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Wick IV – George McKay: 24 July

4W160723-2The funfair’s back, down by the Riverside—you can almost see it from our house, and judging by the flashing lights and pounding music every evening it’s as if the spaceship from Close Encounters has landed in Wick. (Apparently a signal transmission containing Saturday Night Fever has just reached their home world, and now they’re trying to communicate with the citizens of Earth using the music of the Bee Gees…)

I’m not a big fan of funfairs, to be honest. The rides always make me feel like I’m trying out for NASA moon landings, while the overall experience feels like a tawdry Las Vegas theme park in a damp field with added sheep. (Mind you, if I ever did find myself in Las Vegas I’d probably experience sensory overload, and the medical team would have to bathe my temples with lavender water and read Proust to me while I listened to Wagner in a darkened room until I recovered.)


The view up the river

Meanwhile the latest gansey has rolled off the production line, polished and sparkling and ready for a test drive. I must say, I’m really rather chuffed with it: not only for the pattern, which is an instant classic, nor the thrift of reusing old yarn (which was a bit of a pain); but it’s soft and chunky and comfortable, and it already feels like I’ve had it for years, a good sign.

I’ve started the next gansey, a classic Scarborough pattern in Frangipani bottle green, but I’ll say more about that next week.

In other news, I went back to see the consultant at Inverness hospital about my swollen lips. In the last few months you’ll remember I’ve tried eliminating all the likely causes of an allergic reaction (cinnamates, sulphates, crisps, chocolate, etc.), and then reintroducing them—starting, purely in the interests of scientific research you understand, with chocolate—but the situation’s remained more or less the same: no major flare-ups of ulcers, but my lips are still rather puffy, my mouth still sensitive.


Grass seedheads and Valerian

The consultant poked and prodded, and asked me questions like “Have you been anywhere exotic?” (I told him I’d been to Northampton, but apparently that doesn’t count). We agreed it was probably an allergy, but he’s keeping me on his books a little longer as there’s just a remote chance it could still turn into something serious.

“Now, when you say serious,” I prompted. He affected nonchalance. “Oh,” he said, “you know. Tuberculosis.” At which point my eyes came out on little stalks like a snail’s and the nurse had to hold me down for a bit. (It’s absolutely not TB, of course—the odds were always vanishingly small, and are now even smaller; and as he said, if I develop it now it’d be so rare I’ll be famous ever after in medical textbooks—not exactly what I meant by wanting to see my name published.)

4W160723-1Well, I’ve got another six months before I can be safely discharged. In the meantime, meals have turned into a sort of culinary Russian roulette, never knowing which mouthful will prove the trigger for another outbreak. Hmm, I wonder—could Hotel Chocolat truffles be the cause? There’s only one way to find out…

Wick IV – George McKay: 17 July

4W160718-1The European definition of an English summer is, apparently, three days of sunny weather followed by a thunderstorm; but what they’d make of Caithness in July one can only guess.

For it’s the height of summer here—the hay is being cut in the fields, baled and shrink-wrapped into what look like ugly black plastic bin liners; the lush, grassy meadows are filled with sheep, innocently thinking what lucky little sheep they are to be so well fed; and it’s raining—though there’s no wind today, so we’ve got that fine Scotch mist that hangs in the air like breath, or low cloud, or a traditional British power shower.


Wick Town Hall
15 July 2016

It’s rained a lot. Usually the rain up here is propelled by gale-force winds, so that even fine drops hit you like frozen peas fired from a blunderbuss; but this week we’ve just had downpours. A pool has developed outside the library: it’s now so deep, and it’s been there so long, that I suspect it of having its own Watcher, like the many-tentacled horror that lay in wait for Frodo outside the gates of Moria. (On Tuesday I saw two little girls step incautiously close; I turned away and when I looked back they’d disappeared; all that was visible was ripples spreading across the surface of the water, a few solitary bubbles and a library card.)


Castle Sinclair Girnigoe and Noss Head Lighthouse, and two soggy walkers.

The ground is waterlogged. Much of Caithness is swampy, boggy marshland, the land lying on the water table like algae floating on a pond: in the field behind our house a couple of cyclists have pitched a tent, and are now settling in for an exciting evening of, ah, well, settling in for the evening. In the half hour since they started their tent is already noticeably lower; I just hope they can swim.


The Carnival has come to town

In gansey news, I’m delighted to say that I’ve almost finished the current project: the first sleeve is complete, and the second sleeve is all but. I should finish the knitting perhaps on Thursday or Friday. (Because it’s been fashioned out of recycled yarn the darning in of ends will take longer than usual—up to five joins or frayed threads per 100g ball. Shall I let you in on a secret? I’m not looking forward to it at all.) It’s been great to rediscover navy yarn, though; I just wish I could see it better to knit in poor light.

And now it’s time to go do something constructive like watch the cricket highlights on television—either that or, seeing the tent is now listing to starboard, I could go and throw those poor campers a lifebelt…

Wick IV – George McKay: 10 July

4W160711-1 On Sunday we took a drive some 20 miles down the coast to one of my favourite places, the tranquil hamlet and harbour of Dunbeath.

As I’ve mentioned before the coast of Caithness is as crinkly as a pie crust (alas not filled with sweet apple or rhubarb, but instead with peat bog and decomposing seaweed); and once upon a time almost every inlet or “goe” was its own harbour. It was a cloudy, muggy day, squalls of rain blowing in from the west with shafts of golden sunlight far out to sea illuminating the rigs, as though the Lady in the Lake had taken a wrong turn at the M6 interchange and Excalibur was now located at the Beatrice Oil Field by mistake.

4W160711-2The harbour was mostly deserted—just a couple of ramblers, a lady walking her dog and the endless bickering of the seagulls and kittiwakes. (Seagulls, as polls have shown, mostly voted Exit in the recent referendum, seduced by promises of millions of pounds being spent on dropped ice cream cones and half-eaten packets of chips, just for them; and now they don’t like to be reminded by the pro-Remain kittiwakes that they’ve been, as it were, gulled…)

4W160710-1-2And now, a confession: if AD 69 was the Year of the Four Emperors, 2016 is going to be the Year of the Five Ganseys. You see, although I’ve been knitting them for 30 years, I’ve given most of them away as presents—and I only have a handful to call my own. So I decided I’d concentrate on revisiting some of my favourite patterns, and most of the ganseys I’ll be knitting from hereon in will be for stock; I’m making up for lost time.

4W160710-1I will, of course, still try out some new patterns, such as this one (and there are plenty of unrecorded ones from Wick to explore). As you’ll see from the pictures I’ve almost finished the first sleeve. By decreasing two stitches every sixth row after the gusset I ended up with 93 stitches at the cuff. This has been decreased down to 88 on the first row of ribbing, making the cuff eleven inches around. The end, even with my eyesight, is in view.

Incidentally, it’s almost impossible for those of us of a certain age to hear the name “Dunbeath” without recalling the classic scene in Blackadder when our hero repeatedly taunts a couple of pompous actors with the name of the Scottish Play, which in theatre tradition must never be spoken aloud…

All together now: “Dunbeath!”

Wick IV – George McKay: 3 July

4W160704-1When I was at university I studied medieval history and one of the things that caught my attention—one of the very few, as my tutors would tell you—was the random outbreak of irrational behaviour across communities, such as the famous dancing sickness. Whole villages and towns in France and Germany would suddenly, without obvious cause, start to dance, like extras in—I was going to say an Ingmar Bergman movie, but maybe Fred Astaire is nearer the mark—and the dance would last for days.

Because historians hate to leave things unexplained, the consensus in the early 1980s was that this was because they’d eaten bread contaminated by a fungus, a malady known as “ergotism”. (Of course, I knew this to be nonsense, because as a student I had first-hand knowledge of eating mouldy bread, and no one saw me or my flatmates dancing—running in an awkward crouch to the seat of ease, yes; dancing, not so much.)


Grand Union Canal and Northants countryside

More recent theories include a sort of mass psychosis, religious mania, or even (my favourite) “shared stress”. But I gradually developed my own alternative theory, and I think it holds good: sometimes people, and societies, just go batshit crazy for no reason.

But enough about Britain’s EU referendum.

We’re back in Caithness after a restful, tranquil and delightful visit with my family in their canalside home in rural Northamptonshire. “O”, as my good friend Keats once said, “for a beaker full of the warm South”; and it really was warm. Ever since we got back we’ve been telling people tales of a land so temperate the inhabitants go around without pullovers or thermal underwear, only to be waved aside in knowing disbelief, as though we’d tried to sell them shares in a diamond mine in Radnorshire.


Not a reflecting pool – Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal

I didn’t take the gansey with me, as it’s hard for me to keep track of a pattern and socialise at the same time (or socialise at all, to be fair). Instead I took a cone of Frangipani bottle green and started the next project, getting most of the ribbing completed. I’ll set it aside till the navy one is done.

I’ve still done a fair bit of knitting on the navy gansey since the last post, mind you, mostly because I came back from Northants rotten with cold: I’ve finished the back, joined the shoulders, knit the collar and picked up the stitches round the armhole to begin the first sleeve. You’ll observe that the collar is a traditional, non-shaped one, front and back exactly alike. (I must admit, I think ganseys do look better with this sort of neckline; and if it wasn’t for the fact that they make me feel as though I’m being throttled by a malignant boa constrictor I’d probably make more like this.)


Fireworks in flower form

And now I feel I could do with cheering up after all the dismal news of the last few days. I’ve got some mouldy bread in the cupboard; anybody feel like a dance…?

PS – Happy 4th July to all our American readers! [There has been some talk of the referendum date, June 23rd, being Britain’s own independence day, the day we seceded from ourselves. Well; so long as there’s fireworks…] To mark the occasion I’ve put most of my novels till Friday on a free promotion on Amazon (US and UK). Hurry while stocks last…

Wick IV – George McKay: 27 June

4W160624-1 Just a short blog this week, as we’ll be away visiting my family in the Midlands by the time this post goes live. (No internet connection, so we’ll be off the grid.)

I’m writing this on Friday morning, the morning after the referendum before. Outside, it’s grey and raining; inside, to be honest, after that result, too. I’ve always striven to keep this blog a politics-free zone, feeling that Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings summed it up best: when asked which side he was on he replied, “I am not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side.”


Thistle at path’s end

Well. I won’t change that now. But waking up this morning and hearing the news, and watching some of the victory speeches, I was reminded of the old joke about the man who, warned by po-faced evangelists that if he didn’t change his way of life and friends he’d end up in hell, said he’d stick with the devil he knew because “he’d rather go to hell with all his friends than end up in heaven with you lot”.

4W160624-2Ah, well. As the poet said, The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on; sometimes pausing only to make an obscene gesture in passing. Time to face the future with a positive attitude and a belief in the essential decency of human nature…

Or, failing that, dust off those application forms for a New Zealand passport…

[Comments will be turned off this week – partly because we won’t be able to moderate or respond, partly because, well, you know. Normal service will be resumed next week. See you then!]