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Inverallochy, Week 8: 19 February

Hi, voice of experience here. I thought I’d start this week with a word of advice. When someone you know is ill—as it might be with a respiratory infection—and has coughed so hard they’ve pulled not one but two muscles in their side and shoulder so that it hurts when they breathe, and are under orders to lie very still; when, as I say, you know someone in this situation, it’s probably not a great idea to send them absurd cat videos from the internet to cheer them up.

Clouds over Stroma

You’d think I’d know better by now, but apparently not. Oh look, a cat video, I’d think, innocently clicking on the link on my iPad. Then there’d come a brief pause while I’d watch with a growing sense of unease, followed by a suppressed snort of laughter, causing my cheeks to bulge like a hamster being inflated with a bicycle pump. The snort, probing for an exit, would find its way into my nose and, after a few seconds of steadily mounting pressure, would explode, taking with it whatever had been blocking my sinuses and distributing it over the sheets like a glistening volcanic ash cloud.

By now I’d be gasping for air, only for this to strain my pulled muscles and cause me to cry out with pain. But I couldn’t stop laughing either, while the now disregarded cat carried on serenely, its video stuck in a loop. So I’d thrash about in the bed like a newly landed halibut, in a loop of my own, making a sort of “Skrrrt—hur—wheeee—arrgghh!—shutsshutsshut” noise, until gradually the fit passed and I was able to close the tab and wait for the world to stop spinning.

Well, I’m delighted to say that the infection is wearing off, and I am almost back to my old self. One sign of this is that I am knitting again, for the first time in several days. It was a bit of a slog at first—it sounds stupid, but I had to recall the mechanics of how to make a stitch, then a purl, and then get back into the pattern. Even then it was as if I was picking up someone else’s knitting. But this passed quickly enough, and I’m almost back in the zone: I’m not so far from finishing the back now.

Also, my brother is out of hospital and convalescing, many thanks for all the expressions of good will last week; and Margaret has gone down to help out for a few weeks, so once again the quality of pictures will drop perforce, for which our apologies.

One good thing about feeling better is that I was finally able to stagger to the bathroom to trim my beard, which was becoming a touch Old Testament prophet-ish round the edges. Or as my old friend Yeats famously put it:

And what rough archivist, his stubble grown long at last,
Slouches towards the bathroom to be shorn?

Hmm. Haven’t coughed for a while. Time for another cat video, I think…

Inverallochy, Week 7: 12 February

There’s a scene in the first Matrix film where our hero is offered a choice between a blue or a red pill. The blue pill will return him to normality, while the red pill will uncouple him from the illusory virtual reality environment that he—and we—think of as the real world. He swallows the red pill and as he waits for it to take effect, he idly reaches out and touches a mirror. And there’s a wonderful moment when it vibrates like a membrane, sending ripples shimmering across the surface of something that just seconds before had looked solid and permanent. The red pill is working: the uncoupling has begun.

Soon be spring . . .

As I’ve got older I’ve realised that we all have red pills of our own, in the form of a phone call at an unexpected hour. You lift the receiver, you hear the news, and all of a sudden everything you thought was real and important—that work deadline, those mortgage payments, whose turn it is to do the washing up—simply evaporates, as irrelevant and insubstantial as Neo’s mirror, and you’re suddenly confronted with a harsher, starker world. This time the news wasn’t as bad as it could have been: my brother was in hospital after a heart attack. It was, diolch byth, a mild one. But just for a moment the world took on a distinctly red pill-ish tint.

It’s not been a great week, really, as I’ve also been struck down with whatever lurgy is currently doing the rounds, and confined to my bed: too ill even to knit. It’s passing slowly—my breathing still sounds like a sumo wrestler sitting on a basket of puppies and I’ve a cough like Darth Vader being tickled—but at least I’m (mostly) vertical again.

One night I sweated so profusely I soaked through my pyjamas, my pillows, the sheets, the duvet, and the under-mattress. As we disbelievingly peeled back the layers it was like the scene in Alien where the crew first discovers the alien’s blood is acid, and they frantically rush from floor to floor following the holes it’s burned through the ship’s structure. When I got up, the bed was so wet it looked as though someone had sprayed a rough body-shaped outline onto it with a garden hose, a sort of Turin shroud of sweat.

St Fergus’, Wick, on a sunny day

There has not, you will already have guessed, been a lot of knitting this week, what with one thing and another. But I have reached one milestone—I have finally divided for front and back, and am embarked on the back. It’s a nice, simple, clean, effective pattern, one where I don’t have to count the rows. Hopefully we can put this week behind us and, in every sense, move on.

And it’s funny how your perceptions change with age. Take The Matrix: when I was younger my sympathies were altogether with Neo and the other rebels. Now increasingly I find myself identifying with the traitor, the guy who sells them out for the chance to reenter the Matrix and lose himself back in the illusory VR world. TS Eliot, as ever, said it best: human kind cannot bear very much reality. Blue pill for me, thanks all the same…

Get well soon, Colin.

Inverallochy, Week 6: 5 February

Caithness used to be part of the Viking earldom of Orkney, and I’ve been wading up to my knees in its cheerfully blood-soaked history. Well, I say history—actual records are in short supply, so for most of the time you have to take the sagas on trust; which is a bit like writing the history of postwar Europe using only back copies of the Daily Mail.

The first rule of being a successful Viking was, of course, to cheat. The sagas are full of gentlemen’s agreements between rival lords, promising to settle their differences by meeting at a certain place with a set number of followers—only for one of them to turn up with a small army and slaughter the other. The standard clause was for a certain number of horses and their riders, but obviously some Vikings had better lawyers than others and turned up with several men per horse, breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of the pact. (This happens so often I imagine the average Viking horde arriving in something like the human pyramid favoured by motorcycle display teams, or the sheep in Aardman Animation’s A Close Shave. On the plus side, even if you ended up slain you’d go out in style.)

View from the Castle, Inverness

My favourite candidate for most ironic Viking death is that of Sigurd the Mighty. In 892 he was campaigning in Sutherland, and having defeated a Celtic chieftain he then, as was his custom, attached the severed head of his fallen enemy to his saddle. The dead man had a protruding tooth which cut Sigurd’s thigh—the wound became infected, and, there not being a doctor on hand to prescribe him a course of antibiotics, Sigurd died of it. (I like to think he was serenaded to his grave by Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons going, “Ha, ha!”)

Waves at John o’Groats

Not much to report on the gansey front this week. I am almost to the end of the gussets (slightly longer given the size of the garment), and the pattern is becoming clearer. At some point in the coming week I shall divide for front and back, after which progress should be more noticeable.

Finally, a curiosity for fans of Treebeard the Ent, one of those shepherds of trees from The Lord of the Rings. There once was a Viking earl of Orkney called Einar (nicknamed “Turf” for some obscure reason). The sagas say that he began his rule by defeating a couple of Danish Vikings who’d taken up residence in Orkney—one of whom was named Thorir “Treebeard”. Isn’t that great? The saga includes the line, “Turf-Einar gave Tree-Beard to the trolls“, a poetical way of saying he killed him. Tolkien of course knew the sagas inside out, and, as he often did, must have taken the name and reforged it in the crucible of his own imagination. (Mind you, the other Viking was called Kalf Scurvy—can’t imagine why Tolkien didn’t borrow that one too…)

Inverallochy, Week 5: 29 January

It’s hard not to walk around Dunnet Forest without thinking of J.R.R. Tolkien: the trees sway and creak as you pass as if they were sentient, and groan hollowly, like an elderly whale complaining about modern popular music. One day scientists will decode the language of trees and they will record the voice of the forest and play it back speeded up many times: and a ghostly, eldritch voice will emerge from the speaker, saying, “Windy, isn’t it?”

It was mostly to escape the wind that we went for a walk in the forest on Saturday, a wild, blustery day. The wind had clearly taken its toll, for many trees had been uprooted and were lying at a drunken angle, as though God had decided in an idle moment to see if He could lay a forest the same way people lay a hedge. I always get lost in Dunnet Forest. The paths are never quite as I remember, and I think the trees shift about when no one’s looking, like those in Tolkien’s Old Forest. There’s no Old Man Willow at the heart of Dunnet, radiating malice, but I do keep hoping I’ll run into Old Man Mountain Pine, or Old Man Lodgepole.

There are always people in Dunnet Forest, too, walking dogs or just walking; attracted, I suspect, by the singular novelty of finding trees growing in Caithness. I read once that the Monty Python team took a flight across the Atlantic, and Terry Gilliam looked out the window and cried excitedly, “Wow, a whole bunch of water!” That’s Dunnet Forest—a whole bunch of trees.

In gansey news I have started the pattern. In a late change, I’ve decided to add chevron panels, three per side. For a gansey this size I just felt it would look better, add contrast, and be more fun to knit, but it was really just a hunch. And by a very happy coincidence it fitted the number of stitches at my disposal almost exactly, without the need to play around with the widths (note to beginners: this never happens). In the course of the next week I should finish the gussets and divide for front and back, by which point the pattern should be clearer.

Finally this week, I wanted to mention two gansey books. The first, just published, is Sheringham Ganseys by Rita Taylor, Lesley Lougher, Jan Hillier and Lisa Little, from the Sheringham Museum Norfolk Trust Ltd. It’s a cracking little book, meticulously researched, with black and white and colour photographs, patterns and social history combined, and a pleasure to pick up, dip into and read (at a sitting, as I did).

The other book is River Ganseys by Penelope Lister Hemingway, published by Cooperative Press. This came out a few years ago, and I should of course have mentioned it before, for which I can only apologise. (I got hold of a copy round about the time I became ill last year, and it just sort of got caught up in the general tide of badness that washed me away.) Anyway, this too in its different way is an essential purchase. It’s a staggeringly well researched book on knitting and ganseys (and river ganseys) in Yorkshire. Like Sheringham Ganseys it’s both a social history and a knitting book, setting the scene historically before discussing techniques and offering a wide range of patterns—the last quarter of the book (it’s over 200 pages) consisting almost entirely of patterns. It’s a shame that some of the photographs aren’t clearer but that doesn’t detract from its value and importance, surely the last word on its subject.

Even if you already have the books by Thompson, Pearson or Compton these new ones deserve a place on your bookshelf, and the authors are to be congratulated for producing such valuable contributions to the literature.

Inverallochy, Week 4: 22 January

Did you know that there’s an Archangel in charge of weather? Uriel, his (or her, or its) name is. And this is jolly useful information, because it’s always good to know who to blame. We’ve had a week of snow and ice, temperatures at or below freezing, and lethal, ungritted roads; then, just when some normality would have been nice for a change, the thaw arrived in the shape of gale-force winds and driving rain. I can’t help feeling that somewhere in heaven an archangel is sniggering nastily, like a seraphic version of Muttley.

When I was ill last year—exactly a year ago, as it happens—I found salvation in knitting: it gave me a focus and a creative outlet and a chance to sweat the poison gradually out of my system. It was a habit that’s been hard to break. But I’m knitting a little less intently now and finding time for other activities: and one of these is exploring the history of Caithness.

For instance, the name Caithness comes from the Old Norse Katanes, and means the Ness (or headland) of the Cats (named after the Pictish tribe who lived here before the Vikings, the Catti or Cat People). The Gaelic name is Gallaibh, which means the People Who Wear Sunglasses and Listen to Freestyle Jazz. (No, not really: the truth is rather sadder. It means, “Among the strangers”, i.e., the Norse—a whole history of dispossession captured in a single wistful name.) 

The name of Wick derives from the Norse word for a bay or inlet, vik—as in viking (“a frequenter of inlets”). This is why “Wick Bay” alway gives me such pleasure, as it’s what’s called a redundant place name. These are names, usually in two or more languages, where all parts mean the same thing. My favourite is probably Bredon Hill (“Hill hill Hill”); but there are hundreds around the world. Loch Watten, just up the road from us, means “Lake Lake” (vatn is Norse for a lake); and of course there’s the classic River Avon (“River River”). Place names seem to accrue like sedimentary layers of rock, each one rich in history, myth and misunderstanding; just like people, really.

Sky at Night: Sirius and Orion over Wick

Anyway, as I said, I haven’t been knitting as much, and not just because my hands have been so cold. Still, I’m up to about 12.5 inches above the ribbing. Many thanks to everyone who suggested measurements last week: I think we reached something of a consensus between us, and who knows?—in another week it will be time to think about gussettination; possibly even patterns. Be still my beating heart!

Finally, here’s another quirky wee factette about Caithness, which is (honestly) allegedly true: the first cart (as in horse and cart) ever to be used in the county didn’t arrive till 1785, imported from Fife. Before that they just slung panniers on their horses, those hardy little Highland garrons. Then, within a few years, heavy horses were being used. (Typical Caithness—putting the cart before the horse…)

Sinclair Bay from Reiss Beach