September is harvest time here in Caithness, and the last few days have been gloriously warm and sunny—or at least, when it’s not been dank and foggy and cold—real harvest weather. The wheat’s been cut to stubble, the hay has been baled and the fields are scattered with dozens of tightly-packed cylindrical bales; and these are now gradually being encased in shiny black plastic to keep the rain out through the winter.
It’s a slightly creepy spectacle, to be honest—each bale in turn is hoisted onto the back of a tractor and slowly rotated and twisted an encased in a black cocoon, as though the tractor was a giant metal spider and the bale its paralysed prey (think of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo is trussed by Shelob and you’ll get the picture). Someone should fill one with cheese, just for fun.
It was a still, mostly clear day on Saturday so we went up to John O’Groats and passed field after golden field of hay in the making, or grass drying in rows in the sun, with the sunlight shimmering on the sea beyond the cliffs. (I’m going to get a T-shirt printed, which I can wear and flaunt at tourists on days like this, that says, “It’s not normally like this”.)
The fog was drifting inland in patches, so you passed from sunshine into thick fog and out again from minute to minute; from the international space station it must have looked as though Caithness had been barcoded, and was on special offer.
Thanks to everyone for all the good wishes on my migraine and cold last week. For a few days there I felt as though my consciousness had been placed inside the body of a robot, one whose instruction manual was only available in Japanese and I couldn’t find the On switch. (It’s never good when you blow your nose and your handkerchief looks like an alien life form has just given birth in it.)
I’ve been doing a lot of knitting recently, but the illness slowed me down. Still, I’ve finished the back and done a standard “rig ’n’ fur” on each shoulder (12 rows, or 3 ribs consisting of two rows of purl and two rows of knit stitches). The armhole measures six inches, together with an inch of shoulder ribbing, giving a total of seven inches from the gusset to the top of the shoulder. I’m now embarked on the front, and if I’m lucky will get it finished next weekend.
Finally, I’ve had a query asking if there are any gansey patterns for two needle knitting? I don’t know of any, because this is all I do, but I was wondering if anyone out there had any suggestions where to look…?
So that was summer, then. Only last weekend we were sunning ourselves down by Lybster harbour, inhaling ice creams and watching the sunlight shimmer on the ocean like a sprinkling of fool’s gold; today, Sunday, we huddle indoors as the rain lashes the windows and the wind shakes the branches of the tree in the garden so vigorously it looks like Treebeard with his finger stuck in the light socket.
I had another migraine today. Sometimes they come like the end of the world, bright lights and dysfunctionality, like watching the last quarter of an hour of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a hangover; sometimes, as today, they just sneak up on you and mess with your head.
On Saturday we had hail . . .
It’s hard to describe a migraine to someone who’s never had one, like trying to persuade a lover of classical music (or, well, any music, come to that) that Bob Dylan is a great singer. (Someone once said to me that Bob Dylan is what a migraine would sound like if it had a recording contract, but I tell myself he was just being mean.)
. . . and sunshine
So today I had a headache, sure, but that wasn’t the worst part—everything became fragmented, disjointed. To take just one example, after taking a bath I became convinced that my shirt had been folded inside out—but every time I corrected this and put it on it was still, bafflingly, inside out again. I did this three times. I even tried reversing just one sleeve to see if I could figure out what was wrong (I couldn’t). The only way I could make sense of it was to take another shirt from the rack and compare the two, by aligning the labels. (Honestly, sometimes the flashing lights are preferable.)
Anyway, ganseys. I have finished the gussets as far as the body is concerned, and put them on loops of yarn ready for when I start the sleeves. I increased 2 stitches every 4 rows along the gussets until they were 17 stitches across.
Now I’ve divided front and back, and am embarked on the back. With a pattern as fiddly as this it’s a challenge to do the reverse rows, especially in such a dark yarn, so I have to concentrate (hmm, a migraine you say?). But it’s shaping up nicely, and I do like the effect of the vertical ribs separating the seed stitch panels. Many years ago we lived in East Anglia, the flattest land I’d yet seen (I hadn’t been to Caithness then, of course): this pattern reminds me rather of the drainage dykes running straight as Roman roads across the sunken fields.
Oh, and speaking of flatlands, the Caithness community website has posted some aerial photographs of the county, which you can view here: well worth a peek if you want to see what God’s early handiwork looked like before He moved into the third dimension with the rest of His creation…
Summer returned this weekend, like a guest you thought had gone but who came back for her umbrella and stayed for a cup of tea and a scone; and so, as it was a warm and sunny afternoon, with a light sea breeze and blue skies from horizon to horizon, we jumped in the car and went to Lybster. (Seeing the sun acts on us much as the bat-signal affects Batman; we change clothes and jump in the car—with only this difference, that he combats flamboyant villains, whereas we go out for tea and cakes.)
Lybster (the y is pronounced long, to rhyme with “lie” and not “lip”) is a small fishing village with semi-detached harbour, thirteen miles south of Wick. You can drive all the way down to the harbour, but we parked up in the village and walked the steep road to sea level. That way we got a stunning view of the harbour and the sun-dappled sea beyond, framed by the jagged cliffs that shelter the bay; and also of the Reisgill burn, the stream that plunges down from a rocky defile and runs into the sea.
Like so many of the east coast harbours, Lybster was developed for the herring fishing. It’s said that in Victorian times the fleet consisted of some 357 boats (which seems an awful lot to me, but who am I to argue with the internet?), and 50,000 barrels of herring were shipped out each year; now there are just a handful of small boats fishing for lobsters and crabs.
But Lybster harbour has two things going for it the other little Caithness harbours we’ve visited don’t: a café, and tourists. A former smokehouse has been converted into a café and visitor centre, and on Sunday several people were sitting outside in the sunshine, having a drink and watching the waves breaking on the shingle beach, and the seabirds wheeling below the cliffs, with that peaceful vacancy of mind that comes from a sunny day and nothing particular to do. (If I’m honest, my idea of an afterlife would be much like this; especially if, as Lybster did, it involves ice cream.)
I’ve had a cold—one of those tiresome sort that leaves you constantly fatigued, and in need of a sympathetic person to bathe your temples in lavender water every few minutes (I did suggest this to my colleague at work, but she was surprisingly unenthusiastic). As a result I’ve really got my head down and done a lot of knitting, and am now embarked on the gussets.
I should have said last week, I cast on 312 stitches, which I increased to 336 after the welt. (I’m still working to my new, looser stitch gauge of 8 stitches to the inch.) This gives me 2 seam stitches, and 167 stitches front and back; each seam stitch is flanked by 3 plain knit stitches. The pattern consists of 13 blocks of seed stitch alternating with 12 of basket.
It’s turned cloudy again today, and the wind’s got up. But I don’t care. If I close my eyes I’m still sitting on Lybster harbour steps, the sun on my face, the cries of the birds and the crash of the waves in my ears, Orkney ice cream burning my tongue—and the long, hot walk back up the road to the village yet to do. In a couple of months the clocks go back: I’ve got to remember there can be days like this…
It’s not yet September and autumn is already knocking at the door, with chilly nights and a dusting of frost on the fields. And on a clear, bright morning like today there’s a sharpness to everything, as though God’s adjusted his binoculars and brought the world into focus. (And then it rains.)
A few weeks ago, when I realised I had to go back and re-knit the sleeves on the denim gansey, I decided to make a start on my next project, just for a change. I’ve kept it going since then, on and off, whenever the urge to put the denim one into the woodchipper grew too strong. As a result, now I come to unmask my batteries, I have eleven inches of welt and body under my needles, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so daunting.
It’s for my old friend Derek, whom I’ve known for over forty years (and if that thought doesn’t send me back to the bottle of Old Pulteney tonight, nothing will) – and will hopefully be a Christmas present for him (unless I get side-tracked again, in which case he’s likely to get it for Easter).
The pattern is John Knaggs’ from Flamborough Head, and is taken from Rae Compton, page 54. It consists of alternating bands of “birds e’en and a narrow rib with stocking stitch edge and one repeat of a basket stitch pattern in the centre”. (And if that sounds a bit too much like modern jazz you can do what I did and look at the pattern chart instead!)
This is something of a departure for me (there are no cables, for one thing), but I’ve always liked the look of it. Rae Compton suggests that the pattern “recalls a time when patterns were simpler”, but the interesting thing is just how busy, by which I mean fiddly, it is to knit—simpler doesn’t mean easier! The maximum number of plain stitches side by side you ever get is four: the rest of the time almost every stitch alternates between knit and purl. You have to pay attention.
The texture is different too, with so much seed stitch; there are times when it feels like I’m knitting a tote bag. (The ribs give it a pleated effect, as though I’m knitting a concertina; I can’t help thinking I should be able to play “Over the Hills And Far Away” while I knit.)
Gordon and the Rainbow
As for the denim gansey, I’m delighted to say that it’s finally finished—re-knit, washed and blocked. We went up to John O’Groats on Saturday for the photo shoot (yeah, give it to me, oh yeah, that’s the way, baby), dodging the squally showers. A strong wind was blowing in off the sea, and watching the tourists trying to photograph each other in the gale I realised that the famous signpost was most useful as an anchor, if not a windbreak.
The Isabella heads out to sea
What else? Oh yes, my collection of fantasy short stories, The Dragon of Stroma and Other Tales, will be free until this Friday from the Amazon kindle store.
Finally, many congratulations once again to Judit for another spiffing gansey, this time in violet, with a very effective pattern, and once again measured entirely by eye. (It was knit for another of her doctors, thus reinforcing my view that Finland is a country where the doctors are all as rugged as the landscape…)
Summer has come to an abrupt end in the north Highlands, as we’re currently being battered by strong winds and heavy rains; it’s colder too, just ten degrees this morning. (I know it all helps to keep the midges at bay, but still.)
When it rains it falls so hard the drops bounce back up off the ground like tiny tennis balls, and the puddles froth and churn as though filled with spawning frogs. The rivers are swollen and brown with mud, tumbling down from the hills; Usain Bolt could maybe play Poohsticks against the fast-moving currents, but poor Winnie the Pooh’s stubby little legs would stand no chance.
Dunnet Head from Thurso
Incidentally, if anyone was wondering what the north Caithness coastline looks like, Mercedes have helpfully filmed an advert around Dunnet Head and Duncansby. It’s pretty true to life, too: honestly, you can hardly move up here for all the famous actresses hogging the roads in their fancy cars.
On the gansey front, I’ve knuckled down and have almost finished re-knitting the second sleeve (albeit mostly through gritted teeth). But the effort has paid off, and sometime in the next few days I’ll have it finished, after which we need never speak of it again (henceforth only to be referred to as “the unpleasantness”). The gnarled and be-kinked yarn has made it hard to keep the stitches even, but as ever I’m hoping that washing and blocking will cover a multitude of sins.
While cataloguing some miscellaneous collections this week I came across some reminiscences concerning one of the old Wick harbourmasters, Captain Cormack. One of my favourite stories has him going to collect the harbour dues from a Buckie boat one Saturday night at eleven o’clock. It was summer and, of course, still perfectly light, so the crew could see him coming. As the Captain approached, the boat slipped away to the jetty, then across the bay to moor on the far North Shore. Cormack had to walk all the way around the bay to reach the boat, and when he finally caught up with it the crew were singing hymns, and the captain “was in the middle of an unctuous prayer”. The exasperated harbourmaster had had enough: “Come on, now, ye hoary hypocrite,” he cried, “pay your way and do your praying after!”
Finally this week, many congratulations to Sarah, who’s completed a rather splendid gansey, which you can see here. It’s a slightly modified version of the classic Henry Freeman pattern, and is knitted in sports weight wool; and the colour brings out the pattern very effectively.