week 6: 18 September

At the risk of repeating myself, the crinkly bits round the edge of Caithness really are stunning. (Inland we’ve got Europe’s largest blanket peat bog, some 4,000 acres of pure squelchiness; but while that’s impressive as a statistic, and very handy if you’re looking to dispose of the bodies, it’s not quite so jaw-dropping to look at.)

I’ve mentioned before that just a couple of miles south of Wick lies the castle of Old Wick, one of Scotland’s oldest, dating from the 1100s. All that’s left now is the location, perched on the sliver of rock forming a geo, or inlet, overlooking the North Sea, and the tower, rising above the landscape like the conning tower of a submarine, as though Celtic technology was more advanced than we’d imagined and an Iron Age vessel had been marooned there after a particularly exciting high tide, and been left to petrify down the ages.

A short walk south from Old Wick along the clifftops takes you to another marvel: a stone arch anchored to the cliffs like a flying buttress, and I like to think that God was a bit concerned about the ability of the land to take the strain, and so brought in the same master masons who built the gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe to shore it up, just to be on the safe side. You’d never know it was there—there’re no signposts, and it can only be seen from a certain angle to the south—and the thought of innocently strolling across onto it and then looking down has haunted my waking dreams ever since. I’m not sure if its correct name is Brig o’ Stack or Brig o’ Trams (there seems some ambiguity on the subject), or even Brig o’ Death Plummet; but coming across it as you round the headland feels like you’ve just won the landscape lottery.

Castle of Old Wick

In gansey news, I have now finished the front as well as the back, joined the shoulders and completed the collar: just the two sleeves to go (more on this next week). I decided on a “rig ‘n’ fur” (or “ridge and furrow”) shoulder, partly because I’m a sucker for the way the ladder at either side seamlessly integrates into the shoulder ridges, and partly because I like the way the cast-off row of a 3-needle bind-off becomes just another ridge, and disappears. Because the neckline is indented, I replaced the third tree in the pattern (see last week’s photo) with a little starette.

In the meantime I plan to pack up my troubles in my old kit bag, take a trip inland and drown them in the peat bog. As the old saying goes, what happens in Caithness, stays in Caithness—usually because the road’s blocked at Berriedale and the trains aren’t running…

Scotland, Week 5: 11 September

Marcel Proust was famously inspired to reminisce (for over 3,000 pages) about his early life by tasting a madeleine cake dipped in a spoonful of tea. Well, mutatis mutandis, there is a food from my childhood in New Zealand that has a similar effect upon me—though not, you’ll be glad to hear, at such length.

Yes, it’s time to celebrate fudge slice, also known as fudge cake, a confection so dense and sweet it warps the very fabric of space-time: not only does it exert a gravitational field strong enough to attract other items towards it across the kitchen counter, its effects reach backwards in time to give your teeth cavities before you’ve even eaten it. Now, you might feel that the nation which brought us the tinned spaghetti pizza doesn’t have much to teach us about haute cuisine: but you would be wrong.

Fudge cake is a tray bake, a blend of ground-up biscuits and a rich melted sugary-chocolatey-buttery mix, which is then left to set before being covered with chocolate icing. It’s so lethal that the cookbooks recommend wearing a hazmat suit during assembly and handling it with the sort of gloves they use during nuclear experiments. It’s safest to eat in pieces about the size of a sugar cube: larger than that and your body sort of collapses around your stomach much as matter does around a black hole.

It’s a taste of my childhood: and while I wouldn’t want it every day (can you even get stomach pumps on Amazon?), it does take me back, to a simpler, happier time; a time before dentists. I made a batch this week and, after the flashbacks about being put to bed by my mother had passed, I took some round for the neighbours to try. I went back later to see what they thought but the curtains were drawn and no one answered my knock; when I lifted the letterbox flap all I could hear was a faint bubbling. I think I also heard someone sobbing—probably just a coincidence, though.

Turning to happier matters, I was on leave last week and so managed to catch up on my knitting. I’ve finished the back and am just over halfway up the front. With luck I shall get the shoulders joined by next week. The pattern is proving straightforward to knit, and designed so that there are two horseshoes to each diamond—so it’s easy to make sure things are aligned properly.

As for dear old Marcel, and the memories unlocked by a piece of soggy cake—all I can say is, if his trigger had been fudge cake his memories would probably mainly have consisted of his being violently sick; and I’d defy even him to get much more than a short story out of that…


TECHNICAL STUFF

The closest online recipe I’ve found is here, though I’d recommend bringing the mixture with the eggs in to the boil to make sure everything’s cooked through; and it takes about 1 lb of biscuits. What?—oh, I beg your pardon. You meant the gansey?

Here are the pattern charts for the yoke (the tree is of course the celebrated “Mrs Laidlaw” of Seahouses which features in many of the books; the rest are Scottish Fleet or Hebridean in origin):