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Wick (Donald Murray): Week 17 – 15 July

Sinclair’s Bay is part of a broad crescent sweeping 20 miles or so from Noss Head near Wick all the way up to Duncansby in the far northeast. Some 2,000 years of coastal defences can be traced in the monuments scattered along the bay. There are the remains of Iron Age brochs, those great round stone edifices that once towered above the cliffs. Debate still rages as to why they were built—whether defensive structures, manor houses or (my personal theory) the ventilation towers of a vast Iron Age underground railway—but Caithness has more ruined brochs than any other part of Britain, many of them strategically placed overlooking the sea.

A foggy day in Wick

Then there are the castles. Sinclair’s Bay has three: Girnigoe in the south, Ackergill Tower in the middle and Keiss (pronounced to rhyme with fleece) to the north. Seen from the sea, Keiss towers dramatically on the cliffs—as impressive in its way as, say, Harlech or Edinburgh castles. It’s only when you view it from the landward side that you realise it’s all a front, that it has breadth and height but hardly any depth, like the mockup Western town in Blazing Saddles. (As I get older I tend to look at medieval castles with a different perspective; I can’t help wondering how they managed all those steeply winding turret staircases in an age without knee replacements or stairlifts.)

Old Keiss Castle and a pillbox

We were over by Girnigoe Castle on Sunday, and I was surprised (and quietly delighted) to find a lone piper playing there. It was a blustery day, though, and the wind whipped the skirl o’ the pipes around so that it sounded from where we were as though someone had trapped an an angry wasp in a jam jar. Perhaps it’s a new initiative by the Scottish Tourist Board, and when you rent a camper van in Inverness you’re also issued with a free piper to enhance the experience as you travel round?

Well. In gansey news I’m getting on for halfway down the second sleeve (in terms of knitting, if not distance) and the end is in sight. If I can keep up this rate I might even finish it next weekend. Of course, we won’t be able to see it at its best until its been washed and blocked, but already it feels like a classic.

Another foggy day in Wick

The third age represented along the Caithness coast is of course the Second World War. After the German invasion of Norway in 1940 Caithness was very much on the front line and Keiss, with its long flat beach, was heavily fortified. Most of the defences have been cleared since, but you can still see numerous pillboxes (machine-gun emplacements) as well as examples of “dragons’ teeth” (concrete anti-tank defences shaped like huge toblerones) above Keiss beach. The beach was mined, reportedly Britain’s longest minefield, and there was even a “flame barrage” (in the event of an invasion, the beach could have been flooded with a petrol-oil mixture and set alight). Impossible to imagine on a peaceful July day in 2019, when there was nothing out to sea save a couple of fishing boats bobbing placidly on the swell, nothing in the air but predatory herring gulls. It probably says something about us that these are the monuments that endure; Philip Larkin once memorably wrote that “what will survive of us is love”—he didn’t go on to add, “and castles and pillboxes”, but maybe he should have.

[Apologies for the late posting – internet gremlins.  Margaret]

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 16 – 8 July

It’s officially summer: schools across the Highlands have broken up for the holidays, and suddenly the town is full of children doing what children do best, viz., hanging about on street corners looking vaguely menacing, as though they’d managed to catch the first three seasons of the Sopranos before their parents added a parental lock to the satellite box. It’s not been a great summer so far, to be frank. Last week it was 11-12ºC, the rain lashed in by 30mph winds, and you could see the tourists staring grimly through the water-streaked windows of their camper vans at a saturated, grey, lifeless world, as though realising that, after visiting Caithness, death was no longer something to be feared.

And yet, and yet. Every now and then the sun remembers what it’s for, and hastily stubs out its cigarette and puts down its cinnamon latte and actually shines through rare breaks in the clouds. And it’s rather wonderful, like Dorothy waking up in Oz—suddenly the world is transformed, full of colour and life and sound. From about 3.00am the handful of birds who haven’t woken up to find themselves in Denmark start singing their little hearts out—presumably seeking new mates, their old ones having drowned last week—in what is arguably the world’s most annoying dawn chorus. The fields are full of lambs, squelching excitedly through the boggy ground while their mothers, heavy with unshorn fleeces and existential dread, sink slowly into the mud with a general air of pained resignation.

North Baths in the Rain

Meanwhile, we continue to knit. The first sleeve of the Wick gansey is finished: note the cuff, a fancy little number involving cables. Several of the ganseys in the Johnston Collection of old photographs feature variants of this, a very fetching pattern. (It wouldn’t work for my preferred style of knitting long cuffs you can double back and adjust to suit; but it does look very neat as part of a “Sunday best” gansey like this.) I’m on the second sleeve now, and the end is in sight.

Frog Orchid, Dunnet Coronation Meadow

In parish news, Judit has sent me pictures of her latest gansey, which you can see on her (crowded) gallery page. I was struck by the picture of the whole gansey, and thought it wouldn’t be out of place as an illustration from Gladys Thompson’s book, as an example of a classic vintage gansey. It’s another very effective combination of patterns, and many congratulations once again to Judit.

Finally this week, we’ve been watching Brian Cox’s jaw-dropping new series on the solar system and the planets, which I’d urge you to catch if you can. In which spirit, here are two of my favourite quotes on the general wonderfulness of our existence. The first is by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, who like Professor Cox does an outstanding job explaining science to archivists like me: “Physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an attempt by an atom to understand itself”. Isn’t that great? The other is by Brian Swimme: “Four and a half billion years ago, the Earth was a flaming molten ball of rock, and now it can sing opera”. Also great! Although … replace the words “sing opera” with “knit ganseys”, Brian, and I think you may be onto something…

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 15 – 1 July

You know the apocryphal so-called Chinese curse, may you live in interesting times? Well, I’ve found a new and rather unsettling variant: may you become interesting to the medical profession. Indeed, so many and so various have my ailments become that medical students have started following me around, taking notes; I’m familiar with predatory lawyers acting as “ambulance chasers”, but when the ambulances themselves start getting in on the act you know you’re in trouble.

Orchids and buttercups at Coronation Meadow, Dunnet

About a year ago I had a chest infection, unpleasant enough at the time but easily identified and cured. Ever since then I’ve suffered from the world’s least attractively-named illness, post-nasal drip. It’s not very serious—no heroine of an opera ever died from it, though La bohème might have turned out very differently if Mimi had developed packed sinuses instead of full-blown consumption. The symptoms are a general sensation of breathing mucus instead of air, and the hacking cough of a three-packs-a-day man. Blowing one’s nose produces a sucking, slurping, squelching noise like someone trying to lift a pig, stuck in mud, against its will. One doctor recommended a steroid spray, which resulted in nosebleeds so spectacular that my handkerchief was declared a war zone by the Red Cross, so I decided to just live with it in future. (In bygone days, certain people in rural communities took on the role of “sin eater”, someone who turned up at funerals to literally take on the sins of the deceased person; without getting “needlessly messianic”, in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, I’m starting to think I may be a less creepy but still useful “minor ailments eater”…)

Dunnet Head from Castletown

In gansey news, I’m making good progress down the first sleeve. The original gansey has a diamond trellis border between the body and the yoke patterns, which is replicated on the sleeves. This is the kind of unity in patterns that make these ganseys so satisfying to knit. Because my row gauge is rather less than the original knitter’s, I had to forgo the trellis on the body—I just didn’t have enough rows, and it would have looked wrong ending the body pattern several inches earlier. So I’m aware my gansey isn’t going to be as aesthetically pleasing as the original. (Meh—whatcha gonna do?) I’ve enjoyed knitting these recreations of Caithness ganseys, and this one, like the previous one, is intended for the local museum to complement the photographs. But increasingly I’m thinking the next step is experiment with a blend of Caithness and Hebridean patterns, to create something both spectacular and unique. Watch this space.

Sun on the Sand – Dunnet Beach from Castletown

And it’s been a week of record temperatures across Europe: 45ºC in France, 35º in England, while Wick reached… well, pushing 20º actually. But do you hear me complaining? Never a bit! I do possess t-shirts and shorts, but the whole point of living in the frozen north is that I should never have to wear them. (And let’s face it, there’s enough sadness in life without my knees being displayed in public. One I might get away with, but both of them? I think not.) The weather has been beautiful—blue skies, gentle breezes and sunlight glittering on the wide, blue ocean—but as Wordsworth put it so eloquently,  “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be just cold enough to wear a gansey was very heaven…”

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 14 – 24 June

St John’s Pool is a miniature marvel, a private nature reserve in the semi-remote north of Caithness. It’s basically a partially-flooded field next to the similarly-named but somewhat wetter St John’s Loch, and is apparently home to over 200 species of birds.

You drive up the single-track road a ways, occasionally plunging into hedgerows to dodge the huge camper vans wobbling towards you from the opposite direction (vehicles which sit on the narrow Caithness roads, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine). The reserve is screened by a high wire fence, the sort that leads you to hope dinosaurs are secretly being cloned on the other side. As you approach the hide from the path you’re aware of the screeching of many birds, but it’s not until you enter the hide, a long wood cabin, take a seat and look out through the windows, that you appreciate the scale of it all.

Sandwich Tern colony, with loch in the distance

Just a few feet from you is a riot of birds taking off, alighting, preening, swimming, nesting, squabbling, strolling, bathing, sunbathing, flying, fishing, eating, mating, fighting and generally kicking up a row (not unlike a typical Saturday night in Wick, in fact). Somehow it all cancels out, and the overall effect is remarkably soothing, almost hypnotic. I sat and stared in a general sort of way—ornithology isn’t my strong suit, being able to distinguish a crow from a swan but not much in between—while Margaret took photographs; after ten minutes I looked at my watch to find that half an hour had passed while my mind had been otherwise engaged. (There was another couple in the hide when we went in, and I’m proud to say that we all coped with the potential awkwardness of meeting total strangers in a confined space in a very British way: we each just pretended the other couple wasn’t there.)

Two gulls and an Arctic tern perch on a hide

In gansey news: progress. The front and back are finished, the shoulders joined and the collar completed. I’m now embarked on the sleeves, and expect to finish them in about a month. The original photograph, by the way, shows that the shoulders were joined with the seam facing inwards; not outwards, as I have done. I must admit, I’m not really a fan of the “seam down” look; though “seam up” always reminds me of a plastic moulded figurine that hasn’t been sanded smooth yet.

Ackergill Tower from Reiss Beach

Oh, and I think I’ve finally figured out where my life went wrong. In short, I feel like a character from a PG Wodehouse novel transplanted into one by Thomas Hardy—a sort of Bertie Wooster of the D’Urbevilles or Psmith The Obscure. Or suppose Dostoevsky had written Eggs, Beans and Crime and Punishment, or The Brothers Fink-Nottle. (Not to mention Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Blandings Castle.) Though I don’t suppose it matters—so long as it’s got a happy ending. (What? Oh…)

Wick (Donald Murray): Week 13 – 17 June

It’s the summer solstice this week, and the longest day. Not that we’d know it if we didn’t have a calendar: the days are mostly grey and damp and cold, and we have the lights and central heating on by 8.00pm. And now there comes the gentle incline down to winter again; I ask you, does this seem fair?

The solstice tends to attract druids the way strawberry jam attracts bees, though any religion that expects you to be up for four in the morning is asking for a Reformation in my opinion. The word “druid” is thought to mean something along the lines of “knowledge of the oak”—the Welsh for oak is derw—and this seems all very satisfactorily mysterious and pagan, until you actually stop and think about it for a minute. Luckily there’s a medieval manuscript in the National Library of Wales that sheds light on this:

Villager: Excuse me, Barry?
Druid (whetting his knife and drinking a mistletoe latte): Yes, Trevor, can I help you?
Villager: Well, it’s about all this “knowledge of the oak” business.
Druid: Yes?
Villager: Well, what knowledge would that be, exactly?
Druid: You are referring to the tree of the genus Quercus in the beech family, I take it?
Villager: That’s the one. I mean, there’s the oak, it grows. It doesn’t seem to need a user manual, know what I mean?
Druid: Well, they have spirally arranged leaves, some with lobate margins. A single tree will produce both male and female flowers.
Villager; I say, keep it clean. But, ah, it’s not exactly arcane knowledge, is it, if you catch my drift?

A bird in the bush

Druid: Er—OK, well, did you know the acorns contain tannic acid?
Villager: Good point, good point. It’s just that I don’t quite see where you go from knowing all that, to telling us what to do and conducting human sacrifices every solstice.
Druid (laying aside his whetstone): Ah, I was hoping you’d ask that. Care for a magic bean?
Villager (suspiciously): What flavour?

In gansey news I’ve almost completed the front of the Wick pattern. Although it looks quite complex, there’s enough repetition to make it a relatively easy knit (though I doubt I shall ever come to love the horseshoe cables). I’ve developed a system where I make a screenshot of the chart, copy it to my iPad as an image, and read it line by line; keeping track of rows by a simple five-barred-gate notation in a notebook. If I’m lucky I hope to get the shoulders joined and the collar done this week, and then we enter the endgame of the sleeves.

A deer in the bush

And the word “solstice”, of course, derives from the Latin for sun (sol) and stand still (sisto). There’s a great poem by Philip “Chuckles” Larkin, called Tops. Ostensibly it’s a superb depiction of the lifecycle of a spinning top; but it has many applications, to life, the universe and everything. For once I choose a less personal meaning: I always think of it at the summer solstice, it applies so perfectly to the spinning earth and the shortness of “summer’s lease”:

—And what most appals
Is that tiny first shiver,
That stumble, whereby
We know beyond doubt
They have almost run out
And are starting to die.

So, um, yes – ah, happy solstice everybody!