I celebrated my 56th birthday last week—though now I come to think about it, perhaps “celebrated” isn’t exactly the word. (Commiserated? Maudlined? Whining-self-pitied?) Anyway, as a treat, Margaret offered to bake me a cake of my choosing.
After detailed internet searches involving algorithms, spreadsheets and an army of trained field mice (it’s great—they work for crumbs), I finally came up with the chocolate cake of my dreams, a platonic ideal of an ur-cake, so dark and rich and moist we’ve already been approached by several Texans asking if they can sink an exploratory well. It’s dense enough to have its own event horizon, and it’s possible that we may have discovered simultaneously both dark matter and the fact that it goes nicely with chocolate frosting.
Even a small quantity can be lethal. We’re eating it in centimetre cubes, and even then it sort of sinks to the bottom of your stomach where it slowly expands. (In my darker moments I’ve sometimes wondered what it must feel like to have the creature from Alien gestating inside you; now I have a pretty good idea.)
Under these circumstances any kind of activity, such as standing up, is out of the question, so it’s lucky that knitting is the kind of hobby that one can do while paralysed from the stomach downwards. Reader, I have finished the back, and you can now see the pattern in all its damson glory.
Fergus Ferguson (detail)
from the Johnston Collection
Couple of things to note: first of all, as in the original, there aren’t shoulder straps as such—the pattern just goes all the way to the top of the shoulder, where front and back will be joined. This wasn’t common practice, as far as I can tell, but it’s not unknown—the photos in Gladys Thompson for the Patrington & Withernsea gansey, for example, are similar.
I’d hoped that the Johnston Collection (to which the original photo belongs) would be back online by now, but I understand that might take a while yet. And as the whole point of doing this pattern was so you could see how our re-creation matches the original, it’s a bit frustrating! Now, no one respects copyright law more than I—it’s my job, after all—but under the circumstances I hope no one will mind if we show a partial image of the original yoke here for comparison. (And as soon as the collection is back online I’ll post a link to it.)
Spring finally arrives
As I said last week, we can’t match the original exactly—the stitch and row gauge on that were far too fine—but on the whole we’re rather pleased with it.
Returning to the question of being old: for my birthday last week, not only did I get a cake, I got my biennial bowel screening test kit from NHS Scotland. Reading the instructions, I’m glad to see that it’s moving with the times. Whereas two years ago the advice was to try to catch enough matter to use as a sample as it exited the body (on a bad day not unlike grouse shooting on the Scottish moors in a blizzard); now one is advised to place a container in the bottom of the toilet bowl and aim in its general direction, like the crew of a Lancaster bomber trying to destroy a dam in the Ruhr.
As for me, I’ve decided to adopt the technique recommended by Sigourney Weaver in Aliens when faced with a similar situation: “I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure…”
There’s quite a lot to cover this week, starting with how we approached the yoke pattern of Fergus’s gansey. But if you’d rather skip the technicalities and go straight to the regular blog—and let’s be honest, who could blame you?—then Click here.
Are we alone? Have they all gone? OK, then. (Warning: maths ahoy!)
Now, here’s the problem we ran into: the row gauge of Fergus’s gansey changes quite dramatically at the start of the yoke. Up to now what I’ve been knitting matches the body of the gansey in the original photograph pretty closely. But now there are no fewer than 200 rows from the gussets to the shoulders.
My standard row gauge is currently about 10.5 to the inch—if I recreated Fergus’s yoke pattern exactly it would be almost 20 inches long! (We’ve charted out the original pattern, so you can see what it consists of.)
Chart of photo
On the other hand, the (horizontal) stitch gauge is about the same. Go figure.
Anyway, there’s no way I can reproduce Fergus’s original pattern under these circumstances, not at that scale. So we had to compromise. Basically, what we did was this: we calculated that the central tree consisted of about 50% of the height of the pattern, and the two centre diamonds about 25% each.
Now, given my current row gauge we had about 100 rows to play with, give or take, so the maths are really simple. We made each centre diamond 25 rows high, and the central tree about 50 rows.
But! There’s a catch. Making the centre panels shorter vertically also necessarily made them narrower horizontally—and remember that the stitch gauge stayed about the same. So we had to play around with the pattern to get it to fit. In the end we achieved this by widening the side panel diamonds and also the moss stitch rows used to separate pattern bands (instead of having these one stitch wide, we made them 3 stitches wide, copying the pattern from the body so it would all be in keeping with the original).
It’s a compromise, of course. But hopefully the overall effect will look roughly similar, even if it’s not so fine as the original. (How on earth did she do it?)
Anyway, that’s enough of that. Time to take a deep breath and rejoin the others.
One of the reasons why I enjoy working with archives—apart from the fact that I get to sit indoors out of the rain and sometimes receive chocolates at Christmas—is the way it telescopes the past and the present, closing the distance between them until it’s as thin as a sheet of letter paper. Here’s an instance I came across last week. It’s a story from the First World War, so you’ll forgive me if the tone is rather more serious than usual.
We were recently given a collection of letters from the family of Sinclair Macdonald, the celebrated Thurso architect, relating to the war service of his son, who’d been christened John but was known as Ian.
Ian had served in the Middle East but in April 1918 he was made 2nd lieutenant and posted to the Western Front. This was at the time of the great German offensive, a last desperate attempt to win the war before America could turn the tide in the Allies’ favour. It nearly succeeded: the Germans broke through French and British lines and suddenly trench warfare was a thing of the past, all was chaos and confusion and movement as the Germans surged towards Paris and the Allies frantically tried to throw together a last-ditch defence.
On 11 April Ian Macdonald was posted as missing. He’d gone on patrol one night with another officer and wasn’t seen again. Next day there was a German attack, the British were forced to retreat and the officer he’d accompanied was found dead. But Ian had vanished in the darkness of the night.
For two weeks the family was left in uncertainty as to whether he’d been killed or captured. Two officers with the same initials had been lost on the same day, one of them killed, and no one knew if either of them was Ian. (To make matters worse no one even knew if he’d been registered with the army as Ian or John.)
It’s impossible to read the letters without experiencing something of what the family must have gone through. Two weeks! Can you imagine? There are letters of support and encouragement from family and friends, as you’d expect. Eventually the news came through: Ian was alive, a prisoner, and at last his name was posted in the paper.
Then I read a heartrending letter from a lady in Ross-shire. She’d read the news of Ian’s capture in The Scotsman. She had a son in the same regiment, but he was still posted as missing; how had Sinclair Macdonald learned that Ian was alive? How might she discover the situation of her own son? (I looked her up and found she’d already lost one son at Gallipoli, at which point I had to get up from my computer and go for a walk and think about something else for a while.)
Ian survived the war, though his health never recovered. Now, like almost everyone who lived through that dreadful war, he’s passed into history. And yet—through the words of his family and friends recorded in letters like these—they’re not quite lost to us.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been suffering from one of these long-lasting colds. It’s nothing serious, just a cold, but it’s come and gone for many weeks now, not changing very much; to quote one of my favourite examples of bad verse (attributed to the former poet laureate Alfred Austin): “O’er the wires the electric message came / He is no better; he is much the same”.
(This is not the best example of bad verse I’ve come across: that honour must go to James Grainger for his immortal line, “Come, muse, let us sing of rats”. Though Wordsworth deserves a mention for this wonderfully trite couplet: “I’ve measured it from side to side / Tis three feet long and two feet wide”.)
Poetic licence aside, last week the cold did get a little worse, obliging me to take some time off work. I didn’t feel so bad sitting down, but when I stood up I was at once in touch with my inner 85 year-old and started wheezing a curiously high-pitched squeak, like someone inflating a bicycle tyre by rhythmically squeezing a mouse. I keep hoping spring will come and get rid of all this nonsense, but since it was just 4ºC over the weekend with snow and hail—a Caithness heat wave—and today the winds are 50-60mph, that may take a while.
Still, lots of knitting. You may remember a while back I highlighted some superb old photographs from the Johnston Collection of Wick fishermen wearing ganseys. Frustratingly, you can’t see them just now as the website is down; but one of them featured a man called Fergus Ferguson and his highly decorated gansey—a superb example, in some ways resembling a sort of missing link between the Scottish mainland ganseys and those of the Hebrides, and not recorded elsewhere.
I can’t show you the original here for copyright reasons (hopefully the collection will be back online soon) but Fergus’s is the gansey I’ve chosen to try next, this time for Margaret in Frangipani damson. We can’t recreate the pattern exactly, as the sizing and stitch gauge are necessarily different, but after poring over the image we think this is a reasonably close approximation (the chart shown is for the body; I’ll post the yoke pattern next week.)
In parish notices, Judit has sent me a picture of her latest gansey, splendidly modelled by her brother, for whom it was a gift. As ever I am impressed—and not a little envious—of both the execution and fit. Many congratulations once again.
Finally, I leave you with these affecting lines written by the poet George Wither, which I came across in The Book of Heroic Failures, and which have stayed with me ever since. They’re from his tragic poem “I Loved A Lass”:
She would me ‘Honey’ call,
She’d—O she’d kiss me too.
But now alas! She’s left me
Falero, lero, lero.
Surprise! (At this point you must imagine party horns blowing raucously while streamers and confetti pour down from the ceiling like origami volcanic ash.) For here it is, my stealth gansey, which has been flying under the radar for the last six months, now finally revealed to an unsuspecting world.
I started it last October when we went to America on holiday. You see, it was a promise to a very dear friend, but I also wanted it to be a surprise—and it’s rather hard to surprise someone when everything you do is posted in weekly bulletins on the world wide web. The only solution was to knit it alongside the Buckie gansey, fitting in an extra couple of rows each night after my normal stint, and not tell anybody.
I’ve done so much knitting this year my fingers have developed horny plates, so that on my last trip to the doctor he expressed concern that I was mutating into some kind of reptile, a sort of human/horny toad hybrid. (That, of course, and my habit of catching flies in the surgery with my tongue, which I see now was a mistake.)
It’s another Filey pattern, worn by a lifeboat man and charted in Rae Compton’s book on pages 64-66. It’s one of my favourites and consists of two kinds of diamonds alternating with moss stitch panels. There are no cables. It’s knitted in Frangipani denim yarn, a bright spring colour which brings out the pattern nicely.
Judit of course has got here before me: you can see her take on the pattern in a fetching shade of pink here, modelled nicely by a lady and a languidly boneless cat.
Meanwhile the weather was so ghastly this weekend we hardly stepped outdoors, though we did pop briefly up to John O’Groats on Sunday. The wind was strong enough to strip paint, churning the ocean into angry foam. Couples would sit in the car park watching the rain pour down their windows, then make a sudden dash for the famous signpost with the same sort of desperation you see in suicide pacts, take a selfie and run back to shelter, screaming. A seagull drifted past me backwards at one point, and our eyes met—it had an almost embarrassed air and gave a sort of helpless shrug, trying to look nonchalant as it vanished in the direction of Orkney.
I wonder, by the bye, what the Orcadians do with all the seagulls we send them? If we tied messages to their legs in this wind it’d be quicker than email—the legs of the seagulls, I mean of course, not the people of Orkney.
Finally, I handed the Buckie gansey over to George and, mirabile dictu, it fits. In return I got a rather nice bottle of single malt whisky and, do you know, I rather think I got the better of the bargain…
I’m writing this with my feet in a basin of hot water, a mustard poultice wrapped around my head, bathed in such a quantity of steam and towels I look like Lawrence of Arabia climbing into a Turkish bath. For alas! my cold has returned. In fact, we’re both suffering just now. The neighbours have told us to paint a large cross on the door and only come out when—or if—we survive.
I may say, however, and without hyperbole, that like Pheidippides, who ran 26 miles to bring the news of the victory over the Persians at Marathon to Athens and then expired, I managed to last long enough to complete the gansey before succumbing to my cold. And here it is.
Blocking has opened up the trellis panels so you can see the moss stitches underneath, and I must say this makes for a very pleasing combination of patterns, the patterns themselves showing nicely through the colour of the yarn. I’m not saying I’d be in a hurry to knit it again anytime soon, but I’m glad I did: it’s very effective.
The past, they say, is another country. In this case it turned out to be another county, viz., Sutherland. We visited the ruined broch of Cârn Liath the other day, a stony mound on an exposed stretch of the Moray Firth south of Brora. It was a cold, grey, blustery day with rain in the air (or “spring” as we like to call it), and I must admit I didn’t have high hopes—it lies beside the A9 and I’d driven past it any number of times, just another lump in a landscape of lumps.
Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong: it was dark, brooding, full of Iron Age shadows and atmosphere. Although the roof and most of the walls have gone—it now stands 12 feet high, but once was three times as tall—you can still go inside and get a feel for what it was like. Brochs are circular towers with two concentric walls and a space between them for stairs, and would once have had several levels divided by wooden floors. Standing at ground level in the central space, enclosed by the massive stone walls, even open to the sky as this was, you felt cut off, enclosed, secure.
Cârn Liath stairwell, seen at right in above pic
The lintels and ceilings are all very low, the guard chambers beside the doorway tall enough for a child of 13 to stand upright in; all of which of course lends support to the current archaeological theory that Iron Age Scotland was colonised by dwarves from the Lonely Mountain after the dragon destroyed their home. Archaeologists are even now digging for evidence, and no doubt singing the hi-ho song to keep their spirits up.
We archivists are always a bit jealous of archaeologists, who get to grow their hair long and go on tv looking manly (or womanly, as the case may be) and rugged; but on the other hand we don’t get through quite so many pairs of trousers, so it all evens out, I expect. (As they used to warn young archaeology students: better to die on your feet than live on your knees…)
Finally this week, congratulations to Margaret, no less than four of whose photographs have been included in the Photoion Photography Awards 2015 book. Regular readers of the blog and Margaret’s Blipfoto feed will know what a remarkably good photographer she is: but why should we keep it to ourselves?