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Inverallochy, Week 17: 23 April

First of all, apologies for the lack of progress this week. You see, we’re off down south for a few days—left on Friday in fact—and the gansey’s had to stay behind. (I’ve learned caution: the last time I tried to take knitting this big over the border I was suspected of sheep rustling.) Even so, I am practically, agonisingly, almost to the cuff; another week will see it finished.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with you a couple of fun things I learned this week about D-Day, the Allied landings of June 1944 to liberate Western Europe. Both, as it happens, involve parachutes.

The first one involved dropping dummy parachutists (known delightfully as “Ruperts”) to confuse the enemy. These were three feet tall man-shaped cloth bags filled with sand and attached to parachutes. About 500 were dropped the night before the invasion, in places where troops weren’t actually going to land. To add to the effect, real soldiers dropped alongside the dummies, with record players and fireworks: they played recordings of gunfire and set off the fireworks so that in the blackness of night it seemed like a major battle was taking place.

St Fergus’ in the Fog

Now that is rather brilliant, but I think the other idea is even better. The Allies desperately needed all the information they could get about the German defences and the troops stationed along the Normandy coast. So what they did, they parachuted cages with homing pigeons in them over the fields near the Channel, hoping French farmers would find them.

Sketching au plein air

In each cage, along with a pigeon, the farmer would find a set of instructions, some feed, a pencil and a piece of paper. All they had to do was feed the bird, write down any information they thought would be useful, tie it to the pigeon’s leg and set it free—whereupon it would fly straight back to Britain with the priceless intelligence.

Isn’t that great? Such a simple idea, and apparently very effective. Of course, you ran the risk of the Germans finding the birds first and writing notes to say the guns were all made out of chocolate, or something; just as I like to think of the dummy parachutists getting their record collections mixed up, so that sleepy Germans would be roused by a firework display to the accompaniment of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” or “In the Mood”, the 1944 equivalent of a rave…

Normal service will be resumed next week, with hopefully the happy ending.

Inverallochy, Week 16: 16 April

Caithness, I’ve come to realise, is all about water and light. Water, obviously, because the Ness of Caith sticks out into the sea like the prow of a ship, and following three of the four points of the compass means getting wet sooner rather than later; and light, because on a day like today the sun lights up the world, and land and sea shine like the gold on a medieval illuminated manuscript.

Spring has finally arrived. Temperatures doubled overnight—all right, from 6ºC to 11º, but even so—and the fog and cloud parted as though God had lifted the lid off the cooking pot of creation to see if it was done yet. So we drove down the coast a few miles to the old harbour of Latheronwheel.

Now, Caithness has abandoned harbours the way other places have Starbucks, but Latheronwheel is one of the best. The name is said to derive from the Gaelic, Latharn a’ Phuill (one translation of which is ‘muddy place of the pool’, a slogan curiously missing from the tourist boards, but possibly referring to a ford). The harbour is framed by cliffs and bisected by a river, tumbling down from the uplands. If you cross it by the ancient stone bridge you can climb up the bluff to the cliffs on the far side, where there’s the ruin of a miniature lighthouse and a clifftop walk; excitingly, the path takes you to within a couple of feet of a sheer drop with no railings—reader, we chickened out.

Fairy Door

In gansey news I am about two-thirds of the way down the sleeve. Persistence is paying off, as the further I get the fewer the stitches I have to knit, and consequently the faster I go. In an ideal world I would finish this next weekend—but I shall be away for a few days mixing business with pleasure in, er, Warrington, so it will elide into the following week. But the end, to coin a phrase, is definitely nigh; or at least nighish.

Incidentally, if you follow the river up Latheronwheel strath you come to the fairy glen, where a glade of tree stumps has been carved into tiny make-believe houses. It straddles the fine line somewhere between charming and twee, but I liked it; even if I recalled the movie Beetlejuice and thought it would be improved with a fairy cemetery and a fairy house of ill repute.

The Narrow Path

We tramped up the river and we climbed the cliff, and all the time the the sun glittered on the ocean and the waves rolled in (and out, too, of course). Water and light. Philip Larkin, as ever, said it best. In one poem, “Water”, he imagines founding a religion using water. The poem concludes in words of effortless grace: “And I should raise in the east / A glass of water / Where any-angled light / Would congregate endlessly”.

Somewhere along the coast of Caithness, as I type, any-angled light is congregating still…

Latheronwheel harbour from the lighthouse

Inverallochy, Week 15: 9 April

There’s a perfectly good reason why, whenever there’s cooking to be done, I am politely shunted over to the cooker with a spatula while someone better qualified than I brandishes the sharp steel knife and gets on with the complicated business of disassembling vegetables. It’s all a question of hand-eye coordination, something that’s as much a mystery to me as quadratic equations or parallel parking. I simply don’t have any.

I can’t judge distance. The only way I know when my car has reached the edge of a parking space is the slight bump it gives as it connects with the pavement, like a boat bumping up against the dock. And shaving in the mirror was always a voyage into the unknown—not just a question of distance but also the reverse-ness of the image—so that before I adopted the safety-first approach of designer stubble I had the best-shaved ears of any archivist I know. So it is with reason that the chopping block and I have lived separate lives: together, but apart.

Springtime by the river

However, even Homer nods and on Saturday my handlers dropped their guard long enough to enable me to prepare a vegetable and lentil chilli. Onions, celery, carrots, all were sliced and diced to perfection until, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, I grew cocky; and it was while chopping a red pepper the exact point where my thumb ended and the pepper began became confused. That’s strange, I thought, looking at the spreading pool of red; I don’t recall peppers being this juicy. (Note to self, I added, already light-headed from loss of blood: cut down on the salt the recipe calls for.)

It’s noticeable, when you stop to think about it, just how jolly useful thumbs are. Of course, cat owners have realised for years that the species are only one genetic mutation away from being able to use a tin opener by themselves, at which point the status of humanity moves from enslaved to redundant. But everything—from doing up a button to operating a mobile phone, from tying shoelaces to holding a pen—is so much harder when your thumb is encased in bandages. I remember a friend once fell on gravel and cut her palms open, so that both hands had to be thickly swaddled until they healed; she said the sheer indignity of utter helplessness (try manipulating toilet paper with your teeth) prompted her to resolve that if she ever found herself falling again, she’d try to land head first.

Local denizen

Another thing that’s tricky to do while beswaddled of course is knitting. The cuts lie just where I grip the needle between thumb and forefinger of my left hand; I find I’m gripping the needle tighter by way of compensation, which has the unfortunate effect of squeezing blood out of the cuts like toothpaste out the tube. (Hmm. If worst comes to worst I’ll pretend the gansey was knitted using herring girl pink yarn.) Even so, I am almost at the end of the pattern band at the top of the sleeve, the gusset is finished and at some point this week it’ll be plain knitting all the way.

The chilli, by the way, came out excellently. What’s that? No, I think I’ll pass on the tomato ketchup this time, thanks all the same…

Inverallochy, Week 14: 2 April

Just when I thought I’d faced most of the terrors of middle age—absence of hair where it’s useful, copious amounts where it’s not, more pills to take each day than you’ll find in a packet of M&Ms, the NHS Scotland “poo test” for bowel cancer screening—I find a new nighttime dread has arisen: yawning so hard as to cause muscle strain.

Now, sometimes I yawn so capaciously I give myself jaw ache, so that for a time I walk around with the mirthless grin of a TV evangelist, or a method actor preparing to play the Joker in a Batman movie, and it’s not particularly unusual. But this is different: I yawn in my sleep. (And how is that even possible? Unless my dreams are so boring even my subconscious can’t be bothered to stay awake to watch them.) I wake up mid-yawn, with my body arched as if I was being electrocuted and severe cramps down the back of both calves.

Waves in the outer harbour

The cramps are painful enough to make walking difficult for a day or so afterwards. It’s one of my key tests for getting old—parts of your body that used to be there for you suddenly look shifty and stop returning your calls; and the ground, which always seemed so comfortably far away, suddenly looks a lot closer and harder. (Oh, my other test? You get a chocolate Easter egg and can’t be bothered to open it right away. You’ve changed, man…)

Snow on the hills behind Cromarty Firth

Somewhat to my surprise I’ve finished the first sleeve of the gansey, all the way down to the cuff, partly by knitting for most of Good Friday while listening to Bach’s sublime St Matthew Passion. (I’m back at work again; it could, all things considered, be worse.) The finished sleeve looks a little uneven because I’m using yarn frogged from an earlier, unsuccessful gansey; but washing and blocking should sort that out. For the record, I’ve used about 1,250g of yarn so far.

Daffodils and St Fergus’

In parish news, it’s grovelling apology time. Some weeks back Jenny sent me pictures of a very impressive gansey she’s knitted in Frangipani pistachio. The patterns are a combination of Gladys Thompson’s Filey X with others from Mary Wright’s book on Cornish ganseys, and it just goes to show how effective patterns from different places can be when combined. I’m sure this is what the old knitters used to do all the time, as the fishermen mingled on the quays and the women read, marked and inwardly digested. Anyway, sincere apologies for the delay and many congratulations to Jenny.

Finally, it’s officially spring. How do I know? We went for a walk the other day, wrapped up like eskimos against the sleet and the cold north wind, only to encounter a man walking his dogs in naught but a fleece and light trousers, and he upbraided us for being overdressed. Springtime in Caithness…

Inverallochy, Week 13: 26 March

Well, here we are at the end of March already. In a few days it will be Easter, not to mention April, which TS Eliot famously called the cruellest month: the words of a man who never spent a winter in Caithness. (After The Waste Land was published I like to imagine him clapping his palm to his forehead in dismay and crying, “Oh, yeah—January! What was I thinking?”) Of course, the line refers to the way April flatters to deceive, promising spring but frequently bringing snow and gales in place of sunshine and greenery (see also: Britain, May through August); but also the pain of rebirth and reawakening.


Which brings us to Easter. In the 8th century the Venerable Bede wrote that “Eosturmonath” (Easter month) took its name from the pagan goddess Eostre, “in whose honour feasts were celebrated”. But that’s the only mention of her in all of history; and there’s no detail of any kind—certainly no hares, no eggs, not even, disappointingly, chocolate. Of course, Christianity absorbed local pagan festivals and repurposed them all the time (as with Christmas and the Roman festival of Saturnalia), and I’m fine with that. I’ve mentioned before how I love the way language adds layers of meaning to place names over time; and it’s the same with religion. It’s what humans do: we take a thing and pass it on, and add a little something along the way, until gradually the original meaning becomes lost. It’s history in three dimensions: not just length and breadth, but depth.

Oystercatchers at Crosskirk

So where once there may’ve been the pagan festival of Eostre, now there is the Christian festival of Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Over the years we’ve added spiced buns with a flour-paste cross and chocolate eggs and cards and bunnies; but at the heart of it all, like the snowdrops and daffodils and budding hedgerows, the original idea is eternal, and eternally renewed.

And while we’re on the subject of hope, possibly false, I’m making progress down the first sleeve of the gansey. I’ve finished the pattern band at the top of the sleeve, and am on the plain knitting. Because of the size, and the number of stitches, I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every fourth row, instead of every fifth, as I usually do. In my rasher moments I imagine I might finish the sleeve this week, but common sense swiftly intervenes.

Easter celebrates resurrection and rebirth and the coming of spring. And whether that’s of Aphrodite, Ishtar, Kali or Jesus son of Joseph of Galilee, or of the early daffodils along the riverbank, we wish you a peaceful and joyous Easter, with just the right amount of chocolate and, if such is your desire, and who are we to judge, rabbits.

Happy Easter from Gordon and Margaret.