It’s not easy being green
There are, as I think the Prophet Hezekiah first pointed out, three steps to heaven: unfortunately it turns out there are several thousand, or so it seems, to get onto the cliffs overlooking the celebrated Stacks of Duncansby.
I’ve mentioned before that Duncansby Head, a narrow promontory jutting out into the North Sea a mile or so from John O’Groats, is the real north-easterly tip of mainland Scotland. One side looks north towards Orkney and the Skerries (a series of small, uninhabited islands); the other looks out eastward over the open ocean, and it’s here the stacks, a couple of spiked rock formations protruding sharply from the water, are situated.
You have to tramp almost a kilometre over the headland to see them, and then about the same up another steepish track to the top of the cliffs to look down on them. There’s a rocky arch (called Thirle Door), and the stacks proper, which look like the heads of two pointy-headed giants out for a swim. It’s stunningly beautiful.
We made a couple of trips up to Duncansby this week. The first time we were beset by fog, which was at times so thick as to reduce visibility to a few metres. The few tourists we encountered came blundering out of the murk like the zombie apocalypse; I lost my sense of direction completely and started walking round in circles like a one man Blair Witch re-enactment society until Margaret set me right.
I’d taken last week off from work and spent so much time on the couch the police wouldn’t have needed a chalk outline in the event of my murder; my body form was indented into the sofa cushions like a pre-cast mould. I’d intended to do lots of things, go to many places, but instead ended up just reading, listening to music, going for walks and knitting. And, you know, I had a great time.
Ah, yes: knitting. As you can see, the green Scarborough gansey is washed and blocked and good to go. I couldn’t be happier with it: I love the colour (Frangipani bottle green) and the fit, and find the pattern strangely hypnotic. The only downside so far is people behind me in the queue at the Post Office file their fingernails on it between my shoulder blades.
And I’ve started my next project. Well, I say started—I’m actually a third of the way up the body. (Bruckner symphonies last a long time, what can I say?) As promised it’s an old favourite, the Matt Cammish gansey from Filey in Frangipani pewter yarn. I’ll say more about this next week, and give the pattern chart.
Incidentally, the arch I mentioned, Thirle Door, has a curious name: a thirle means a hole in a wall. So it’s one of those tautologies, like River Avon (“river river”) and Bree Hill (“hill hill”)—this one is “door door”. As for Duncansby, or “Duncan’s Farm”, we have an old map in the record office which gives the name as “Dungsby”—this may just be a record of how it was pronounced; on the other hand, as we can testify, there’s plenty of evidence underfoot, if any were needed, that sheep are not housetrained…
Less than ten miles south of Wick lies the extraordinary archaeological landscape of Yarrows, a flattish, undulating, mostly empty moorland covering several square miles of geography and some seven thousand years of history. (Yes, it’s time for another instalment in our occasional series, “A Bunch of Stones Lying in a Field”.)
The broch & Loch Yarrows
People have been living here since the Stone Age, c.5,000 BC, and there are cairns and hut circles and even a standing stone, a narrow blade that sticks up like the gnomon on a sundial. On Saturday we just went down to Loch Yarrows to look at the wonderfully atmospheric Iron Age broch overlooking the loch.
This was our second visit. The first time we were defeated by the world’s most spectacularly useless information board: a study in abstract art, it depicts the trail without reference to actual landmarks, or even what you might expect to see. (It’s probably a hangover from the war, when it was originally put up to obfuscate invading Nazi archaeologists.)
The way to the broch lies across several fields occupied by a stud farm, where ponies cluster as thick as midges; they have a strategy based on Jurassic Park’s velociraptors where one distracts you to the front, and while you stroke its forehead another two go through your pockets looking for apples, or failing that your wallet.
Abandoned buildings, Loch Brickigoe
It’s a stunning location, desolate and wild, and so flat you can see across Loch Yarrows, over Loch Hempriggs, and all the way to the sea beyond. The broch is ruined now, little more than foundations and an overgrown mound of stone. You have to watch your step, too—I mistook a grass-covered watery ditch for solid ground and next thing I knew I was about three feet shorter, with a cold, wet sensation spreading upwards from the region of my socks.
Riverside path at sunset, Wick
And the Scarborough gansey is finished, my fifth completed this year, with just the washing and blocking to go. I’m particularly pleased with the sleeves (18.5 inches plus 3-inch cuffs of 84 stitches), which seem to be a good fit around the forearms and wrists. It’s interesting that there are so few gansey patterns like this where the yoke isn’t divided horizontally or vertically into panels or bands. I wonder why that is? It’s certainly very effective.
As for the broch, it’s strange to think that people were living there when Jesus was alive. They don’t seem to have been knitting, though: I always tend to think of knitting as something that must have started about the time the first humans wondered what to do with all the leftover bits from mutton, but apparently not. Knitting as we know it dates from several centuries later, which raises the question: what did on earth they do in the long Caithness winter evenings?
As we inch our way slowly into autumn, Caithness is experiencing something of an Indian summer—always assuming the Indians enjoyed mostly cloudy summers of about 16ºc. But some days, like today (Sunday), are really rather beautiful: the wind drops, the sea turns flat calm, the clouds vanish and the astonishing blue sky goes all the way to the top.
In odd moments—and most of my moments are odd, now I come to think of it—I like to play the game of imagining what records I’d save from our archive if there was a fire. (Not that it’s likely—besides, I’m not allowed matches after The Unpleasantness.) And I think out of all our thousands of documents I’d dive into the smoke to rescue the log books of the Wick harbourmasters.
They form a daily record of events in the harbour—the weather (cold, wet), the wind (cold, windy) and the fishing. All human life is there. Let me give you two examples—one a tragedy, the other not so much.
Under those trees somewhere . . .
The first is from January 1858 relating to a fisherman who drowned just round the coast from here: “A small yawl boat with two fishermen left this harbour in the afternoon on purpose to go a-fishing to the southward of the South Head. The inhabitants of Old Wick heard cries about 7 P.M. as of people in distress, but nothing more was heard of them.”
Next day there is another entry: “The small boat reported yesterday as a-missing was found this morning driven ashore by the Old Man of Wick without oars or any appearance of the two men … [who] have doubtless met with a watery grave.”
Sure enough, the body of one of the men, William Miller, was washed up at Old Wick a month later; the other, as far as I know, was never recovered. William’s grave is somewhere in the parish churchyard but when Margaret and I went to look for it we found the graves overgrown and the headstones illegible.
It’s a melancholy tale, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. William Miller was a living, breathing person who walked the streets of Wick; we know he had a wife (Catherine) and four children—and now he’s almost disappeared from history, first in life and now in death. Except for the record in the log book.
Well; I said it was tragic. Meanwhile, as well as brooding on the fragility of human life, I’ve been knitting—this counts as multitasking for me—and I’ve finished the first sleeve and started the second. I picked up 144 stitches around the armhole and gradually decreased them until I had 84 at the cuff. The rate of decrease worked out at 2 stitches every 5.5 rows, so as an experiment I decreased alternately every fifth row and every sixth down the sleeve. I’m delighted to say that it all worked out exactly—though whether it will fit, only time will tell.
As for my second example from the harbourmasters’ log books, it’s from June 1855, when gas lighting was just being installed in the town: “The supply of gas to the Light House being very little this few nights past, the Light Keeper called upon the Gas Man and they went together to see what was wrong. As the Gas Man was unscrewing a portion of the meter the escaping gas came in contact with a lighted candle when a sudden explosion took place, burst the pipe and singed the Gas Man’s whiskers.”
History, alas, doesn’t record if the gas man’s name was Mr Laurel or Mr Hardy…
Our dishwasher has died, but it’s all right: there are plenty of helpful videos on YouTube, so all I have to do is prop the iPad on the sink and follow the instructions to wash them by hand.
In fact, Reid Towers is experiencing something of a general systems failure at the moment. The washing machine’s malfunctioning too: when you turn the dial all you get is a flashing error code and a strange beeping noise, as though R2-D2 was hiding inside, giggling. There’s only one washing machine repair man up here for something like a hundred miles, so getting hold of him isn’t easy. Meanwhile the laundry pile continues to grow—another week of this and it’s down to the river and training the otters to execute a spin cycle.
And now my hot water bottle has sprung a leak, which I only discovered Sunday morning on changing the bed. (Luckily I position the bottle by my feet, not my tummy, or the gently steaming yellowish stain might have taken a bit of explaining.) We went out in search of a replacement, only to find that most retailers regard them as “seasonal” (Wick has seasons: who knew?) and this is still, allegedly, summer. When we did eventually find one the assistant advised me to wrap it under my coat, just in case we were seen leaving the store and a mob gathered; I’m now torn between using it to keep my feet warm or, such is its evident scarcity value, auctioning it on eBay.
As for the gansey, a little while ago I set myself the ambitious challenge of getting it finished by the end of September, a time span of roughly ten weeks, start to finish. With a month to go I have only the sleeves to do and, you know, I’m starting to think I might actually manage it.
Of course, it helps to have a pattern which is so simple that even I can knit it while the tv is on. I discovered this week I couldn’t live with the shoulders after all (see last week’s blog), and after several days of looking at them and deciding that, no, really, they were fine just the way they were, I asked Margaret to rip them out and I did them all over again—this time with the two plain rows before the shoulder straps. It looks much better, and was well worth the grief.
That cup’s been there since at least last week
It’s a traditional collar, no shaping for the neck. There are 182 stitches across each half of the body, so I made each shoulder 60 stitches and the neck 62. The armhole is 18 inches in the round (excluding the gusset) so I’ve picked up a total of 144 stitches to start the first sleeve. Four weeks to go.
And now I find myself wondering, after the great hot water bottle disaster, what else can go wrong? They say that bad things come in threes, so that should be the end of it, but given that the year started with our car dying and the oven door falling off we’re now up to about twenty-six at a conservative estimate. Oh, well, best look on the bright side, eh? Bad things probably come in twenty-sixes…
If you ask an archaeologist who created the ancient stone cairns that dapple the landscape around here, they will tell you it was Neolithic people; if you ask them why, they will cheerfully throw around words like ritual, ancestors, sacred, and the like. But they are, in fact, wrong: I can now reveal that cairns were created by swarms of midges as traps for unwary sightseers.
We discovered this on Saturday when we paid a visit to the remote Cairn of Get at Ulbster, a few miles south of Wick. I’m suffering another of my summer colds and, looking for somewhere not too strenuous to explore, was misled by the directions which said it lay just a mile from the car park. Unfortunately the mile was on the vertical axis, not the horizontal, and we were soon scrambling up muddy hillsides (Caithness has hills; who knew?) and squelching through boggy marshes.
A heavy mist had descended, the kind you see on those late-night movies featuring promiscuous teenagers who’ve lost their way and are about to encounter assorted zombies or werewolves, possibly brandishing chainsaws. Landmarks, including the helpful posts to guide our way, vanished. But at last we found the cairn, set in the very apex of the hill’s crown, bulging up like the bridge on top of the Starship Enterprise, or the cherry on a bakewell tart.
It’s a stunning location high above Loch Watenan, nothing for miles but fields and sheep and peat bog and heather; and silent, just the birds and the wind. But when we entered the shelter of the cairn the midges sprang their ambush. In seconds we were smothered in dancing clouds of tiny insects, so that the air seemed to boil around us. It felt like having pins and needles everywhere at once. I brushed my forehead with my sleeve and it came away a black smudge; a tickle in the ear resulted in excavations like Sherlock Holmes cleaning out his Meerschaum pipe.
A signboard near the entrance said that skeletons had been found inside, and speculated that Neolithic residents had used the cairn for ceremonial burials. But this is, I fear, erroneous: it was midges, tiny airborne piranhas. Realising that if we lingered archaeologists would have two more sets of bones to theorise over, we hurriedly retreated to the safety of lower levels.
In gansey news, I have finished Side A, turned the record over and started Side B (as this is going to be another traditional collar there is no front and back). I had intended to knit another couple of plain rows before starting the shoulder rig ’n’ fur, but the pattern creates a sort of elastic stretchy tension in the yarn. The armhole should measure 8 inches from the end of the gusset to the start of the shoulder strap, but when I checked it was anything between 7¾ and 9½ inches, depending on how far I stretched it, so I chickened out and decided to stop there. It won’t look quite as elegant, but on the other hand it mayn’t hang down to my knees.
As for the cairn we visited, every time I drive along the A99 and pass the sign I can’t help thinking of the Beatles’ track I’m So Tired, in which John Lennon wittily sings, “I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset / Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette / And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid get.” “Get” is of course a Scouse variant of the British slang insult “git”, meaning a stupid or contemptible person. I like to think that the cairn was named after a disagreeable Stone Age chap: though, to be fair, The Cairn of the Cantankerous Old Git wouldn’t look quite so good on the tourist signs…
[Apologies to Judit: I should have mentioned last week that she has finished her glorious green gansey. Here it is in all its glory! And many congratulations again to her.]